The number of U.S. strategic warheads counted as “deployed” under the New START Treaty has dropped below the treaty’s limit of 1,550 warheads for the first time since the treaty entered into force in February 2011 – a reduction of 263 warheads over four and a half years.
Russia, by contrast, has increased its deployed warheads and now has more strategic warheads counted as deployed under the treaty than in 2011 – up 111 warheads.
Similarly, while the United States has reduced its number of deployed strategic launchers (missiles and bombers) counted by the treaty by 120, Russia has increased its number of deployed launchers by five in the same period. Yet the United States still has more launchers deployed than allowed by the treaty (by 2018) while Russia has been well below the limit since before the treaty entered into force in 2011.
These two apparently contradictory developments do not mean that the United States is falling behind and Russia is building up. Both countries are expected to adjust their forces to comply with the treaty limits by 2018.
Rather, the differences are due to different histories and structures of the two countries’ strategic nuclear force postures as well as to fluctuations in the number of weapons that are deployed at any given time. Continue reading →
Later this fall (possibly this month) the first new Borei-class (sometimes spelled Borey) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) is scheduled to arrive at the Rybachiy submarine base near Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula.
[Update September 30, 2015: Captain First Rank Igor Dygalo, a spokesperson for the Russian Navy, announced that the Aleksander Nevsky (K-550) arrived at Rybachiy Submarine Base at 5 PM local time (5 AM GMT) on September 30, 2015.]
At least one more, possibly several, Borei SSBNs are expected to follow over the next few years to replace the remaining outdated Delta-III SSBNs currently operating in the Pacific.
The arrival of the Borei SSBNs marks the first significant upgrade of the Russian Pacific Fleet SSBN force in more than three decades.
In preparation for the arrival of the new submarines, satellite pictures show upgrades underway to submarine base piers, missile loading piers, and nuclear warhead storage facilities. Continue reading →
Security upgrades underway at U.S. Air Force bases in Europe indicate that nuclear weapons deployed in Europe have been stored under unsafe conditions for more than two decades.
Commercial satellite images show work underway at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and Aviano Air Base in Italy. The upgrades are intended to increase the physical protection of nuclear weapons stored at the two U.S. Air Force Bases.
The upgrades indirectly acknowledge that security at U.S. nuclear weapons storage sites in Europe has been inadequate for more than two decades.
And the decision to upgrade nuclear security perimeters at the two U.S. bases strongly implies that security at the other four European host bases must now be characterized as inadequate.
The Department of Energy issued twenty “declassification determinations” between April 2011 and March 2015 to remove certain specified categories of nuclear weapons-related information from classification controls.
“The fact that a mass of 52.5 kg of U-235 is sufficient for a gun-assembled weapon” was formally declassified in a written decision dated August 19, 2014.
The “total inventory of thorium at DOE sites for any given time period” was removed from the Restricted Data category on March 20, 2013.
The “existence of unlimited life neutron generators” was declassified on October 24, 2013.
As a result of such determinations, the specified information need no longer be redacted from documents undergoing declassification review, and it can also be incorporated freely in new unclassified documents.
So, for example, the fact that “The total United States Government inventory of plutonium on September 30, 2009 was 95.4 metric tons” was declassified on December 20, 2011.
This decision enabled the release of The United States Plutonium Balance, 1944-2009, a report published in June 2012. (“The aim of this publication is to provide, in a transparent manner, comprehensive and up-to-date data to regulators, public interest organizations, and the general public. Knowledge of the current U.S. plutonium balance and the locations of these materials is needed to understand the Department’s plutonium storage, safety, and security strategies.”)
The Department of Energy’s declassification determinations from 2011-2015 were released by DOE this week under the Freedom of Information Act. They are posted here in reverse chronological order, along with previous DOE declassification decisions.
The DOE declassification actions were performed in compliance with the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, in which Congress mandated a “continuous review of Restricted Data… in order to determine which information may be declassified and removed from the category of Restricted Data without undue risk to the common defense and security.”
Two suspected terrorists arrested by the Italian police allegedly were planning an attack against the nuclear weapons base at Ghedi.
The base stores 20 US B61 nuclear bombs earmarked for delivery by Italian PA-200 Tornado fighter-bombers in war. Nuclear security and strike exercises were conducted at the base in 2014. During peacetime the bombs are under the custody of the US Air Force 704th Munitions Support Squadron (MUNSS), a 130-personnel strong units at Ghedi Air Base.
