Estimates of the US Nuclear Weapons Stockpile, 2007 and 2012


Click on figure to open full fact sheet. For an updated stockpile estimate, go here.

The Bush administration announced in 2004 that it had decided to cut the nuclear weapons stockpile “nearly in half” by 2012, but has refused to disclose the actual numbers. Yet a fact sheet published by the Federation of American Scientists and Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that the stockpile will decline from approximately 9,938 warheads today to approximately 5,047 warheads by the end of 2012.

FAS and NRDC publish the fact sheet now because Congress is considering whether to approve a proposal by the administration to resume industrial production of new nuclear weapons, and because government officials have told Congress that production of new warheads will make it possible to reduce further the size of the stockpile in the future.

The fact sheet estimates are based on information collected by the authors over several decades about production, dismantlement and operation of US nuclear weapons.

The 2012 stockpile of 5,000+ warheads represent a significant reduction from the 24,000 warhead stockpile of the 1980s (and the all-time high of 32,000 warheads in 1966), but it still a very big post-Cold War stockpile. No other country with nuclear weapons is known to plan a stockpile that big. The only other country with several thousand warheads in 2012 will be Russia, but it probably only maintains a large stockpile because the United States does.

History of US Nuclear Weapons Stockpile, 1945-2012

The US nuclear weapons stockpile varied greatly since the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. From an all-time high of approximately 32,000 warheads in 1966, the stockpile is estimated to return to its 1957-level by 2012, but with vastly superior capabilities.

Most of the 2012 stockpile will not be counted by the SORT treaty signed by the United States and Russia in 2002. That treaty only counts “operational deployed strategic nuclear warheads,” which are not to exceed 2,200 by the end of 2012. The FAS/NRDC fact sheet estimates that 2,192 US warheads will be counted by SORT, leaving another another 2,855 “invisible” warheads. The number of uncounted warheads will be even greater in Russia because it retains many more non-strategic nuclear weapons than the United States.

Approximately half of the warheads in the 2012 stockpile will be active and ready to launch on relatively short notice. This indicates that US nuclear posture planning 17 years after the end of the Cold War is still dominated by a nuclear warfighting mentality.

Secret Dismantlements

Dismantling the nearly 4,900 retired warheads will take much longer to accomplish than the stockpile plan. By 2012, approximately 3,660 of the retired warheads will still be in storage. The reason is that the US dismantlement facility at Pantex in Texas is busy extending the lives of the many warheads the administration has decided must remain in the stockpile. Dismantlement will not be a priority for the next decade. Under current plans, dismantling the backlog of retired warheads will take until 2023, at an average rate of some 272 warheads per year.

Nuclear dismantlements, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) told Congress in 2006, represent “a key element of our strategy to ensure that stockpile and infrastructure transformation is not misperceived by other nations as ‘restarting the arms race.'” In fact, NNSA explained, “our commitment to a smaller stockpile is made concrete by our record of accelerated dismantlements.”

That record is not very impressive. Although the administration says it plans to dismantle 50 percent more warheads in 2007 than in 2006, the actual numbers are small – probably about 200 warheads per year – and a far cry from the average of 1,100 warheads dismantled at the Pantex Plant each year during the 1990s. In fact, the Bush administration has dismantled the smallest number of nuclear weapons of any US administration since 1957, a record that is expected to continue through 2023 under current plans (see figure below).

Estimated US Nuclear Weapons Dismantlements, 1945-2023

US dismantlement of retired nuclear warheads has fluctuated greatly over the years from a high of more than 3,000 in 1969. The Bush administration has demonstrated the lowest warhead dismantlement rate of any administration since 1957.

While one part of the administration is trying to use opaque dismantlement numbers as a means to assure the world, another part is working to keep the dismantlement record secret. During much of the 1990s, the Department of Energy readily disclosed how many of each types of nuclear warhead has been retired. In 1994, DOE declassified numerous years of stockpile data. But in 1999, a new directive issued by the Clinton administration ended that practice and ordered that dismantlement numbers must be kept secret. According to DOE officials, the ban was necessary because the reason for retiring additional weapon systems may not be unclassified, and because information must be protected that would reveal the size of the current stockpile.

“Dismantlement rates now could reveal, for example, the actual decline in stockpile numbers, which would reveal classified information because the size of the stockpile is classified,” as one senior DOE official explained. To implement the directive, an interagency agreement was made between DOE and DOD to protect future weapon dismantlement data.

This policy assumes it would severely damage US national security if potential adversaries knew how many nuclear weapons the United States have. But that assumption appears to be a legacy of the Cold War when massive nuclear armies stood poised to fight nuclear battles and details about warhead numbers could potentially make a difference. It is difficult to see why disclosing these numbers would matters today.

What’s the End Plan?

The current stockpile plan is based on a pledge made by President Bush in 2001 only to maintain “a credible deterrent with the lowest-possible number of nuclear weapons consistent with our national security needs.” This pledge is frequently repeated by government officials in testimonies to Congress.

