American Scientists and Nuclear Weapons Policy

“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it,” warned British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke more than 200 years ago. Having recently delved into reading about the history of the first group of American atomic scientists and their efforts to deal with the nuclear arms race, I have realized that Burke was right. More so, I would underscore that the ideas of these intellectual path-breakers are still very much alive today, and that even when we are fully cognizant of this history we are bound to repeat it. By studying these scientists’ ideas, Robert Gilpin in his 1962 book, American Scientists and Nuclear Weapons Policy, identifies three schools of thought: (1) control, (2) finite containment, and (3) infinite containment.

The control school had its origins in the Franck Report, which had James Franck, an atomic scientist at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago serve as the lead drafter of the report which argued that “any international agreement on prevention of nuclear armaments must be backed by actual and efficient controls.” Seventy Manhattan Project scientists signed this report in June 1945, which was then sent to Secretary of War Henry Stimson. They suggested that instead of detonating atomic bombs on Japan, the United States might demonstrate the new weapon on “a barren island” and thus say to the world, “You see what sort of a weapon we had but did not use. We are ready to renounce its use in the future if other nations join us in this renunciation and agree to the establishment of an efficient control.” As we all know, the United States government did not take this advice during the Second World War.

But in 1946, the United States put forward in the Acheson-Lilienthal Report (in which J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, served as the lead drafter) ideas for international control of atomic energy. In the form of the Baruch Plan, this proposal before the fledging United Nations faced opposition from the Soviet Union, which wanted to arm itself with nuclear weapons before accepting a U.S. plan that could leave the United States wielding a monopoly on nuclear arms. However, the control school has been kept alive in part, through the founding in 1957 of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has the dual mission to promote peaceful nuclear power and safeguard these programs. Periodically, concepts are still put forward to create multilateral means to exert some control over uranium enrichment and reprocessing of plutonium, the methods to make fissile material for nuclear reactors or bombs. Many of the founders and leading scientists of FAS such as Philip Morrison and Linus Pauling belonged to the control school.

Starting in the late 1940s, disillusionment about the feasibility of international control was setting in among several atomic scientists active in FAS and advisory roles for the government. They began to see the necessity for making nuclear weapons to contain the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, there were those who believed that international controls should continue to be pursued in parallel with production of atomic bombs. Thus, a sharp division did not exist between the control and finite containment schools of thought. Oppenheimer exemplified this view in a speech on September 17, 1947, to the National War College where he extolled the “soundness” of the control proposals but lamented that “the very bases for international control between the United States and the Soviet Union were being eradicated by a revelation of their deep conflicts of interest, the deep and apparently mutual repugnance of their ways of life, and the apparent conviction on the part of the Soviet Union of the inevitably of conflict—and not in ideas alone, but in force.”

Reading this, I think of the dilemma the United States faces with Iran over efforts to control the Iranian nuclear program while confronting decades of mistrust. One big difference between Iran and the Soviet Union is that Iran, as a non-nuclear weapon state party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is legally obligated to not make or acquire nuclear explosives whereas the Soviet Union never had such legal restrictions. Thus, Iran has already agreed to accept controls through safeguards on its nuclear program. The question is what additional controls Iran will agree to accept in order to provide needed assurances that it does not have a nuclear weapons program and will not develop such in the future. In parallel, the United States is strengthening containment mostly via a military presence in the Persian Gulf region and providing weapons and defense systems to U.S. allies in the Middle East. Scientists play vital roles both in improving methods of control via monitoring, safeguarding, and verifying Iran’s nuclear activities and in designing new military weapon systems for containment through the threat of force.

How much military force is enough to contain or deter? The scientists who believed in finite containment were generally reluctant, and even some were opposed, to advocating for more and more powerful weapons. As Gilpin examines in his book, the first major schism among the scientists was during the internal government debate in 1949 and 1950 about whether to develop the hydrogen bomb. In particular, the finite containment scientists on the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission assessed that “an American decision not to construct the hydrogen bomb would again symbolize the sincerity of America’s desire to end the atomic arms race.”