The Italian police said at a press conference today that the two men in their conversations “were referring to several targets, particularly the Ghedi military base” near Brescia in northern Italy.
There are currently approximately 180 US B61 bombs deployed in Europe at six bases in five NATO countries: Belgium (Kleine Brogel AB), Germany (Buchel AB), Italy (Aviano AB and Ghedi AB), the Netherlands (Volkel AB), and Turkey (Incirlik AB).
Over the next decade, the B61s in Europe will be modernized and, when delivered by the new F-35A fighter-bomber, turned into a guided nuclear bomb (B61-12) with greater accuracy than the B61s currently deployed in Europe. Aircraft integration of the B61-12 has already started.
Editor’s note: The following is a compilation of letters by Dr. William Higinbotham, a nuclear physicist who worked on the first nuclear bomb and served as the first chairman of FAS. His daughter, Julie Schletter, assembled these accounts of Higinbotham’s distinguished career.
Thank you for this opportunity to share with you my father’s firsthand accounts of the inception of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). After my father died in November 1994, I inherited a truly intimidating treasure of letters, correspondence and most importantly a nearly complete manuscript (mostly on floppy disks) of his unpublished memoirs. Over the last couple of decades, I have read widely and deeply, collected resources, transcribed and sorted through this material and am planning to publish a personal history of Willy in the near future.
Having studied this man from a more distant perspective, I am sure about certain things. Willy was at his heart an optimist, a democrat, a child of liberal New England Protestants during the Great Depression, and a man who didn’t mind doing a lot of behind the scenes dirty work to make things happen. He did this with self-deprecating humor, confidence in the humanity of others, a terrific sense of play, music, camaraderie, and most importantly a deep respect for the opinions of everyone. He was humble, incredibly brilliant and could recall details from meetings many years in the past as well as lyrics to jazz standards and sea chanties not sung in a while.
Dad was a terrific story teller. This is his version of how he came to Washington, DC to serve as the first chairman of FAS. These are mostly his words with some additional anecdotes from colleagues and friends who knew him well during the war years and after.
In a letter to his daughter Julie in April 1994, Willy began his account with his parents, a beloved Presbyterian minister and wife:
“It is from them and their example that I have been inspired to do something for humanity. In my case, the opportunity did not arise until I was 30 and the Second World War had started. As a graduate student at Cornell I was too poor to consider marriage and had no prospects for a reasonable job. As soon as Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, I knew that the US should prepare to go to war with our European allies. However, the vast majority of US citizens and Congressmen believed that we should have nothing to do with any European conflicts. It was only with difficulty that President Roosevelt was able to provide some assistance to the UK by “Lend Lease.” I was delighted to be invited to go to MIT in Jan. 1941, as Hitler’s Luftwaffe was bombing London and other British cities.
The US finally initiated the draft in March or April and (my brother) Robert was one of the first to be called up. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor that fall, we were in the war for good. (My brother) Freddy was the next to be drafted. By the summer of 1943 he was a navigator on a small C47 transport plane that dropped parachuters on Sicily, and then (my brother) Philip was drilling with the Army Engineers. I had strong reasons to develop technology that would speed defeat of Germany and Japan.
As you know, it was when I saw the first nuclear test on July 16, 1945, that I determined to do what I could to prevent a nuclear arms race.”
From his unpublished memoirs, Willy described the Trinity test:
“Until the last moment, it was not clear if the implosion design [which used plutonium] would actually work. Everyone was confident that the gun design [which used highly enriched uranium] would work, but Hanford was producing plutonium at a good rate while Oak Ridge was producing highly enriched uranium with great difficulty. Consequently, the Trinity test was planned for early in 1945.
Almost everyone in Los Alamos was involved in constructing the implosion weapon or in designing and installing measurement instruments for the test. Most of my group was involved in the latter. Sometimes I drove, with others, to the site to install and test various devices. Many of the instruments were to be turned on minutes or seconds before the bomb was to be triggered. Joe McKibben, of the Van de Graff group, designed the alarm-clock and relay system which was to send out signals for the last ten minutes. I designed the electronic circuit which was to send out the signals during the last second and then to send the signal to the tower. Some of my scientists and many of my technicians spent many days at the site. By test day, we had done all that was requested and I was prepared to await the results of the test, at Los Alamos.
