United States Reaches Moscow Treaty Warhead Limit Early

B83 thermonuclear bombs are offloaded from a C-17 aircraft for storage in preparation for meeting the limit of the Moscow Treaty three and a half years early.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The United States has reduced its deployed strategic warheads to the maximum number allowed under 2002 Moscow Treaty, three and a half years early.

As of today, a total of 2,200 strategic warheads are deployed on ballistic missiles and at long-range bomber bases. The reduction was initially planned to be met in 2012, then 2010, but was achieved a few days ago.

The information is described in the forthcoming “Nuclear Notebook: U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2009,” which I co-author with Robert Norris from Natural Resources Defense Council. The article will be published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists later this month.

Warhead Number Confusion

We obtained the information from the U.S. government. While the number of operationally deployed strategic warheads is not classified the total number of weapons in the U.S. inventory is a closely held secret. The government also keeps secret how many warheads are held in reserve as well as the number of warheads dismantled each year.

As a result, there is considerable confusion in the public about the size and categories of U.S. nuclear weapons. One recent Associated Press report, for example, said the “American stockpile is believed to be about 2,300,” a number that is now being repeated by news media across the globe.

The stockpile number is not correct. Norris and I estimate that the U.S. “stockpile” currently includes approximately 5,200 warheads, of which only about half are deployed. This includes about 2,200 strategic and 500 tactical warheads (including 200 in Europe). Moreover, an additional roughly 4,200 intact warheads are no longer in the DOD Stockpile but awaiting dismantlement. All included, the United States is estimated to possess approximately 9,400 warheads in all categories (see table).


The “operationally deployed strategic warheads” is a special counting rule the United States uses under the Moscow Treaty. It does not count hundreds of warheads in storage at the Navy’s two missile submarine bases and the Air Forces’ three ballistic missile bases. Russia, which does not use this counting rule and does not release its warhead count, is estimated to have approximately 2,700 operational strategic warheads.

Reductions But What Kind?

The “real” numbers are important at a time when the United States and Russia are discussing if and how to extend the 1991 START agreement, which expires later this year, and whether to reduce further the number of nuclear warheads.

The news media has recently reported that the Obama administration might seek to cut the “stockpile” by 80 percent, and quoted an anonymous official saying “nobody would be surprised if the number reduced to the 1,000 mark for the post-Start treaty.”

It matters a great deal whether the cut will be of the total stockpile or just the “operationally deployed strategic warheads.” An 80 percent cut in the 5,200-warhead stockpile corresponds to approximately 1,000 warheads. A reduction of the START number limit (6,000 warheads) by 80 percent would leave about 1,200 warheads. Cutting the SORT limit (2,200 warheads) to 1,000 would be a reduction of about 54 percent.

If the total stockpile were reduced to 1,000 warheads, only a portion of them would presumably be deployed. Using the current ratio (52 percent) that would mean only 520 of the 1,000 warheads would be deployed with the balance in reserve. The entire ICBM force today carries about 520 warheads, but it is doubtful that a Triad could be justified with so few operational warheads. There are some hard choices ahead about which leg to cut.

4 thoughts on “United States Reaches Moscow Treaty Warhead Limit Early

  1. Why would anyone have 9,400 warheads? Is it possible to see a breakdown of the warheads in the sense of their capability, low yield tactical and high yield missile warheads. Even if you keep 2,000 bombs for Russia and 1,000 bombs for China you have a lot of bombs left. Why is Europe unable to influence the US to reduce the numbers? What does FAS do in this regard?

    Reply: The 9,400 warheads are mostly what’s left over from the Cold War. Half of those are on their way to the dismantlement plan at Pantex in Texas and are not for military use any longer. The yield breakdown is as follows:

    B61-3/4/10: 0.3-170 kilotons
    B61-7: 10-360 kilotons
    B61-11: 400 kilotons
    B62: 170 kilotons
    W76: 100 kilotons
    W78: 335 kilotons
    B80-0/1: 5-150 kilotons
    B83: low to 1,200 kilotons
    W87: 310 kilotons
    W88: 455 kilotons

    Even “2,000 bombs for Russia and 1,000 bombs for China” you suggest is higher than today’s planning. Of the 2,200 operationally deployed strategic warheads “only” about 1,000 are on alert and ready to use on short notice. The trend is toward lower numbers still.

    Except for a couple of countries, Europe has largely refrained from pressuring the nuclear powers to go to lower numbers. They have repeated in public that they would like reductions, but there has been very little government-to-government pressure since 2001. There has been no serious political cost associated with retaining large inventories of nuclear weapons. Other issues have been seen as more important.

