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.
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.
According to Reuters Trump said he wanted to build up the US nuclear arsenal to ensure it is at the “top of the pack.” He said the United States has “fallen behind on nuclear weapons capacity.”
Building up the US nuclear arsenal would be an unnecessary, unaffordable, and counterproductive move. It is unnecessary because the US military already has more nuclear weapons than it needs to meet US national and international security commitments. It would be unaffordable because the Pentagon will have problems paying for the nuclear modernization program initiated by the Obama administration. And it is counterproductive because it would further fuel nuclear buildups in other nuclear weapon states.
The claim that the US has “fallen behind on its nuclear weapons capacity” is also wrong; the US has the nuclear weapons capability it needs to meet its national and international security commitments. All nuclear-armed states have different nuclear weapons capacities depending on their individual needs. Nuclear planning is not a race but a strategy.
In terms of capacity, the United States is already at the “top of the pack” with highly capable nuclear forces that are backed up by overwhelming conventional forces. See here how the US nuclear arsenal compares with other nuclear-armed states.
Trump also called the New START Treaty “a one-sided deal” and a “bad deal.” Once again he is wrong. The treaty has equal limits for both the United States and Russia: by February 2018, neither side can have more than 1,550 warheads on 700 deployed launchers and no more than 800 total deployed and non-deployed launchers.
Next month the new bi-annual aggregate data set will be published; the previous one from September 2016 showed Russia with 1,796 warheads on 508 launchers compared with the United States with 1,367 warheads on 681 launchers.
Some people got very excited about that saying the larger number of Russian deployed warheads somehow gave Russia an advantage and showed they didn’t intend to comply with the treaty. Warheads can be moved on and off launchers relatively quickly; the important number is the number of launchers where the US was counted with 173 more than Russia.
Indeed, according to the Pentagon and Intelligence Community, Russia “would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario under the New START Treaty…” (Emphasis added.)
But nitpicking about numbers misses the bigger point: the New START treaty was signed with overwhelming support from the US military, Congress, former officials, and experts because the treaty caps the nuclear forces of both countries and continues an important on-site verification system and data exchange.
President Trump may have been briefed by the Pentagon on his role in the nuclear war plan. But his latest interview with Reuters shows that he urgently needs to be briefed on the status of US nuclear forces, other nuclear-armed states, and the basics of the arms control treaties the United States has signed. But that briefing needs to be done outside the White House bubble and include bi-partisan and independent input. Otherwise all indication are that President Trump will be extraordinarily poorly equipped to make informed decisions about the nuclear policy.
The Obama administration has unilaterally cut the number of nuclear weapons in the Pentagon’s nuclear weapons stockpile to 4,018 warheads, a reduction of 553 warheads since September 2015.
The reduction was disclosed by Vice President Joe Biden during a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace earlier today.
This means that the Obama administration during its two terms has reduced the US nuclear weapons stockpile by 1,255 weapons compared with the size at the end of the George W. Bush administration – a number greater than the estimated number of warheads in the arsenals of Britain, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan combined.
[Note: This blog will be updated as more information becomes available over the next coupe of days.] Continue reading →
In our latest Nuclear Notebook on Pakistani nuclear forces, Robert Norris and I estimate that Pakistan has produced an estimated stockpile of 130-140 nuclear warheads for delivery by short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and fighter-bombers.
Pakistan now identifies with what is described as a full-spectrum nuclear deterrent posture, which is though to include strategic missiles and fighter-bombers for so-called retaliatory strikes in response to nuclear attacks, and short-range missiles for sub-strategic use in response to conventional attacks.
Although there have been many rumors over the years, the location of the nuclear-capable launchers has largely evaded the public eye for much of Pakistan’s 19-year old declared nuclear weapons history. Most public analysis has focused on the nuclear industry (see here for a useful recent study). But over the past several years, commercial satellite pictures have gradually brought into light several facilities that might form part of Pakistan’s evolving nuclear weapons launcher posture.
This includes 10 facilities, including 5 missile garrisons (soon possibly 6) as well 2 (possibly 4) air bases with fighter-bombers.
The nuclear warheads that would arm the launchers are thought to be stored at other secure facilities that have not yet been identified. In a crisis, these warheads would first have to be brought to the bases and mated with the launchers before they could be used.
