Pentagon Portrays Nuclear Modernization As Response to Russia

By Hans M. Kristensen

The final defense budget of the Obama administration effectively crowns this administration as the nuclear modernization leader of post-Cold War U.S. presidencies.

While official statements so far have mainly justified the massive nuclear modernization as simply extending the service-life of existing capabilities, the Pentagon now explicitly paints the nuclear modernization as a direct response to Russia:

PB 2017 Adjusts to Strategic Change. Today’s security environment is dramatically different from the one the department has been engaged with for the last 25 years, and it requires new ways of thinking and new ways of acting. This security environment is driving the focus of the Defense Department’s planning and budgeting.

[…]

Russia. The budget enables the department to take a strong, balanced approach to respond to Russia’s aggression in Eastern Europe.

  • We are countering Russia’s aggressive policies through investments in a broad range of capabilities. The FY 2017 budget request will allow us to modify and expand air defense systems, develop new unmanned systems, design a new long-range bomber and a new long-range stand-off cruise missile, and modernize our nuclear arsenal.
[…]

The cost for the new long-range bomber (LRS-B) is still secret but will likely total over 100 billion. But the new budget contains out-year numbers for the new cruise missile (LRSO) that show a significant increase in funding in 2018 and 2019. More than $4.6 billion is projected through 2021:

LRSO2015-2021

The total life-cycle cost of the new cruise missile may be as high as $30 billion. Excessive and expensive nuclear modernization programs in the budget threaten funding of more important non-nuclear defense programs.

The Pentagon and defense contractors say the LRSO is needed to replace the existing aging air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) to shoot holes in enemy air defenses, fight limited nuclear wars, and because Russia has nuclear cruise missiles. The claims recycle Cold War justifications and ignore the effectiveness of other military forces in deterring and defeating potential adversaries.

Last year Defense Secretary Carter promised NATO’s response to Russia would not use the “Cold War playbook” of large American forces stationed in Europe.

But other pages in the Cold War playbook – including those relating to nuclear forces – appear to have been studied well with growing nuclear bomber integration in Europe, revival of escalation scenarios and contingency planning, development of a new bomber and a cruise missiles, and deployment of guided nuclear bombs on stealth fighters in Europe within the next decade.

Russia – after having triggered a revival of NATO with its invasion of Ukraine, large-scale exercises, and overt nuclear threats – is likely to respond to NATO’s military posturing by beefing up its own operations. Russian officials quickly reacted to NATO’s latest announcement to boost military forces in Eastern Europe by pledging to improve its conventional and nuclear forces further.

It is obvious what’s happening here. The issue is not who’s to blame or who started it. The challenge is how to prevent that the actions each side take in what they consider justified responses to the other side’s aggression do not escalate further into a new round of Cold War.

The explicit inclusion of nuclear forces in the tit-for-tat posturing is another worrisome sign that the escalation has already started.

RAND Report Questions Nuclear Role In Defending Baltic States

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Click to access RAND report.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The RAND Corporation has published an interesting new report on how NATO would defend the Baltic States against a Russian attack.

Without spending much time explaining why Russia would launch a military attack against the Baltic States in the first place – the report simply declares “the next [after Ukraine] most likely targets for an attempted Russian coercion are the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania” – the report contains some surprising (to some) observations about the limitations of nuclear weapons in the real world (by that I mean not in the heads of strategists and theorists).

The central nuclear observation of the report is that NATO nuclear forces do not have much credibility in protecting the Baltic States against a Russian attack.

That conclusion is, to say the least, interesting given the extent to which some analysts and former/current officials have been arguing that NATO/US need to have more/better limited regional nuclear options to counter Russia in Europe.

The report is very timely because the NATO Summit in Warsaw in six months will decide on additional responses to Russian aggression. Unfortunately, some of the decisions might increase the role or readiness of nuclear weapons in Europe.  Continue reading

Declassified: US Nuclear Weapons At Sea

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ASROC nuclear test, 1962

By Hans M. Kristensen

Remember during the Cold War when US Navy warships and attack submarines sailed the World’s oceans bristling with nuclear weapons and routinely violated non-nuclear countries’ bans against nuclear weapons on their territories in peacetime?

The weapons were onboard ballistic missile submarines, attack submarines, aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, frigates and supply ships. The weapons were brought along on naval exercises, spy missions, freedom of navigation demonstrations and port visits.

