In a conversation with Bob Woodward in January, Trump dropped a juicy tidbit about national security. “I have built a nuclear—a weapons system that nobody’s ever had in this country before,” Trump said, according to The Washington Post. “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 sounds like Trump is talking about a secret nuclear project, the kind of weapon that could compete with the new and varied nuclear weapons Russia is developing. According to Rage, Woodward’s new book on the Trump presidency, he confirmed the existence of the new weapon system but couldn’t get any additional details. That’s left experts and journalists wondering just what the weapon might be. We have good guesses but no concrete answers.
The first problem is that Trump isn’t a reliable source of information. “No one knows what Trump is talking about, least of all Trump himself,” Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear policy expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, told Motherboard on the phone. “We are all trying to match his demented ramblings to some sort of ordered reality.”
America is in the process of modernizing its nuclear arsenal, has recently dropped out of several important nuclear treaties, and has floated the idea of resuming nuclear testing. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that America is developing new nuclear weapons. It recently deployed the W76-2, a “low-yield” submarine-launched ballistic missile. Trump dropped his nuclear secret on Woodward in a December 2019 conversation. We learned about the deployment of the new SLBMs after a December so it’s possible that’s what Trump is talking about.
Task & Purpose speculated that that the “secret weapon” is likely the modified W7-62. This variant of the Trident missiles is thought to have an explosive power of around five kilotons, compared to the 90-kiloton W76-1 and ludicrous 455-kiloton W88, all of which may be present on America’s nuclear armed submarines.
According to Lewis, and defense journalists at The War Zone, the more likely explanation is that Trump isn’t talking about a nuclear weapon at all. “When he mentions nuclear, to my ears, he appears to correct himself,” Lewis said. “So I don’t think he’s actually talking about a nuke. And then he proceeds to say a couple of things that are interesting. He calls it incredible. He talks about how Xi and Putin don’t have one and nobody’s ever heard of anything like this before.”
Lewis said that this is exactly how Trump has talked about another new U.S. weapon—the common hypersonic glide vehicle. Hypersonic glide vehicles are a new kind of body for munitions that would allow them to “glide” through the air and navigate missile defense systems at hypersonic speeds. America, China, and Russia are all testing them for use with conventional munitions. Putin has said Russia is developing a hypersonic nuclear weapon.
Trump talked about the hypersonic glide vehicles in February and May of 2020. This is the famed super duper missile. “In that case he said it was incredible, he said Xi and Putin didn’t have one and said that nobody had ever heard of a thing like that,” Lewis said. “So he said something pretty similar...to me, the language he used in December with Woodward is very much like the language he used in February and May to refer to the common hypersonic glide body.”
But Trump said nuclear on the call with Woodward. “It’s true he says nuclear,” Lewis said. “He doesn’t say ‘wait, I was wrong. He just blunders through it by changing what he said. I admit, I’m responding tonally to what I hear.”
Trump on paper and Trump heard are two very different things. On paper, it looks like Trump is talking about a new nuclear missile. When you listen to it, it sounds like a guy who accidently said the wrong thing and corrects himself.
“The one thing I would say against my hypothesis,” Lewis said. “Is that in the clip we have, he doesn’t call it super duper. That’s the one thing that’s missing...there’s not going to be a simple correspondence of words that come out of Donald Trump’s mouth and the facts in the real world. So that makes this hard. It’s possible he’s talking about a thing that doesn’t exist. Or it’s possible he’s talking about a thing that he wished existed. He could be talking about a new sex doll that he got. He’s just so disconnected from reality.”
With the nuclear arms race heating up and the dissolution of America’s nuclear treaties, it’s entirely possible that the Pentagon has designed a new nuclear weapon it has yet to reveal to the world. But keeping such a weapon a secret is counter to a foundational idea of nuclear war. Nuclear weapons are based on deterrence—the idea that you have a weapon so terrible the enemy won’t attack.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t developed, or even that Trump was talking about hypersonic glide bodys. It’s possible he made the whole thing up and Woodward’s other sources were mistaken. As with so much else in the Trump White House, it’s impossible to parse what’s misinformation, what is fiction, and what is an outright lie.