Transparency on U.S. Nuclear Forces Proceeds

President Obama’s declared commitment to provide “an unprecedented level of openness in government” has often been criticized and mocked.  Depending on how one measures it, overall secrecy has actually increased rather than declined. Criminalization of unauthorized disclosures of information to the press has risen sharply, becoming a preferred tactic. Efforts to promote public accountability in controversial aspects of counterterrorism policy such as targeted killing have been blocked by threadbare, hardly credible national security secrecy claims.

But there are also some crucial sectors of the national security domain in which the Obama Administration can properly claim to be the most transparent Administration in history.  The size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal is one such topic.

Today more detailed, official information is available about U.S. nuclear forces than ever before. For an overview, see US Nuclear Forces, 2012 by Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Last Friday, the State Department released the latest installment of data on U.S. strategic nuclear forces as counted under the New START Treaty.  The release is informative, and not particularly flattering to the Administration.

“The latest data set shows that the U.S. reduction of deployed strategic nuclear forces over the past six months has been very modest: 6 delivery vehicles and 15 warheads,” wrote Hans Kristensen of FAS in an analysis of the new release.

“The reduction is so modest that it probably reflects fluctuations in the number of deployed weapon systems in overhaul at any given time. Indeed, while there have been some reductions of non-deployed and retired weapon systems, there is no indication from the new data that the United States has yet begun to reduce its deployed strategic nuclear forces under the New START treaty,” he wrote.

This is useful information that permits arms control advocates (and opponents) to focus their efforts on debating policy, rather than on a wearisome effort to ascertain the basic facts.

For related background, see The New START Treaty: Central Limits and Key Provisions, Congressional Research Service, November 30, 2012.

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