    FAS’s mission is to keep the public informed about the status and trends of nuclear forces and policy. We do that in the form of publishing analysis such as this blog, brief governments, institutes, and NGOs, and assist the news media with facts when they write about nuclear weapons issues. HK

  2. I am anxiously awaiting your article to be published later this month, in particular “the information” you obtained from the US government. I am a bit surprised that the US achieved its reduction to that level so fast given the US previous public briefing.

    When Mr. D’Agostino made a briefing at the Conference on Disarmament in February 2008, he said that the US at the time had “fewer than 3800 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads in the current stockpile”.

    At the same time, he said that “the US completed reductions originally slated for 2012 by the end of 2007.”

    At that time, I understood from this briefing that the US completed its reduction of the “stockpile”, which was ordered by President Bush in 2004 to “reduce the stockpile nearly 50 percent by 2012”.

    This understanding was based on Mr. D’Agostino’s explanation that the US reduction of its “operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads” will be completed by December 2012, although he did not say the completion may not happen before that. So there is a possibility of completing its reduction of “operationally deployed warheads” much earlier.

    As far as I understood, there were two kinds of reductions the US was going to achieve by 2012, the stockpile (by half) and the operationally deployed warheads (to 1700-2200). I assumed that the former was achieved 5 years earlier than originally scheduled, and the latter by 2012 (possibly before that year) .

    In any case, I am quite surprised that the US achieved its reduction of its “operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads” so fast given that only a year ago the US had around 3800 operationally warheads. Of course, it is possible as this kind of “reduction” can be done fairly quickly.

    Reply: The forthcoming Notebook will not identify the sources any more than the blog did. It will describe the force structure in greater detail.

    I am impressed of the progress too. But D’Agostino’s statement in February was actually outdated because his number, although technically correct, used the 3,696 operationally deployed strategic warheads as of December 31, 2006, from the 2007 Annual Report on Implementation of the Moscow Treaty rather than the 2,871 operationally deployed strategic warheads as of December 31, 2007, which was declared in the 2008 Annual Report on Implementation of the Moscow Treaty published three months after D’Agostino’s speech to the Conference on Disarmament.

    So as you can see, they offloaded 825 warheads in 2007 to get to 2,871 warheads, and only had to offload another 671 warheads to get to the SORT limit – well within the realm of possibility. So in only two years, the United States removed more nuclear warheads than the combined total nuclear arsenals of China, France, United Kingdom, Israel, India and Pakistan.

    Why this positive achievement has generated so little interest in the news media is beyond me. I guess it’s true what they say: good news is just not news! HK

  3. Have you some information about Russia and the Moscow Treaty?

    Reply: Unlike the United States, Russia doesn’t publish its number of deployed warheads. One reason is that Russia doesn’t count “operationally deployed strategic warheads” the way the U.S. does (which excludes wrheads for two SSBNs and all warheads that are not on missiles or bomber bases). Another reason is Russian secrecy. All we get is the bi-annual START Memorandum of Understanding, in which weapons are declared the way the treaty counts them. That count does not consider whether the weapons are operational. As a result, missile tubes on submarines are still counted even though the submarine has been retired, and bombers are counted with maximum load even though they may not have that anymore. My estimate is that Russia current has approximately 2,800 deployed strategic warheads, and the Nuclear Notebook scheduled for the May issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will describe the Russian posture in detail. HK

  4. Could you please clarify some definitions for me so that I can better help my students understand your “Status of World Nuclear Forces 2009” chart? What is the difference between “strategic” “non-strategic” and “operational” warheads? Thank you so much.

    Reply: Strategic and non-strategic are terms from the Cold War we used to differentiate between long-range weapons intended for use against the Soviet Union’s territory. Non-strategic, or tactical, were terms used to describe short-range weapons that would be used against other military forces in the battlefield. The Soviet Union and the potential nuclear battlefields have disappeared, but the names still stick to some extent. In reality, all nuclear weapons should be considered strategic today because any use – no matter what the range – would be strategic.

    Operational warheads include those warheads that are deployed on missiles and bombers, or with the military units that would use them if so ordered. The United States also describes a sub-category of operational warheads, which they call “operationally deployed” warheads, which only includes those warheads that are deployed on missiles onboard the submarines or in the ICBM silos, as well as bomber weapons present on bases where there are operational bombers. Warheads that are present on submarine bases or ICBM bases but not loaded on the missiles are not counted as operationally deployed. Likewise, fully intact bombs that are in storage outside bomber bases are not counted as operationally deployed. Russia doesn’t make this distinction and in fact doesn’t say much about its weapons categories. HK

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