(WASHINGTON) — President Donald Trump said Wednesday he wants the U.S. nuclear arsenal in "tiptop shape" but has not asked that it be greatly expanded.
Trump was responding to a news report that he had said during a meeting at the Pentagon in July that he wanted what amounted to nearly a ten-fold increase in the number of U.S. nuclear weapons.
In remarks in the Oval Office on Wednesday, Trump denounced the NBC report and said such a big increase was "totally unnecessary."
"I want to have absolutely, perfectly maintained — which we are in the process of doing — nuclear force," he said. "But when they said I want 10 times what we have right now, it's totally unnecessary, believe me, because I know what we have right now. We won't need an increase but I want modernization and I want total rehabilitation. It's got to be in tip-top shape."
By saying he wants to modernize the nuclear force, Trump is referring to moving ahead with a plan he inherited from the Obama administration to develop, build and field new submarines armed with nuclear missiles; new nuclear-capable bomber aircraft and a new fleet of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. These would replace existing weapons that are considered outdated. Also in the works is an upgrade of communications systems that enable the president and the Pentagon to command and control the weapons.
Shortly after Trump spoke, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued a two-sentence statement saying the news report was false and irresponsible.
"Recent reports that the president called for an increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal are absolutely false," the Mattis statement said.
Trump's previous comments about nuclear weapons have caused confusion and concern in some quarters. Last December, for example, he suggested he favored expanding the nuclear arsenal.
"The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes," he said then.
The U.S. is party to a 2010 arms control deal with Russia that limits each nation to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads. As of Sept. 1, the U.S. had 1,393 and Russia had 1,561. They agreed to reach the 1,550 level or lower by February 2018.