Letter from William J. Perry and James E. Cartwright to President Trump

October 31, 2017

President Donald J. Trump
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Trump:

As you know, the United States has begun a decades-long process to rebuild its arsenal of nuclear weapons, including Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), ballistic missile-carrying submarines, bombers, cruise missiles, and the nuclear warheads they carry. Today, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that maintaining and replacing the arsenal over 30 years would cost $1.2 trillion in constant dollars, and billions more with inflation.

This is a significant amount of money, especially at a time of tight defense budgets. A dollar spent on nuclear weapons is a dollar taken away from other priority military needs, such as sustaining conventional forces and countering terrorism and cyber attacks. The United States cannot afford to do it all.

Moreover, CBO’s new cost estimate is much higher than previous estimates and should be a wake up call that current plans to rebuild the nuclear arsenal are unsustainable and must be rethought. Now is the time to stop and ask ourselves: which weapons do we need to maintain deterrence in the future, and which can we do without?

We support a strong U.S. nuclear deterrent as long as nuclear weapons are held by other nations. But we do not support rebuilding every weapon in the arsenal just because we have that weapon now. The nuclear arsenal was designed to fight an adversary that disappeared 25 years ago. Current Russian belligerence, although worrisome, does not constitute a renewed Cold War.

We support building an appropriate number of new, nuclear-armed submarines as the most survivable leg of the deterrent. As an insurance policy in case submarine survivability becomes threatened in the future, we also support an appropriate number of new stealth bombers, which would be used primarily for conventional missions but could also be armed with nuclear gravity bombs now being rebuilt.

Beyond that, we think it is time to step back and take a fresh look. It is not clear that the United States needs to arm its bombers with a new generation of nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Similarly, the United States should review plans to replace its ground-based ICBMs. Forgoing a new generation of ICBMs and maintaining the current missiles instead would save $100 billion in production costs alone. Even more importantly, our ICBMs are in danger of being launched in the case of another false alarm (we have experienced three to date), thereby starting a civilization-ending nuclear war by accident. This is not a theoretical problem; we had three false alarms during the Cold War, and on one of those, we narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe.

The rising cost of rebuilding the nuclear arsenal is a warning that these plans are unaffordable. We should consider all aspects of our nuclear posture, and our conventional forces’ needs, before rushing headlong into these expensive and contentious development programs. We believe too that taking a more prudent course in rebuilding our deterrent systems will help avoid a new arms race with Russia that neither side should want.


William J. Perry, former Secretary of Defense

General James E. Cartwright, former Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff; former Commander, U.S. Strategic Command