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Review Of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Paints A Picture Of A More Dangerous Nuclear World


Just seven days after his inauguration, President Trump ordered the Pentagon to conduct a review - a review of the nation's nuclear weapons. That review is almost complete, and it paints a picture of a more dangerous nuclear world. It also recommends some pretty big changes to U.S. policy. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel covers nuclear weapons. He's here now. Welcome.


KELLY: How par for the course is this? Presidents - do they always come into office, get elected, take the oath, order up a nuclear review?

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter) Well, it is not required, but it has become increasingly common. So President George W. Bush did a review. Barack Obama did the last one in 2010. It's called a Nuclear Posture Review, and so it's sort of a summation...

KELLY: The other NPR.

BRUMFIEL: The other NPR, indeed - of where we are with nuclear weapons, what kind of weapons we have, what our policies are. The Huffington Post last week got a hold of a draft version of this latest NPR from the Trump administration. And so it really provides the most comprehensive look we've seen so far at sort of how the Trump administration views nuclear weapons.

KELLY: And so what does it say? I mean, we said he - there are some recommendations for some big changes - like what?

BRUMFIEL: Well, one thing which I suppose isn't really a big change - the first priority is to sort of upgrade and modernize existing nuclear weapons, and that was very much Obama policy as well. These weapons are getting older, and they need to be refurbished just so they don't break down, frankly.

But there is something new here that's caught a lot of people's eye - two new things, actually - a low-yield nuclear weapon that could be launched from a submarine. We're talking about something in the range of a few kilotons - the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was 15 kilotons - and then a sea-launched cruise missile that could be launched from a ship or submarine.

KELLY: And why would the U.S. need these? I mean, what would they allow the U.S. military to do that it can't do with the nukes it has already?

BRUMFIEL: Well, that's a really good question. Basically the administration says the world's a more dangerous place. Russia has started fielding some new kinds of intermediate-range weapons to threaten NATO allies. North Korea, we all know, has been making a lot of progress with its nuclear weapons in recent years. China's modernizing its arsenal. And so these lower-yield weapons, the administration claims, gives it more options if there's a regional conflict in how it can hit back.

KELLY: Now I would imagine the counterargument that critics might make would be that if you have more nuclear weapons, one might be more tempted to use more nuclear - or to use nuclear weapons at all.

BRUMFIEL: Exactly. I mean, and it's not just more. But if you have smaller weapons and someone hits you with a small nuke, I mean, at the moment, you might have to launch something from a silo in Nebraska, and that would be a big deal. You wouldn't want to do that. If you have just a little one, maybe you'd be more tempted to use it. And so critics are really worried about that.

I mean, there's also a lot of talk in this document about using nuclear weapons to counteract other kinds of threats, whether it's chemical, biological. Cyber is something that they mention. Now, that's not new in and of itself, but the sort of level at which Trump - the Trump administration talks about maybe using nukes in response to other big, devastating attacks also has some of the critics worried.

KELLY: What's the takeaway here for you? I mean, what do we learn from this document about the Trump administration's views on nuclear weapons?

BRUMFIEL: Well, I mean, I think the first thing to learn is it sees the world as a very dangerous place, much more dangerous than it was in 2010 when Obama did his review. And it believes that having some newer and different kinds of nuclear weapons and some options it can deploy really would be - make America safer. I think the question that critics have is whether or not that is true.

KELLY: All right, that's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks so much for stopping by.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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