USAF Upgrades Secrecy of Nuclear Weapons Inspections

The U.S. Air Force has upgraded the classification of information pertaining to nuclear weapons inspections performed by the Inspector General, reducing or eliminating public references to the outcome of such inspections.

Until recently, the IG weapons inspections could be described in unclassified reports. Now they will be classified at least at the Confidential level.

An Air Force nuclear surety inspection (NSI) “assesses a unit’s ability to accomplish its assigned nuclear weapons mission and produce reliable nuclear weapons in a safe and secure environment in compliance with applicable directives. Additionally, an NSI inspects a unit’s capability to safely and reliably receive, store, secure, assemble, transport, maintain, load, mate, lock/unlock, test, render safe and employ nuclear weapons.”

The inspections typically result in a “grade” indicating the level of compliance. Whether pass or fail, those grades, too, will now be classified.

The changes were made following the latest revision of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Instruction (CJCSI) 3263.05C, Nuclear Weapons Technical Inspections, issued on March 10, 2017. Though unclassified, the Instruction is “Limited” in distribution and is not publicly available.

Even those nuclear weapons inspections that produce a finding of full compliance cannot be disclosed, and from now on they also cannot be acknowledged in military decorations or unit awards.

“These changes are control measures put in place to prevent revealing potential vulnerabilities to adversary forces,” wrote Staff Sgt. Alexx Pons of Air Force Public Affairs. See “Nuclear inspection grade restricted in evaluation, decoration and award comments,” June 14, 2017.

The results of nuclear weapons inspections have been published for decades, noted Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, without any reported adverse effect on national security. So an alternate explanation for the new classification policy seems wanted. “The change sure looks handy for preventing the public from knowing embarrassing information about when Air Force units fail nuclear inspections,” he said.

Monitoring Nuclear Testing is Getting Easier

The ability to detect a clandestine nuclear explosion in order to verify a ban on nuclear testing and to detect violations has improved dramatically in the past two decades.

There have been “technological and scientific revolutions in the fields of seismology, acoustics, and radionuclide sciences as they relate to nuclear explosion monitoring,” according to a new report published by Los Alamos National Laboratory that describes those developments.

“This document… reviews the accessible literature for four research areas: source physics (understanding signal generation), signal propagation (accounting for changes through physical media), sensors (recording the signals), and signal analysis (processing the signal).”

A “signal” here is a detectable, intelligible change in the seismic, acoustic, radiological or other environment that is attributable to a nuclear explosion.

The new Los Alamos report “is intended to help sustain the international conversation regarding the [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty] and nuclear explosive testing moratoria while simultaneously acknowledging and celebrating research to date.”

“The primary audience for this document is the next generation of research scientists that will further improve nuclear explosion monitoring, and others interested in understanding the technical literature related to the nuclear explosion monitoring mission.”

See Trends in Nuclear Explosion Monitoring Research & Development —  A Physics Perspective, Los Alamos National Laboratory, LA-UR-17-21274, June 2017.

“A ban on all nuclear tests is the oldest item on the nuclear arms control agenda,” the Congressional Research Service noted last year. “Three treaties that entered into force between 1963 and 1990 limit, but do not ban, such tests. In 1996, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which would ban all nuclear explosions. In 1997, President Clinton sent the CTBT to the Senate, which rejected it in October 1999.”

The Pentagon’s 2017 Report On Chinese Military Affairs

The Pentagon report says China is “developing a strategic bomber that officials expect to have a nuclear mission.” The Internet is full of artistic fantasies of what it might look like.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The Pentagon’s latest annual report to Congress on Chinese military and security developments describes a nuclear force that is similar to previous years but with a couple of important new developments in the pipeline.

The most sensational nuclear news in the report is the conclusion that China is developing a new strategic nuclear bomber to replace the aging (but upgraded) H-6.

The report also portrays the Chinese ICBM force as a little bigger than it really is because the report lists missiles rather than launchers. But once adjusted for that, the report shows the same overall nuclear missile force as in 2016, with two new land-based missiles under development (DF-26 and DF-41) but not yet operational.

