A Decade After Signing, New START Treaty Is Working

By Hans M. Kristensen

On this day, ten years ago, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri A. Medvedev signed the New START treaty during a ceremony in Prague. The treaty capped the number of strategic missiles and heavy bombers the two countries could possess to 800, with no more than 700 launchers and 1,550 warheads deployed. The treaty entered into force in February 2011 and into effect in February 2018.

Twice a year, the two countries have exchanged detailed data on their strategic forces. Of that data, the public gets to see three sets of numbers: the so-called aggregate data of deployed launchers, warheads attributed to those launchers, and total launchers. Nine years of published data looks like this:

The latest set of this data was released by the U.S. State Department last week and shows the situation as of March 1, 2020. As of that date, the two countries possessed a combined total of 1,554 strategic missiles and heavy bombers, of which

1,140 launchers were deployed with 2,699 warheads (note: the warhead number is actually about 100 too high because each deployed bomber is counted as one weapon even though bombers don’t carry weapons under normal circumstances).

Compared with September 2019, the data shows the two countries combined cut 3 strategic launchers, reduced deployed strategic launchers by 41, and reduced the number of deployed strategic warheads by 103. Of these numbers, only the “3” is real; the other changes reflect natural fluctuations as launchers move in and out of maintenance or are being upgraded.

Compared with February 2011, the data shows the two countries combined have cut 435 strategic launchers, reduced deployed strategic launchers by 263, and reduced the number of deployed strategic warheads by 638. While important, it’s important to remind that this warhead reduction is but a fraction (less than 8 percent) of the estimated 8,110 warheads that remain in the two countries combined nuclear weapons stockpiles (less than 6 percent if counting their total combined inventories of 12,170 stockpiled and retired (but yet to be dismantled) warheads).

The United States

The data shows the United States currently possessing 800 strategic launchers, of which 655 are deployed with 1,373 warheads attributed to them. This is a reduction of 13 deployed strategic launchers and 3 deployed strategic warheads over the past 6 months. These are not actual reductions but reflect normal fluctuations caused by launchers moving in and out of maintenance. The United States has not reduced its total inventory of strategic launchers since 2017.

Compared with February 2011, the United States has reduced its inventory of strategic launchers by 324, deployed launchers by 227, and deployed strategic warheads by 427. While important, the warhead reduction represents only a small fraction (about 11 percent) of the 3,800 warheads that remain in the U.S. stockpile (a little over 7 percent if counting total inventory of 5,800 stockpiled and retired (but yet to be dismantled) warheads).

The Russian Federation

The New START data shows Russia with an inventory of 764 strategic launchers, of which 485 are deployed with 1,326 warheads attributed to them. Compared with six months ago, this is a reduction of 28 deployed launchers and 100 deployed strategic warheads and reflects launcher maintenance and upgrade work to new systems.

Compared with February 2011, Russia has cut its inventory of strategic launchers by 111, deployed launchers by 36, and deployed strategic warheads by 211. This modest reduction represents less than 5 percent of the estimated 4,310 warheads that remain in Russia’s nuclear weapons stockpile (less than 4 percent if counting the total inventory of 6,370 stockpiled and retired (but yet to be dismantled) Russian warheads).

The Russian reductions accomplished under New START are smaller than the U.S. reductions because Russia had fewer strategic forces than the United States when the treaty entered into force in 2011.

Build-up, What Build-up?

With frequent claims by U.S. officials and nuclear weapons advocates that Russia is increasing its nuclear arsenal, it is interesting that despite a significant modernization program, the New START data shows this increase is not happening in the size of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.

On the contrary, the New START data shows that Russia now has 170 deployed strategic launchers fewer than the United States, a number that exceeds the size of an entire US Air Force ICBM wing. The Russian launcher deficit has been growing by more than one-third since the lowest point of 125 in February 2018.

The Russian military is trying to compensate for this launcher disparity by increasing the number of warheads that can be carried on newer missiles replacing older types. Most of these warheads are not deployed on the missiles under normal circumstance but stored and could potentially be uploaded onto launchers in a crisis. The United States also has such an upload capability for its larger inventory of launchers and therefore is not at a strategic disadvantage.