At the last minute, I had a call from Oppie [Scientific Director J. Robert Oppenheimer], asking me to bring a radio to the test site for a number of special observers who were to be at 18 miles from the tower. We had an all-wave Halicrafters receiver which needed a storage battery for the filaments and a stack of big 45 volt B-batteries for the plates. We also had several cheap loud speakers. So, I grabbed several of the remaining technicians and had them check the equipment and pack it into a small truck. They drove the truck to the site. I went with some of the special guests by bus to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, whence a military bus took us to the place reserved for us, near where the road to the test site leaves the main highway north of it.
We arrived there in the evening. As has been reported often, the weather clouded over and there was some rain. So we waited. The radio worked although the sound was rather weak. The Halicrafter had less than a watt of output and the speakers were not very efficient. Eventually, the countdown began. We were issued slabs of very dark glass, used by welders. I couldn’t see the headlights on the truck through it. I only remember one of the others who was in our select group, Edward Teller. As the countdown approached the last 10 seconds, he began to rub sun screen on his face, which rather shook me. I had been assured that the bomb, if it worked, would not ignite the atmosphere or the desert. At 18 miles it seemed incredible to me that we might get scorched.
At T = 0, we saw a brilliant white flash of light through our dark glass filters, and the hills around us were suddenly brightly lit. Immediately, the point of light expanded to a white sphere and then to a redder inverted bowl shaped object which began to be surrounded with eddies and then rose up into the air and climbed rapidly to the sky, where a clear space suddenly opened in the high thin cloud layer and finally ended as an ugly white cap. All up and down the smoky column there were bluish sparks due to the radioactivity and electric discharges. It must have been more than a minute before the shock wave came through the ground, followed shortly by the sharp air-wave blast, which rumbled off the hills for another minute or so. It was clear that the bomb worked as predicted. I had hoped that the physicists might have been wrong and for many reasons I figured that this test would not be successful. Now I had to face the existence of nuclear weapons. It was a paralyzing realization.
As I recall, no one said anything. My boys packed up the radio equipment and headed home. I got into a bus with about fifteen others and we started for Albuquerque. I had saved one of the bottles of scotch, which my MIT friends had given me in 1943, and had it with me, in case. I pulled it out, opened it, and passed it around. The others on the bus, scientists and military types, quietly sipped it and passed it along until it was empty. No one said anything.
Several hours later we arrived at Kirtland and those of us from Los Alamos transferred to another bus to return there. I was paralyzed. I went back to the Lab and doodled there until closing time. I had supper and went to my room. I didn’t sleep. All I could think of was that the Soviet Union would surely develop nuclear weapons and might blow us off the map. I knew about radar and anti-aircraft and that a bomb, such as the one I had seen, would wipe out any city. The best defense against bombers in Europe had been to shoot down ten percent of the attackers. Ninety percent would not save us.
After agonizing for a day or more, I finally began to think about why Stalin might attempt to destroy the US. It was quite possible that Soviet aircraft could cross the oceans and attack the US. However, it would do them no good to just destroy cities. They would have to occupy us to gain any advantage. The more I thought about this, the more I came to believe that attacking the US with nuclear weapons would not make sense even to an evil man like Stalin. What might make more sense would be to use nuclear weapons to attack our allies in Europe. By then it was clear that Stalin intended to continue to occupy Poland, Hungary and other previously free countries that surrounded the Soviet Union. (In my mind) at least the US did not seem to be threatened. There would be time to see if the Soviet Union was going to threaten the other nations beyond those it now controlled. (Eventually) I got some sleep and went back to work on the new jobs which faced the Lab.
I had no intention of taking a major role in this effort. As soon as Japan surrendered, many of the scientists at Los Alamos began to discuss this subject. When General Groves said that we could keep the secret for 15 years, and Congressmen told scientists to design a defense, we held a big meeting and started to draft a statement for the public.”
In a letter Dad wrote to his mother from Los Alamos:1)Jungk, Robert. Brighter Than a Thousand Suns. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1958 p 223.
“I am not a bit proud of the job we have done . . . the only reason for doing it was to beat the rest of the world to a draw . . . perhaps this is so devastating that man will be forced to be peaceful. The alternative to peace is now unthinkable. But unfortunately there will always be some who don’t think. . . . I think I now know the meaning of “mixed emotions.” I am afraid that Gandhi is the only real disciple of Christ at present . . . anyway it is over for now and God give us strength in the future. Love, Will.”
