Nuclear Transparency and the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan

ssmp2016By Hans M. Kristensen

I was reading through the latest Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and wondering what I should pick to critique the Obama administration’s nuclear policy.

After all, there are plenty of issues that deserve to be addressed, including:

– Why NNSA continues to overspend and over-commit and create a spending bow wave in 2021-2026 in excess of the President’s budget in exactly the same time period that excessive Air Force and Navy modernization programs are expected to put the greatest pressure on defense spending?

– Why a smaller and smaller nuclear weapons stockpile with fewer warhead types appears to be getting more and more expensive to maintain?

– Why each warhead life-extension program is getting ever more ambitious and expensive with no apparent end in sight?

– And why a policy of reductions, no new nuclear weapons, no pursuit of new military missions or new capabilities for nuclear weapons, restraint, a pledge to “put an end to Cold War thinking,” and the goal of disarmament, instead became a blueprint for nuclear overreach with record funding, across-the-board modernizations, unprecedented warhead modifications, increasing weapons accuracy and effectiveness, reaffirmation of a Triad and non-strategic nuclear weapons, continuation of counterforce strategy, reaffirmation of the importance and salience of nuclear weapons, and an open-ended commitment to retain nuclear weapons further into the future than they have existed so far?

What About The Other Nuclear-Armed States?

Despite the contradictions and flaws of the administration’s nuclear policy, however, imagine if the other nuclear-armed states also published summaries of their nuclear weapons plans. Some do disclose a little, but they could do much more. For others, however, the thought of disclosing any information about the size and composition of their nuclear arsenal seems so alien that it is almost inconceivable.

Yet that is actually one of the reasons why it is necessary to continue to work for greater (or sufficient) transparency in nuclear forces. Some nuclear-armed states believe their security depends on complete or near-compete nuclear secrecy. And, of course, some nuclear information must be protected from disclosure. But the problem with excessive secrecy is that it tends to fuel uncertainty, rumors, suspicion, exaggerations, mistrust, and worst-case assumptions in other nuclear-armed states – reactions that cause them to shape their own nuclear forces and strategies in ways that undermine security for all.

Nuclear-armed states must find a balance between legitimate secrecy and transparency. This can take a long time and it may not necessarily be the same from country to country. The United States also used to keep much more nuclear information secret and there are many institutions that will always resist public access. But maximum responsible disclosure, it turns out, is not only necessary for a healthy public debate about nuclear policy, it is also necessary to communicate to allies and adversaries what that policy is about – and, equally important, to dispel rumors and misunderstandings about what the policy is not.

Nuclear transparency is not just about pleasing the arms controllers – it is important for national security.

So here are some thoughts about what other nuclear-armed states should (or could) disclose about their nuclear arsenals – not to disclose everything but to improve communication about the role of nuclear weapons and avoid misunderstandings and counterproductive surprises:

ssmp_russiaRussia should publish:

– Full New START aggregate data numbers (these numbers are already shared with the United States, that publishes its own numbers)

– Size and history of overall nuclear weapons stockpile

– Number of history of nuclear warhead dismantlement (has made statements about percentage reductions since 1991 but not disclosed numbers or history)

– Basic overview of which nuclear forces are nuclear-capable (has made some statements about strategic forces but not shorter-range forces)

– Plans for future years force levels of long-range nuclear forces (has made occasional statements about modernizations but no detailed plan)

– Overall status and out-year budgets for nuclear weapons and nuclear forces


ssmp-chinaChina should publish:

– Size and history of overall nuclear weapons stockpile (stated in 2004 that it possessed the smallest arsenal of the nuclear weapon states but has not disclosed numbers or history)

– Basic overview of its nuclear-capable forces

– Plans for future years force levels of long-range nuclear forces

– Overall status and out-year budgets for nuclear weapons and nuclear forces


ssmp-franceFrance should publish:

– History of overall nuclear weapons stockpile (has disclosed the size of its nuclear stockpile in 2008 and 2015 (300 weapons), but not the history)

– Number and history of nuclear warhead dismantlement (has declared dismantlement of some types but not history)

(France has disclosed its overall force structure and some nuclear budget information is published each year.)



ssmp-ukBritain should publish:

– History of overall nuclear weapons stockpile (has declared some approximate historic numbers, declared the approximate size in 2010 (no more than 225), and has declared plan for mid-2020s (no more than 180), but has not disclosed history)

– Number and history of nuclear warhead dismantlement (has announced dismantlement of systems but not numbers or history)

(Britain has published information about the size of its nuclear force structure and part of its nuclear budget.)


ssmp-pakistanPakistan should publish:

– History of overall nuclear weapons stockpile

– Basic overview of nuclear-capable forces (occasionally declares that a missile test involves nuclear-capable weapon)

– Plans for future years force levels of longer-range nuclear forces

– Overall status and out-year budgets for nuclear weapons and nuclear forces



ssmp-indiaIndia should publish:

– History of overall nuclear weapons stockpile

– Basic overview of nuclear-capable forces (occasionally declares that a missile test involves nuclear-capable weapon)

– Plans for future years force levels of longer-range nuclear forces

– Overall status and out-year budgets for nuclear weapons and nuclear forces



ssmp-israelIsrael should publish:

…or should it? Unlike other nuclear-armed states, Israel has not publicly confirmed it has a nuclear arsenal and has said it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Some argue Israel should not confirm or declare anything because of fear it would trigger nuclear arms programs in other Middle Eastern countries.