Two of Russia’s new strategic nuclear weapons (Avangard and Sarmat) are covered by New START. Other types are in relatively small numbers and do not appear capable of upsetting the strategic balance. The treaty includes provisions for including new weapon types.

Inspections and Notifications

In addition to the New START data, the U.S. State Department also recently updated its overview of the status of the on-site inspections and notification exchanges that are part of the treaty’s verification regime.

Since February 2011, U.S. and Russian inspectors have carried out 328 on-site inspections of each other’s strategic nuclear forces and exchanged 19,852 notifications of launcher movements and activities. Four inspections happened this year before activities were temporarily halted due to the Coronavirus.

This inspection and notification regime and record are crucial parts of the treaty and increasingly important for U.S.-Russian strategic relations as other treaties and agreements have been scuttled.

But time is now also running out for New START with only a little over 10 months remaining before the treaty expires on February 5, 2021.

Russia and the United States can extend the New START treaty by up to 5 more years. It is essential both sides act responsibly and do so to preserve this essential agreement.

See also: Count-Down Begins For No-Brainer: Extend New START Treaty

This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

Count-Down Begins For No-Brainer: Extend New START Treaty

By Matt Korda and Hans M. Kristensen

One year from today, on February 5, 2021, the New START treaty will expire, unless the United States and Russia act to extend the last nuclear arms control agreement for an additional five years.

No matter your political orientation, treaty extension is a no-brainer – for at least six primary reasons.

1. New START keeps nuclear arsenals in check. If the treaty expires, there will be no constraints on US or Russian strategic arsenals for the first time since 1972. It would remove caps on how many strategic nuclear missiles and bombers the two sides can own and how many warheads that are carried on them. This means that Russia could quickly upload about a thousand new warheads onto its deployed missile arsenal–without adding a single new missile. The United States could upload even more because it has more missiles and bombers than Russia (see table below). And both sides could begin to increase their arsenals, risking a new nuclear arms race.

Both Russia and the United States have large warhead inventories that could be added to missiles and bombers if New START treaty expires. Click image to view full size

At a time when NATO-Russian relations are at their lowest since the end of the Cold War, when long-term predictability is more important than in the past three decades, allowing New START constraints to expire is obviously not in the US strategic interest or that of its allies. Very simply, New START is a good deal for both the United States and Russia; it cannot be allowed to expire without replacing it with something better.

2. New START force level is the basis for current nuclear infrastructure plans. Both the United States and Russia have structured their nuclear weapons and industry modernization plans on the assumption that the New START force level will continue, or at least not increase. If New START falls away, those assumptions and modernization plans will have to be revised, resulting in significant additional costs that neither Russia nor the United States can afford.

3. New START offers transparency and predictability in an unstable world. Under the current treaty, the United States receives a notification every time a Russian missile is deployed, every time a missile or bomber moves between bases, and every time a new missile is produced. Without these notifications, the United States would have to spend more money and incur significant risks to get the exact same information through National Technical Means (i.e. satellites and other forms of site monitoring). Russia benefits in the same way.

New START has forced Russia and the United States to reduce deployed strategic nuclear forces. Click image to view full size

Why would we willingly give all that up – to get absolutely nothing in return (and actually pay a steep price for giving it up)?

4. New START has overwhelming bipartisan support––even among Trump voters. Not only is extension a foreign policy priority for Democrats, but polling data indicates that approximately 70% of Trump voters across the country are in favor of extending New START.

 

 

Additionally, senior military leaders like the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command have expressed support for the treaty. Even one of Trump’s own political appointees, Deputy Secretary of Defense for Policy David Trachtenberg, has testified that that “the transparency and verification requirements of the New START Treaty are a benefit” to the security of the United States.

5. We won’t get another chance. If New START expires next year, arms control between Russia and the United States as we know it is effectively over. Given the underlying East-West tensions and upcoming dramatic governance shifts in both the United States and Russia, there appears to be little interest or bandwidth available on either side in negotiating a new and improved treaty.

Moreover, although future arms control must attempt to incorporate other nuclear-armed states, efforts to do so should not jeopardize New START.