From his memoirs, Willy described how he came to Washington, DC in the fall of 1945:
“Strangely, I don’t remember many discussions of the implications of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos before the end of the war. My friends and I had some scattered discussions about how Nazism had taken hold, and of what the world might face after Hitler was defeated. I was invited a few times to sit in Oppie’s living room as Niels Bohr discussed his thoughts about the future control of atomic energy. Bohr was almost impossible to understand because he had an accent and because he always spoke several decibels below the audible threshold. Much later I would understand how wise he was, but at the time the whole subject seemed confusing and not very important to me.
Then came Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Japanese surrender. We had a big party the night the surrender was announced. I sat on the hood of a jeep, playing my accordion, as we paraded around town. Immediately after that, the discussions began in earnest. A number of them were held in my office in the Tech area in the evenings. The public response to the development of atomic weapons was discouraging. General Groves asserted that it would take the Soviets fifteen years to develop an atomic weapon. Congressmen began talking about defenses. Scientists at Oak Ridge and Chicago were organizing and we began to hear from them.
The first large meeting was attended by about sixty people on August 20th. All agreed that we should form an organization and the question of whether it should consider scientists’ welfare as well as the social implications of nuclear energy, was discussed. A committee was appointed to make arrangements for a meeting for all of the scientists and engineers.
On August 23rd, a nine member committee issued an invitation to attend a meeting for all scientists and engineers on August 30th for the following purpose:
“Many people have expressed a desire to form an organization of progressive scientists which has as its primary object to see that the scientific and technological advancements for which they are responsible are used in the best interests of humanity.
Most scientists on this project feel strongly their responsibility for the proper use of scientific knowledge. At present, recommendations for the future of this project and of atomic power are being made. It would be the immediate purpose of this society to examine our own views on these questions and take suitable action. However, the future will hold more problems and scientists will feel the need of a more general organization to express their views.
Before the next meeting had been held it was clear to everyone that the international control of atomic energy was the vital issue and should be the only issue with which the organization was concerned.”
The meeting on August 30th was attended by about five hundred individuals. They overwhelmingly approved the following motion by Joe Keller:
We hereby form an organization of scientists, called temporarily, the Association of Los Alamos Scientists (ALAS).
The object of this organization is to promote the attainment and use of scientific and technological advances in the best interests of humanity. We recognize that scientists, by virtue of their special knowledge, have, in certain spheres, special social responsibilities beyond their obligations as individual citizens. The organization aims to carry out these responsibilities by keeping its members informed and by providing a forum through which their views can be publicly and authoritatively expressed.
We discussed what our statement should say to the President and to the public. Except for Edward Teller, we all agreed that the message was that (1) there is no secret (scientists anywhere could figure out how to make atomic weapons now that we had demonstrated that they are possible). In addition, (2) there is no defense that can prevent great devastation by atomic weapons, and (3) we must have “world control.” Edward Teller would not agree with the latter because that was a political and not a technical conclusion. Leo Szilard’s counter to this, we later heard, was that you don’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater without telling people where the exits are. Anyway, the three phrases became our policy.
To my great surprise, I was elected the first chairman of the Association of Los Alamos Scientists. Later, I went to Washington and offered to spend a year managing the scientists’ office. Then I was elected the first chairman of the Federation of American Scientists in January, 1946. I was surprised and hoped that I would not let people down. I think that I understand this. I do not have strong beliefs as did Leo Szilard and many others. I was not a Nobel laureate. I was a team worker. I sought to unite people on positions that they could agree to. People trusted me.
The first executive committee was composed of David Frisch, Joseph Keller, David Lipkin, John Manley, Victor Weisskopf, Robert Wilson, William Woodward, and myself (chairman).
From the beginning, we were aware that the scientific and military success of our work would bring both new dangers and new possibilities of human benefits to the world.
We posed and answered five questions:
What would the atomic bomb do in the event of another war?
Use of such bombs would quickly and thoroughly annihilate the important cities in all countries involved. We must expect that bombs will be developed which will be many times more effective and which will be available in large numbers.
What defense would be possible? One hundred percent interception should be considered impossible. Therefore, were there a possibility of attack we could not gamble on defenses alone and would have to make drastic changes such as abandoning cities and decentralizing communications. How long would it take for any other country to produce as atomic bomb? Within a few years.
