By David Eden


In time-honored American tradition, the text message read: “Happy freakin’ New Year!”


Once old friends used to call each other on holidays and birthdays, but now we text or tweet or Facebook post. This old friend goes back to junior high school, the same Cleveland Heights, Ohio, school whose alumnae include AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr and current and former Congressmen Darryl Issa and Eric Fingerhut.


I last saw my old friend, whom we shall call Jack, one week after Donald Trump had shocked the world. At the bar of Washington’s J.W. Marriott, just a stone’s throw from the White House, we shared our surprise about the workings of American democracy. Then Jack told me he had already been contacted to apply for a major job in the new administration in his specialty.


An Air Force veteran who had commanded nukes and knows them from the ground up, a WMD specialist who worked on the ground in Iraq and on Arms Control Treaties, including getting rid of Russian nukes, a PhD and counter-terrorism authority, including cyber, and many more things, I just couldn’t text back a New Year’s freakin’ greeting.


Especially now that America’s new nuclear weapons policy had been expressed in a tweet by the President-elect. On December 22, Donald Trump tweeted out in exactly 140 characters America’s forthcoming nuclear policy:


The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes


The next day he told “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski in a statement: Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.


My voicemail was a good-natured needling that, of course, included commentary about the new Trumpian nuclear arms race, which I called Cold War 2.0, and reading about it on Twitter and “Morning Joe.” Did he have a job yet?


Jack called back right away, laughing. No job yet. But he hadn’t listened to my voicemail and I insisted he did before we talked. He laughed several more times as I heard my message in the background and came back with, “Regarding the new nuclear weapons issue raised by Trump, the media of course hypes all of this with half-truths...”


I stopped him right there. “Jack, you can’t conduct nuclear policy in 140 characters or less. You can’t run the U.S. by tweeting or spilling the beans to Mike and Joe. You can’t blame the media on this one.”


Jack laughed, mumbled a few more things, and agreed I had a valid point. He even conceded that the media had a duty to fill in the vast information vacuum surrounding Trump’s nuclear tweet burst. Indeed, the U.S. and world had been trying to move beyond the threat of nuclear war for more than 70 years – with little success. Now what? I asked Jack to tell me what he thought.


“The bottom line is that the current Minuteman III ICBM system, especially the warheads, are worn out and far beyond their projected life expectancy,” Jack said. “This is why our nuclear weapon arsenal needs to be renewed. One of the most shortsighted decisions ever made concerning ICBMs was trading away the Peacekeeper missile in the START II Treaty.”


That bilateral Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed in January 1993 by President George H.W. Bush, in the last days of his administration, and his Russian counterpart, Boris Yeltsin, banned the use of multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVS) on ICBMs.  


Jack explained how the Peacekeeper missile could have easily been "downloaded" to one warhead and been verified in this configuration with treaty inspections. At the time, he added, a very ill-considered view of the comparative cost of operation and reliability, compared to the Minuteman III, caused the U.S. to agree to shutdown Peacekeeper and keep the Minuteman III.


“The Minuteman III first became operational in 1970!” Jack said, emphatically. “That’s nearly 50 years ago. The world and technology have changed. Of course, there have been upgrades and replacement programs over these many years, but the bottom line is the system, especially the warheads, are not only wearing out, but the numerous ‘limited life components’ (LLCs), such as tritium, have very limited reserves. Many LLCs haven't been manufactured in years, and we can only repackage warheads/components so many times.”


Jack’s first job in the Air Force was maintaining the Minuteman system and in subsequent years he maintained the Titan II ICBM as well as commanding a Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) unit in Germany. He’s followed these issues since retiring from the Air Force and focused on Arms Control Treaties during a stint at the State Department. 


In the new Trumpian nuclear world order, Jack believes the U.S. needs to examine the facts and determine the actual number of ICBMs our country needs as a deterrent to balance one leg of the nuclear triad. It was President John F. Kennedy, he explained, who made the decision to deploy the original 1,000 Minutemen “with absolutely NO statistical analysis.” JFK pulled the arbitrary number out of a hat, Jack said, as “a compromise between the ‘war hawks,’ who wanted 2,000, and the ‘peace doves,’ who wanted only 600.”


In the early part of the 21st century, Jack firmly believes the time has finally come – no, it’s way overdue! -- for a complete and honest review of America’s nuclear-defense program. That includes a serious conversation about an upgrade of the American nuclear triad that’s based on today’s nuclear world, not the one of the 20th century and Cold War 1.0.


As it pertains to ICBMs, and the minimum number needed as a deterrent, Jack says that new state actors must be factored in. JFK confronted a Soviet nuclear threat, but Donald Trump inherits a nuclear-armed world including Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Israel, North Korea, and it’s just a matter of time until Iran goes nuclear. At that time, Jack believes, the atomic dominoes will fall and many Sunni Arab countries will acquire them to deter Iran. Jack thinks in light of this emerging paradigm, that the minimum number of ICBMs, which may well be less than 500, will remain relatively elusive.


“Throughout history, no aggressor ever attacked a defender when the aggressor knew the defender was more powerful,” Jack concluded.


If Jack’s final comment were a tweet, it would fit under the 140-character limit. It could also be the tweet-worthy foundation of Trump’s emerging nuclear-arms program.


Is there a method to Trump’s nuclear tweeting madness? History will be the judge, but by driving so many people ballistic about new nukes maybe Trump will get the U.S. and the world to wake up and face the music. That’s what Jack is hoping.




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