WASHINGTON – Just before the New Year, President Donald Trump announced a full withdrawal of US forces in Syria and the drawdown of nearly half the troops in Afghanistan.
Consequently, after some 15 years focused on terrorism, the Pentagon can now redirect its focus to global power threats and the danger of a nuclear conflict.
Most experts consider a premeditated nuclear war unthinkable, but regional conflicts around the world could easily escalate into nuclear emergencies. That's not to mention the wild card scenarios of a nuclear-armed North Korea – or Iran.
The danger of a nuclear Iran is the president's chief worry.
"We must never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon or a nuclear bomb," Trump said. "We cannot let the world's leading sponsor of terror – a regime that chants 'Death to America' and threatens Israel all of the time with annihilation and constantly screams out 'Death to Israel' – to possess the deadliest weapon on earth. We will not allow that to happen."
And even after a historic handshake in Singapore between the president and communist dictator Kim Jong Un last summer, North Korea has yet to give up on its nuclear ambitions.
"North Korea and Iran, prospectively, are both very real challenges," Eric Edelman, a former diplomat and Defense Department official, told CBN News.
The Russian Bear Is Back
However, he noted they are far from the only nuclear threats to the US.
"The biggest nuclear threat remains Russia because they're the only other country with an arsenal that does pose an existential threat to the US – although China's arsenal is growing," he said.
To contend with that clear and present danger, the US is threatening to pull out of a Cold War-era nuclear treaty if Russia does not comply with the terms by February.
"Trust, but verify" – that's how President Ronald Reagan characterized the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev some three decades ago.
Now, that trust is eroding.
Russia has more nuclear weapons than any other country in the world, and a new report based on hacked EU cables warns it may now be storing nuclear arms in Crimea, making Russia the only nation other than the US to store nuclear weapons in other countries.
Russia's top general, Valery Gerasimov, said in December that a US withdrawal from the INF Treaty will put a target on the backs of countries hosting US missile systems.
Edelman noted, "Both Russia and China are investing in new nuclear weapons and nuclear delivery platforms."
'We've Grown Very Complacent'
The US has not built a new nuclear weapon in over 30 years – that coupled with aging delivery platforms from the air, on land, and at sea has created space for global powers to up the ante.
"We've grown very complacent in all of this because since 1945 nobody has used nuclear weapons in anger and so I think there's a tendency to think no one will ever do this," Edelman said.
That's not to suggest a premeditated nuclear attack is on the horizon.
"Nuclear war would be crazy in the abstract and even in reality. No one's going to just decide to somehow launch it out of the blue," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
O'Hanlon insists that setting off a nuclear bomb would be the last resort of a regional conflict spun out of control
"The stakes would be extremely high in any kind of direct confrontation between nuclear-armed countries because you don't know at what point the losing side is going to accept defeat rather than escalate to nuclear threats or nuclear use," he explained.
The tendency is to think of Iran and North Korea as the most imminent threats – and they are. But the US must be prepared for Russia's modernized nuclear force and China's growing nuclear arsenal as well.