In contrast, the infinite containment school that included Edward Teller (who was instrumental in designing the hydrogen bomb), and Ernest Lawrence (who was a scientific leader during the Manhattan Project and was based at the University of California, Berkeley), “argued that control over nuclear weapons would only be possible in a completely open world such as that envisioned in the Baruch Plan. Under the conditions of modern science, the arms race would therefore be unavoidable until the political differences underlying that arms race were settled” in the words of Gilpin. Many of the infinite containment scientists were the strongest advocates for declassifying nuclear secrets as long as there were firm assurances that nations had joined together to prevent the use of nuclear energy for military purposes or that “peace-loving nations had a sufficient arsenal of atomic weapons [to] destroy the will of aggressive nations to wage war.” In effect, they were arguing for world government or for a coalition of allied nations to enforce world peace.

Readers will be reminded of many instances in which history has repeated itself as mirrored by the control, finite containment, and infinite containment ways of thought arising from the atomic scientists’ movement of the 1940s and 1950s. Despite the disagreements among these “schools,” a common belief is that the scientists “knew that technical breakthroughs rarely come unless one is looking for them and that if the best minds of the country were brought in to concentrate on the problem, someone would find a solution … if there were one to be found,” according to Gilpin. Gilpin also astutely recommended that “wisdom flourishes best and error is avoided most effectively in an atmosphere of intellectual give and take where scientists of opposed political persuasions are pitted against one another.” Finally, he uncovered a most effective technique for “bring[ing] about the integration of the technical and policy aspects of policy” through “the contracted study project … wherein experts from both inside and outside of the government meet together over a period of months to fashion policy suggestions in a broad area of national concern.”

This, in effect, is the new operational model for much of FAS’s work. We are forming study groups and task forces that include diverse groups of technical and policy experts from both inside and outside the government. Stay tuned to reports from FAS as these groups tackle urgent and important science-based national security problems.


Charles D. Ferguson, Ph.D.

President, Federation of American Scientists

Chinese Nuclear Missile Upgrade Near Dalian

dengshahe-3DBy Hans M. Kristensen

One of the last Chinese Second Artillery brigades with the old liquid-fuel DF-3A intermediate-range nuclear ballistic missile appears to have been upgraded to the newer DF-21 road-mobile, dual-capable, medium-range ballistic missile.

A new satellite image posted on Google Earth from May 4, 2014, reveals major changes to what appears to be a launch unit site for the Dengshahe brigade northeast of Dalian by the Yellow Sea.

The upgrade apparently marks the latest phase in a long and slow conversion of the Dengshahe brigade from the DF-3A to the DF-21.

The 810 Brigade base appears to be located approximately 60 km (36 miles) northeast of Dalian in the Liaoning province (see map below). The base is organized under 51 Base, one of six base headquarters organized under the Second Artillery Corps, the military service that operates the Chinese land-based nuclear and conventional missiles.  Continue reading

Nuclear Exercises Amidst Ukrainian Crisis: Time For Cooler Heads

A Russian Tu-95MS long-range bomber drops an AS-15 Kent nuclear-capable cruise missiles from its bomb bay on May 8th. Six AS-15s were dropped from the bomb bay that day as part of a Russian nuclear strike exercise.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Less than a week after Russia carried out a nuclear strike exercise, the United States has begun its own annual nuclear strike exercise.

The exercises conducted by the world’s two largest nuclear-armed states come in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, as NATO and Russia appear to slide back down into a tit-for-tat posturing not seen since the Cold War.

Military posturing in Russia and NATO threaten to worsen the crisis and return Europe to an “us-and-them” adversarial relationship.

One good thing: the crisis so far has demonstrated the uselessness of the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.  Continue reading

Russian ICBM Force Modernization: Arms Control Please!

Click image for larger version.

By Hans M. Kristensen

In our Nuclear Notebook on Russian nuclear forces from March this year, Robert S. Norris and I described the significant upgrade that’s underway in Russia’s force of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Over the next decade, all Soviet-era ICBMs will be retired and replaced with a smaller force consisting of mainly five variants of one missile: the SS-27.

