White House Announces (Secret) Nuclear Weapons Cuts

The W62 is the only nuclear warhead that has been publicly identified for elimination under the Bush administration’s secret nuclear stockpile reduction plan.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The While House announced earlier today that the President had “approved a significant reduction in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile to take effect by the end of 2007.” The decision reaffirmed an earlier decision from June 2004 to cut the stockpile “nearly 50 percent,” but moved the timeline up five years from 2012 to 2007.

Not included in the White House statement, but added by other government officials, is an additional decision to cut the remaining stockpile by another 15% percent, although not until 2012.

The announcement of these important initiatives unfortunately was hampered by Cold War secrecy which meant that government officials were not allowed to reveal how many nuclear weapons will be cut or what the size of the stockpile is. As a result, news media accounts were full of errors, and one can only imagine the misperceptions this misplaced secrecy creates in other nuclear weapon states.

Estimates of the Secret Cuts

Before the latest announcements, I and my colleague Robert Norris estimated that the stockpile consisted of approximately 9,900 warheads of which roughly 4,600 were operational. With the new announcements, we predict the following development:

The White House announcement reaffirms the 2004 decision to reduce the size of the Defense Department’s nuclear weapons stockpile “by nearly 50 percent from the 2001 level.” This objective was reaffirmed by the National Nuclear Security Administration in a press release earlier today. The DOD stockpile included roughly 10,500 warheads in 2001, which means that the 2004 stockpile plan probably envisioned a stockpile of some 5,400 warheads by 2012. It is this cut that the White House reaffirmed today, but implemented by the end of 2007 instead of 2012.

The additional 15 percent reduction announced today and confirmed by the White House would cut approximately 800 warheads more from the 5,400, resulting in an estimated stockpile of roughly 4,600 warheads by 2012.

At that time the SORT agreement signed with Russian in 2002 is scheduled to enter into effect, setting an upper limit of no more than 2,200 operationally deployed strategic warheads. The remaining 2,400 warheads will likely include 2,000 reserve warheads to “hedge” against unforseen political developments and 400 non-strategic bombs.

Estimated U.S. Nuclear Weapons Stockpile 1945-2012

The Bush administration’s planned reduction of the nuclear stockpile is significant but modest compared to the cuts in the 1990s, and will leave a stockpile that is four times larger than the combined arsenals of all other nuclear weapon states (excluding Russia).

What Doesn’t Change

The White House’s announcement to implement the 2004 stockpile plan in 2007 does not mean that the “cut” warheads will have been dismantled by then – far from it. In fact, the decision to reduce the stockpile does not in itself result in the destruction of a single warhead. “Reducing” the stockpile by nearly half is a form of nuclear book keeping that means that ownership of the “cut” warheads will shift from DOD to DOE.

But DOE doesn’t have storage capacity for all of these weapons at its facility at Pantex. That factory is busy rebuilding the warheads slated to remain in the “enduring stockpile” beyond 2012. As a result, dismantlement of the backlog of warheads from the current reductions is not scheduled to be completed until 2023, more than a decade-and-a-half after today’s White House announcement to speed things up. Indeed, the current administration has demonstrated the lowest warhead dismantlement rate of any U.S. government since the Eisenhower administration.

So for now, most of the “cut” warheads will likely remain at the bases where they are and only gradually be moved to the central warhead storage locations such as Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. The only known timeline for this move is 2012, by which time no more than 2,200 strategic warheads can remain at bases for operational delivery platforms according to the SORT agreement.


The While House statement highlights that “the U.S. nuclear stockpile will be less than one-quarter its size at the end of the Cold War” [1991, ed.]. But the stockpile the administration plans for 2012 is large by post-Cold War standards:

* Four times the combined number of nuclear weapons of all the world’s nuclear weapons states, excluding Russia.
* Almost half of the stockpile – a maximum of 2,200 warheads – will be operational, and a third of those (more than 850) will be on alert.
* More than 10 times bigger than in 1950, when the United States decided to contain the Soviet Union.

Although the White House says the planned reductions seek to “reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons,” the statement not only reaffirms that “a credible deterrent remains an essential part of U.S. national security,” but also declares that “nuclear forces remain key to meeting emerging security challenges.”

In the weeks ahead, we will fine-tune this estimate further.

More background: Estimates of the U.S. Nuclear Stockpile Today and Tomorrow | Estimates of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Stockpile, 2007 and 2012

5 thoughts on “White House Announces (Secret) Nuclear Weapons Cuts

  1. Daryl Kimball: Excellent observations. But there is even less than meets the eye. You forgot to mention that one other thing that does not change is the overall number of deployed nuclear warheads. Yesterday’s announcement will not alter the Bush policy of deploying about 3,500 strategic warheads by 2007.

