North Korea has stepped up its nuclear program in recent years. And many Americans think that the insular nation just might end up launching a nuclear weapon. Donald Trump hasn’t shown a lot of restraint in talking about North Korea, and has become the latest president to consider a war against the small country. But many Americans wonder how much power Donald Trump has to order a nuclear strike, and how many weapons he has at his disposal.
The answer is “a lot,” on both counts. Read on to learn the details of the scariest weapons that Donald Trump could use against North Korea. And get the scoop on exactly what it would take for the president to order a nuclear strike.
1. The United States has thousands of nuclear warheads that Donald Trump could use
As ABC News reports, Donald Trump has said that while he’d prefer that no country has nuclear weapons, he’d like to see the U.S. have the largest number of weapons. And he’d like for those weapons to be in “tip-top shape.” So let’s start with the basics. How many nuclear weapons does the United States actually have? Time reports that as of a recent count, the U.S. has 6,800 warheads. The publication explains, “2,800 of them are retired, 4,000 are stockpiled, and 1,800 are deployed. The total number of U.S. warheads is second only to Russia, which currently has 7,000 of them.”
Next: These are the different kinds of nuclear weapons that the U.S. has at the ready.
2. The U.S. has a variety of nuclear weapons in its arsenal
ABC News notes that the U.S. has a variety of different weapons in its nuclear arsenal. Our military has a “triad” of nuclear weapons: intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers that can drop nuclear bombs, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. But those weapons are decades old. ABC reports, “While the Pentagon has undergone a modernization process to keep these systems intact over that time, the Pentagon has plans to replace each leg of the triad in the coming decades.” The Pentagon plans to spend hundreds of billions dollars to modernize the nuclear arsenal. Some estimates say the 30-year effort, which began under Barack Obama, could cost as much as $1 trillion.
Next: Here’s how North Korea’s arsenal compares to ours.
3. North Korea probably has about 60 nuclear weapons
Al Jazeera that “To launch a nuclear attack, North Korea would need to produce nuclear devices small enough to fit on its missiles — this is not known to have yet been successfully developed and tested.” Time reports that though we previously thought that North Korea lacked the technical sophistication to make nuclear warheads small enough to fit on a long-range missile, that no longer seems to be the case. The U.S. now thinks that North Korea can put a warhead onto a ballistic missile. U.S. officials estimate that North Korea has about 60 nuclear weapons. And independent experts estimate that the nation has enough uranium to produce six new nuclear bombs each year.
Next: The nuclear weapons developed by the U.S. are different from North Korea’s in one key way.
4. U.S. nuclear weapons are different from North Korea’s in this key respect
Time reports that the range of a U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile exceeds 6,213 miles. And experts say that U.S. ballistic missiles are reliable and accurate. The same thing doesn’t quite apply to North Korea’s missiles. Experts think that North Korea’s missiles are unreliable and inaccurate — not qualities that seem desirable in any weapons, much less nuclear weapons. And North Korea isn’t the only country outside the United States to have a nuclear arsenal. In addition to the U.S. and North Korea, the countries that have or are believed to have nuclear arsenals are Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Israel, Pakistan, India, and China.
Next: Experts consider this the most dangerous weapon in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
5. The most dangerous weapon in the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal is this bomb
Business Insider reports that the most dangerous weapon in the U.S. nuclear arsenal is a bomb called the B61-12. The B6112 “has a yield of 50 kilotons — tiny compared to the largest nuclear bomb that the US possesses, which has a yield of 1,200 kilotons.” But what makes it so dangerous is its “usability” and accuracy. It would be able to strike within 30 meters of its target, producing less nuclear fallout and limiting unintended casualties. Yet as Business Insider explains, “this lower fallout also lowers the cost and scope of a nuclear strike — which could in turn increase the possibility that the bomb would actually be used in a military engagement.” Dangerous, indeed.
Next: For nuclear weapons, other factors matter more than size.
6. Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to nuclear weapons
As NPR reports, Donald Trump has seemed to imply that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is bigger than it ever has been. That simply isn’t the case, as the Air Force and Navy have the fewest strategic bombers and submarines ever, carrying fewer weapons than they ever have. And NPR notes that “the arsenal isn’t just smaller in terms of numbers of nuclear warheads. The weapons themselves are less powerful.” But as NBC explains, size really doesn’t matter with nuclear weapons. “More reliability, not more power, is what matters most,” NBC notes, especially as Trump trades threats with Kim Jong Un.
Next: Some experts criticize the effort to make nuclear weapons smaller.
7. Here’s what’s scary about making nuclear weapons smaller and more accurate
As The New York Times reports, efforts to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal have yielded weapons that are smaller and more accurate. They’re also more reliable. But the shift is making some people uneasy. As the Times explains, critics argue that the new weapons’ “smaller yields and better targeting can make the arms more tempting to use — even to use first, rather than in retaliation.” Yet proponents of the strategy say that “smaller, more precise weapons would maintain the nation’s nuclear deterrent while reducing risks for civilians near foreign military targets.”