The SSBN force is described as the same four boats but with “others” under construction. The report is a bit hasty to declare China now has a survivable sea-based deterrent, a condition that will require a few more steps.

Finally, the report concludes that Chinese nuclear strategy and doctrine, despite a domestic debate about scope and role, are unchanged from previous years.  Continue reading

Latest Nuclear Weapon Declassifications

The fact that a particular nuclear weapon has (or does not have) a “dial-a-yield capability” enabling the selection of a desired explosive yield was declassified earlier this year, in a joint decision of the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy.

Last year, the Department of Energy also declassified the thickness of the “getter nickel plating” used in tritium production. (A “getter” here means the reactive material that sustains a vacuum by capturing gas atoms.)

These and several other recent DOE declassification decisions were recorded in memoranda that were released last week under the Freedom of Information Act. Copies are available, along with the records of prior DOE declassification actions, here.

Bethe, Oppenheimer and Teller: Their Accomplishments

In 1959, physicists Hans Bethe, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller were candidates to receive the Enrico Fermi Award for contributions to the development of atomic energy.

In a newly discovered letter written in June 1959, Los Alamos physicist Norris Bradbury provided his evaluation of the achievements of each of the three eminent scientists. His letter was published last month for the first time, with an introduction by historian Roger Meade. See Bethe, Oppenheimer, Teller and the Fermi Award: Norris Bradbury Speaks, Los Alamos National Laboratory, April 28, 2017.

After assessing the accomplishments of the three of them at some length, Bradbury concluded that they were all deserving of the Fermi Award.

“I have no solution to this dilemma to propose other than the not entirely facetious suggestion that a joint award to all three individuals be made — with the additional proviso that it would be expected to make the same triply joint award for the two following years!”

As it turned out, Dr. Meade recalled in a footnote, Bethe received the award in 1961, Teller received it in 1962, and Oppenheimer in 1963.

B-52 Bomber No Longer Delivers Nuclear Gravity Bombs

A B-52H bomber conducts a B61-7 nuclear gravity bomb drop test at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada. Image: NNSA

By Hans M. Kristensen

The venerable B-52H Stratofortress long-range bomber is no longer listed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) with a capability to deliver nuclear gravity bombs.

US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) apparently has not been assigning nuclear gravity bombs to B-52 bombers since at least 2010. Today, only the 20 B-2 stealth-bombers are tasked with strategic nuclear gravity bombs under the nuclear strike plans.

The reason for the change appears to be that the B-52 is no longer considered survivable enough to slip through modern air-defenses and drop nuclear gravity bombs on enemy territory.

The B-52s is still equipped to carry the nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missile (ALCM or AGM-86B), which can be launched from well outside the reach of air-defenses, and is scheduled to receive the new LRSO (Long Range Standoff Missile) by the late-2020s (even though that’s probably unnecessary). Continue reading

Garwin on Strategic Security Challenges to the US

There are at least four major “strategic security challenges” that could place the United States at risk within the next decade, physicist Richard L. Garwin told the National Academy of Sciences earlier this month.

“The greatest threat, based on expected value of damage, is cyberattack,” he said. Other challenges arise from the actions of North Korea and Iran, due to their pursuit or acquisition of nuclear weapons and/or missiles. The remaining threat is due to the potential instability associated with the existing U.S. nuclear weapon arsenal.

These four could be ordered, he said, by the relative difficulty of reducing the threat, from “easiest” to hardest: “the Iranian nuclear program; North Korea; the U.S. nuclear weapon capability and its evolution; and, finally, most importantly and probably most difficult of solution, the cyber threat to the United States.”

In his remarks, Garwin characterized each of the challenges and discussed possible steps that could be taken to mitigate the hazards involved. See Strategic Security Challenges for 2017 and Beyond, May 1, 2017.

Among many other things, Dr. Garwin is a former board member of the Federation of American Scientists. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama last November. He was the subject of a biography published earlier this year called True Genius by Joel Shurkin. Many of his publications are archived on the FAS website.

Most of the threats identified by Garwin — other than the one posed by the U.S. nuclear weapon arsenal — were also discussed in the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community that was presented to the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 11.