At risk of stating the obvious, negotiating a new treaty is exponentially more difficult than extending an existing one.

6. It’s easy. Extension of New START doesn’t require Congressional legislation or Senate ratification. All it takes is a presidential stroke of a pen. And at the end of 2019, Putin offered to immediately extend the treaty “without any preconditions.” President Trump should immediately take him up on his offer; as of today, he has exactly one year left to do so. But don’t wait till the last minute! Get it done!

Additional information:

This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

US Deploys New Low-Yield Nuclear Submarine Warhead

By William M. Arkin* and Hans M. Kristensen

The USS Tennessee (SSBN-734) at sea. The Tennessee is believed to have deployed on an operational patrol in late 2019, the first SSBN to deploy with new low-yield W76-2 warhead. (Picture: U.S. Navy)

The US Navy has now deployed the new W76-2 low-yield Trident submarine warhead. The first ballistic missile submarine scheduled to deploy with the new warhead was the USS Tennessee (SSBN-734), which deployed from Kings Bay Submarine Base in Georgia during the final weeks of 2019 for a deterrent patrol in the Atlantic Ocean.

The W76-2 warhead was first announced in the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) unveiled in February 2018. There, it was described as a capability to “help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities,” a reference to Russia. The justification voiced by the administration was that the United States did not have a “prompt” and useable nuclear capability that could counter – and thus deter – Russian use of its own tactical nuclear capabilities.

We estimate that one or two of the 20 missiles on the USS Tennessee and subsequent subs will be armed with the W76-2, either singly or carrying multiple warheads. Each W76-2 is estimated to have an explosive yield of about five kilotons. The remaining 18 missiles on each submarine like the Tennessee carry either the 90-kiloton W76-1 or the 455-kiloton W88. Each missile can carry up to eight warheads under current loading configurations.

The first W76-2 (known as First Production Unit, or FPU) was completed at Pantex in February 2019. At the time, NNSA said it was “on track to complete the W76-2 Initial Operational Capability warhead quantity and deliver the units to the U.S Navy by the end of Fiscal Year 2019” (30 September 2019). We estimate approximately 50 W76-2 warheads were produced, a low-cost add-on to improved W76 Mod 1 strategic Trident warheads which had just finished their own production run.

The W76-2 Mission

The NPR explicitly justified the W76-2 as a response to Russia allegedly lowering the threshold for first-use of its own tactical nuclear weapons in a limited regional conflict. Nuclear advocates argue that the Kremlin has developed an “escalate-to-deescalate” or “escalate-to-win” nuclear strategy, where it plans to use nuclear weapons if Russia failed in any conventional aggression against NATO. The existence of an actual “escalate-to-deescalate” doctrine is hotly debated, though there is evidence that Russia has war gamed early nuclear use in a European conflict.

Based upon the supposed “escalate-to-deescalate” doctrine, the February 2018 NPR claims that the W76-2 is needed to “help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities.” The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has further explained that the “W76-2 will allow for tailored deterrence in the face of evolving threats” and gives the US “an assured ability to respond in kind to a low-yield nuclear attack.”

Consultants who were involved in producing the NPR have suggested that “[Russian President] Putin may well believe that the United States would not respond with strategic warheads that could cause significant collateral damage” and “that Moscow could conceivably engage in limited nuclear first-use without undue risk…”

There is no firm evidence that a Russian nuclear decision regarding the risk involved in nuclear escalation is dependent on the yield of a US nuclear weapon. Moreover, the United States already has a large number of weapons in its nuclear arsenal that have low-yield options – about 1,000 by our estimate. This includes nuclear cruise missiles for B-52 bombers and B61 gravity bombs for B-2 bombers and tactical fighter jets.

Yes, but – so the W76-2 advocates argue – these low-yield warheads are delivered by aircraft that may not be able to penetrate Russia’s new advanced air-defenses. But the W76-2 on a Trident ballistic missile can. Nuclear advocates also argue the United States would be constrained from employing fighter aircraft-based B61 nuclear bombs or “self-deterred” from employing more powerful strategic nuclear weapons. In addition to penetration of Russian air defenses, there is also the question of NATO alliance consultation and approval of an American nuclear strike. Only a low-yield and quick reaction ballistic-missile can restore deterrence, they say. Or so the argument goes.

