Nuclear Studies and Republican Disarmers

Despite an outcry from congressional republicans and conservatives against the Obama administration’s plans to reduce nuclear weapons, Republican presidents have been the big disarmers in the post-Cold War era.                                        Click graph for larger version

By Hans M. Kristensen

A recent report by the Associated Press that the administration is considering deep cuts in U.S. nuclear forces has Congressional Republicans and frequent critics of nuclear reductions up in arms.

The AP report quoted “a former government official and a congressional staffer” saying the administration is studying options for the next round of arms control talk with Russia that envision reducing the number of deployed strategic warheads to 1,000-1,100, 700-800, and 300-400.

Congressional Republicans and right-wing institutions have criticized the administration for preparing reckless unilateral cuts that jeopardize U.S. security.

As it turns out, Republican presidents have been the biggest nuclear reducers in the post-Cold War era. Republican presidents seem to have a thing for 50 percent nuclear reductions.

During the George H.W. Bush presidency from 1989-1993, the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile was cut by nearly 50 percent from 22,217 to 11,511 warheads. The number of deployed strategic warheads dropped from 12,300 to 7,114, or 42 percent, during the same period.

Likewise, during the George W. Bush presidency from 2001-2009, the stockpile was cut by nearly 50 percent from 10,526 to 5,113 warheads. The number of deployed strategic warheads was cut by 65 percent from 5,668 to 1,968 warheads.

A reduction to 1,000-1,100 would be about 30 percent below the New START treaty limit, a drop similar to the 30 percent reduction between the New START treaty and the Moscow Treaty ceiling of 2,200 warheads. A reduction to 300-400 would be a reduction of approximately 77 percent – right up there with the Bush cuts of the past two decades.

Those Bushies must have been reckless liberals in disguise.

Outside Congress, conservative institutions and analysts rally against the administration’s nuclear review saying it’s done in the wrong way, no one will follow, and the U.S. is not modernizing its nuclear forces like other nuclear powers.

A Heritage Foundation blog post mischaracterizes the reduced force levels being studied as “unilateral” cuts and says “there is ample historical evidence” that unilateral reductions will not cause other nuclear powers to follow.

But while there may be no guarantee that other nuclear powers will follow, there certainly is ample historical evidence that they have done so in the past. The unilateral presidential initiative by president George H.W. Bush in 1991 canceled nuclear modernizations, withdrew nonstrategic nuclear weapons from overseas locations and the fleet, retired strategic weapon systems, and stood down bombers from alert with nuclear weapons onboard. The Soviet Union and later Russia followed with significant reductions of their own – reductions that directly benefitted U.S. national security and that of its allies. Britain and France later followed with their own unilateral reductions.

Although I don’t think the current review is about unilateral reductions but about developing potential options for the next round of negotiations with Russia, unilateral initiatives can jumpstart a process by cutting through the fog of naysayers.

The Heritage blog also mischaracterizes the United States as “the only country without a substantial nuclear weapons modernization program.” That’s quite a stretch given that the U.S. has recently converted four SSBNs to carry the Trident II D5 SLBM, has just finished modernizing its Minuteman III ICBM force and replacing the W62 warhead with the more powerful W87, has full-scale production underway of the W76-1 warhead, is preparing full-scaled production of the new B61-12 bomb, is producing a nuclear-capable F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, is studying a new common warhead for ICBMs and SLBMs, is designing a new class of 12 SSBNs, is designing a new long-range bomber, is studying a replacement for the Minuteman III ICBM, and is building new or modernized nuclear weapons production facilities.

That looks like a pretty busy modernization effort to me.

Similarly, an article in The Washington Free Beacon warns that the deepest cut being considered “would leave Pentagon with fewer warheads than China.” Not so. The 300-400 option is for deployed strategic warheads, not the total arsenal. China’s total arsenal includes about 240 warheads, none of which are deployed.

The same article also quotes an unnamed congressional official saying that no president in the past ever told the Pentagon to conduct a review based on specific numbers of warheads. “In the past, the way it worked was, ‘tell me what the world is like and then tell me what the force should be,’” the official said. “That is not happening in this review.”

Well, in this review, as in other reviews intended to reduce nuclear forces, the process begins with the White House asking the Pentagon to examine the options for lower levels. Of course the military is asked to examine implications of a certain range of options; Pentagon reviews have a tendency to be worst-case and the force levels higher than strictly needed. The nice round numbers of arms control treaties are shaped by 1) presidential intent, 2) force structure analysis, and 3) they have to be lower than the previous treaty limit.

