Commentary: Trump, Engineering Advisers, and the North Korea Crisis

A photo illustration shows a side profile of U.S. President Donald Trump surrounded by black and yellow nuclear warheads on a red background
Illustration: Trump: Karolina Maliszewska/Alamy; Weapons: iStockphoto

Someone ought to explain to Donald Trump that modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal, which he bragged about yesterday when issuing fiery threats of doom against North Korea, hasn’t happened yet.

As we explained in our Spectral Lines column in the August issue of IEEE Spectrum, thanks to the Obama administration, the U.S. is in the early stages of improving the operational reliability of its force of more than 4,000 nuclear weapons, which can be launched by missiles, planes, and submarines. 

“An aging nuclear force…has forced the need for a modernization program,” the Defense Science Board declared last December after former President Barack Obama gained rare bipartisan support for one of his initiatives.

Military leaders back the move, arguing (as two Air Force generals did in May in Politicothat more reliable nuclear weapons enhance U.S. security and even “are a critical tool for world peace.”

The challenge, however, is to avoid falling into the trap that improved nuclear weapons, as a deterrent, raises the appeal of using them in battle. President Trump seems to have made this very error in his comments yesterday—an error all the more avoidable because the nation’s efforts to “modernize” its nuclear arsenal are expected to take decades and costs upwards of $348 billion over the next ten years alone.

President Trump’s confusion over nuclear modernization—sliding from plans to realities too easily—could be cleared up if he had among his advisers an electrical engineer, as I have also argued in a Spectral Lines column earlier this year.

Advisors of course are no panacea. As president, Trump has shown a distinct capacity for ignoring experts. But no less a national leader than former President John F. Kennedy, when mobilizing the United States’ pursuit of putting humans on the moon, relied heavily on the moderating influence of his science and technology adviser, Jerome Wiesner, an EE at MIT, and later president of that school.  

In 1982, Wiesner warned:

The weapons that create the threat of annihilation cannot be uninvented. The sad fact of this era is that our populations cannot conceivably be protected except through political skill and courage applied to the task of minimizing the chances that nuclear weapons will ever be used.

As President Kennedy decided, when overruling advice from his generals that he attack Cuba, no country wins a nuclear war. The spread of fallout, and the threat of a spiral of attacks that could bring about a “nuclear winter,” all but guarantee that Americans would share in the suffering and loss of a nuclear exchange on the Korean peninsula or anywhere in the Pacific.

Threats and rhetoric may come naturally to the current president, who is accustomed to nasty public feuds. But in the realm of nuclear weapons, calm talk and promises of restraint have long proved superior approaches, and even more so in times of crisis.

About the Author

G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or IEEE.

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