Sometimes the vessels they were on collided, ran aground, caught fire, or sank.

Not many remember today. But now the Pentagon has declassified how many nuclear weapons they actually deployed in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean. In our latest FAS Nuclear Notebook published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists we review this unique new set of de-classified Cold War nuclear history.  Continue reading

Video Shows Earth-Penetrating Capability of B61-12 Nuclear Bomb

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Click image to view full size

By Hans M. Kristensen and Matthew McKinzie*

The capability of the new B61-12 nuclear bomb seems to continue to expand, from a simple life-extension of an existing bomb, to the first U.S. guided nuclear gravity bomb, to a nuclear earth-penetrator with increased accuracy.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) previously published pictures of the drop test from October 2015 that showed the B61-12 hitting inside the target circle but without showing the bomb penetrating underground.

But a Sandia National Laboratories video made available by the New York Times shows the B61-12 penetrating completely underground. (A longer version of the video is available at the Los Alamos Study Group web site.)

Implication of Earth-Penetration Capability

The evidence that the B61-12 can penetrate below the surface has significant implications for the types of targets that can be held at risk with the bomb. A nuclear weapon that detonates after penetrating the earth more efficiently transmits its explosive energy to the ground, thus is more effective at destroying deeply buried targets for a given nuclear yield. A detonation above ground, in contrast, results in a larger fraction of the explosive energy bouncing off the surface. Two findings of the 2005 National Academies’ study Effects of Earth-Penetrator and other Weapons are key:

“The yield required of a nuclear weapon to destroy a hard and deeply buried target is reduced by a factor of 15 to 25 by enhanced ground-shock coupling if the weapon is detonated a few meters below the surface.”

And

“Nuclear earth-penetrator weapons (EPWs) with a depth of penetration of 3 meters capture most of the advantage associated with the coupling of ground shock.”

Given that the length of the B61-12 is about three-and-a-half meters, and that the Sandia video shows the bomb disappearing completely beneath the surface of the Nevada desert, it appears the B61-12 will be able to achieve enhanced ground-shock coupling against underground targets in soil. We know that the B61-12 is designed to have four selectable explosive yields: 0.3 kilotons (kt), 1.5 kt, 10 kt and 50 kt. Therefore, given the National Academies’ finding, the maximum destructive potential of the B61-12 against underground targets is equivalent to the capability of a surface-burst weapon with a yield of 750 kt to 1,250 kt.

One of the bombs the Pentagon plans to retire after the B61-12 is deployed is the B83-1, which has a maximum yield of 1,200 kt.

Even at the lowest selective yield setting of only 0.3 kt, the ground-shock coupling of a B61-12 exploding a few meters underground would be equivalent to a surface-burst weapon with a yield of 4.5 kt to 7.5 kt.  Continue reading

North Korea’s Fourth Nuclear Test: What Does it Mean?

PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA - MARCH 26: A North Korean soldier looks through binoculars to survey across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas March 26 2003 at Panmunjom, South Korea. North Korea pulled out of regular military meetings with U.S.-led United Nations Command March 26, 2003. North Korea accuses the U.S. of preparing for an invasion by holding military exercises with the South Korean army. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

By Charles D. Ferguson

North Korea’s boast on January 5 about having detonated a “hydrogen bomb,” the colloquial name for a thermonuclear explosive, seems highly hyperbolic due to the relatively low estimated explosive yield, as inferred from the reported seismic magnitude of about 4.8 (a small- to moderately-sized event). More important, I think the Korean Central News Agency’s rationale for the test deserves attention and makes logical sense from North Korea’s perspective. That statement was: “This test is a measure for self-defense the D.P.R.K. has taken to firmly protect the sovereignty of the country and the vital right of the nation from the ever-growing nuclear threat and blackmail by the U.S.-led hostile forces and to reliably safeguard the peace on the Korean Peninsula and regional security.” (D.P.R.K. stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name for North Korea.)

Having been to North Korea twice (November 2000 and November 2011) and having talked to both political and technical people there, I believe that they are sincere when they say that they believe that the United States has a hostile policy toward their country. After all, the Korean War has yet to be officially ended with a peace treaty. The United States and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) conduct annual war games that have appeared threatening to the North while the United States and the ROK say that they perform these military exercises to be prepared to defend against or deter a potential war with North Korea. Clearly, there is more than enough fear on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean Peninsula.

Aside from posturing and signaling to the United States, South Korea, and Japan, a North Korean claim of a genuine hydrogen bomb (even if it is not yet ready for prime time) is cause for concern from a military standpoint because of the higher explosive yields from such weapons. But almost all of the recent news stories, experts’ analyses, and the statements from the White House and South Korea have discounted this claim.

How Does a Boosted Fission Bomb Work?

Instead, at best, the stories and articles suggest that North Korea may have tested a boosted fission device. Such a device would use a fission chain reaction of fissile material, such as plutonium or highly enriched uranium, to then fuse the heavy hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium, which would have been injected just before detonation into the hollow core of the bomb. While the fusion reaction does somewhat increase the explosive yield, the main purpose of this reaction is to release lots of neutrons that would then cause many additional fission reactions.

Does this mean that the explosive yield of the bomb would be dramatically increased due to these additional fission reactions? The answer is yes, if there was a comparable amount of fissile material, as in a non-boosted fission bomb. But the answer is no, if there was much less fissile material than in a non-boosted fission bomb. In both cases, the overall use of fissile material is much more efficient in a boosted device than in a non-boosted device in that a greater portion or percentage of fissile material is fissioned in a boosted device. This increased efficiency is also due to the fact that the additional neutrons are very high energy and will rapidly cause the additional fission reactions before the bomb blows itself apart within microseconds.

In the case where North Korea does not need to produce a much bigger explosive yield per bomb, but is content with low to moderate yields, it can make much more efficient use of its available fissile material (with a stockpile estimated at a dozen to a few dozen bombs’ worth of material) and have much lower weight bombs. This is the key to understanding why a boosted fission bomb is a serious military concern. It is more apt to fit on ballistic missiles. The lighter the payload (warhead), the farther a ballistic missile with a given amount of thrust can carry the bomb to a target.

From a Military Standpoint: Cause for Concern?

So, in my opinion, a boosted fission bomb is even more cause for immediate concern than a thermonuclear bomb. (A thermonuclear “hydrogen” bomb would have the additional technical complication of a fusion fuel stage ignited by a boosted fission bomb. If North Korea eventually develops a true thermonuclear bomb, this type of bomb could, with further development, also likely be made to fit on a ballistic missile.) A boosted fission bomb alone, however, would mean that North Korea is well on its way to making nuclear bombs that are small enough and lightweight enough to fit on ballistic missiles.

If true, North Korea would have nuclear weapons that would provide real military utility. North Korea would not need high yield nuclear explosives to pose a real military nuclear threat because cities such as Seoul and Tokyo cover wide areas and would thus be easy targets even with relatively inaccurate missiles. But the most important point is that the nuclear weapon has to be light enough to be carried by a missile for a long enough distance to reach these and other targets such as the United States by using a long-range missile. In contrast, if North Korea only had large size and heavy weight nuclear bombs, it would have significant difficulty in delivering such weapons to targets, unless it tried to smuggle these unwieldy bombs into South Korea or Japan.

Setting the Record Straight on Recent Reporting

Obviously, the uncertainty about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is considerable, and we may never fully find out what was really tested a few days ago, despite the planes that the U.S. has been flying near North Korea to detect any leakage of radioactive elements or other physical evidence from the test site.

Nonetheless, I think it is worthwhile to point out that some confusion has been afoot in several news stories. I have read in a number of press reports that there is doubt as to whether North Korea could produce the tritium that would be needed for a boosted fission device. In September of last year, David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini of the Institute for Science and International Security published a report that the 5 MWe gas-graphite reactor at Yongbyon is “not an ideal producer of isotopes, it can be used in this way.” They noted, “As part of the renovation of the reactor, North Korean technicians reportedly installed (or renovated) irradiation channels in the core. These channels would be used to make various types of isotopes, potentially for civilian or military purposes.”[1] They further observed that tritium could be produced in such irradiation channels, although there is not conclusive evidence of this production.

The New York Times further sowed some confusion by solely mentioning that tritium is used for boosting, but neglected to mention deuterium. The deuterium and tritium fusion reaction is the “easiest” fusion reaction to ignite while still very challenging to do.[2] The Times also gave the impression that boosting was just about increasing the explosive yield but did not discuss the important point about boosting the efficient use of fissile material so as to substantially decrease the overall weight of the bomb.

None other than Dr. Hans Bethe, leader of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project and a founder of FAS, stated in a May 28, 1952 memorandum that “by the middle of 1948, [Dr. Edward] Teller had invented the booster, in which a fission bomb initiates a thermonuclear reaction in a moderate volume of a mixture of T [tritium] and D [deuterium], … [and a test in Nevada] demonstrated the practical usefulness of the booster for small-diameter implosion weapons.”[3] Note that “small-diameter” in this context implies that this weapon would be suitable for ballistic missiles.

Just a day before the nuclear test, Joseph Bermudez published an essay for the non-governmental website 38 North (affiliated with the US-Korea Institute at the School for Advanced International Studies) about North Korea’s ballistic missile submarine program. He assessed: “Reports of a North Korean ‘ejection’ test of the Bukkeukseong-1 (Polaris-1, KN-11) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on December 21, 2015, appear to be supported by new commercial satellite imagery of the Sinpo South Shipyard. This imagery also indicates that despite reports of a failed test in late November 2015 North Korea is continuing to actively pursue its SLBM development program.”[4] A boosted fission device test (if such took place on January 5) would dovetail with the ballistic missile submarine program.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I will conclude by underscoring that the United States will have to work even harder to reassure allies such as Japan and South Korea. Early last year, I wrote a paper that describes how relatively easily South Korea could make nuclear weapons while urging that the United States needs to prevent this from happening. As Prof. Martin Hellman of Stanford University and a member of FAS’s Board of Experts has written in a recent blog: “As distasteful as the Kim Jong-un regime is, we need to learn how to live with it, rather than continue vainly trying to make it collapse. As Dr. [Siegfried] Hecker [former Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory] points out, that latter approach has given us an unstable nation with a nuclear arsenal. Insanity has been defined as repeating the same mistake over and over again, but expecting a different outcome. Isn’t it time we tried a new experiment?”

[1] David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, “Update on North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Site,” Institute for Science and International Security, Imagery Brief, September 15, 2015, http://www.isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/Update_on_North_Koreas_Yongbyon_Nuclear_Site_September15_2015_Final.pdf

[2] “Did North Korea Detonate a Hydrogen Bomb? Here’s What We Know,” New York Times, January 6, 2016.

[3] Hans A. Bethe, “Memorandum on the History of Thermonuclear Program,” May 28. 1952, (Assembled on 5/12/90 from 3 different versions by Chuck Hansen, Editor, Swords of Armageddon), available at http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/nuclear/bethe-52.htm

[4] Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., “North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Submarine Program: Full Steam Ahead,” 38 North, January 5, 2016, http://38north.org/2016/01/sinpo010516/

Forget LRSO; JASSM-ER Can Do The Job

By Hans M. Kristensen

Early next year the Obama administration, with eager backing from hardliners in Congress, is expected to commit the U.S. taxpayers to a bill of $20 billion to $30 billion for a new nuclear weapon the United States doesn’t need: the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) air-launched cruise missile.

The new nuclear cruise missile will not be able to threaten targets that cannot be threatened with other existing nuclear weapons. And the Air Force is fielding thousands of new conventional cruise missiles that provide all the standoff capability needed to keep bombers out of harms way, shoot holes in enemy air-defenses, and destroy fixed and mobile soft, medium and hard targets with high accuracy – the same missions defense officials say the LRSO is needed for.

But cool-headed thinking about defense needs and priorities has flown out the window. Instead the Obama administration appears to have been seduced (or sedated) by an army of lobbyists from the defense industry, nuclear laboratories, the Air Force, U.S. Strategic Command, defense hawks in Congressional committees, and academic Cold Warriors, who all have financial, institutional, career, or political interests in getting approval of the new nuclear cruise missile.

LRSO proponents argue for the new nuclear cruise missile as if we were back in the late-1970s when there were no long-range, highly accurate conventional cruise missiles. But that situation has changed so dramatically over the past three decades that advanced conventional weapons have now eroded the need for a nuclear cruise missile.