All of this sounds like good old-fashioned Cold War warfighting. In the past, every tactical nuclear weapon has been justified with this line of argument, that smaller yields and “prompt” use – once achieved through forward European basing of thousands of warheads – was needed to deter. Now the low-yield W76-2 warhead gives the United States a weapon its advocates say is more useable, and thus more effective as a deterrent, really no change from previous articulations of nuclear strategy.

The authors of the NPR also saw the dilemma of suggesting a more usable weapon. They thus explained that the W76-2 was “not intended to enable, nor does it enable, ‘nuclear war-fighting.’ Nor will it lower the nuclear threshold.” In other words, while Russian low-yield nuclear weapons lower the threshold making nuclear use more likely, U.S. low-yield weapons instead “raise the nuclear threshold” and make nuclear use less likely. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood even told reporters that the W76-2 would be “very stabilizing” and in no way supports U.S. early use of nuclear weapons, even though the Nuclear Posture Review explicitly stated the warhead was needed for “prompt response” strike options against Russian early use of nuclear weapons.

“Prompt response” means that strategic Trident submarines in a W76-2 scenario would be used as tactical nuclear weapons, potentially in a first use scenario or immediately after Russia escalated, thus forming the United States’ own “escalate-to-deescalate” capability. The United States has refused to rule out first use of nuclear weapons.

The USS Tennessee (SSBN-734) in drydock at Kings Bay submarine base in September 2019 shortly before it returned to active duty and loaded with Trident D5 missiles carrying the new low-yield W76-2 warhead. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Since the United States ceased allocating some of its missile submarines to NATO command in the late-1980s, U.S. planners have been reluctant to allocate strategic ballistic missiles to limited theater tasks. Instead, NATO’s possession of dual-capable aircraft and increasingly U.S. long-range bombers on Bomber Assurance and Deterrence Operations (BAAD) – now Bomber Task Force operations – have been seen as the most appropriate way to slow down regional escalation scenarios. The prompt W76-2 mission changes this strategy.

In the case of the W76-2, carried onboard a submarine otherwise part of the strategic nuclear force, amidst a war Russia would have to determine that a tactical launch of one or a few low-yield Tridents was not, in fact, the opening phase of a much larger escalation to strategic nuclear war. Thus, it seems inconceivable that any President would approve employment of the W76-2 against Russia; deployment on the Trident submarine might actually self-deter.

Though almost all of the discussion about the new W76-2 has focused on Russia scenarios, it is much more likely that the new low-yield weapon is intended to facilitate first-use of nuclear weapons against North Korea or Iran. The National Security Strategy and the NPR both describe a role for nuclear weapons against “non-nuclear strategic attacks, and large-scale conventional aggression.” And the NPR explicitly says the W76-2 is intended to “expand the range of credible U.S. options for responding to nuclear or non-nuclear strategic attack.” Indeed, nuclear planning against Iran is reportedly accelerating, B-2 bomber attacks are currently the force allocated but the new W76-2 is likely to be incorporated into U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) war planning.

Cheap, Quick, Simple, But Poorly Understood

In justifying the W76-2 since the February 2018 NPR, DOD has emphasized that production and deployment could be done fast, was simple to do, and wouldn’t cost very much. But the warhead emerged well before the Trump administration. The Project Atom report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2015 included recommendations for a broad range of low-yield weapons, including on long-range ballistic missiles. And shortly after the election of President Trump, the Defense Science Board’s defense priority recommendations for the new administration included “lower yield, primary-only options.” (This refers to the fact that the W76-2 is essentially little different than the strategic W76-1, “turning off” the thermonuclear secondary and thus facilitating rapid production.)

Initially, the military interest in a new weapon seemed limited. When then STRATCOM commander General John E. Hyten (now Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) was asked during Congressional hearings in March 2017 about the military need for lower-yield nuclear weapons, he didn’t answer with a yes or no but explained the U.S. arsenal already had a wide range of yields:

Rep. Garamendi: The Defense Science Board, in their seven defense priorities for the new administration, recommended expanding our nuclear options, including deploying low yield weapons on strategic delivery systems. Is there a military requirement for these new weapons?

