Trump says the US nuclear arsenal is now 'tippy top' thanks to him, but nuke experts say he's out of touch with reality

Donald TrumpBrian Snyder/Reuters
  • President Donald Trump said Friday that the US nuclear arsenal is now "tippy top" thanks to him.
  • Nuclear weapons experts said that the only substantial change to the nuclear arsenal was the introduction of the low-yield W76-2.
  • Other efforts to modernize the aging US nuclear triad began during the Obama administration and have continued to receive funding under Trump, but it will still be some time before the US military starts to see some of the new systems in the works.
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President Donald Trump boasted Friday that the US nuclear arsenal is "tippy top" thanks to him, but nuclear weapons experts told Insider that the arsenal hasn't changed much during his presidency.

Trump told conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh that "our nuclear is all tippy top now," adding that China and Russia dream of the weapons the US military has. Trump regularly boasts about US military strength, sometimes with somewhat nonsensical phrases such as "super-duper missile."

Trump has repeatedly called for a stronger nuclear force both before and during his presidency.
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At a campaign rally in 2016, Trump enviously praised Russia's military while expressing concerns about the US. "Putin has built up their military again and again and again," he said. "Their military is much stronger. He's doing nuclear, we're not doing anything. Our nuclear is old and tired and his nuclear is tippy top from what I hear."

Later that year, shortly before becoming president, he tweeted: "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes."

In the summer of 2017, a little over seven months into his presidency, Trump tweeted that he modernized the nuclear arsenal. "My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal," he wrote. "It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before."
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The president was referring to the order (not actually his first) to launch the nuclear posture and strategy review, which would not come out until the following year.

Last September, Trump argued that he had revitalized the US nuclear arsenal. "Our nuclear was getting very tired. Now we have it in, as we would say, tippy-top shape. Tippy top. We have new and we have renovated and it's incredible. We should all pray we never have to use it." After Trump bragged again Friday that he had made the US nuclear arsenal "tippy top," Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists, told Insider that "his statement implies the nuclear forces were 'tippy-top' before he became president because he has made no substantial change to the arsenal since."
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The US military has been working to modernize the aging nuclear triad, but that work began before Trump took office.

Trump's "claim has no relationship to reality," explained Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons and nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute. "The modernization program started under Obama."

The Trump administration has continued to fund that modernization, often pushing for increases in funding, but the new systems are still in the works.
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"We won't see the first of a dozen or so new ballistic missile submarines until next year," Lewis said, adding that the US military "won't see the new nuclear-capable B-21 and its new air-launched cruise missile until the mid-2020s and will be lucky to see a new ICBM by 2030."

"The only notable thing Trump has done is convert some existing W76 warheads on our submarines to a low-yield variant," he said, referring to the low-yield W76-2 now deployed on US submarines. Three other nuclear weapons experts identified this as the only substantial change to the nuclear arsenal during Trump's presidency.

The Trump administration continues to express interest in the development of new nuclear weapons. In the president's fiscal year 2021 budget, the Trump administration revealed an interest in building the W93, a new warhead for its submarine-launched missiles, but that work has not yet started.
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"Nuclear weapons are on Donald Trump's mind today for some reason," Stephen Schwartz, a nuclear weapons expert affiliated with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, tweeted Friday.

"Since August 2017, he has boasted about singlehandedly modernizing and strengthening our nuclear arsenal. He hasn't," Schwartz wrote. "His 'tippy-top' claim is as absurd and baseless today as when he last made it in September 2019.

"Boastful, detached from reality rhetoric from Trump about weapons systems is commonplace," Kingston Reif, a disarmament expert, told Insider after Trump's "tippy top" remarks.
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"But, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that Trump has proposed a significant expansion of the role and capability of the US nuclear arsenal," he added. "Though much of the proposed expansion is still in the early stages, it is unnecessary, poses a crushing affordability challenge, and would increase nuclear risks — especially when coupled with the administration's trampling of arms control."

Vipin Narang, a security studies expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Insider that the Trump's approach to nuclear policy and arms control has put US security in jeopardy. "The administration added the W76-2, but took away the [Iran nuclear deal], [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty], and is now threatening to rip up New START so, on balance, has probably made us less safe in the nuclear domain," Narang said, pointing to international agreements that Trump has ended or threatened during his time in office.
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