What would be the effect of an atomic arms race on science and technology? Emphasis on the development of more weapons would interfere with developments for peaceful applications.
Assuming that international control of the bomb is agreed upon, is such control technically feasible? From a scientific point of view we assert that international control of the atomic bomb is feasible and that such control need not interfere with free and profitable peacetime research and development.
Like everyone else, I visited congressmen, talked to reporters, lectured to local organizations and answered phone calls. A large part of the public was interested in atomic energy. A number of the leaders of major national organizations visited us or asked us to meet with them.
When the Soviets fired their first nuclear test in 1949, the President and the Congress pushed for development of the H bomb, which stimulated the nuclear arms race. It was a sad story after that. Edward Teller was convinced that the Soviets would blow up the US if it ever had the opportunity to do so without suffering much retaliation. More rational people felt that the Soviets would have enough trouble keeping on top of their people and satellites, especially after Stalin died in 1970. I could go on. The US became paranoid about communists. Joseph McCarthy lied but many innocent people lost their jobs. Oppenheimer was publicly disgraced. The US continued to accelerate the nuclear arms race. By good luck, the US and USSR agreed to halt tests in the atmosphere in 1963 and the Cuban missile crisis did not lead to the Apocalypse, though that was close. I have spent a lot of my time and effort trying to influence US policy in this area. A lot of that was spent talking to the already converted. My friends and I have had some minor successes. But we never could convince our government that the nuclear arms race was unnecessary and that the Soviets would respond favorably if we were to suggest winding it down. It was the Soviet leaders, with Gorbachev, who realized that the arms race was a waste of effort and who were willing to take the risk of offering to reduce their deployed nuclear weapons and go further if the US agreed.
If we and others are to survive, we must understand the present situation and try to find new and better ways to deal with international problems. The development of nuclear weapons means that the traditional policies will probably fail. I have had a few opportunities to discuss this with some of the doubters. Most of the time, however, the people that I talked to were sympathetic to our attempts at developing a new approach.
So, the objective that I devoted so much time, effort, and thought to was finally attained by the Soviets. Most of the time I was discouraged but did not give up. A number of the scientists who were active at the start gave up. Some of the scientists that I have worked with thought that I was crazy — but they never took the trouble to find out what I knew about what was going on or what I was really doing. There were many distinguished scientists who thought as I did, and we encouraged each other. They have been a great help to me.”
These last few anecdotes come from the many letters that were sent to my father on the occasion of his 80th birthday. I believe they speak to the qualities that made Dad so incredibly successful at ALAS, FAS, and then on to Brookhaven National Laboratory where he worked on an astounding number of projects and committees, and where he established the Technical Support Organization Library. During his tenure at BNL he attended some of the Pugwash meetings, SALT talks and traveled extensively all over the world to communicate honestly with scientists and policy makers regarding atomic energy and nuclear safeguards.
He also built the prototype for Pong in the mid-fifties as a demonstration exhibit for the public and guests at the summer open lab events. He was “discovered” by computer gamers all over the world by around 1972. Dad was mortified by this! He thought anyone with a simple understanding of electronics could have invented that sort of game just as easily as he did! He bemoaned the idea that he would be remembered not for his life’s work on nuclear non-proliferation, but on a silly computer game. And (regrettably) he was right about that.
Jim de Montmollin, colleague from the Manhattan Project:
“I think the most important thing to me is your sensitivity and selflessness. In an era when people seek to project an image of sophistication through a cynical and ‘me first’ attitude toward everything, I especially value knowing people like you. I think of myself also as a sort of pragmatic idealist, and I consider you to be the ultimate model. Far more than I, you have worked tirelessly toward unselfish objectives, always seeking practical and feasible steps toward getting there.
I also admire your tolerance. You don’t hesitate to call it like you see it, but neither are you ever hesitant to defend any cause or individual, however unpopular or unfashionable they may be. That is what has always made it such a pleasure to discuss anything with you: it [is] rare to know people who think for themselves, who absorb new information and develop their thoughts from it, who are more than carriers of the conventional wisdom, and who are so well—informed on so many things as you. What I refer to as your tolerance is both an openness toward new facts and ideas and a lack of animosity toward those who differ in any way.