Gen. Hyten: So Congressman, that’s a great conversation to tomorrow when I can tell you the details [in closed classified session], but from a — from a big picture perspective in — in a public hearing, I can tell you that our force structure now actually has a number of capabilities that provide the president of the United States a variety of options to respond to any numbers of threats.

Later that month, in an interview at the Military Reporters and Editors Conference, Hyten elaborated further that the United States already had very flexible military capabilities to respond to Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons:

John Donnelly (Congressional Quarterly Roll Call): The Defense Science Board, among others, has advocated development of new options for maneuvering lower yield nuclear warheads instead of just air delivered, talking basically about ICBM, SLBM. The thinking, I think, is that given the Russian escalate to win, if you like, or escalate to deescalate doctrine, the United States needs to have more options. What do you think about, that is my question. Especially in light of the fact that there are those who are concerned that this further institutionalizes the idea that you can fight and maybe even win a limited nuclear war.

Gen. Hyten: …we’re going to look at that in the Nuclear Posture Review over the next six months. I think it’s a valid question to ask, but I’ll just tell you what I’ve said in public up until this point, and as we go into the Nuclear Posture Review.

…in the past and where I am right now is that I’ll just say that the plans that we have right now, one of the things that surprised me most when I took command on November 3 was the flexible options that are in all the plans today. So we actually have very flexible options in our plans. So if something bad happens in the world and there’s a response and I’m on the phone with the Secretary of Defense and the President and the entire staff, which is the Attorney General, Secretary of State and everybody, I actually have a series of very flexible options from conventional all the way up to large-scale nuke that I can advise the President on to give him options on what he would want to do.

So I’m very comfortable today with the flexibility of our response options. Whether the President of the United States and his team believes that that gives him enough flexibility is his call. So we’ll look at that in the Nuclear Posture Review. But I’ve said publicly in the past that our plans now are very flexible.

And the reason I was surprised when I got to STRATCOM about the flexibility, is because the last time I executed or was involved in the execution of the nuclear plan was about 20 years ago and there was no flexibility in the plan. It was big, it was huge, it was massively destructive. … We now have conventional responses all the way up to the nuclear responses, and I think that’s a very healthy thing. So I’m comfortable with where we are today, but we’ll look at it in the Nuclear Posture Review again.

During the Trump NPR process, however, the tone changed. Almost one year to the day after Hyten said he was comfortable with the existing capabilities, he told lawmakers he needed a low-yield warhead after all: “I strongly agree with the need for a low-yield nuclear weapon. That capability is a deterrence weapon to respond to the threat that Russia, in particular, is portraying.”

While nuclear advocates were quick to take advantage of the new administration to get approval for new nuclear weapons they said were needed to now respond to Russia’s supposed “escalate-to-deescalate” strategy, efforts to engage Moscow to discuss nuclear strategy and their impact on nuclear arsenals are harder to find. See, for example, this written correspondence between Representative Susan Davis and General Hyten:

Rep. Davis: Have you ever had a discussion with Russia about their nuclear posture, and in particular an escalate-to-de-escalate (E2D) strategy, which the Nuclear Posture Review claims is part of Russia’s nuclear doctrine? How did they respond? Do you view this doctrine as offensive or defensive in nature?

Gen. Hyten: I would like to have such a discussion, but I have never had a conversation with Russia about their nuclear posture.

During the Fiscal Year 2019 budget debate, Democrats argued strongly against the new low-yield W76-2, and opposition increased on Capitol Hill after the 2018 mid-term elections gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives. But given the relatively low cost of the W76-2, and the fact that it was conveyed as merely an “add-on” to an already hot W76 production line, little progress was made by opponents. Reluctantly accepting production of the warhead in the FY 2019 defense budget, opponents again in August 2019 tried to block funding in the FY 2020 defense budget arguing the new warhead “is a dangerous, costly, unnecessary, and redundant addition to the U.S. nuclear arsenal,” and that it “would reduce the threshold for nuclear use and make nuclear escalation more likely.” When the Republican Senate majority refused to accept the House’s sense, Democrats caved.