    What is also being left unsaid is that the administration continues to resist some pretty sensible Russian proposals to replace START I (which expires at the end of 2009) with a new treaty that would reduce U.S. and Russian stockpiles to levels below the Moscow Treaty of 2002 (1700-2200 strategic deployed warheads) and put them under agreed counting and verification rules. At present the two sides cannot agree to basic terms on a follow on agreement.

    Reply: Good points. I am struck by the administration’s apparent lack of efforts to use reductions as incentives to engage the other nuclear powers. It is as if our posture planning and nonproliferation policy run on two different tracks. HK

  2. Jean-Marie Collin: I will wish to know if this reduction of the American nuclear arsenals announced by President Bush, will increase and accelerate the dismantling of the nuclear weapons stationed in Europe?

    Do you think that we could have at the end of this year an official confirmation of the total denuclearization of the Ramstein base ?

    Indeed by looking at your tables of the U.S. Nuclear Stockpile Today and Tomorrow, we can see that the standard bombs B61-3, -7, and -11 are strongly decreasing. [edited]

    Reply: No, the announcement does not affect the several hundred nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. The stockpile reduction deals with inactive weapons that have been offloaded from delivery platform, but does not affect deployed weapons.

    As for Ramstein Air Base, I don’t excpect anyone official comments about the situation. In fact, even the Air Force document that revealed the change has now been updated and the relevant information deleted. HK

  3. Frank: Just curious. Do you think the 15% reduction; the 800 additional warheads being withdrawn from “the inventory” are the B-61s in Europe? The numbers seem to match….

    Reply: That’s an interesting thought, but the ~800 number is more than double the number deployed in Europe.

    I think the 800 is an additional reduction that the administration sliced from a number of different reserve warhead types in order to be able to announce implementation of the 2004 decision by the end of 2007. Some of the warheads affected by the 2004 decision are still in the process of being retired, so they will go a little later as expressed by the extra 15% by 2012.

    The reason for making this announcement now probably is to sweeten the nuclear weapons Complex Transformation plan (which was released at the same time as the White House statement on the cuts). Another motivation might be an attempt on the part of the administration to improve its position in lieu of Congress’ demand for a new nuclear posture review. HK

  4. I am a student writing an essay on whether nuclear weapons will continue to be an dominant element in international relations considerations in the future. Some texts I have read that the significant reduction in overall worldwide stockpile show promise that, given time, nuclear weapons will no longer be a dominant force to be reckoned with in international diplomatic relations. I was wondering what your take on this is considering the fact that the two countries with the largest stockpiles seem to constantly be discussing nuclear partial or full disarmament?

    Reply: The number of nuclear weapons was only one of the factors that determined their importance during the Cold War. Policies and limited conventional capabilities were others. All of those factors have change considerably during the past 20 years, but not to the point that I see nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future “no longer be a dominant force to be reckoned with” in international relations.

    For sure, nuclear weapons are likely to play a very different and much diminished role compared with the Cold War. But the Cold War was a very different era and is, I believe, increasingly inappropriate to compare with when analyzing the role of nuclear weapons today. Diplomats from the nuclear weapons love to compare with the Cold War when fending off criticism that they’re are doing too little for nuclear disarmament. “Oh, we only have x percent of the nuclear weapons left compared with the Cold War, and their role is much reduced.”

    Well, that’s the least one should expect. But 20 years after the Cold War ended, such a comparison is no longer relevant. What is relevant now is what the role of nuclear weapons will be in the future. That role (or those roles) will be determined by today’s and tomorrow’s security environment. And all of the nuclear weapon states are busy defining that role and modernizing their remaining forces to fulfill it. All of the nuclear weapon states continue to insist that nuclear weapons are essential to their national security interests. None of nuclear weapon states have presented any plans for relinquishing nuclear weapons nor are they pushing for multilateral steps to accomplish that. At best, they may say they support the idea, but all diplomats are quick to add that that of course is a future goal and not very realistic today.

    So the challenges are to ensure that a post-Cold War role for nuclear weapons is not allowed to mature – to settle in the long haul, that nuclear forces continue to be cut back, that modernization is limited, and that the international pressure on the nuclear weapon states to curtail the salience of nuclear weapons continues.

    But if this process moves forward, a perhaps even more daunting challenge looms on the horizon: what should be the role of nonnuclear forces in international relations? Is is realistic to have national security strategies that are based on threatening potential adversaries and then expect them to give up nuclear weapons? HK

  5. “Indeed, the current administration has demonstrated the lowest warhead dismantlement rate of any U.S. government since the Eisenhower administration.”

    A statistic that can be laid substantially at the feet of Congressman David Hobson (D, OH) for bottling up funds which would have otherwise built the necessary facilities for processing nuclear warheads over a number of years.

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