During the second presidential debate, Republican nominee Donald Trump complained that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is old, Russia's is new – and that is a big problem. He was wrong on all counts.
First, both countries' nuclear arsenals are mixes of old and new bombers, missiles, warheads and submarines.
Most important, though, when talking about strategic weapons, age is not a decisive factor in rating their usefulness, value and safety.
But Trump's fixation on "new" – and his insistence on equating it with “far better” – shouldn't be surprising. He's demonstrated a similar obsession in his real-estate career.
Consider, the U.S. Air Force's B-52 heavy bomber might be more than 50 years old – but it is far from worn out. It is still the Pentagon’s main warplane for delivering atomic munitions. Indeed, the B-52 is more capable than ever – and highly affordable, to boot. It is one of the Defense Department’s most cost-effective airplanes.
The big bomber is a valuable nuclear asset. It stands as an enduring symbol of America's military might. The B-52 could remain so for another 25 years or more.
In fact, it should. Because the Pentagon had worked with Boeing, the plane’s manufacturer, to install enhancements in the older bombers. These upgrades and changes have brought the bombers up to the latest technological standards.
"It is taking the B-52,” explained Alan Williams, an Air Force official with the upgrade program, “from a rotary-dial phone to a smartphone."
Trump claimed in the debate that Moscow's nukes are more modern than Washington’s. "Russia is new in terms of nuclear," Trump said. "We are old in terms of nuclear. We're tired. A very bad thing."
During the first debate on September 26, he sounded fixated on the B-52 as well.
But Trump ignored the plane’s strengths. He did not point out that the eight-engine, subsonic bomber can fly thousands of miles while carrying up to 35 tons of weaponry, including nuclear bombs and cruise missiles.
Instead, he focused on the warplane’s advanced age. "We have second-generation B-52 bombers,” Trump said. “Their [today’s pilots'] fathers flew the same plane."
It's unclear what Trump meant by "second-generation." That term does not apply here. But he is correct that the bombers are old enough for today’s pilots, likely in their 20s or 30s, to fly the same plane their 50-year old or 60-year old fathers did a generation earlier. Boeing built all 76 of the current B-52 bombers between 1960 and 1962.
Trump mentioned the “problem” of the "old" B-52 in some of his earlier speeches. Perhaps he picked up the issue from former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a primary opponent, who talked about the B-52 during an August 2015 GOP debate. "Most of them are older than me," then-59-year-old Huckabee said. "That's pretty scary."
Both men were wrong to tout the B-52 as a symbol of U.S. military weakness. They were equally wrong to fret over the plane's age.
Boeing conservatively estimates that the B-52 bombers can safely fly until the mid-2040s, at which point the aluminum covering their wings could begin to tear apart. But even that's not a death sentence for these bombers. The Air Force routinely buys new wings for older planes it wants to keep in service longer than their originally planned lifetimes.
Inside, the bombers are in even better condition. The Air Force has steadily upgraded them over the decades with new sensors, communications, defensive equipment and weaponry. Now, the flying branch is adding new satellite communications and precision-guided munitions under a $500-million program. Maybe Trump is unaware of the B-52 upgrade effort. He must also be unaware that Russia's main nuclear-armed bomber – the propeller-driven Tu-95 – is also more than 50 years old. And, like the B-52, is on track to keep flying until 2040 at the earliest.
Trump's criticism of the B-52 appears to reflect his attitude toward real-estate. In 1976, for example, Trump teamed up with the Hyatt hotel chain to buy the Commodore Hotel in New York City. The building, constructed in 1919, designed by Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore, architects of the nearby Grand Central Terminal, one of New York’s most celebrated landmarks. Yet, instead of cleaning up and restoring the historic building, Trump was determined to change it.
He later patted himself on the back for the decision. "I could have saved millions and millions of dollars just by refurbishing the old Commodore rather than creating a brand-new building," Trump (and his ghostwriter Tony Schwartz) wrote in the 1987 Trump: The Art of the Deal. Overhauling the hotel's appearance would make it "a place people wanted to visit."
Trump added a mirror-like glass facade, which transformed the Commodore into "a bright, shiny object," Ralph Steinglass, the architect on the project, told Politico. Architects and preservationists were appalled.
The critics included Steinglass himself. "I put up a big battle,” he said, “I was more interested in preserving the building."
Trump's "newer is better" attitude arguably ruined the historic structure. It could hurt America's nuclear force, as well. The Air Force has bought bombers since the B-52 – the B-1 in the 1980s, the stealthy B-2 in the 1990s and, today, the B-21 stealth bomber.
Compared to the newer bombers, the B-52 is a bargain. A B-52 cost just $30 million to build in current dollars, compared to $200 million for a B-1, a whopping $3 billion for a B-2 and a projected $550 million for a B-21. The B-52 is also cheaper to fly on a per-hour basis than most other U.S. bombers.
Replacing the 76 B-52s with an equal number of B-21s would cost nearly $42 billion – and wouldn't necessarily make America any safer. A B-21 is better able to avoid detection than a B-52 is, but a B-52 can carry many more munitions than the newer plane, including stealthy cruise missiles.
Even if it is already "old," in Trump's view. When it comes to nuclear weapons, newer doesn't necessarily mean better.