Neither Garwin nor the US Intelligence Community considered the possibility that the US Government could ever be threatened from within. But that is what is now happening, former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told CNN on May 14.

“I think […] our institutions are under assault internally,” Clapper said, referring to recent actions by President Trump, including the abrupt termination of FBI director James Comey. “The founding fathers, in their genius, created a system of three co-equal branches of government and a built-in system of checks and balances,” he said. “I feel as though that is under assault and is eroding.”

New START 2017: Russia Decreasing, US Increasing Deployed Warheads

Click on graph to view full size version.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The latest set of New START aggregate data released by the US State Department shows that Russia is decreasing its number of deployed strategic warheads while the United States is increasing the number of warheads it deploys on its strategic forces.

The Russian reduction, which was counted as of March 1, 2017, is a welcoming development following its near-continuous increase of deployed strategic warheads compared with 2013. Bus as I previously concluded, the increase was a fluctuation caused by introduction of new launchers, particularly the Borei-class SSBN.

The US increase, similarly, does not represent a buildup – a mischaracterization used by some to describe the earlier Russian increase – but a fluctuation caused by the force loading on the Ohio-class SSBNs.  Continue reading

JASON on Subcritical Nuclear Tests

Subcritical nuclear tests remain useful for maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile in the absence of nuclear explosive testing, the JASON defense advisory panel affirmed in a letter report last year. But “a gap exists in the current US capability to carry out and diagnose such experiments,” the panel said.

Subcritical experiments simulate aspects of nuclear explosions using chemical explosives. But since a subcritical mass of plutonium (or a surrogate material) is used, no actual nuclear explosion occurs.

The main purpose of subcritical experiments is to identify and decrease uncertainties in weapon performance. “For all weapons in the current stockpile, at the present time margins are adequate and uncertainties are within margins, both for normal operation and for nuclear safety should accidents occur,” the JASON panel said. “However, future aging of these weapons and their remanufacture may increase uncertainties, and JASON finds that scaled [subcritical] experiments in Pu [plutonium] may significantly reduce uncertainties that may arise in the future.”

But “JASON finds that x-ray radiography is needed to diagnose subcritical experiments in Pu… and that the US currently lacks adequate radiography at U1a [the nuclear complex in Nevada] for this purpose.”

The JASON letter report was prepared for the National Nuclear Safety Administration at the direction of Congress. A copy was released by NNSA last week under the Freedom of Information Act.

See Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiments, JSR-16-Task-011, October 7, 2016.

Warhead “Super-Fuze” Increases Targeting Capability Of US SSBN Force

The MC7400 AF&F unit on the new W76-1/Mk4A warhead contains a super-fuze that dramatically increases its hard target kill capability. Image: Sandia National Laboratories

By Hans M. Kristensen

Under the cover of an otherwise legitimate life-extension of the W76 warhead, the Navy has quietly added a new super-fuze to the warhead that dramatically increases the ability of the Navy to destroy hard targets in Russia and other adversaries.

In a new article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Matthew McKinzie from NRDC, Theodore A. Postol from MIT, and I describe the impact of the super-fuze on the targeting capability of the US SSBN force and how it might effect strategic stability.

The new super-fuze dramatically increases the capability of the W76 warhead to destroy hard targets, such as Russian ICBM silos.

We estimate that the super-fuze capability is now operational on all nuclear warheads deployed on the Navy’s Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. The new fuze has also been installed on warheads on British SSBN.

“As a consequence, the US submarine force today is much more capable than it was previously against hardened targets such as Russian ICBM silos. A decade ago, only about 20 percent of US submarine warheads had hard-target kill capability; today they all do.”

The new article builds on previous work by Ted Postol and myself but with new analysis explaining how the super-fuze works.

In the article we conclude that the SSBN force, rather than simply being a stable retaliatory capability, with the new super-fuze increasingly will be seen as a front-line, first-strike weapon that is likely to further fuel trigger-happy, worst-case planning in other nuclear-armed states.

Read full article here: Hans M. Kristensen, Matthew McKinzie, Theodore A. Postol, “How US nuclear force modernization is undermining strategic stability: The burst-height compensating super-fuze,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 1, 2017.

Previous writings about the super-fuze:

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.