During the 1990s, for example, STRATCOM conducted a series of force structure studies in response to – and in anticipation of – future reductions. STRATCOM was created partly to get around the Air Force-Navy rivalry and create a single voice for nuclear force structure analysis. But STRATCOM’s analysis obviously is focused on the needs of the warfighter to meet presidential guidance. As such, there is a tendency to protect force structure and avoid cutting too much too fast. That’s to be expected but it shows that one cannot simply leave it to the military to define what the force should be; it should be an interactive and inter-agency process because the proper nuclear posture is not – and should not be – simply a military matter.

So even if the United States were to cut it’s number of deployed strategic warheads to the lowest number said to be under consideration, those 300-400 warheads would be still more than enough to threaten destruction of Russia. Thousands of additional non-deployed warheads would be in reserve to upload if necessary. Requirements for greater numbers of deployed warheads only emerge when warfighters are asked to use them to hold at risk other nuclear forces, command and control facilities, political and military leadership targets, and war-supporting industry in a myriad of different strike scenarios.

If the administration could convince the Kremlin that it is in Russia’s interest to reduce as well, both countries would be better off.

Further reading:

• “Perspectives on the 2013 Budget Request and President Obama’s Guidance on the Future of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Program,” briefing to the Fourth Nuclear Deterrence Summit, February 15, 2011.
• “Reviewing Nuclear Guidance: Putting Obama’s Words Into Action,” Arms Control Today, November 2011.

See also: Ivan Oelrich, “Obama’s ‘Radical’ Option for America’s Nuclear Future,” The Atlantic, February 20, 2012.

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

6 thoughts on “Nuclear Studies and Republican Disarmers

  1. The four Trident submarines that were part of the backfit program were the USS Alaska, USS Nevada, USS Henry M. Jackson and USS Alabama. The backfit program began in 2001 and ended in February 2009 when the last of the four submarines reentered the fleet. Not exactly ancient history. In addition, the D-5 missiles and W76 warheads are currently undergoing extensive “life extension programs” that actually accomplish more than just extending the life of the missiles and warheads.

    An April 2011 DoD press release, at, shows over $40 billion going into current programs:

    Trident II Missile – Program costs increased $1,087.3 million (+2.8 percent) from $39,546.0 million to $40,633.3 million, due primarily to the addition of the Joint Warhead Fuze Life Extension Program, which will conduct a one-time refurbishment of the Mk5 Reentry Body during a planned W88/Mk5 Arming, Fuzing and Firing Limited Life Component Replacement (+$668.0 million). Costs also increased due to the addition of the Explosive Handling Wharf #2 project to rebalance the Trident fleet between the east and west coasts (+$700.6 million) and the D5 Life Extension Program restructure (+$93.9 million).

    I think it is safe to say the SSBN submarine force is part of a substantial modernization program.

  2. Gentlemen, your point is now crystal clear and I concede my error of assumption. You are indeed referring to the pre-USS Tennessee retro fit of D5 missiles to the class. Mea culpa.

    In fairness, a couple points need to be addressed. The replacing of the W62 with the more modern W87 warheads in the modernized Minuteman III fleet came at the expense of the decision to retire the far more capable and newer Peacekeeper missile. One might even infer the exchange of the modern Peacekeeper for the updated Minuteman III, that was first deployed in 1970, might haven’t been a fair exchange. I think it is also more appropriate to categorize the W76-1 and the B61-12 programs as “modernizations” rather than “production”. The term “full-scale production” sounds like the Pentagon is building a new class of nuclear weapons from scratch; it isn’t. The Los Alamos project to combine the W87 (ICBM) and W88 (SLBM) warheads into a common design is also interesting and worthy of a future comment from you. Sounds like the Pentagon is hedging the decision of replacing both Minuteman and Trident and wants to make sure our existing inventory of missile warheads are compatible with whatever decision is reached. The argument from DOE is that one design and one weapon system is far less costly to support and maintain. Of course, I’m naturally suspicious when the Government starts talking about spending billions and billions of dollars to “save money”.

    Your point is well made. The United States is embarking on a new, vast modernization program for its entire nuclear arsenal at a time when we’ve publicly committed to ending our “dependence” on nuclear weapons and our President has embraced the “zero option”. Not opinion; just facts.

