New Report: Trimming Nuclear Excess

The US and Russian nuclear arms reduction process needs to be revitalized by new treaties and unilateral initiatives to reduce nuclear force levels, a new FAS report argues (click on image to download report).

By Hans M. Kristensen

Despite enormous reductions of their nuclear arsenals since the Cold War, the United States and Russia retain more than 9,100 warheads in their military stockpiles. Another 7,000 retired – but still intact – warheads are awaiting dismantlement, for a total inventory of more than 16,000 nuclear warheads.

This is more than 15 times the size of the total nuclear arsenals of all the seven other nuclear weapon states in the world – combined.

The U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals are far beyond what is needed for deterrence, with each side’s bloated force level justified only by the other’s excessive force level.

A new FAS report – Trimming Nuclear Excess: Options for Further Reductions of U.S. and Russian Nuclear Forces – describes the status and 10-year projection for U.S. and Russian nuclear forces.

The report concludes that the pace of reducing nuclear forces appears to be slowing compared with the past two decades. Both the United States and Russia appear to be more cautious about reducing further, placing more emphasis on “hedging” and reconstitution of reduced nuclear forces, and both are investing enormous sums of money in modernizing their nuclear forces over the next decade.

Even with the reductions expected over the next decade, the report concludes that the United States and Russia will continue to possess nuclear stockpiles that are many times greater than the rest of the world’s nuclear forces combined.

New initiatives are needed to regain the momentum of the nuclear arms reduction process. The New START Treaty from 2011 was an important but modest step but the two nuclear superpowers must begin negotiations on new treaties to significantly curtail their nuclear forces. Both have expressed an interest in reducing further, but little has happened.

New treaties may be preferable, but reaching agreement on the complex inter-connected issues ranging from nuclear weapons to missile defense and conventional forces may be unlikely to produce results in the short term (not least given the current political climate in the U.S. Congress). While the world waits, the excess nuclear forces levels and outdated planning principles continue to fuel justifications for retaining large force levels and new modernizations in both the United States and Russia.

To break the stalemate and reenergize the arms reductions process, in addition to pursuing treaty-based agreements, the report argues, unilateral steps can and should be taken in the short term to trim the most obvious fat from the nuclear arsenals. The report includes 32 specific recommendations for reducing unnecessary and counterproductive U.S. and Russian nuclear force levels unilaterally and bilaterally.

Full report: Trimming Nuclear Excess

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

3 thoughts on “New Report: Trimming Nuclear Excess

  1. “Trimming Nuclear Excess”

    Interesting review of American-Russian nuclear inventories and policies; where we are and how we got here. However, not very practical in scope if the intention is to provide a roadmap to lower nuclear inventories. Its takes 100,000 people to sustain the US Navy’s Trident nuclear submarine program regardless if 14 or 8 submarines are supported. The more the inventory of submarines and warheads are cut, the higher military and industrial cost to support the remainder. If you want to drive cost out of the business, one must cut whole capabilities, vertical segments to achieve savings; both political and economic. At the end of the day, “Trimming Nuclear Excess” is like rearranging chairs on the Titanic.

    If you want to make a difference, craft an American nuclear policy based on deterrence and unilaterally implement that policy regardless of Russia, China, North Korea etc.

    Explain to me why 300 single warhead, silo-based Minuteman III ICBMs (and its future successor) with 500 W78 & W87 warheads and 250 B61-12 nuclear bombs for aircraft delivery isn’t deterrence enough?

    Frank Shuler

  2. Overall, not too bad and includes several good recommendations. The trouble with further unilateral actions is each side is down to its last few chips to get the other side to do anything. If the US removes the tactical nukes from Europe what chip does it have to give away to get reduced Russian tactical nuke levels? if US reduces or eliminates the hedge warheads what chip does it have to give away to get reduced Russian warhead production capabilities?

    The hardest part of the tactical nuke discussion will always be verification. These warheads are much smaller and can therefore be hidden in many more places, how can one side be sure the other isn’t hiding them? Given the long history of Russian secrecy it is hard to imagine them throwing the gates open to US inspectors.

    Now on to some specific comments:
    “Of the remaining 12 boats, eight to nine are at sea of which four to five are on “hard alert” in their designated patrol areas”

    This is not even close to true. Look at the New START data releases, the US doesn’t even have 12 SSBNs loaded with missiles. Look at the unclass satellite photos of the SSBN bases and shipyards and and I guarantee you will always find more then 5 SSBNs (out of 14) in port. The current google earth photo of Bangor shows 3 SSBNs (of 8) in port for PAC alone with 2 more in Bremerton (though one or both of those could be SSGNs, it is hard to tell from google earth).

    “reduce U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear forces to 500 delivery vehicles and 1,000 warheads.”
    What is the basis for these numbers? Shouldn’t we at least conduct the targeting review before setting the number of warheads and launchers?

