WASHINGTON, D.C. – Among the explosive revelations from journalist Bob Woodward’s new book on the President of United States Donald Trump is that the president claimed the US has developed a “secret new weapons system” – possibly a thermonuclear one, projected to be mounted on a new ICBM.
In one of the many interviews he gave Woodward for the upcoming book, “Rage”, Trump – who has pulled the US out of several arms control treaties – discussed the alleged “threat” from North Korea in the first year of his term and the extent to which the US was braced for a nuclear confrontation. According to The Washington Post, this is where he boasted of the new development.
“I have built a nuclear – a weapons system that nobody’s ever had in this country before,” Woodward quotes the president telling him, adding, “We have stuff that you haven’t even seen or heard about. We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before. There’s nobody – what we have is incredible.”
It is unclear from the quoted excerpt whether Trump specifically meant a new nuclear system, but Woodward apparently did independently confirm that a new weapons system exists.
In the absence of any further detail, the reaction from weapons control experts has been mixed. Many have pointed out that given Trump’s tendency toward hyperbole, it is quite possible he was alluding to either a minor development of an existing weapon and not a new technology.
James Acton, co-director of the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Programme, speculated that given the timing of the discussion Woodward describes, Trump might have been referring to the new lower-yield warheads fitted to Trident D5 missiles that were announced in 2018 and first deployed at the end of 2019 – the timing of the first deployment having been classified.
“I don’t believe that the US could build an actually new nuclear weapon in secret,” he wrote, noting, “Too much money for classified budgets. Too many people involved for it not to leak.”
Andrew Facini, a nuclear weapons expert at the Harvard Extension School, ran through a list of possible candidates for Trump’s secret new system in a Twitter thread, concluding that given Woodward had confirmed that whatever Trump referred to did in fact exist, it was probably either “something mundane they told Trump was awesome in order to sell it” or “something truly new we still don’t know about and he shouldn’t have blabbed”.
What it could really be
The Pentagon has handed arms manufacturer Northrop Grumman a colossal $13.3 billion contract to develop a new ICBM to replace the Minuteman III missile, part of a sweeping modernization effort to update the US’ nuclear triad, RT reported on Wednesday.
Northrop announced the deal on Tuesday, saying “the company was selected by the US Air Force to modernize the nation’s aging intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system.”
The multi-billion-dollar contract will see Northrop begin work on the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program, an eight-year project that will focus on the design of the new missile system, as well as early testing and evaluation.
— Northrop Grumman (@NGCNews) September 8, 2020
The new long-range missile, according to the Air Force, “will have increased accuracy, enhanced security, and improved reliability to provide the United States with an upgraded and broader array of strategic nuclear options.” It is expected to be in operation by 2029 and could ultimately cost up to $85 billion.
Though Boeing also vied for the contract, it dropped from the bidding in July after Northrop’s acquisition of Orbital ATK, a solid rocket motor manufacturer, one of only two US-based suppliers for that type of motor. Boeing argued the other supplier was not suitable for the GBSD project, and that the Northrop-owned company dragged its feet in price negotiations, claiming Northrop had an “unfair advantage.”
The Air Force refused to act on Boeing’s complaints, however, and the firm withdrew its bid. The development of a new ICBM comes as part of a massive nuclear modernization scheme instituted under former president Barack Obama, initially set to cost $1 trillion and span three decades.
Though President Donald Trump has rejected much of his predecessor’s legacy, he has embraced the nuclear initiative with open arms, even approving greater spending for the project in the 2021 budget. In addition to replacing the Minuteman III, whose first variant was put into service in 1970, the military is also working to revamp the other two legs of the US nuclear triad, including upgrades for its nuclear-capable aircraft and submarines.