Your dedication and drive over at least the last 50 years toward objectives that are not self-seeking or necessarily fashionable is another aspect that makes you so outstanding to me. Long before I knew you, you did it at no small personal sacrifice. When you became too old to meet the bureaucratic rules for continued work, you have worked as hard as ever, taking advantage of the freedom to apply yourself wherever you could be the most effective. If you ever have any private doubts about what you may have sacrificed, let me assure you that I appreciate and admire you for it.
I remember you commenting on more than one occasion that you regarded George Weiss as a ‘real gentleman.’ I agree, but that also applies to you even more so. It is your sensitivity to others’ feelings, your tolerance of their shortcomings, and your efforts to point out their good qualities that mark you as a gentleman to me, in the finest sense of the word.”
From Freeman Dyson, English-born American theoretical physicist and mathematician:
“I am delighted to hear that the FAS headquarters building is to be named in your honor. In this way we shall celebrate the historic role that you played in the beginnings of FAS. And we make sure that future generations did not forget who you were and what you did.
I remember vividly the day I joined FAS, soon after I arrived in the USA as a graduate student in 1947. Gene Lochlin, who was a fellow student at Cornell, took me to an FAS meeting and I was immediately hooked. One of the things that attracted me most strongly to FAS was the spontaneous and un-hierarchical way in which [it] should function. Coming fresh from England, I found it amazing that the leader of FAS was not Sir Somebody-Something, but this young fellow Willy Higinbotham who had grabbed the initiative in 1945 and organized the crucial dialogue between scientists and congressmen.
And [by] 1947 you were already a legendary figure, a symbol of the ordinary guy who changes history by doing the right thing at the right time. To me you were also a symbol of the good side of America, the open society where everyone is free to make a contribution. You just happen to make one of the biggest contributions. I am proud now to join and honoring your achievement.”
The world has certainly changed since the atomic bomb first exploded over the white sands of New Mexico in July 1945, yet it is clear that in regard to nuclear non-proliferation and world peace we have a mighty long way to go. William Higinbotham served as the first chairman of FAS in 1945; the mission and objectives were clear and imperative. The work he began now continues 70 years later. On behalf of my father, thank you for your most noble efforts to make our world a safer and saner place for all of humanity.
Julie Schletter retired in 2013 after almost forty years working in education as a school counselor. Her recent project has been completing a book about her father, Accordion to Willy: A Personal History of William Higinbotham the Man who Helped Build the Atom Bomb, Launched the Federation of American Scientists and Invented the First Video Game.
The biggest surprise in the Pentagon’s latest annual report on Chinese military power is the claim that China’s ICBM force now includes the “multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV)-equipped Mod 3 (DF-5).”
This is (to my knowledge) the first time the US Intelligence Community has made a public claim that China has fielded a MIRVed missile system.
If so, China joins the club of four other nuclear-armed states that have deployed MIRV for decades: Britain, France, Russia and the United States.
For China to join the MIRV club strains China’s claim of having a minimum nuclear deterrent. It is another worrisome sign that China – like the other nuclear-armed states – are trapped in a dynamic technological nuclear arms competition. Continue reading →
In a speech to the Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in New York earlier today, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry disclosed new information about the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.
Updated Stockpile Numbers
First, Kerry updated the DOD nuclear stockpile history by declaring that the stockpile as of September 2014 included 4,717 nuclear warheads. That is a reduction of 87 warheads since September 2013, when the DOD stockpile included 4,804 warheads, or a reduction of about 500 warheads retired since President Obama took office in January 2009.
The September 2014 number of 4,717 warheads is 43 warheads off the estimate we made in our latest FAS Nuclear Notebook in March this year.
Disclosure of Dismantlement Queue
Second, Kerry also announced a new number we have never seen in public before: the official number of retired nuclear warheads in line for dismantlement. As of September 2014, the United States had approximately 2,500 additional warheads that have been retired (but are still relatively intact) and awaiting dismantlement.
The number of “approximately 2,500” retired warheads awaiting dismantlement is close to the 2,340 warheads we estimated in the FAS Nuclear Notebook in March 2015.
Increasing Warhead Dismantlements
Kerry also announced that the administration “will seek to accelerate the dismantlement of retired nuclear warheads by 20 percent.”
“Over the last 20 years alone, we have dismantled 10,251 warheads,” Kerry announced.