Next: Donald Trump does have some options that don’t involve using a nuclear weapon.
8. Donald Trump could use our anti-missile system
If North Korea does decide to deploy a nuclear weapon, Donald Trump doesn’t have to respond by using some of the weapons in the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal. Instead, he could try to intercept or destroy North Korea’s missile. Al Jazeera notes that the U.S., South Korea, and Japan have anti-missile systems that could potentially intercept and destroy ballistic missiles fired from North Korea. Nonetheless, missile intercept failures are common. So it’s unclear how reliable the system would really be.
Next: The military is developing this interesting option for stopping a missile.
9. The U.S. military could use microwave technology to counter North Korea’s weapons
This sounds like a conspiracy theory, but hear us out. Seeker reports that as the U.S military looks for more ways to counter a nuclear strike from North Korea, it’s considering microwave-beam weapons. With these weapons, the U.S. could “zap the launch site or control center with a powerful, targeted microwave blast fired from a low-flying missile to effectively melt the target’s electronic hardware.” The weapon, known as a CHAMP (Counter-electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project) missile, can reportedly fly 700 miles at low altitude. And as Seeker reports, “the microwave blast might be able to simply pull the plug on everything at a given facility without causing any fatalities.”
Next: This futuristic-sounding technology could also shoot missiles down.
10. Or, the U.S. could put lasers on drones to shoot missiles down
Another high-tech solution the military is considering to stop North Korean missiles in their tracks? Lasers. A drone bearing a high-powered laser could hover near the missile’s likely early flight path. “As the missile ascends,” Seeker explains, “the laser could burn it out of the sky like a flying light saber.” The Navy has already developed a laser weapon that can shoot drones out of the sky from a warship. And in 2010, a Boeing 747 with a massive laser gun successfully shot down a missile. Yet it’s still a challenge to build a laser system that’s not only powerful enough to destroy a missile, but also small enough to fit on a drone.
Next: Or, Donald Trump could order this kind of attack against North Korea.
11. The U.S. could launch a cyberattack against North Korea
Alternately, the U.S. could eschew the microwave weapons and laser guns and go for a cyberattack instead. Seeker reports that the government is reportedly working on techniques “for hacking the North Korean command-and-control centers.” In theory, those techniques would allow the U.S. to block a North Korean attack before a weapon even launches. But it’s possible that North Korea could thwart 21st century computer warfare just by relying on outdated, 20th century systems. And some hardware in North Korea may not be connected to a hackable system.
Next: Here’s what Donald Trump doesn’t have at his disposal.
12. But Donald Trump doesn’t have a ‘nuclear button’ on his desk
Despite an infamous tweet indicating otherwise, Donald Trump doesn’t actually have a “nuclear button” on his desk, according to Vox. What Trump does have is a 45-pound aluminum briefcase, called the nuclear football, which has instructions for the president on how to launch a nuclear attack. The “football” remains with the president at all times, carried by a member of the military. And the president also carries around the “biscuit,” a card with the verification codes he’d need to set a nuclear strike in motion.
Next: Donald Trump could launch a nuclear strike surprisingly easily.
13. The president has nearly unchecked power to order a nuclear attack
As Vox reports, the president has nearly unchecked power to order a nuclear attack. He doesn’t need permission from Congress. He also doesn’t have to consult the military, or anybody else. Vox explains that the military “is duty-bound to carry out a lawful order from the president to strike another country with a nuclear weapon.” If the president orders a nuclear strike that top military officials consider illegal, the things could get messy. Trump could fire officials and replace them with people who would carry the order out.
Next: The process doesn’t take long to set in motion.
14. It would be pretty easy for Donald Trump to order a nuclear strike
If Donald Trump decides to attack a country like North Korea with a nuclear bomb, the process is surprisingly easy. As Vox explains, Trump would first have to decide that a nuclear strike is necessary. Then, a U.S. military official has to open the “football,” which would give Trump an outline of the options available. Trump would then have to talk with military and civilian advisers. Once he gives the official order to strike, launch crews would prepare to attack. It could take as little as five minutes from the time the president orders the strike for intercontinental ballistic missiles to launch.
Next: But there’s a key lesson for all of us — including Donald Trump — to remember about nuclear weapons.
15. Ultimately, the point of nuclear weapons is deterrence
NBC notes that regardless of the specifics of the weapons in a country’s nuclear arsenal, it should recognize that a crucial function of those nuclear weapons is deterrence. “No one actually benefits from atomic warfare. This means most nuclear weapons essentially serve as bluffs,” NBC explains. “This is also why the size of a country’s atomic arsenal is largely academic. A hundred world-destroying warheads can deter a nuclear-armed enemy as well as a thousand warheads can.”
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