Security at these and other Pakistani defense facilities is a growing concern and many have been upgraded with additional security perimeters during the past 10 years in response to terrorist attacks.
There are still many unknowns and uncertainties about the possible nuclear role of these facilities. All of the launchers are thought to be dual-capable, which means they can deliver both conventional and nuclear warheads. So even if a base has a nuclear role, most of the launchers might be assigned to the conventional mission. Further analysis in the future might disqualify some and identify others. But for now, this profile of potential road-mobile launcher garrisons and air bases are intended as a preliminary guide and accompany the recent FAS Nuclear Notebook on Pakistani nuclear forces. Continue reading →
Republicans love nuclear weapons reductions, as long as they’re not proposed by a Democratic president.
That is the lesson from decades of US nuclear weapons and arms control management.
If that trend continues, then we can expect the new Donald Trump administration to reduce the US nuclear weapons arsenal more than the Obama administration did.
What? I know, it sounds strange but the record is very clear: During the post-Cold War era, Republication administrations have – by far – reduced the US nuclear weapons stockpile more than Democratic administrations (see graph below).
Even if we don’t count numbers of weapons (because arsenals have gotten smaller) but only look at by how much the nuclear stockpile was reduced, the history is clear: Republican presidents disarm more than Democrats (see graph below).
It’s somewhat of a mystery. Because Democratic presidents are generally seen to be more likely to propose nuclear weapons reductions. President Obama did so repeatedly. But when Democratic presidents have proposed reductions, the Republican opposition has normally objected forcefully. Yet Republican lawmakers won’t oppose reductions if they are proporsed by a Republican president.
Conversely, Democratic lawmakers will not opposed Republican reductions and nor will they oppose reductions proposed by a Democratic president.
As a result, if the Republicans control both the White House and Congress, as they do now after the 2016 election, the chance of significant reductions of nuclear weapons seems more likely.
Whether Donald Trump will continue the Republication tradition remains to be seen. US-Russian relations are different today than when the Bush administrations did their reductions. But both countries have far more nuclear weapons than they need for national security. And Trump would be strangely out of tune with long-held Republican policy and practice if he does not order a substantial reduction of the US nuclear weapons stockpile.
Perhaps he should use that legacy to try to reach an agreement with Russia to continue to reduce US and Russia nuclear arsenals to the benefit of both countries.
Arms control agreements that envision the verified dismantlement of nuclear weapons require the availability of suitable technology to perform the verification. But they also depend on the good faith of the participants and a shared sense of confidence in the integrity of the verification process.
An exercise in demonstrated warhead dismantlement showed that such confidence could be easily disrupted. The exercise, sponsored by the United States and the United Kingdom in 2010 and 2011, was described in a recent paper by Los Alamos scientists. See Review of the U.S.-U.K. Warhead Monitored Dismantlement Exercise by Danielle Kristin Hauck and Iain Russell, Los Alamos National Laboratory, August 4, 2016.
Participants played the roles of the host nation, whose weapons were to be dismantled, and of the monitoring nation, whose representatives were there to verify dismantlement. Confusion and friction soon developed because “the host and monitoring parties had different expectations,” the authors reported.
“The monitoring party did not expect to justify its reasons for performing certain authentication tasks or to justify its rationale for recommending whether a piece of equipment should or should not be used in the monitoring regime. However, the host party expected to have an equal stake in authentication activities, in part because improperly handled authentication activities could result in wrongful non-verification of the treaty.”
“Attempts by the host team to be involved in the authentication activities, and requests for justifications of monitoring party decisions felt intrusive and controlling. Monitoring party rebuffs to the host team reduced the host’s confidence in the sincerity of the monitoring party for cooperative monitoring.”
What emerged is that verified dismantlement of nuclear weapons is not simply a technical problem, though it is also that.
The latest set of so-called New START treaty aggregate data published by the U.S. State Department shows that Russia is continuing to increase the number of nuclear warheads it deploys on its declining inventory of strategic launchers.
Russia now has 259 warheads more deployed than when the treaty entered into force in 2011.
Rather than a nuclear build-up, however, the increase is a temporary fluctuation cause by introduction of new types of launchers that will be followed by retirement of older launchers before 2018. Russia’s compliance with the treaty is not in doubt.