Although the pledge sounds good, it doesn’t necessarily change anything. After all, when has the United States not had a policy of maintaining a credible deterrent with the lowest-possible number of nuclear weapons consistent with national security needs? That was the policy when there were 32,000 and 24,000 nuclear warheads in the stockpile. It was the policy when the current stockpile of nearly 10,000 warheads was set in 1994, and it is the policy for the 5,000 warhead stockpile planned for 2012.

What should impress Congress now, however, is that the size of the stockpile planned for 2012 is based on a level of deployed warheads and a force structure that was set a decade ago in 1997 in preparation for what was then known as the START III agreement. Although the Bush administration rejected the treaty as a Cold War relic, it embraced the force level and incorporated it into the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review and the SORT agreement signed with Russia in 2002 – minus verification and irreversibility. One decade later, no new overall force goal has been set.

The stockpile numbers speak to what the administration’s real long-term intentions are, and they indicate that a review of US nuclear policy is long overdue. The public perception of the size of the nuclear arsenal is highly inaccurate, according to a recent poll, and the news media frequently misreport on the size of the stockpile. Allies need to be reassured that US nuclear policy is not moving in the wrong direction, a concern they share now according to a recent study. And transparency is needed to avoid that other nuclear powers make the wrong conclusions about US long-term intentions.

Background: FAS/NRDC Fact Sheet

7 thoughts on “Estimates of the US Nuclear Weapons Stockpile, 2007 and 2012

  1. MS: A great report about the U.S. nuclear stockpile!
    Do you know any similar assessment of the size and composition (active/inactive) of Russia’s strategic arsenal in 2012? MS

    Reply: Yes, I and my colleague at NRDC, Robert Norris, periodically do similar assessments of Russia’s nuclear stockpile, although the access to Russian information is far less than what we can find on the United States. Our latest two assessments are here:

    1. Nuclear Notebook in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: Russian Nuclear Forces, 2007
    2. Blog on FAS web site: Article: Russian Nuclear Forces, 2007

    HK

  2. MS: Thank you! Do you know whether Russia will have a responsive and inactive arsenal of roughly the same size?

    Reply: The Russian government hasn’t been very specific about its plans for the structure of the stockpile. The Russian force structure doesn’t really include “responsive” warheads for uploading like the United States, although a large reserve of non-deployed warheads is thought to exist as spares. Instead, Russia seems to be planning to retain an “all deployed” posture with fewer missiles than the United States. In addition, Russia has a larger inventory of non-strategic warheads than the United States. MK

  3. FS: There seems to be an inconsistency in the full fact sheet data. Under “Notes and Assumptions” the table estimate on the US SORT arsenal in 2012 will be 2192 warheads yet only 2172 operational weapons are accountable in your assumptions. I suspect the guilty party is the 20 B61-11 weapons that should be grouped under “tactical warheads” as opposed to the “strategic” inventory and thus not “counted” under SORT. (such as the B61-3 and -4) Would you not agree the B61-11 is a tactical weapon notwithstanding the B-2 is the delivery system?

    I continually appreciate your insights to these discussions.

    Reply: Thanks for the kind words! No, our 2012 estimate is 2592 operational warheads, of which only 2192 will be counted under SORT. MK

  4. I know this article is a little outdated, but could you give me the states with the largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons. I am trying to research it for a global issues class. My teacher says he believes Georgia is the largest, but I feel it is New Mexico. I cannot find any current sources providing information on this. If you could provide me with a source of finding it myself it would be greatly appreciated. Nice article by the way.

    Reply: No, it is still Bangor, Washington, that tops our list. But New Mexico is certainly expected to rise to the top over the next five years as retired warheads are gradually removed from their bases and placed in central storage. And since warhead dismantlement is not a priority under current plans, the inventory at Kirtland will likely remain high for the next decade. HK

  5. How many nuclear bombs did we have in 1945?

    Reply: The first six months of 1945, zero. In early august, two (both dropped on Japan). The second bomb dropped on Nagasaki was an implosion design with a plutonium core, of which a test explosion was conducted on July 16 in New Mexico. The designers and military were so confident in the Uranium gun-type design of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima that it was employed without ever having been tested. Low rate production continued after Japan’s surrender with seven bombs produced through 1946. HK

  6. I was very interested by this article and was wondering about how many megatons of plutonium and uranium would be in the 9938 bombs held in 2007?

    Reply: Note that megatonnage is not a measure for the weight of plutonium and uranium but an expression of the explosive yield of weapons. One kiloton equals the explosive power (or energy) of one 1,000 kilograms of TNT dynamite. A megaton is 1 million times that power.

    As for the megatonnage of the 2007 stockpile: approximately 1,986 megatons. HK

  7. Thank you for a very interesting article. I am also very interested in this topic and consequently to the previous question (Robert Dells) I would like to ask you about the total megatonnage in 1989 for the USA and for the USSR.

    I would estimate that the USSR has maximum total explosive yield of all stockpiled nuclear weapons just in 1989 (and higher compared to the USA due to higher explosive yield of warheads, especially on ICBMs). However, for the USA the situation is more complicated (historical changes in the number and explosive yield of the warheads).

    In addition, there are two different data. Total explosive yield of all kept warheads, and total explosive yield of all deployed warheads (on nuclear weapons delivery).
    I have made some rough estimates but I am not sure with the preciseness.

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