After more than a decade-and-a-half of introduction, the number of SS-27s now makes up a third of the ICBM force. By 2016, SS-27s will make up more than half of the force, and by 2024 all the Soviet-era ICBMs will be gone.

The new force will be smaller and carry fewer nuclear warheads than the old, but a greater portion of the remaining warheads will be on missiles carried on mobile launchers.

The big unknowns are just how many SS-27s Russia plans to produce and deploy, and how many new (RS-26 and Sarmat “heavy”) ICBMs will be introduced. Without the new systems or increased production of the old, Russia’s ICBM force would probably level out just below 250 missiles by 2024. In comparison, the U.S. Air Force plans to retain 400 ICBMs.

This disparity and the existence of a large U.S. reserve of extra warheads that can be “uploaded” onto deployed missiles to increase the arsenal if necessary drive top-heavy ICBM planning in the Russian military which seeks to maximize the number of warheads on each missile to compensate for the disparity and keep some degree of overall parity with the United States.

This dilemma suggests the importance of reaching a new agreement to reduce the number deployed strategic warheads and missiles. A reduction of “up to one-third” of the current force, as recently endorsed by the new U.S. nuclear employment strategy, would be a win for both Russia and the United States. It would allow both countries to trim excess nuclear capacity and save billions of dollars in the process.  Continue reading

Nuclear Modernization Briefings at the NPT Conference in New York


By Hans M. Kristensen

Last week I was in New York to brief two panels at the Third Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (phew).

The first panel was on “Current Status of Rebuilding and Modernizing the United States Warheads and Nuclear Weapons Complex,” an NGO side event organized on May 1st by the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). While describing the U.S. programs, I got permission from the organizers to cover the modernization programs of all the nuclear-armed states. Quite a mouthful but it puts the U.S. efforts better in context and shows that nuclear weapon modernization is global challenge for the NPT.


The second panel was on “The Future of the B61: Perspectives From the United States and Europe.” This GNO side event was organized by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation on May 2nd. In my briefing I focused on providing factual information about the status and details of the B61 life-extension program, which more than a simple life-extension will produce the first guided, standoff nuclear bomb in the U.S. inventory, and significantly enhance NATO’s nuclear posture in Europe.


The two NGO side events were two of dozens organized by NGOs, in addition to the more official side events organized by governments and international organizations.

The 2014 PREPCOM is also the event where the United States last week disclosed that the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile has only shrunk by 309 warheads since 2009, far less than what many people had anticipated given Barack Obama’s speeches about “dramatic” and “bold” reductions and promises to “put an end to Cold War thinking.”

Yet in disclosing the size and history of its nuclear weapons stockpile and how many nuclear warheads have been dismantled each year, the United States has done something that no other nuclear-armed state has ever done, but all of them should do. Without such transparency, modernizations create mistrust, rumors, exaggerations, and worst-case planning that fuel larger-than-necessary defense spending and undermine everyone’s security.

For the 185 non-nuclear weapon states that have signed on to the NPT and renounced nuclear weapons in return of the promise made by the five nuclear-weapons states party to the treaty (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States) “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at early date and to nuclear disarmament,” endless modernization of the nuclear forces by those same five nuclear weapons-states obviously calls into question their intension to fulfill the promise they made 45 years ago. Some of the nuclear modernizations underway are officially described as intended to operate into the 2080s – further into the future than the NPT and the nuclear era have lasted so far.

Download two briefings listed above: briefing 1 | briefing 2

This publication was made possible by a grant from the Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

US Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Number Declassified: Only 309 Warheads Cut By Obama Administration

The Obama administration has yet to make a visible dent in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. Click on graph for larger format.

By Hans M. Kristensen

After a transparency hiatus of four years, the Obama administration has declassified the size of its nuclear weapons stockpile: 4,804 warheads as of September 2013.

The new stockpile size is 309 warheads fewer than the 5,113 warheads that the administration in 2010 reported were in the stockpile as of September 2009.