In all other categories, the data shows that Russia and the United States continue to reduce the overall size of their strategic nuclear forces. Continue reading →
The fact that a now-retired nuclear weapon was once located at a now-closed location in the United States shall no longer be considered classified information, the Department of Defense announced last week.
This may seem so trivial and insignificant as to be hardly worth deciding or announcing, but it could have positive practical consequences for current and future declassification efforts.
“The repeated discoveries of this kind of [information] in numerous records [have] impeded the prompt declassification of many documents,” the National Declassification Center said last week, praising the move.
So with the categorical declassification of such information, the declassification of some historical records should now be facilitated and accelerated.
“Secrecy itself is more dangerous than the possession of atomic weapons,” said Edward Teller in a 1989 presentation at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The Department of Energy posted a transcript of his remarks last week.
CBS’s 60 Minutes program Risk of Nuclear Attack Rises described that Russia may be lowering the threshold for when it would use nuclear weapons, and showed how U.S. nuclear bombers have started flying missions they haven’t flown since the Cold War: Over the North Pole and deep into Northern Europe to send a warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The program follows last week’s program The New Cold War where viewers were shown unprecedented footage from STRATCOM’s command center at Omaha Air Base in Nebraska.
Producer Mary Welch and correspondent David Martin have produced a fascinating and vital piece of investigative journalism showing disturbing new developments in the nuclear relationship between Russia and the United States.
They were generous enough to consult me and include me in the program to discuss the increasing Cold War and dangerous military posturing.
Nuclear Bomber Operations Context
Just a few years ago, U.S. nuclear bombers didn’t spend much time in Europe. They were focused on operations in the Middle East, Western Pacific, and Indian Ocean. Despite several years of souring relations and mounting evidence that the “reset” with Russia had failed or certainly not taken off, NATO couldn’t make itself say in public that Russia gradually was becoming an adversary once again.
Whatever hesitation was left changed in March 2014 when Vladimir Putin sent his troops to invade Ukraine and annexed Crimea. The act followed years of Russian efforts to coerce the Baltic States, growing and increasingly aggressive military operations around European countries, and explicit nuclear threats against NATO countries getting involved in the U.S. ballistic missile defense system.
Granted, NATO may not have been a benign neighbor, with massive expansion eastward of new members all the way up to the Russian border, and a consistent tendency to ignore or dismiss Russian concerns about its security interests.
But whatever else Putin might have thought he would gain from his acts, they have awoken NATO from its detour in Afghanistan and refocused the Alliance on its traditional mission: defense of NATO territory against Russian aggression. As a result, Putin will now get more NATO troops along his western and southern borders, larger and more focused military exercises more frequently in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea, increasing or refocused defense spending in NATO, and a revitalization of a near-slumbering nuclear mission in Europe.
Six years ago the United States was this close to pulling its remaining non-strategic nuclear weapons out of Europe. Only an engrained NATO nuclear bureaucracy aided by the Obama administration’s lack of leadership prevented the withdrawal of the weapons. Russia has complained about them for years but now it seems very unlikely that the modernization of the F-35A with the B61-12 guided bomb can be stopped. The weapons might even get a more explicit role against Russia, although this is still a controversial issue for some NATO members.
But the U.S. military would much prefer to base the nuclear portion of its extended deterrence mission in Europe on strategic bombers rather than the short-range fighter-bombers forward deployed there. The non-strategic nuclear weapons are far too controversial and vulnerable to the myriads of political views in the host countries. Strategic bombers are free of such constraints.
A New STRATCOM-EUCOM Link
Therefore, even before NATO at the Warsaw Summit this summer decided to reinvigorate its commitment to nuclear deterrence, former U.S. European Command (EUCOM) commander General Philip Breedlove told Congress in February 2015, EUCOM had already “forged a link between STRATCOM Bomber Assurance and Deterrence [BAAD] missions to NATO regional exercises” as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve to deter Russia.
Less than two months later, on April 1, 2015, four nuclear-capable B-52H bombers took of from their bases in the United States and flew across the North Pole and North Sea in a simulated strike exercise against Russia. The bombers proceeded all the way to their potential launch points for air-launched cruise missiles before they returned to the United States. Such an exercise had not been conducted since the late-1980s against the Soviet Union. Combined, the four bombers could have delivered 80 long-range nuclear cruise missiles with a combined explosive power of 800 Hiroshima bombs.