Just a few months later, the first W76-2 warheads sailed into the Atlantic Ocean onboard the USS Tennessee.

* William M. Arkin is a journalist and consultant to FAS

This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

Urgent: Move US Nuclear Weapons Out Of Turkey

By Hans M. Kristensen

Should the U.S. Air Force withdraw the roughly 50 B61 nuclear bombs it stores at the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey? The question has come to a head after Turkey’s invasion of Syria, Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian leadership and deepening discord with NATO, Trump’s inability to manage U.S. security interests in Europe and the Middle East, and war-torn Syria only a few hundred miles from the largest U.S. nuclear weapons storage site in Europe.

According to The New York Times, State and Energy Department (?) officials last weekend quietly reviewed plans for evacuating the weapons from Incirlik. “Those weapons, one senior official said, were now essentially Erdogan’s hostages. To fly them out of Incirlik would be to mark the de facto end of the Turkish-American alliance. To keep them there, though, is to perpetuate a nuclear vulnerability that should have been eliminated years ago.”

That review is long overdue! [Actually, I’ve heard there have been several reviews and a lively internal debate since the 2016 coup attempt.] Some of us have been calling for withdrawal for years (see here and here), but officials have resisted saying it wasn’t as bad as it looked and that the deployment still served a purpose. They were wrong. And by waiting so long to act, the United States has painted itself into a corner where the choice between nuclear security and abandoning Turkey has become unnecessarily stark and urgent.

The situation is even more untenable because Incirlik in just a few years is scheduled to receive a large shipment of the new B61-12 guided nuclear bomb, which would be a recommitment to nuclear deployment in Turkey.

This year is the 60th anniversary of the first deployment of nuclear weapons to Turkey. It is time to bring them home.

Nuclear Weapons At Incirlik

The specific reference in the New York Times article made by officials to nuclear weapons at Incirlik is the most recent and authoritative confirmation that nuclear weapons are still stored at the base. That confirms what I have been hearing and sources at US Air Forces Europe confirmed the report, telling William Arkin the weapons are still there.  There have been rumors the weapons were removed after the coup attempt in 2016 (and some really bad disinformation that they had been moved to Romania). All of those rumors were wrong. An article on the official Incirlik Air Base web site even confirms that the mission of the 39th Operations Support Squadron is “to orchestrate and control US, Turkish, and coalition forces operating at Incirlik Airbase in the execution of full-spectrum airpower and nuclear deterrent operations” (emphasis added). Given that the article will likely be removed now that I have pointed this out, it is reproduced in full below:

I have estimated for the past several years that the Air Force stores about 50 B61 nuclear gravity bombs at Incirlik, one-third of the 150 nuclear weapons currently deployed in Europe (see figure below). This estimate has been used by a wide range of news reports and commentators. The number of bombs at Incirlik has decreased over the past two decades from 90 in 2000. In those days, 40 of the 90 bombs were earmarked for delivery by Turkish F-16s. Those 40 bombs used to be stored in 6 vaults at both Akinci AB and Balikesir AB (20 at each) until they were moved to Incirlik when the US Air Force withdrew its Munition Support Squadrons from the Turkish bases in 1996. The 40 “Turkish” bombs remained at Incirlik until around 2005 when they were shipped back to the United States as part of the Bush administration’s unilateral nuclear reduction in Europe.

The US Air Force stores 150 nuclear bombs at six bases in five NATO countries. Click on map to view full size.

The remaining 50 bombs are for use by US jets, even though Turkey never allowed the US Air Force to permanently base fighter-squadrons at Incirlik. Jets would have to fly in during a crisis to pick up the weapons or they would have to be shipped to other locations before use. As a result, the nuclear posture at Incirlik has been more a storage site than a fighter-bomber base during the past two decades.