This updates the count of 9,952 dismantled warheads from the 2014 disclosure, which means that the administration between September 2013 and September 2014 dismantled 299 retired warheads.
Under current plans, of the “approximately 2,500” warheads in the dismantlement queue, the ones that were retired through (September) 2009 will be dismantled by 2022. Additional warheads retired during the past five years will take longer.
How the administration will accelerate dismantlement remains to be seen. The FY2016 budget request for NNSA pretty much flatlines funding for weapons dismantlement and disposition through 2020. In the same period, the administration plans to complete production of the W76-1 warhead, begin production of the B61-12, and carry out refurbishments of four other warheads. If the administration wanted to dismantle all “approximately 2,500” retired warheads by 2022 (including those warheads retired after 2009), it would have to dismantle about 312 warheads per year – a rate of only 13 more than it dismantled in 2014. So this can probably be done with existing capacity.
Secretary Kerry’s speech is an important diplomatic gesture that will help the United States make its case at the NPT review conference that it is living up to its obligations under the treaty. Some will agree, others will not. The nuclear-weapon states are in a tough spot at the NPT because there are currently no negotiations underway for additional reductions; because the New START Treaty, although beneficial, is modest; and because the nuclear-weapon states are reaffirming the importance of nuclear weapons and modernizing their nuclear arsenals as if they plan to keep nuclear weapons indefinitely (see here for worldwide status of nuclear arsenals).
And the disclosure is a surprise. As recently as a few weeks ago, White House officials said privately that the United States would not be releasing updated nuclear warhead numbers at the NPT conference. Apparently, the leadership decided last minute to do so anyway. [Update: another White House official says the release was cleared late but that it had been the plan to release some numbers all along.]
The roughly 500 warheads cut from the stockpile by the Obama administration is modest and a disappointing performance by a president that has spoken so much about reducing the numbers and role of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the political reality has been an arms control policy squeezed between a dismissive Russian president and an arms control-hostile U.S. Congress.
In addition to updating the stockpile history, the most important part of the initiative is the disclosure of the number of weapons awaiting dismantlement. This is an important new transparency initiative by the administration that was not included in the 2010 or 2014 stockpile transparency initiatives. Disclosing dismantlement numbers helps dispel rumors that the United States is hiding a secret stash of nuclear warheads and enables the United States to demonstrate actual dismantlement progress.
And, besides, why would the administration not want to disclose to the NPT conference how many warheads it is actually working on dismantling? This can only help the United States at the NPT review conference.
There will be a few opponents of the transparency initiative. Since they can’t really say this harms U.S. national security, their primary argument will be that other nuclear-armed states have so far not response in kind.
Russia and China have not made public disclosures of their nuclear warhead inventories. Britain and France has said a little on a few occasions about their total inventories and (in the case of Britain) how many warheads are operationally available or deployed, but not disclosed the histories of stockpiles or dismantlement. And the other nuclear-armed states that are outside the NPT (India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan) have not said anything at all.
But this is a work in progress. It will take a long time to persuade other nuclear-armed states to become more transparent with basic information about nuclear arsenals. But seeing that it can be done without damaging national security and at the same time helping the NPT process is important to cut through old-fashioned excessive nuclear secrecy and increase nuclear transparency. Hat tip to the Obama administration.
This publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
Is China increasing production of nuclear ballistic missile submarines?
Over the past few months, several US defense and intelligence officials have stated for the record that China is planning to build significantly more nuclear-powered missile submarines than previously assumed.
This would potentially put a bigger portion of China’s nuclear arsenal out to sea, a risky proposition, and further deepen China’s unfortunate status as the only nuclear-armed state party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation that is increasing it nuclear arsenal. Continue reading →
Russian nuclear weapons have received a lot of attention lately. Russian officials casually throw around direct or thinly veiled nuclear threats (here, here and here). And U.S. defense hawks rail (here and here) about a Russian nuclear buildup.
In reality, rather than building up, Russia is building down but appears to be working to level off the force within the next decade to prevent further unilateral reduction of its strategic nuclear force in the future. For details, see the latest FAS Nuclear Notebook on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists web site.
This trend makes it more important for the United States and Russia to reach additional nuclear arms control agreements to reduce strategic nuclear forces. Hard to imagine in the current climate, but remember: even at the height of the Cold War the two sides reached important arms limitation agreements because it was seen then (as it is now) to be in their national security interest. Continue reading →