It’s a funny thing: the administrations that talk the most about reducing nuclear weapons tend to reduce the least.
Analysis of the history of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile shows that the Obama administration so far has had the least effect on the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile of any of the post-Cold War presidencies.
In fact, in terms of warhead numbers, the Obama administration so far has cut the least warheads from the stockpile of any administration ever.
I have previously described how Republican presidents historically – at least in the post-Cold War era – have been the biggest nuclear disarmers, in terms of warheads retired from the Pentagon’s nuclear warhead stockpile.
Additional analysis of the stockpile numbers declassified and published by the Obama administration reveals some interesting and sometimes surprising facts.
What went wrong? The Obama administration has recently taken a beating for its nuclear modernization efforts, so what can President Obama do in his remaining two years in office to improve his nuclear legacy? Continue reading →
The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Council has selected the W80-1 thermonuclear warhead for the Air Force’s new nuclear cruise missile (Long-Range Standoff, LRSO) scheduled for deployment in 2027.
The W80-1 warhead is currently used on the Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), but will be modified during a life-extension program and de-deployed with a new name: W80-4.
Under current plans, the ALCM will be retired in the mid-2020s and replaced with the more advanced LRSO, possibly starting in 2027.
The enormous cost of the program – $10-20 billion by some estimates – is robbing defense planners of resources needed for more important non-nuclear capabilities.
Even though the United States has thousands of nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles and is building a new penetrating bomber to deliver nuclear bombs, STRATCOM and Air Force leaders are arguing that a new nuclear cruise missile is needed as well.
But their description of the LRSO mission sounds a lot like old-fashioned nuclear warfighting that will add new military capabilities to the arsenal in conflict with the administration’s promise not to do so and reduce the role of nuclear weapons. Continue reading →
Three and a half years after the New START Treaty entered into force in February 2011, many would probably expect that the United States and Russia had decisively reduced their deployed strategic nuclear weapons.
Russia has increased its deployed weapons the most: by 131 warheads on 23 additional launchers. Russia, who went below the treaty limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads in 2013, is now back above the limit by 93 warheads. And Russia is now counted – get this – as having more strategic warheads deployed than when the treaty first went into force in February 2011!
Before arms control opponents in Congress get their banners out, however, it is important to remind that these changes do not reflect a build-up the Russian nuclear arsenal. The increase results from the deployment of new missiles and fluctuations caused by existing launchers moving in and out of overhaul. Hundreds of Russian missiles will be retired over the next decade. The size of the Russian arsenals will most likely continue to decrease over the next decade.
Nonetheless, the data is disappointing for both nuclear superpowers – almost embarrassing – because it shows that neither has made substantial reductions in its deployed nuclear arsenal since the New START Treaty entered into force in 2011.
The meager performance is risky in the run-up to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in April 2015 where the United States and Russia – together with China, Britain, and France – must demonstrate their progress toward nuclear disarmament to ensure the support of the other countries that have signed the NPT in strengthening the non-proliferation treaty regime. Continue reading →
A critical assessment of the feasibility of reaching the Department of Defense’s goal of producing 80 plutonium pits (or triggers) for nuclear weapons was prepared by the Congressional Research Service. It provides new analysis of the space and material requirements needed to achieve the declared goal. See Manufacturing Nuclear Weapon “Pits”: A Decisionmaking Approach for Congress, August 15, 2014.
Other new or updated CRS reports obtained by Secrecy News include the following.
“The United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.”
The Russian violation of the INF is, if true, a very serious matter and Russia must immediately restore its compliance with the Treaty in a transparent and verifiable manner.
Rumors about a violation have swirled around Washington (and elsewhere) for a long time. Apparently, the GLCM was first launched in 2007 (see image to the left), so why the long wait?
The official accusation it is likely to stir up calls for the United States to abandon the INF Treaty and other arms control efforts. Doing so would be a serious mistake that would undercut benefits from existing and possible future agreements. Instead the United States should continue to adhere to the treaty, work with the international community to restore Russian compliance, and pursue additional measures to reduce nuclear dangers worldwide. Continue reading →
In December 1963, a shipment of U.S. nuclear bombs arrived at Ghedi Torre Air Base in northern Italy. Today, half a century later, the U.S. Air Force still deploys nuclear bombs at the base.
The U.S.-Italian nuclear collaboration was celebrated at the base in January. A placard credited the nuclear “NATO mission” at Ghedi with having “protected the free nations of the world….”
That might have been the case during the Cold War when NATO was faced with an imminent threat from the Soviet Union. But half of the nuclear tenure at Ghedi has been after the end of the Cold War with no imminent threat that requires forward deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe.
Instead, the nuclear NATO mission now appears to be a financial and political burden to NATO that robs its armed forces of money and time better spent on non-nuclear missions, muddles NATO’s nuclear arms control message, and provides fake reassurance to eastern NATO allies. Continue reading →
There is little new on the nuclear weapons front in the 2014 update, however, which describes slow development of previously reported weapons programs. This includes construction of a handful of ballistic missile submarines; the first of which the DOD predicts will begin to sail on deterrent patrols later this year.
It also includes the gradual phase-out of the old DF-3A liquid-fuel ballistic missile and the apparent – and surprising – stalling of the new DF-31 ICBM program.
Like all the other nuclear-armed states, China is modernizing its nuclear forces. China earns the dubious medal (although not in the DOD report) of being the only nuclear weapons state party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that is increasing it nuclear arsenal. Far from a build-up, however, the modernization is a modest increase focused on ensuring the survivability of a secure retaliatory strike capability (see here for China’s nuclear arsenal compared with other nuclear powers).
The report continues the Obama administration’s don’t-show-missile-numbers policy. Up until 2010, the annual DOD reports included a table overview of the composition of the Chinese missile force. But the overview gradually became less specific in until it was completed removed from the reports in 2013.
The policy undercuts the administration’s position that China should be more transparent about its military modernization by indirectly assisting Chinese government secrecy.
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 →
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 →
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 →