    “Reduce the Ohio-class SSBN fleet to 12 boats”
    I imagine this is already being looked at, once the SSBNs in overhaul return the US will have to make some kind of reduction to meet the deployed launcher limit since 240 / 20 = 12 not 14. Current SSBN force structure is driven by the overhauls, hence why SSBNX will only need 12 boats to accomplish what 14 OHIOs are doing.

    “Within the next decade, reduce the number of Ohio-class SSBNs further to eight or ten to better match the Russian level”
    There is an important nuance here that you are missing when you only compare ICBMs to ICBMs: Russia’s survivable nuclear forces are a combination of mobile ICBMs and SSBNs when comparing force structures. This also explains why they do not maintain constant SSBN patrols, they “patrol” the mobile ICBMs instead. 12 SSBNs is about right to match their number of SSBNs+mobile ICBMs.

    On Frank’s comments:
    “Its takes 100,000 people to sustain the US Navy’s Trident nuclear submarine program regardless if 14 or 8 submarines are supported.”

    Reference please. The 100,000 people that seems a bit high unless you are including ALL of the subcontractor support most of which also services SSNs. Also I doubt that number takes into account the amount of support dedicated to SSGNs. Also, the assertion that the same number of people is required for 14 or 8 is totally wrong, especially when you consider the US could support 8 from a single base (as is done currently in Bangor).

    “Explain to me why 300 single warhead, silo-based Minuteman III ICBMs (and its future successor) with 500 W78 & W87 warheads and 250 B61-12 nuclear bombs for aircraft delivery isn’t deterrence enough?”
    A) Flight Path/Flexibility
    1) Please get a piece of dental floss and a globe and try to reach Iran from any of the 3 ICBM fields, what do you pass over on the way there? (Remember ICBM range is not infinite)
    2) Please now try to reach China, especially Xiaopingdao Submarine Base where the Type 94’s are currently based.
    Are you really willing to wait hours and hours for a bomber to reach these places?

    B) Theory of Victory
    1) One way to make sure nuclear weapons are never used (besides just hoping, praying, and trusting human nature of course) is to make sure there is no way for anyone to win. You do that by maintaining a robust enough force that the other guy knows that no matter how bad he hurts you there will always be enough of your force surviving to hurt him just as bad or worse. Assured second strike by survivable SSBNs and mobile ICBMs provides that assurance.

    C) Capability
    1) W88 warhead yield combined with D5 accuracy cannot be matched by the force structure you listed (hence why the B61-11 exists, not sure why you left that out)

  3. Keith

    I have no disagreements with your facts in principle but disagree on your conclusions.

    The US Air Force constantly post articles stating the USAF has 15,000 airmen & MIC (Military Industrial Complex) personnel dedicated to the Minuteman III program while it takes 100,000 support people for the Trident fleet. It’s their way of making the point the MMIII ICBM fleet is far more cost effective in a declining defense budget than Trident and needs to be maintained. Call Air Force Media Affairs at the Pentagon.

    Think cost not people. Electric Boat has a debt ratio to maintain regardless how many Trident boats they support. Less submarines does not translate into less cost. HII spends $1 billion a year to support the Newport News Shipyard regardless if they build a nuclear aircraft carrier or not. A ten year construction program for a new Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier cost $10 billion dollars before any steel is cut.

    One strategic submarine base? Kinda putting all your eggs in one basket, huh?

    Conversely, if Iran or China took a shot at the United States with an ICBM, would not those missiles overfly “you-know-who”? I got that one, no dental floss necessary.

    Not contemplating a first strike on China. Therefore, a nuclear strike on the Xiaopingdao Submarine Base is irrelevant. If the US is ever launching a retaliatory nuclear missile strike on China, those submarines are already at sea or long empty.

    If Iran tried to use a single nuclear weapon against the United States or against American “interest”, say in some kind of terrorist strike, I suspect a limited nuclear response by a pair of B-2s (or its future successor) forwarded deployed and operating from Diego Garcia would be exactly the slow response necessary. Probably need to give the British, French, Chinese, Australians, maybe the Russians, the UN and such time to evacuate the country before those two before mentioned aircraft armed with 32 B61-12 bombs destroyed the 20 largest cities in Iran and immediately killed 10 million people.

    My understanding the 20 or so B61-7 bombs remanufactured into the “bunker busting” B61-11s have been surplussed and are waiting disassembly at Pantex. Kind of a failed idea.

    Let’s face it, the W88 is a first strike weapon all the way. It is a highly accurate ground burst weapon designed to plow ICBM silos and underground command & control assets. It’s not needed for deterrence.
    What peer nuclear enemy is going to attack the United States and know 80% of the Minuteman III fleet will survive and destroy their country and still maintain a residual surplus of weapons to prevent any interloper third party from taking advantage of the situation? What non-peer nuclear enemy is going to “take a shot” at the United States and know the B-2s are on the way. What is to be gained?

    That’s my definition of deterrence.

    Frank Shuler

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