The W62 is the only nuclear warhead that has been publicly identified for elimination under the Bush administration’s secret nuclear stockpile reduction plan.
By Hans M. Kristensen
The While House announced earlier today that the President had “approved a significant reduction in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile to take effect by the end of 2007.” The decision reaffirmed an earlier decision from June 2004 to cut the stockpile “nearly 50 percent,” but moved the timeline up five years from 2012 to 2007.
Not included in the White House statement, but added by other government officials, is an additional decision to cut the remaining stockpile by another 15% percent, although not until 2012.
The announcement of these important initiatives unfortunately was hampered by Cold War secrecy which meant that government officials were not allowed to reveal how many nuclear weapons will be cut or what the size of the stockpile is. As a result, news media accounts were full of errors, and one can only imagine the misperceptions this misplaced secrecy creates in other nuclear weapon states.
Estimates of the Secret Cuts
Before the latest announcements, I and my colleague Robert Norris estimated that the stockpile consisted of approximately 9,900 warheads of which roughly 4,600 were operational. With the new announcements, we predict the following development:
The White House announcement reaffirms the 2004 decision to reduce the size of the Defense Department’s nuclear weapons stockpile “by nearly 50 percent from the 2001 level.” This objective was reaffirmed by the National Nuclear Security Administration in a press release earlier today. The DOD stockpile included roughly 10,500 warheads in 2001, which means that the 2004 stockpile plan probably envisioned a stockpile of some 5,400 warheads by 2012. It is this cut that the White House reaffirmed today, but implemented by the end of 2007 instead of 2012.
The additional 15 percent reduction announced today and confirmed by the White House would cut approximately 800 warheads more from the 5,400, resulting in an estimated stockpile of roughly 4,600 warheads by 2012.
At that time the SORT agreement signed with Russian in 2002 is scheduled to enter into effect, setting an upper limit of no more than 2,200 operationally deployed strategic warheads. The remaining 2,400 warheads will likely include 2,000 reserve warheads to “hedge” against unforseen political developments and 400 non-strategic bombs.
The Bush administration’s planned reduction of the nuclear stockpile is significant but modest compared to the cuts in the 1990s, and will leave a stockpile that is four times larger than the combined arsenals of all other nuclear weapon states (excluding Russia).
What Doesn’t Change
The White House’s announcement to implement the 2004 stockpile plan in 2007 does not mean that the “cut” warheads will have been dismantled by then – far from it. In fact, the decision to reduce the stockpile does not in itself result in the destruction of a single warhead. “Reducing” the stockpile by nearly half is a form of nuclear book keeping that means that ownership of the “cut” warheads will shift from DOD to DOE.
But DOE doesn’t have storage capacity for all of these weapons at its facility at Pantex. That factory is busy rebuilding the warheads slated to remain in the “enduring stockpile” beyond 2012. As a result, dismantlement of the backlog of warheads from the current reductions is not scheduled to be completed until 2023, more than a decade-and-a-half after today’s White House announcement to speed things up. Indeed, the current administration has demonstrated the lowest warhead dismantlement rate of any U.S. government since the Eisenhower administration.
So for now, most of the “cut” warheads will likely remain at the bases where they are and only gradually be moved to the central warhead storage locations such as Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. The only known timeline for this move is 2012, by which time no more than 2,200 strategic warheads can remain at bases for operational delivery platforms according to the SORT agreement.
The While House statement highlights that “the U.S. nuclear stockpile will be less than one-quarter its size at the end of the Cold War” [1991, ed.]. But the stockpile the administration plans for 2012 is large by post-Cold War standards:
* Four times the combined number of nuclear weapons of all the world’s nuclear weapons states, excluding Russia.
* Almost half of the stockpile – a maximum of 2,200 warheads – will be operational, and a third of those (more than 850) will be on alert.
* More than 10 times bigger than in 1950, when the United States decided to contain the Soviet Union.
Although the White House says the planned reductions seek to “reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons,” the statement not only reaffirms that “a credible deterrent remains an essential part of U.S. national security,” but also declares that “nuclear forces remain key to meeting emerging security challenges.”
In the weeks ahead, we will fine-tune this estimate further.