On the other hand, the existence of the Israeli nuclear arsenal is well known to other countries as has been documented by declassified government documents in the United States. Official confirmation would be politically sensitive but not in itself change national security in the region. Moreover, the secrecy fuels speculations, exaggerations, accusations, and worst-case planning. And it is hard to see how the future of nuclear weapons in the Middle East can be addressed and resolved without some degree of official disclosure.


ssmp-northkoreaNorth Korea should publish:

Well, obviously this nuclear-armed state is a little different (to put it mildly) because its blustering nuclear threats and statements – and the nature of its leadership itself – make it difficult to trust any official information. Perhaps this is a case where it would be more valuable to hear more about what foreign intelligence agencies know about North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Yet official disclosure could potentially serve an important role as part of a future de-tension agreement with North Korea.


Additional information:

Status of World Nuclear Forces with links to more information about individual nuclear-armed states.

Nuclear Weapons Base Visits: Accident and Incident Exercises as Confidence-Building Measures,” briefing to Workshop on Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons in Europe: Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures in Practice, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin, 27-28 March 2014.

Nuclear Warhead Stockpiles and Transparency” (with Robert Norris), in Global Fissile Material Report 2013, International Panel on Fissile Materials, October 2013, pp. 50-58.

The research for 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.

2 thoughts on “Nuclear Transparency and the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan

  1. Let’s see… US modernization is so expensive and across the board because they sat on it for more than a decade before actually getting to work. Now all the warheads need work at the same time rather than spacing then out. You can make the same argument for the nuclear modernizations lining up with other major DoD acquisitions.
    The LEPs get more expensive as they go because the easiest ones are going first. Gravity weapons are easier to qualify than missiles or ICBMs.
    Mr Kristensen, are you proposing a counter value force structure rather than counter force? Sure you could get away with fewer nukes, but destroying cities doesn’t have much of a track record of success in war (even Japan is debatable). Plus, the moral hazard of targeting cities opens you up to “self deterrence”. Any responsible drawdown plan should drop through counter value levels as quickly as possible.

    1. Well, first, they didn’t exactly sit on it for a decade. This is the big fallacy: the perception that the US military somehow has been sitting and rolling its thumbs since 1991 and now it’s terribly behind Russia and China. On the contrary, the Pentagon has been very busy maintaining, enhancing, and life-extending the nuclear deterrent and everything supports it.

      Second, the perception that we have moved from easy gravity life-extension programs (LEPs) to more demanding RV/RB LEPs is, I believe, wrong because we didn’t. Instead we started with W87, then B61-7/11, then W76 (W76-1), then W61 (W61-12), then W88 Alt 370 (W88-1), and next it’s supposed to be IW-1 (W78/W88-1), then IW-2 (W87/W88-1), and then IW-3 (W76-1 LEP #2). Simple LEPs (like W76-1), where they actually do what they say (simply extending the life of an existing warhead), is much cheaper (and boring) and doesn’t add uncertainty to the stockpile. But you know how it is: once STRATCOM and the labs get going, it’s like a strategy/engineering sugar rush: why only do A if you can do B and C as well? Add to that that there now is an open-ended requirement to incorporate enhanced safety and security features during LEPs regardless of whether it is essential to do so. Add to that that we need to reduce the number of nuclear weapons, and you have an amazingly powerful incentive to redesign warheads and enhance flexibility and effectiveness in the stockpile. In fact, some officials now argue that it is precisely because we need to reduce numbers we also need to enhance the remaining weapons. That dynamic potion drives up complexity, costs, and risks in LEP programs.

      Am I proposing a counter value force structure that blows up cities? No, I’m proposing, as a transition, a relaxed counterforce strategy that gets us out of the nuclear warfighting mindset and instead focused on nuclear deterrence. Countervalue is not equal to city-busting – that is just the strawman argument used to defend counterforce. Instead, to quote DOD, “counter-value targeting directs the destruction or neutralization of selected enemy military and military-related targets such as industries, resources, and/or institutions that contribute to the ability of the enemy to wage war.” The military targets could be military bases (but without being focused on digging up a silo before it is used) and war supporting facilities that support the war effort. That doesn’t necessarily mean targeting cities per ce. And, mind you, a city will be targeted in a counterforce strategy if there is an importance military facility located inside it. Besides, because of the inherently indiscriminate nature of nuclear warfare, millions of civilians will die whether we have a counterforce or countervalue strategy. So I find the so-called moral argument to be bogus.

      The important thing is not just what happens during a nuclear war itself but also the conditions the chosen strategy creates before war and especially in a crisis. A nuclear counterforce strategy demands more and better weapons and it creates more nervous postures because countries have to deal with not only being deterred but also being threatened with a nuclear surprise attack. That creates worst-case scenario planning with nuclear forces on high alert that perpetuates a threat-based relationship even when there doesn’t have to be one for a nuclear deterrent to work well enough.

      So I think countries would be far better off transitioning away from counterforce to more relaxed nuclear strategies that reduce worst-case planning, alert postures, arsenals, and capabilities. In 2009, I and several of my colleagues published a study about this challenge:

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