Based on military calculations, Obama declared in 2013 that the U.S. could safely reduce its nuclear force by one-third from New START levels. But negotiations to do so never took place. They seem even unlikelier after Russia’s military actions in Ukraine and Kremlin rhetoric that U.S. officials have considered reckless and dangerous. However, Trump’s suggestions of interest in a grand bargain with Russia, including nuclear reductions, could provide an avenue for fresh talks.
After taking office, Trump ordered a review of nuclear forces, a Pentagonled process likely to take a year or more. Among the key questions: whether to continue Obama’s weapons modernization plan and a possible withdrawal from New START. One element of the modernization plan calls for a new-generation ICBM force that could cost more than $100 billion.
Sticking with New START would not necessarily constrain the U.S. for long. It expires in February 2021 unless both sides agree on an extension. Besides the overall warhead limit, the treaty allows each side a maximum of 700 deployed launchers, including missile silos. Russia and the United States can decide for themselves how their totals are apportioned among the three weapons categories: ICBMs, submarines and bombers.
The 50 underground silos from which the Minuteman missiles are being removed will be kept “warm,” meaning capable of returning to active use. The missiles are being put in storage. Those decisions came after members of Congress from the ICBM base states — North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana — pushed for no elimination of silos.
The 400 remaining deployed ICBMs would be the fewest since 1962, according to a history of the force written by Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists.