Russia Upgrades Nuclear Weapons Storage Site In Kaliningrad

A buried nuclear weapons storage bunker in the Kaliningrad district has been under major renovation since mid-2016. Click on image to see full size.

By Hans M. Kristensen

During the past two years, the Russian military has carried out a major renovation of what appears to be an active nuclear weapons storage site in the Kaliningrad region, about 50 kilometers from the Polish border.

A Digital Globe satellite image purchased via Getty Images, and several other satellite images viewable on TerraServer, show one of three underground bunkers near Kulikovo being excavated in 2016, apparently renovated, and getting covered up again in 2018 presumably to return operational status soon.

The site was previously upgraded between 2002 and 2010 when the outer security perimeter was cleared. I described this development in my report on U.S. and Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons from 2012.

Between 2002 and 2010, the security perimeter around the Kulikovo nuclear weapons storage site were cleared and upgraded. Click on image to view full size.

The latest upgrade obviously raises questions about what the operational status of the site is. Does it now, has it in the past, or will it in the future store nuclear warheads for Russian dual-capable non-strategic weapon systems deployed in the region? If so, does this signal a new development in Russian nuclear weapons strategy in Kaliningrad, or is it a routine upgrade of an aging facility for an existing capability? The satellite images do not provide conclusive answers to these questions. The Russian government has on numerous occasions stated that all its non-strategic nuclear warheads are kept in “central” storage, a formulation normally thought to imply larger storage sites further inside Russia. So the Kulikovo site could potentially function as a forward storage site that would be supplied with warheads from central storage sites in a crisis.

The features of the site suggest it could potentially serve Russian Air Force or Navy dual-capable forces. But it could also be a joint site, potentially servicing nuclear warheads for both Air Force, Navy, Army, air-defense, and costal defense forces in the region. It is to my knowledge the only nuclear weapons storage site in the Kaliningrad region. Despite media headlines, the presence of nuclear-capable forces in that area is not new; Russia deployed dual-capable forces in Kaliningrad during the Cold War and has continued to do so after. But nearly all of those weapon systems have recently been, or are in the process of being modernized. The Kulikovo site site is located:

  • About 8 kilometers (5 miles) miles from the Chkalovsk air base (54.7661°, 20.3985°), which has been undergoing major renovation since 2012 and hosts potentially dual-capable strike aircraft.
  • About 27 kilometers (16 miles) from the coastal-defense site near Donskoye (54.9423°, 19.9722°), which recently switched from the SSC-1B Sepal to the P-800 Bastion coastal-defense system. The Bastion system uses the SS-N-26 (3M-55, Yakhont) missile, that U.S. Intelligence estimates is “nuclear possible.”
  • About 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the Baltic Sea Fleet base at Baltiysk (54.6400°, 19.9175°), which includes nuclear-capable submarines, destroyers, frigates, and corvettes.
  • About 96 kilometers (60 miles) from the 152nd Detachment Missile Brigade at Chernyakovsk (54.6380°, 21.8266°), which has recently been upgraded from the SS-21 SRBM to the SS-26 (Islander) SRBM. Unlike other SS-26 bases, however, Chernyakovsk has not (yet) been added a new missile storage facility.
  • Near half a dozen S-300 and S-400 air-defense units deployed in the region. The 2018 NPR states that Russian’s air-defense forces are dual-capable. These sites are located 20 kilometers (13 miles) to 98 kilometers (60 miles) from the storage site.

So there are many potential clients for the Kulikovo nuclear weapons storage site. Similar upgrades have been made to other Russian nuclear weapons storage sites over the base decade, including for the Navy’s nuclear submarine base on the Kamchatka peninsula. There are also ongoing upgrades to other weapons storage sites in the Kaliningrad region, but they do not appear to be nuclear.

A Google street-view image from 2017 shows a military stop sign at the approach to the suspected nuclear weapons storage site north of Kaliningrad. Click image to view full size.

The issue of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons has recently achieved new attention because of the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, which accused Russia of increasing the number and types of its non-strategic nuclear weapons. The Review stated Russia has “up to 2,000” non-strategic nuclear weapons, indirectly confirming FAS’ estimate.

NATO has for several years urged Russia to move its nuclear weapons further back from NATO borders. With Russia’s modernization of its conventional forces, there should be even less, not more, justification for upgrading nuclear facilities in Kaliningrad.

Additional Resources:

This publication was made possible by generous grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, New Land Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

US SSBN Patrols Steady, But Mysterious Reduction In Pacific In 2017

The U.S. SSBN fleet conducted 27 nuclear deterrent patrols in 2017, but with a mysterious reduction in the Pacific. Click graph to view full size.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Despite their age, U.S. nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) continue to carry out strategic deterrent patrols at a steady rate of around 30 patrols per year, according to data obtained from the U.S. Navy under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project.

Yet the data shows the U.S. SSBN fleet conducted a total of 27 patrols in 2017 (five less than in 2016), the lowest number of patrols in as single year since the early-1960s when SSBN deterrent patrols began. Even so, the fluctuations are small, modern SSBNs patrol longer than 1960s SSBNs, and the overall patrol number has remained relatively steady for the past decade.

Nonetheless, the new data reveals a mysterious reduction of deterrent patrols in the Pacific in 2017: a nearly one-third drop from the 2016 level of 19 patrols to only 13 in 2017. The drop in Pacific patrols in 2017 happened despite completion of a second Explosive Handling Wharf at the Kitsap-Bangor Submarine Base that same year, which is intended to allow for additional maintenance needed as the submarines get older.

The drop in Pacific SSBN patrols happened despite completion of a second explosive handling wharf at Bangor. Click on image to view full size.

It is unknown what has caused the Pacific reduction. The size of the SSBN fleet at Kitsap-Bangor Submarine Base hasn’t changed, the Navy and U.S. Strategic Command haven’t announced a change in strategy, and there has been no public reports about serious technical problems that could have forced the reduction.

In any case, the SSBN fleet appears have picked up some patrol slack in early-2018. In mid-March this year, the Navy told Congress that SSBNs “conducted 33 strategic deterrent patrols…over the past year,” or five more than the 27 patrols the FOIA release says were conducted through 2017.

Coinciding with the reduction in Pacific patrols, the smaller Atlantic SSBN fleet (6 boats versus 8 in the Pacific) increased its patrols slightly in 2017 (from 13 to 14). As a result, the Atlantic SSBNs in 2017 conducted more deterrent patrols than the Pacific SSBN fleet for the first time since 2005 (14 patrol versus 13 patrols, respectively) when the majority of the SSBN force was shifted to operations in the Pacific.

Altogether, between 1960 and 2017, the US SSBN fleet conducted a total of 4,083 deterrent patrols, which adds up to an average of just over three patrols per submarine per year.

The Navy occasionally announces in public when SSBNs complete deterrent patrols, and less frequently when they begin a patrol. But it far from announces all of them. During the past decade, for example, only about one-third of the annual patrols were announced on average.

The duration of SSBN patrols can vary considerably. The Ohio-class SSBN is designed for 70-day patrols but individual patrols can be cut short by technical difficulties, in which case another submarine will have to take over the assignment. Similarly, sometimes a submarine approaching the end of its scheduled patrol will be forced stay out longer cause the submarine that was supposed to replace it delayed by technical problems. In 2014, for example, the USS Pennsylvania (SSBN-735) stayed out for 140 days – more than four-and-a-half months or twice its normal patrol duration – because of maintenance problems with its replacement submarine. The Navy said it was the longest patrol ever conducted by an Ohio-class SSBN. Again, toward the end of 2017, the USS Pennsylvania stayed on patrol for 116 days.

The USS Pennsylvania (SSBN-735) arrives at Kitsap-Bangor Submarine Base on June 14, 2014, after a 140-day deterrent patrol – the longest ever for an Ohio-class SSBN. Click image to view full size.

The USS Pennsylvania was commissioned in September 1989 – 29 years ago – and completed a mid-life complex reactor refueling overhaul in 2012. The boat is scheduled to be retired in 2031 at age 42, the year the first new Columbia-class (SSBN-826) will sail on its first deterrent patrol.

The 14 Ohio-class SSBNs will start retiring in 2027 and be replaced by 12 Columbia-class SSBNs from 2031. During much of the 2020s, the Navy will have more deployable SSBNs than it needs. Click graph to view full size.

Of the Navy’s 14 Ohio-class SSBNs, 12 are considered deployable (the 13th and 14th boats are in refueling overhaul). Of those, an average of 8-9 are normally at sea, of which 4-5 are thought to be on “hard alert” within range and position of their priority target strike package. The deployed SSBN force normally carries just over 200 SLBMs with around 900 warheads. Another 1,000 SLBM warheads are in storage for potential upload if necessary.

The last two SSBN reactor refueling overhauls will be completed in 2020-2021, after which the Navy will be operating 14 deployable SSBNs, or two more than it needs for deterrent operations. At that point, the two oldest SSBNs – USS Henry M. Jackson (SSBN-730) and USS Alabama (SSBN-731) – can probably be retired.

This publication was made possible by generous grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

Nuclear Weapons Maintenance as a Career Path

The US Air Force has published new guidance for training military and civilian personnel to maintain nuclear weapons as a career specialty.

See Nuclear Weapons Career Field Education and Training Plan, Department of the Air Force, April 1, 2018.

An Air Force nuclear weapons specialist “inspects, maintains, stores, handles, modifies, repairs, and accounts for nuclear weapons, weapon components, associated equipment, and specialized/general test and handling equipment.” He or she also “installs and removes nuclear warheads, bombs, missiles, and reentry vehicles.”

A successful Air Force career path in the nuclear weapons specialty proceeds from apprentice to journeyman to craftsman to superintendent.

“This plan will enable training today’s workforce for tomorrow’s jobs,” the document states, confidently assuming a future that resembles the present.

Meanwhile, however, the Air Force will also “support the negotiation of, implementation of, and compliance with, international arms control and nonproliferation agreements contemplated or entered into by the United States Government,” according to a newly updated directive.

See Air Force Policy Directive 16-6, International Arms Control and Nonproliferation Agreements and the DoD Foreign Clearance Program, 27 March 2018.

2017 Nuclear Stockpile Total Declassified

The number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile dropped to 3,822 as of September 30, 2017, down from 4,018 a year earlier. (Retired weapons awaiting dismantlement are not included in the totals.)The totals do not include weapons that are retired and awaiting dismantlement.)

Meanwhile, 354 nuclear weapons were dismantled in 2017, up from 258 the year before.

These figures were declassified in response to a request from the Federation of American Scientists and were made public yesterday.

The declassification of the current size of the US nuclear arsenal was a breakthrough in national security transparency that was accomplished for the first time by the Obama Administration in 2010.

It was uncertain until now whether or when the Trump Administration would follow suit.

Because the stockpile information qualifies as Formerly Restricted Data under the Atomic Energy Act, its declassification does not occur spontaneously or on a defined schedule. Disclosure requires coordination and approval by both the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense, and it often needs to be prompted by some external factor.

Last October, the Federation of American Scientists petitioned for declassification of the stockpile numbers, and the request was ultimately approved.

“Your request was the original driver for the declassification,” said Dr. Andrew Weston-Dawkes, the director of the DOE Office of Classification. “We regret the long time to complete the process but in the end the process does work.”

Earlier this week, FAS requested declassification of the current inventory of Highly Enriched Uranium, which has not been updated since 2013.

Despite Rhetoric, US Stockpile Continues to Decline

Click on image to view full size. Full document here.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The US nuclear weapons stockpile dropped to 3,822 warheads by September 2017 – down nearly 200 warheads from the last year of the Obama administration, according to new information released by the Department of Defense in response to a request from the Federation of American Scientists (see here for full document).

Since September 2017, the number has likely declined a little further to about 3,800 warheads as of March 2018. This is the lowest number of stockpiled warheads since 1957 (see graph), although the nuclear weapons and the conventional capabilities that make up today’s arsenal are vastly more capable than back then.

Click on graph to see full size version.

The new data also shows that the United States dismantled 354 warheads during the period October 2016 to September 2017 – the highest number of warheads dismantled in a single year since 2009. Since 1994, the United States has dismantled nearly 11,000 nuclear warheads.

The continued reductions are not the result of new arms control agreements or a change in defense planning, but reflects a longer trend of the Pentagon working to reduce excess numbers of warheads while upgrading the remaining weapons. This trend is as old as the Post Cold war era.

The majority of the warheads retired during the Trump administration’s first year probably included W76-0 warheads no longer needed as feedstock for the Navy’s W76-1 life-extension program.

The reduction has happened despite tensions with Russia, bombastic nuclear statements by President Donald Trump, and Nuclear Posture Review assertions about return of Great Power competition and need for new nuclear weapons.

The apparent disconnect between rhetoric and the stockpile trend illustrates that nuclear deterrence and national security are less about the size of the arsenal than what it, and the overall defense posture, can do and how it is postured.

Although defense hawks home and abroad will likely seize upon the reduction and argue that it undermines deterrence and reassurance, the reality is that it does not; the remaining arsenal is more than sufficient to meet the requirements for national security and international obligations. On the contrary, it is a reminder that there still is considerable excess capacity in the current nuclear arsenal beyond what is needed.

President Trump recently said he expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin “in the not-too-distant future to discuss the arms race,” which Trump added “is getting out of control…” He is right. In such discussions he should urge Russia to follow the U.S. example and also disclose the size of its nuclear warhead stockpile, agree to extend the New START treaty for five years, work out a roadmap to resolve INF Treaty compliance issues, and develop new agreements to regulate nuclear and advanced conventional forces.

There is much work to be done.

Additional information:

Declassified stockpile numbers.

Recent FAS Nuclear Notebook on US nuclear forces (written before the new stockpile information became available).

For an overview of all nuclear-armed states, see our Status of World Nuclear Forces.

This publication was made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, and the Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

 

US Strategic Nuclear Forces, and More from CRS

The Congressional Research Service recently updated its report on US nuclear weapons and programs. See U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Developments, and Issues by Amy F. Woolf, March 6, 2018.

That is also the subject of a new survey prepared by Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris of the Federation of American Scientists. See United States nuclear forces, 2018, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 5, 2018.

Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Joint Resolution Seeks to End U.S. Support for Saudi-led Coalition Military Operations in Yemen, CRS Insight, March 5, 2018

Iraq: In Brief, March 5, 2018

Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean Focus on the Politics of Energy, CRS Insight, March 1, 2018

Qatar: Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy, updated March 1, 2018

Millennium Challenge Corporation, updated March 7, 2018

Material Support for Terrorism Is Not Always an “Act of International Terrorism,” Second Circuit Holds, CRS Legal Sidebar, March 5, 2018

So, Now Can Menachem Zivotofsky Get His Passport Reissued to Say “Israel”?, CRS Legal Sidebar, March 1, 2018

Responding to the Opioid Epidemic: Legal Developments and FDA’s Role, CRS Legal Sidebar, March 6, 2018

Banking Policy Issues in the 115th Congress, updated March 7, 2018

How Hard Should It Be To Bring a Class Action?, CRS Legal Sidebar, March 7, 2018

Nuclear Weapons Spending, Blockchain, & More from CRS

The Trump Administration requested $11.02 billion for maintenance and refurbishment of nuclear weapons in the coming year. This represents a 19% increase over the amount appropriated in FY2017.

Recent and proposed nuclear weapons-related spending is detailed by Amy F. Woolf of the Congressional Research Service in Energy and Water Development Appropriations: Nuclear Weapons Activities, February 27, 2018.

Another new CRS report discusses blockchain, the technology that underlies cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. Blockchain provides a way to securely record transactions of various types. “Despite public intrigue and excitement around the technology, questions still surround what it is, what it does, how it can be used, and its tradeoffs.”

“This report explains the technologies which underpin blockchain, how blockchain works, potential applications for blockchain, concerns with it, and potential considerations for Congress.” See Blockchain: Background and Policy Issues, February 28, 2018.

Other recent reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Defense Spending Under an Interim Continuing Resolution: In Brief, updated February 23, 2018

Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, updated February 27, 2018

U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel, updated February 26, 2018

Federal Civil Aviation Programs: In Brief, updated February 27, 2018

Health Care for Dependents and Survivors of Veterans, updated February 26, 2018

Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV): Background and Issues for Congress, updated February 27, 2018

The European Union: Questions and Answers, updated February 23, 2018

After Seven Years of Implementation, New START Treaty Enters Into Effect

Russia and the United States are currently in compliance with the treaty limits of the New START treaty. This table summarizes the evolution of the three weapons categories reported between 2011 and 2018. (Click on graph to view full size.)

By Hans M. Kristensen

[Note: On February 22nd, the US State Department published updated numbers instead of relying on September 2017 numbers. This blog and tables have been updated accordingly.]

Seven years after the New START treaty between Russia and the United States entered into force in 2011, the treaty entered into effect on February 5. The two countries declared they have met the limits for strategic nuclear forces.

At a time when relations between the two countries are at a post-Cold War low and defense hawks in both countries are screaming for new nuclear weapons and declaring arms control dead, the achievement couldn’t be more timely or important.

Achievements by the Numbers

The declarations show that Russia and the United States currently deploy a combined total of 2,794 warheads on 1,179 deployed strategic launchers. An additional 400 non-deployed launchers are empty, in overhaul, or awaiting destruction.

Compare that with the same categories in 2011: 3,337 warheads on 1,403 deployed strategic launchers with an additional 586 non-deployed launchers.

In other words, since 2011, the two countries have reduced their combined strategic forces by: 543 deployed strategic warheads, 224 deployed strategic launchers, and 186 non-deployed strategic launchers. These are modest reductions of about 16 percent over seven years for deployed forces (see chart below).

The New START data shows the world’s two largest nuclear powers have reduced their deployed strategic force by about 15 percent over the past seven years. (Click on graph to view full size.)

The Russian statement reports 1,444 warheads on 527 deployed strategic launchers with another 392 non-deployed launchers.

That means Russia since 2011 has reduced its deployed strategic warheads by 93, or only 6 percent. The number of deployed launchers has increased a little, by 6, while non-deployed launchers have declined by 80, or 24 percent (see chart below).

The Russian numbers hide an important new development: In order to meet the New START treaty limit, the warhead loading on some Russian strategic missiles has been reduced. The details of the download are not apparent from the limited data published by Russia. I am currently working on developing the estimate for how the download is distributed across the Russian strategic forces. The analysis will be published in a subsequent blog, as well in our next FAS Nuclear Notebook and in the 2018 SIPRI Yearbook.

The US statement lists 1,350 warheads on 652 deployed strategic launchers, and 148 non-deployed launchers.

That means the United States since 2011 has reduced its deployed strategic warheads by 450, or 25 percent. The number of deployed launchers has been reduced by 230, or 26 percent, while the number of non-deployed launchers had declined by 94, or 39 percent (see chart below).

US and Russian strategic force structures differ significantly. As a result, the reductions under New START have affected the two countries differently. Russia has significantly fewer launchers so rely on great warhead-loading to maintain rough overall parity. (Click on chart to view full size.)

In Context

The reason for the different reductions is, of course, that the United States in 2011 had significantly more warheads and launchers deployed than Russia. During the New START negotiations, the US military insisted on a higher launcher limit than proposed by Russia. So while Russia by the latest count has 94 deployed warheads more than the United States, the United States enjoys a sizable advantage of 125 deployed strategic launchers more than Russia. Those extra launchers have a significant warhead upload capacity, a potential treaty breakout capability that Russian officials often complain about.

So despite the importance of the New START treaty and its achievements, not least its important verification regime, the declared numbers are a reminder of how far the two nuclear superpowers still have to go to reduce their unnecessarily large nuclear forces. Ironically, because the US military insisted on a higher launcher limit, Russia could – if it decided to do so, although that seems unlikely – build up its strategic launchers to reduce the US advantage, and still be in compliance with the treaty limits. The United States, in contrast, is at full capacity.

But the apparent download of warheads on Russia’s strategic missiles demonstrates an important effect of New START: It actually keeps a lid on the strategic force levels.

Still, not to forget: The deployed strategic warhead numbers counted under New START represent only a portion of the total number of warheads the two countries have in the arsenals. We estimate that the deployed strategic warheads declared by the two countries represent on about one-third of the total number of warheads in their nuclear stockpiles (see here for details).

This all points to the importance of the two countries agreeing to extend the New START treaty for an additional five years before it expires in 2021. Neither can afford to abandon the only strategic limitations treaty and its verification regime. Failing this most basic responsibility would, especially in the current political climate, remove any caps on strategic nuclear forces and potentially open the door to a new nuclear arms race. The warning signs are all there: East and West are in an official adversarial relationship, increasing military posturing, modernizing and adding nuclear weapons to their arsenals, and adjusting their nuclear policies for a return to Great Power competition.

The symbolic importance of New START could not be greater!

This publication was made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, and the Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

New Data Shows Detail About Final Phase of US New START Treaty Reductions

By Hans M. Kristensen

The full unclassified New START treaty data set released by State Department yesterday shows that the US reduction of its nuclear forces to meet the treaty limit had been completed by September 1, 2017, more than four months early before the deadline next month on February 5, 2018.

The data set reveals details about how the final reduction was achieved (see below).

Unfortunately, no official detailed data is released about the Russian force adjustments under New START. Our previous analysis of the overall September 1, 2017 New START data is available here.

Submarines

During that six-month period last year, 20 ballistic missile submarine launch tubes were deactivated, corresponding to four tubes on five Ohio-class submarines. Two of those submarines were in drydock for refueling and not part of the operational force.

In total, the United States has deactivated 56 strategic missile submarine launch tubes since the New START treaty went into effect in 2011, although the first reduction didn’t begin until after September 2016 – more than five years into the treaty.

The USS Louisiana (SSBN-743) returns to Kitsap Submarine Base in Washington on October 15, 2017 after a deterrent patrol in the Pacific Ocean. The submarine carried 20 Trident II missiles with an estimated 90 nuclear warheads.

Of the 280 submarine launch tubes, only 212 were counted as deployed with as many Trident II missiles loaded. The treaty counts a missile as deployed if it is in a launch tube regardless of whether the submarine is deployed at sea. The United States has declared that it will not deploy more than 240 missiles at any time. Assuming each deployed submarine carries a full missile load, the 212 deployed missiles correspond to 10 submarines fully loaded with a total of 200 missiles. The remaining 12 deployed missiles were onboard one or two submarines loading or offloading missiles at the time the count was made.

The data shows that the 212 deployed missiles carried a total of 945 warheads, or an average of 4 to 5 warheads per missile, corresponding to 70 percent of the 1,344 deployed warheads as of September 1, 2017 (the New START count was 1,393 deployed warheads, but 49 bombers counted as 49 weapons don’t actually carry warheads, leaving 1,344 actual warheads deployed). If fully loaded, the 240 deployable SLBMs could carry nearly 2,000 warheads.

The Navy has begun replacing the original Trident II D5 missile with an upgraded version known as Trident II D5LE (LE for life-extension). The upgraded version carries the new Mk6 guidance system and the enhanced W76-1/Mk4A warhead (or the high-yield W88-0/Mk5). In the near future, according to the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), some of the missiles would be equipped with a low-yield version of the W76-1.

The Navy is developing a new fleet of 12 Columbia-class missile submarines to begin replacing the Ohio-class SSBNs in the late-2020s. The Trump NPR states that “at least” 12 will be built. Each Columbia-class SSBN, the first of which will deploy on deterrent patrol in 2031, will have 16 missile tubes for a total of 192, a reduction of one-third from the current number of SSBN tubes. Ten deployable boats will be able to carry 160 Trident II D5LE missiles with a maximum capacity of 1,280 warheads; normally they will likely carry about the same number of warheads as the current force, with an average of about 5 to 6 warheads per missile.

ICBMs

The New START data shows the United States now has just under 400 Minuteman III ICBMs in silos, down from 405 in March 2017. Normally the Air Force strides to have 400 deployed but one missile was undergoing maintenance.

A Minuteman III ICBM is removed from its silo at F.E. Warren AFB on June 2, 2017, the last to be offloaded to bring the United States into compliance with the New START treaty limits.

Although the number of deployed ICBMs had declined from 450 to 400, the total numbers of missiles and silos have not. The data shows the Air Force has the same number of missiles and silos as in March 2017 because 50 empty silos are “kept warm” and ready to load 50 non-deployed missiles if necessary. Reduction of deployed ICBMs started in 2016, five years after the New START was signed. And the actual ICBM force is the same size as when the treaty was signed.

The 399 deployed ICBMs carried 399 W78/Mk12A or W87/Mk21 warheads. Although normally loaded with only one warhead each, the Trump NPR confirms that “a portion of the ICBM force can be uploaded” if necessary. We estimate the ICBM force has the capacity to carry a maximum of 800 warheads.

An ICBM replacement program is underway to build a new ICBM (programmatically called Ground Based Strategic Deterrent) to begin replacing the Minuteman III from 2029. The new ICBM will have enhanced penetration and warhead fuzing capabilities.

Heavy Bombers

The New START data shows the US Air Force has completed the denuclearization of excess nuclear bombers to 66 aircraft. This includes 20 B-2A stealth bombers for gravity bombs and 46 B-52H bombers for cruise missiles. Only 49 of the 66 bombers were counted as deployed as of September 1, 2017. Another 41 B-52Hs have been converted to non-nuclear armament such as the conventional long-range JASSM-ER cruise missile.

The New START treaty counts each of the 66 bombers as one weapon even though each B-2A can carry up to 16 bombs and each B-52H can carry up to 20 cruise missiles. We estimate there are nearly 1,000 bombs and cruise missiles available for the bombers, of which about 300 are deployed at two of the three bomber bases.

The first B-52H bomber was denuclearized under New START in September 2015. Denuclearization of excess nuclear bombers was completed in early 2017.

The bomber force was the first leg of the Triad to begin reductions under New START, starting with denuclearization of the (non-operational) B-52Gs and later excess B-52Hs. The first B-52H war denuclearized in September 2015 and the last of 41 in early 2017. Despite the denuclearization of excess aircraft, however, the actual number of bombers assigned nuclear strike missions under the strategic war plans is about the same today as in 2011.

A new heavy bomber known as the B-21 Raider is under development and planned to begin replacing nuclear and conventional bombers in the mid-2020s. The B-21 will be capable of carrying both the new B61-12 guided nuclear bomb and the new LRSO nuclear cruise missile. The Air Force wants at least 100 B-21s but can only make 66 nuclear-capable unless it plans to exceed the size of the current nuclear bomber force.

Looking Ahead

With the completion of the force reductions under New START in preparation for the treaty entering into effect on February 5, 2018, the attention now shifts to what Russia and the United States will do to extend the treaty or replace it with a follow-up treaty. With its on-site inspections and ceilings on deployed and non-deployed strategic forces, extending New START treaty for another five years ought to be a no-brainer for the two countries; anything else would increase risks to strategic stability and international security. If the treaty is allowed to expire in 2021, there will be no – none! – limits on the number of strategic nuclear forces. Unfortunately, right now neither side appears to be doing anything except to blame the other side for creating problems. It is time for Russia and the United States to get out of the sandbox and behave like responsible states by agreeing to extend the New START treaty. February 5 – when the treaty enters into effect just 23 days from now – would be a great occasion for the two countries to announce their decision to extend the treaty.

This publication was made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, and the Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

NNSA’s New Nuclear Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan

By Hans M. Kristensen

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has published its long-awaited Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (SSMP) for Fiscal Year 2018. The SSMP is NNSA’s 25-year strategic program of record.

I’ll leave it to others to analyze the infrastructure and fissile material portions and focus on the nuclear weapons life-extension programs (LEPs) and cost estimates.

This year’s plan shows complex LEPs that are making progress but also getting more expensive (some even with funding gaps). There are some surprises (the retirement of the B61-10 tactical bomb), some sloppiness (the stockpile table has not been updated), and some questionable depictions (how to cut stockpile in half with no effect on average warhead age).

Nonetheless, the SSMP is a unique and important document and a service to the public discussion about the scope and management of the nuclear weapons arsenal and infrastructure. NNSA deserves credit for producing and publishing the SSMP. As such, it is a reminder that other nuclear-armed states should also publish factual overviews of their nuclear weapons programs to enable fact-based discussions and counter unsubstantiated rumors and worst-case suspicion.

Nuclear Nuts and Bolts

The 2017 SSMP does not update the nuclear stockpile number but continues to use the 4,018-warhead number (as of September 2016) declassified by the Obama administration in January 2017. The Trump administration has yet to declassify any nuclear stockpile numbers. The number now is estimated at around 4,000.

The report includes a graph that shows the average warhead age in the stockpile over the years. The graph shows the age continued to increase until about 2009, at which point it slowed until leveling out in 2014, presumably because of the significant production of W76-1 warheads (an LEP resets the warhead age to zero). In 2016, the average age began to drop, presumably because of the Obama administration’s 500-warhead cut in 2016 and continued production of the W76-1.

NNSA’s average warhead graph shows no effect from W Bush administration’s massive nuclear stockpile reduction. Click to view full size.

The near-continuous age increase through 2003-2007 is curious, however, because it shows hardly any visible effect from the massive stockpile reduction that occurred in those years. Why did a 50-percent reduction of the stockpile in 2003-2007 not have any effect on the average age of the remaining stockpiled warheads, when a 12-percent reduction in 2016 did? (The reductions in 1992-1994 also had a clear effect on the average warhead age.)

For that to be true, NNSA would have had to retire precisely the same portion of newer and older warheads of each warhead type, which seems odd.

The report reveals that the B61-10 tactical bomb was quietly retired in September 2016. The B61-10 has been in the inactive stockpile since 2006. The retirement is a surprise because the B61-10 is one of four B61 versions NNSA has listed to be consolidated into the B61-12. Once the B61-12 was produced and certified, so the argument was, the older versions would be retired.

The 2017 SSMP reveals that the B61-10 tactical bombs has been retired but continues to list the weapon as part of the B61-12 “consolidation” plan.

Despite the B61-10 retirement, officials have continued to include the weapon in the “consolidation” justification for the B61-12 during congressional hearings in 2017. In fact, the 2017 SSMP itself continues to include the B61-10 in its description of the B61-12 programs: “will consolidate four versions of the B61 into a single variant.”

Despite the B61-10 retirement, the SSMP’s main table of the current nuclear weapons and associated delivery vehicles still lists the bomb (another table in the report does not list the B61-10).

 

The SSMP report’s main table for the arsenal lists the B61-10 even though it has been retired, and gravity bombs for the B-52H even though it no longer caries them.

That table also lists the B-52H as carrying gravity bombs, even though other government documents no longer list gravity bombs assigned to the bomber. The authors appear to have done a sloppy job and simply copied the table from the 2016 SSMP without updating it.

The 2017 SSMP breaks down the extensive nuclear weapons modernization plan:

  • W76-1 LEP: Complete production in 2019. With production of the W76-1/Mk4A having reached 80% and scheduled completion in 2019, Joint Flight Tests for the W76-0 has now stopped. That means it is official out of the stockpile and that all W76 war reserve warhead are now of the new W76-1 design.
  • W87: Gas Transfer System (GTS) field refurbishment appears to have slipped halfway through 2019 with completion in 2024 instead of 2023.
  • B61-12 LEP: First production unit in March 2020. Because program is moving ahead, the Nuclear Weapons Council in 2016 agreed to reduce surveillance tests for the B83 and B61-3, -, -7, and -10 bombs (the -10 has been retired).
  • W88 Alt 370: First production unit December 2019. Cost estimate has increased by 11 percent since 2015.
  • W80-4 LEP: First production unit in 2025. Will use IHE of W80-1 but with new surety features. Unique program risks due to parallel integration with LRSO missile.
  • IW1 (W78/W88): Studies and engineering to begin in 2020 and production to run from 2031 to 2041, a bit shorter than depicted in the 2016 SSMP. Will use W87 pit. ICBM first production unit in 2030 for use in Mk21 RV. SLBM first production unit in 2032 for use in Mk5 RB. PF-4 facility at Los Alamos in August 2016 “fabricated a W87 pit as part of the planned development series,” but next War Reserve pit is not scheduled until 2023.
  • IW2 (W87/W88): ICBM first production unit in 2035. SLBM first production unit in 2036.
  • IW3 (W76-1): ICBM first production unit in 2041. SLBM first production unit in 2042.

The 2017 SSMP also reaffirms the commitment to the “3+2” warhead strategy (which actually is a 6+2 strategy) even though the program is too expensive and potentially threatens the US nuclear testing moratorium. The “3” are so-called “interoperable warheads” intended for deployment on the ICBMs and SLBMs. The SSMP describes the Nuclear Weapons Council’s definition of an IW as “an interoperable NEP [Nuclear Explosive Package], with adaptable non-nuclear components on SLBMs and ICBMs.”

But even though “[f]inal designs of NEPs for the IW1, IW2, and IW3 warheads are yet to be determined,” the SSMP nonetheless confidently declares that the “3+2 Strategy preserves confidence in the stockpile’s operational reliability and effectiveness, while mitigating risk and uncertainty.” IW1 production is not expected until 2031, and I bet there are a couple of more design evaluations and decisions before NNSA can make any realistic assessment about reliability and effectiveness.

Moreover, I hear a lot of grumbling in the Navy and Air Force with concerns about introducing significantly modified warhead designs when the existing versions work just fine. Indeed, because the IW designs have not been tested in the assembled configuration envisioned, the 3+2 plan could introduce new uncertainties into the stockpile about warhead reliability and performance.

The Nuclear Posture Review is considering modifying a SLBM warhead to primary-only configuration to enable rapid low-yield strikes with ballistic missiles.

And The Money?

NNSA’s nuclear weapons budget has increased by 60 percent since 2010, and the agency is hoping for another $1 billion increase in 2018. In anticipation of the new NPR, the 2017 SSMP does not include budget numbers for 2019-2022 (the 2016 SSMP included these out-year numbers). And the detailed cost graph cuts off after 2018, unlike the 2016 SSMP graph that continued through 2021. But NNSA provides a new graph that plots expected weapons activities costs through 2042; there are significant changes compared with the graph included in the 2016 SSMP.

NNSA has restructure LEP spending plan so it moves “bow wave” up earlier, creates new bow wave later, and increases overall long-term costs.

It will take more time to analyze the data but a first impression is that NNSA has reorganized the projected costs so that the bow wave shown in the 2016 SSMP to appear in the 2020s now has been spread out and moved up so that it begins almost immediately and ends in the mid-2020s. Moreover, the graph shows a new high-range estimate cost emerging in the late-2020s and with significantly higher projections through 2042.

As part of that projection, all of NNSA’s LEPs high-end cost estimates appear to have increased, and there are still funding gaps toward the end of some of the programs, a budgeting problem that has previously been pointed out by GAO.

Some LEP programs appear to have insufficient funding.

And if you think the $10 billion B61-12 program is expensive, just check out the high-end cost estimate for the next B61 LEP (known as B61-13): a whopping $13.7 billion to $26.3 billion. Combined, in NNSA’s illustration, all the LEPs add up to $1.4 billion in 2017, increasing to nearly $2 billion per year in 2021-2037, and then ballooning to more than $2.8 billion per year by 2041.

With $2 billion multi-LEP costs annually, another even more expensive B61 LEP looms on the horizon.

Production Infrastructure

The 2017 SSMP also includes some interesting information about the production complex capacity, not least the planned production of plutonium pits at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Production is scheduled to increase from four pits in 2018 to 10 in 2024, 20 in 2025, 30 in 2026, and build capacity to produce 50-80 pits per year by 2030.

Later in the SSMP (p. A-10), it turns out the requirement for the 10, 20, and 30 pits in 2024, 2025, and 2026, respectively, actually is to produce “not less than” those numbers. And the requirement for 2030 is no less than 80 pits.

All of this of course hinges on if and how NNSA can complete the construction of the expensive production facilities needed.

Testing

The 2017 SSMP concludes that “there is no current requirement to conduct an underground nuclear test to maintain certification of any nuclear warhead.” That is good news. The 1993 Presidential Decision Directive (PDD-15, “Stockpile Stewardship”) directed NNSA to maintain the capability to conduct a nuclear test within 24 to 36 months, just in case a test was needed in the future.

But the 2017 SSMP states that NNSA has changed its assessment of what that guidance means and says “the fundamental approach taken to achieve test readiness has also changed.” Unlike the 2016 SSMP, the 2017 SSMP introduces a much shorter readiness timeline for a simple test:

  • 6 to 10 months for a simple test, with waivers and simplified processes;
  • 24 to 36 months for a fully instrumented test to address stockpile needs with the existing stockpile;
  • 60 months for a test to develop a new capability

This reassessment of the test readiness requirement appears to erode the US commitment to the testing moratorium. And it implies that NNSA is anticipating that future and more complex LEPs might potentially require “a simple test” with a nuclear yield. Such a test would be devastating to the international security environment and trigger a wave of nuclear tests in other nuclear-armed states.

For now, warhead development and surveillance rely on subcritical hydrodynamic tests, which are gradually becoming more complex and using more fissile material. The 2017 SSMP describes work is underway to develop an operational “enhanced capability” for subcritical experiments by the mid 2020s.

There were seven “integrated hydrodynamic experiments” conducted in 2016, including for what the SSMP describes as “stockpile options.” These options appear to be different from the known LEPs and stockpile maintenance efforts.

Conclusions and Recommendations

This is not even a Trump SSMP. The document describes the program of record: the maintenance and modernization plan initiated by the Obama administration. Yet in setting the policy framework for the 2017 SSMP, NNSA invokes president Trump’s January 2017 memorandum (NSPM-1) on rebuilding the armed forces to conduct a “new Nuclear Posture Review to ensure that the U.S. nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies.”

This formulation is different and much broader than the requirement listed in the 2016 SSMP, which required NNSA to “maintaining the safety, security, and effectiveness of the nuclear stockpile.”

From NSPM-1, the 2017 SSMP highlight an overall intension “to pursue peace through strength” and “give the President and the Secretary [of Defense] maximum strategic flexibility.”

“Maximum” is a dangerous requirement because it can be used to justify pursuit of all sorts of enhancements for the sake of improved capability. “Sufficient” is a much better word because it forces planners to think about how much is enough and balance this against other realities and requirements.

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review expected at the turn of the year will mainly be focused on implementing the main elements of the Obama administration’s nuclear modernization program, but it is also considering new weapons and modified warheads.

And the tone describing the international environment will certainly darken. In describing the strategic context, the 2017 SSMP unfortunately makes the usual mistake of lumping Russia in among the countries that are “expanding” their nuclear arsenals. In terms of the total number of launchers and warheads, that is not the case.

NNSA’s nuclear warhead modernization plan forms part of a boarder nuclear modernization plan that is unaffordable as currently designed. The Congressional Budget Office recently presented options for how to reduce the costs. Several of those options include scaling back or canceling warhead programs, options that NNSA should actively consider.

Modifying requirements and scaling back ambitions can have considerable effects on what the Nation gets in return for its investments. Consider for example that the complex $10 billion B61-12 LEP only adds 20 years of life for 480 warheads, while the simpler $4 billion W76-1 LEP adds 30 years of life for 1,600 warheads.

The early retirement of the B61-10, moreover, raises obvious questions about why some of the other “consolidation” versions (B61-3, -4, and -7) cannot also be retired early. Moreover, many B83s currently maintained in the stockpile could probably be retired early as well and dismantled.

On dismantlement, the 2017 SSMP is a clear step back. The requirement in the 2016 SSMP to accelerate dismantlement of warheads retired prior to 2009 has been deleted from the 2017 update. And while funding for dismantlement in the 2016 SSMP was increased to two percent of the directed stockpile budget, the 2017 report reduces the budget for warhead dismantlement and disposition to only one percent. Completion of dismantlement of warheads retired prior to 2009 is scheduled for September 2022 – one year later than the deadline listed in the 2016 SSMP. But the 2017 SSMP doesn’t even address what the plan is for dismantling the backlog of the roughly 1,000 warheads that have been retired after 2009.

While dismantlement is not a priority for NNSA or defense planners who are focused on modernization, it is an important and powerful message to the international community that the United States is not only modernizing but actually also scrapping nuclear weapons. After all, with no new arms control treaty to replace New START (not even negotiations), an INF treaty that is close to collapsing, rejection of the Ban Treaty, and rampant modernization programs underway to extend the nuclear era through the rest of this century, what else do we (and the other P5s) have to show at the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference in 2020?

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