Despite its strategic implications, Polar Growl also had a distinctive regional – even limited – objective because of the crisis in Europe. Planning for such regional deterrence scenarios have taken on a new importance during the past couple of decades and they have become central to current planning because it is in such regional scenarios that the United States believes it is most likely that nuclear weapons could actually be used.
“The regional deterrence challenge may be the ‘least unlikely’ of the nuclear scenarios for which the United States must prepare,” Elaine Bunn, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy, in 2014 predicted only a few weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, “and continuing to enhance our planning and options for addressing it is at the heart of aligning U.S. nuclear employment policy and plans with today’s strategic environment.”
Two weeks after the bombers returned from Polar Growl, Robert Scher, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities, told Congress: “We are increasing DOD’s focus on planning and posture to deter nuclear use in escalating regional conflicts.” This includes “enhanced planning to ensure options for the President in addressing the regional deterrence challenge.” (Emphasis added.)
Nuclear Conventional Integration
Much of this increased planning involves conventional weapons such as the new long-range conventional JASSM-ER cruise missile, but the planning also involves nuclear. In fact, conventional and nuclear appear to be integrating in a way they have done before. This effort was described recently by Brian McKeon, the Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, during the annual STRATCOM Deterrence Symposium:
In the Department of Defense we’re working to effectively integrate conventional and nuclear planning and operations. Integration is not new but we’re renewing our focus on it because of recent developments and how we see potential adversaries preparing for conflict. This is an area where the focus in Omaha has really led the way and I want to commend Admiral Haney and STRATCOM for being able to shift planning so quickly toward this approach and thinking though conflict. No one wants to think about using nuclear weapons and we all know the principle role of nuclear weapons is to deter their use by others. But as we’ve seen, out adversaries may not hold the same view.
Let me be clear that when I say integration I do not mean to say we have lowered the threshold for nuclear use or would turn to nuclear weapons sooner in a conventional campaign. As we stated in the Nuclear Posture Review, the United States will “only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.” The NPR also emphasized the importance of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, a requirement that has been advanced in our planning consistent with the 2013 Nuclear Employment Guidance, including with non-nuclear strike options.
What I mean by integration is synchronizing our thinking across all domains in a way that maximizes the credibility and flexibility of our deterrent through all phases of conflict and responds appropriately to asymmetrical escalation. For too long, crossing the nuclear threshold was through to move a nuclear conflict out of the conventional dimension and wholly into the nuclear realm. Potential adversaries are exploring ways to cross this threshold with low-yield nuclear weapons to test out resolve, capabilities, and Allied cohesion. We must demonstrate that such a strategy cannot succeed so that it is never attempted. To that end we’re planning and exercising our non-nuclear operations conscious of how they might influence an adversary’s decision to go nuclear.
We also plan for the possibility of ongoing U.S. and Allied operations in a nuclear environment and working to strengthen resiliency of conventional operations to nuclear attack. By making sure our forces are capable of continuing the fight following a limited nuclear use we preserve flexibility for the president. And by explicitly preparing for the implication of an adversary’s limited nuclear use and providing credible options for the President, we strengthen our deterrent and reduce the risk of employment in the first instance.
Regional nuclear scenarios no longer primarily involve planning against what the Bush administration called “rogue states” such as North Korea and Iran, but increasingly focus on near-peer adversaries (China) and peer adversaries (Russia). “We are working as part of the NATO alliance very carefully both on the conventional side as well as meeting as part of the NPG [Nuclear Planning Group] looking at what NATO should be doing in response to the Russian violation of the INF Treaty,” Scher explained.
Two months ago, a little over a year after Polar Growl, another bomber strike exercise was launched. This time six bombers (4 B-52s and 2 B-2s) flew closer to Russia and simultaneously over the Arctic Sea, North Sea, Baltic Sea, and North Pacific Ocean. The six Polar Roar sorties required refueling support from 24 KC-135 tankers as well as E4-B Advanced Airborne Command Post and E-6B TACAMO nuclear command and control aircraft.