That reality presents President Obama with a unique opportunity: because the new nuclear cruise missile is redundant for deterrence and unnecessary for warfighting requirements, it is the first opportunity for the administration to do what the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review, 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, and 2013 Nuclear Employment Strategy all called for: use advanced conventional weapons to reduce the role of and reliance on nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy. Continue reading

General Cartwright Confirms B61-12 Bomb “Could Be More Useable”

By Hans M. Kristensen

General James Cartwright, the former commander of U.S. Strategic Command and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed in an interview with PBS Newshour that the increased accuracy of the new guided B61-12 nuclear bomb could make the weapon “more useable” to the president or national-security making process.

GEN. JAMES CARTWRIGHT (RET.), Former Commander, U.S. Strategic Command: If I can drive down the yield, drive down, therefore, the likelihood of fallout, et cetera, does that make it more usable in the eyes of some — some president or national security decision-making process? And the answer is, it likely could be more usable.

Cartwright’s confirmation follows General Norton Schwartz, the former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, who in 2014 assessed that the increased accuracy would have implications for how the military thinks about using the B61. “Without a doubt. Improved accuracy and lower yield is a desired military capability. Without a question,” he said.

In an article in 2011 I first described the potential effects the increased accuracy provided by the new guided tail kit and the option to select lower yields in nuclear strike could have for nuclear planning and the perception of how useable nuclear weapons are. I also discuss this in an interview on the PBS Newshour program.

In contrast to the enhanced military capabilities offered by the increased accuracy of the B61-12, and its potential impact on nuclear planning confirmed by generals Cartwright and Schwartz, it is U.S. nuclear policy that nuclear weapons “Life Extension Programs…will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities,” as stated in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report.

The effect of the B61-12 modernization will be most dramatic in Europe where less accurate older B61s are currently deployed at six bases in five countries for delivery by older aircraft. The first B61-12 is scheduled to roll off the assembly line in 2020 and enter the stockpile in 2024 after which some of the estimated 480 bombs to be built and, under current policy, would be deployed to Europe for deliver by the new F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation fighter-bomber and (for a while) older aircraft.

For background information, see:

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.

LRSO: The Nuclear Cruise Missile Mission

By Hans M. Kristensen

[Updated January 26, 2016] In an op-ed in the Washington Post, William Perry and Andy Weber last week called for canceling the Air Force’s new nuclear air-launched cruise missile.

The op-ed challenged what many see as an important component of the modernization of the U.S. nuclear triad of strategic weapons and a central element of U.S. nuclear strategy.

The recommendation to cancel the new cruise missile – known as the LRSO for Long-Range Standoff weapon – is all the more noteworthy because it comes from William Perry, known to some as “ALCM Bill,” who was secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997, and as President Carter’s undersecretary of defense for research and engineering in the late-1970s and early-1980s was in charge of developing the nuclear air-launched cruise missile the LRSO is intended to replace.

And his co-author, Andy Weber, was assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs from 2009 to 2014, during which he served as director of the Nuclear Weapons Council for five-plus years – the very time period the plans to build the LRSO emerged [note: the need to replace the ALCM was decided by DOD during the Bush administration in 2007].

Obviously, Perry and Weber are not impressed by the arguments presented by the Air Force, STRATCOM, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the nuclear laboratories, defense hawks in Congress, and an army or former defense officials and contractors for why the United States should spend $15 billion to $20 billion on a new nuclear cruise missile.

Those arguments seem to have evolved very little since the 1970s. A survey of statements made by defense officials over the past few years for why the LRSO is needed reveals a concoction of justifications ranging from good-old warfighting scenarios of using nuclear weapons to blast holes in enemy air defenses to “the old missile is getting old, therefore we need a new one.”  Continue reading

US Drops Below New START Warhead Limit For The First Time

By Hans M. Kristensen

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.

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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

Upgrades At US Nuclear Bases In Europe Acknowledge Security Risk

By Hans M. Kristensen

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.

Security challenges at Incirlik AB are unique in NATO’s nuclear posture because the base is located only 110 kilometers (68 miles) from war-torn Syria and because of an ongoing armed conflict within Turkey between the Turkish authorities and Kurdish militants. The wisdom of deploying NATO’s largest nuclear weapons stockpile in such a volatile region seems questionable. (UPDATE: Pentagon orders “voluntary departure” of 900 family members of U.S. personnel stationed at Incirlik.) Continue reading