The new number of 4,804 warheads is 154 warheads more than Norris and I have in our latest Nuclear Notebook, in which we estimated a stockpile of 4,650 warheads. That estimate was, in part, based on the statement by Donald Cook, the NNSA administrator for defense programs, who in an email in February 2013 informed us that the reduction had been “approximately 85%” since 1967.

The new State Department announcement also mentions the “85 percent reduction,” although the 4,804 warheads actually correspond to a reduction of approximately 84 percent from the peak of 31,255 warheads in 1967.  We thought 154 additional warheads had been retired, but apparently that will take a little longer.

What the declassification does not include, unfortunately, is a number for how many retired warheads are awaiting dismantlement. That number includes “several thousand” warheads, according to the fact sheet; we estimate approximately 2,500. Continue reading

China SSBN Fleet Getting Ready – But For What?

jin-drydock_tnBy Hans M. Kristensen

China’s emerging fleet of 3-4 new Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines is getting ready to deploy on deterrent patrols, “probably before the end of 2014,” according to U.S. Pacific Command.

A new satellite image taken in October 2013 (above) shows a Jin SSBN in dry dock at the Bohai shipyard in Huludao. Two of the submarine’s 12 missile tubes are open. It is unclear if the submarine in the picture is the fourth boat or one of the first three Jin SSBNs that has returned to dry dock for repairs or maintenance.

The U.S. intelligence community predicts that “up to five [Jin-class (Type 094) SSBNs] may enter service before China proceeds to its generation SSBN (Type 096) over the next decade,” an indication that the noisy Jin-class design might already be seen as outdated.

This and numerous other commercial satellite images (see below) show how China over the past decade has built an infrastructure of naval facilities to service the new SSBN fleet. This includes upgrades at naval bases, submarine hull demagnetization facilities, underground facilities and high-bay buildings for missile storage and handling, and covered tunnels and railways to conceal the activities from prying eyes in the sky.

Apart from how many Jin SSBNs China will build, the big question is whether the Chinese government will choose to operate them the way Western nuclear-armed states have operated their SSBNs for decades – deployed continuously at sea with nuclear warheads on the ballistic missiles – or continue China’s long-held policy of not deploying nuclear weapons outside Chinese territory but keeping them in central storage for deployment in a crisis.  Continue reading

The B61 Family of Nuclear Bombs


By Hans M. Kristensen

Robert Norris and I have made an update to our Nuclear Notebook on the B61 nuclear bomb family. Kind of an arcane title but that cozy-feeling title is what the nuclear weapon designers call that half a dozen different types of B61 nuclear weapons that were derived from the original design.

And it’s kind of timely, because the Obama administration is about to give birth to the newest member of the B61 family: the B61-12. And this is a real golden baby estimated at about $10 billion.  Continue reading

B61-12 Nuclear Bomb Design Features

Click on image to download high-resolution version.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Additional design details of the new B61-12 guided standoff nuclear bomb are emerging with new images. The image above shows a full-scale B61-12 model hanging in a wind tunnel at Arnold Air Force Base.

The test “uncovered a previously uncharacterized physical phenomenon,” according to Sandia National Laboratories, that would affect weapons performance.

Apparently a reference to the interaction between weapons spin rocket motors and the new guided tail kit assembly. Existing B61 models do not have the guided tail kit and are less accurate than the B61-12. Continue reading

Is the Ukrainian Crisis Spiraling Out of Control?

Today’s news shows a heightened nuclear risk due to a dangerous feedback process at work in the Ukraine. The New York Times’ page 1 ominous headline was, “Striking Town, Ukraine Forces Defy Warning,” and the Wall Street Journal echoed the danger, “Ukraine Sends Troops East As Pro-Russia Forces Strike.” Is the Ukrainian crisis spiraling out of control, and if so, what might we do to reverse that dangerous process?

The debate has become paralyzed with the West focused on protecting the interim, pro-Western government and its primarily ethnic Ukrainian supporters, while Moscow’s concerns center on protecting ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. With the violence escalating on both sides in what is already a small civil war, the West and Russia each have legitimate concerns, but neither side is taking in the whole picture. Where are the calls for protecting the lives and the rights of both ethnic groups living in the Ukraine?

Continue reading