In his single term in the White House, Trump expanded America’s nuclear arsenal and undermined decades of arms-control efforts. While president-elect Joe Biden could reverse some of Trump’s atomic initiatives, it’s highly unlikely he can undo all of them.
And it’s impossible for Biden to travel back in time and seize opportunities for nuclear arms-reduction that Trump squandered—with North Korea, in particular.
For that reason alone, Trump’s atomic legacy will be a meaningful one. “He drove the final few nails in the coffin for the first era of arms-control,” Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California.
Kingston Reif, a missile expert at the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C., neatly summarized Trump’s nuclear initiatives on Twitter in mid-December. To paraphrase:
1. Trump nudged the Pentagon to double the number of low-yield nuclear weapons, which according to experts raise the risk of nuclear war by making nukes seemingly more “useable” in an armed clash between major powers. At the same time, Trump’s nuclear doctrine expanded the list of external threats that officially justify nuclear retaliation. Perhaps most notably, the list of threats now includes a major hacking event. The U.S. Navy subsequently deployed the low-yield W76-2 variant of its Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile.
2. At the opposite end of the yield spectrum, the billionaire president accelerated development of high-yield SLBMs and canceled a Pentagon plan to decommission the megaton-class B83-1 gravity bomb.