    Reply: Part of the problem is that people who say the Russians and Chinese are modernizing but the US is not are comparing oranges and apples; they chose to introduce entirely new systems, but because of its technologically advanced stockpile stewardship program and reliability of its delivery vehicles, the US instead extends the life of a weapon by refurbishing it and in the process updates some of the capabilities. For the past two decades, that has been a choice of management the US chose to use, not one it was forced to accept. HK

  3. Question on the common warhead project. I was of the opinion that the program to develop a common missile warhead that could be used interchangeably with both Minuteman and Trident, and obviously their successors, was the W87 and 88. I noticed in an earlier post you mentioned the program in question but the warheads were the W88 and 78. I guess my conclusions were reached because of the similarity of design and mission for both the ICBM warhead, the W87, and the Trident W88. Somehow combining the capabilities of the W88 and the older, much older, W78 design seems a technological “stretch”. Is my thinking wrong here? Any additional thoughts to set me straight is appreciated.

    Reply: The common warhead, as officials currently describe the intent, would be a product of the W78 life-extension program, possibly use excess W87 plutonium pits and insensitive high explosives (that W87 has but W78/W88 lack) in the primary, and create a design that could be used on both ICBMs and SLBMs to reduce the total number of warheads in the hedge (backup for one warhead instead of two). This will “cost” some yield on the SLBMs but STRATCOM says it could live with that. HK

  4. So, just to recap. The Common Warhead project is taking the existing W78 weapon and adding the safety features and design enhancements of the W87 and creating a warhead, just for argument sake lets call it the W78-1, that would be available for both ICBM and SLBM launch. I’m also making the assumption that the existing inventory of W78s, say 400, wouldn’t be increased and the major purpose of this upgrade would be to have a common warhead in the active-responsive-hedge inventory. The W88 warhead would go through a similar LEP and bring it up to the “new” W78-1 standard; essentially merging the warheads so to speak. At that point, this new upgraded “Joint W78-1” would serve as a backup in the American nuclear arsenal to the W87 on ICBMs and replace the W88 on strategic submarines. Numbers on the updated Joint W78-1 would be around 800 weapons; today’s existing inventories of 400 W78s and 400 W88s, plus or minus a few. The yield on the life-extended Joint W78-1 would be around today’s W78s, 335 kilotons, less that the W88s yield of 455.

    If these assumptions are right, this clears up my confusion on the issue. Thanks!

    Frank Shuler

  5. my perception of the nuclear arsenals of legacy rivals Russia and the United states revolve around very high cost barriers of communication between the two societies who are populated with taxpayers that cannot keep pace with each others development costs. Every day during the week on CNBC video section, Rick Santelli is a featured floor trader who looks at the price of the US treasury and corporate securities, in varying maturities. That is the cost of financing the united states government and its nuclear arsenal. Everybody else’s cost of borrowing money to organize their economy still floats off of the united states treasury bond, but that might not be so for very much longer if the numbers remain in the proportion that they are.

    It is just too politically dichotomous to try and get elected on messages of good feelings and promises of no pain when government revenues and spending are this far apart.

    what is different between now and the past is that our financial picture is far more distressed. For the Russians (or any other competing interest) and the United States to continue to enlarge their capabilities would mean that each side could force the other to maneuver and stay at the ready until they lose taxing authority to support a military. A reduced streamlined and standardized arsenal, with a recognition of a globalized networked world, would make nuclear posturing more realistic to civilian economic planning and provide a longer timeline to negotiate a peaceful way forward.

    perhaps the cost of borrowing money could be standardized between all nuclear states instead of their warhead designs.

  6. Just to finish my thoughts on the W78 from the above post.

    Could we perhaps farther assume, the W78 future life extension program designed to add the safety features and warhead enhancements of the W87 could result in a warhead that could not only back up the W87 in the ICBM fleet but actually “replace” the W88 in the SLBM mission? Would the 400 or so W78s in today active inventory be large enough in numbers to do both missions? Of course, I think there are probably another 400 W78 warheads in the inactive, to be disposed inventory, that could possible be taken out of mothballs and rebuilt to add to the numbers if necessary. However; It seems to me with the number of Minuteman III ICBMs falling in the US nuclear arsenal and with some 2000 W76 Trident warheads undergoing a LEP to bring them up to W76-1 standards, 400 “modernized” W78s might well have the numbers to do both missions. Thoughts?

    Frank Shuler

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