Although the Turkish participation in the NATO nuclear sharing mission was lessened (some would say mothballed) by the withdrawal of the “Turkish” weapons, the Turkish F-16s continued to serve a nuclear role. Despite local reports that F-16s never had a nuclear role, the US Air Force in 2010 informed Congress that “Turkey uses Turkish F-16s to execute their nuclear mission,” and that some of the F-16s would be upgraded to be able to deliver the new B61-12 bomb until the F-35A could take over the nuclear strike mission in the 2020s. That is now not going to happen after the Trump administration canceled the F-35 sale.

In 2015, satellite images revealed construction of a new security perimeter around most of the aircraft shelters with nuclear weapons storage vaults. Of the 25 shelters that originally were equipped with vaults, only 21 were included in the new security area with a capacity to store up to a maximum of 84 nuclear bombs. Normally only about two bombs are stored in each vault, for a total of inventory of 40-50 bombs at Incirlik.

The nuclear weapons mission areas at Incirlik AB include the “NATO Area” where nuclear weapons are stored and the nuclear weapons maintenance unit that manages the underground storage vaults

As recently as last month, Vice Chief Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Stephen W. Wilson, visited Incirlik and was given tours of the various functions and facilities at the base. One of these was Protective Aircraft Shelter H-2 inside the “NATO Area” where he spoke to members of the 39th Security Force that protects the nuclear weapons (see below). He was likely also shown the inside of the shelter and the weapons in the vault.

Last month, the Air Force Chief of Staff was taken to a nuclear weapons storage shelter at Incirlik AB. Click on image to view full size.

Recent Activities

If the Air Force decided to withdraw the B61 bombs from Incirlik, it would look pretty much like activities captured by Maxar’s satellites in 2019 and 2017. Those images show what appears to be either actual nuclear weapons movements or training to remove them.

One photo from March 22, 2019, shows a C-17 transport aircraft – likely from the 4th Airlift Squadron of the 62nd Airlift Wing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington – parked right outside the main gate to the NATO Area. The 4th Airlift Squadron, which is the only unit in the Air Force that is qualified to airlift nuclear weapons, flies Prime Nuclear Airlift Force (PNAF) and Emergency Nuclear Airlift Operations (ENAO) missions (see images below).

Click image to view full size.

The satellite image shows the C-17 and gate area surrounded by armored vehicles and armed guards of the 39th Security Force as well as technicians to protect and carry out the weapon movement. One of the unique vehicles seen is an 18-meter truck lined up with the loading pad of the C-17. The same type of truck can be seen parked at the weapons maintenance unit building a few months later (see image below).

This Maxar satellite image acquired via Earth Watch shows what appears to be a nuclear weapons movement or exercise in March 2019. Click on image to view full size.

Another set of Maxar satellite photos of a possible nuclear weapons movement or exercise is from December 2017. A Nuclear Security Inspection that year (and 2014)  reportedly included weapons emergency evacuation drills. The scenario on the 2017 image is similar to that on the 2019 image: a C-17 parked outside the gate, security vehicles surrounding the scene, and transporters for moving weapons. But the 2017 photos are unique because they were taken moments apart as the satellite passed overhead. As a result, movements become visible: On the first image, a possible weapons trailer towed behind a truck in a column of armored security vehicles is moving toward the outer gate of the NATO Area. On the second photo, the column has passed through the gate onto the tarmac and the towed trailer is turning toward the rear of the C-17. The aircraft shadow shows the loading ramp is open and ready to receive the weapons (see image below).

This unique double-image shows what appears to be a nuclear weapons movement or exercise in December 2017. Click on image to view full size.

The Task At Hand: Withdraw The Weapons!

The B61 nuclear bombs at Incirlik should have been withdrawn long ago but tradition, Cold War thinking, and bureaucratic inertia prevented officials from doing the right thing. Now things have come to a head where the United States is faced with the choice of securing its weapons or be seen as abandoning Turkey.

Withdrawing the weapons does not, of course, mean the United States is abandoning Turkey. That relationship is already in serious trouble and keeping the weapons at Incirlik based on the idea that it will somehow counterweight Turkey’s further drift away from NATO is probably an illusion. That boat seems to have sailed; the relationship is likely to deteriorate whether or not there are nuclear weapons at Incirlik. That is the reality the Air Force must relate to now.

Nuclear weapons security convoy at Incirlik AB in 2009.

Another argument against withdrawal will be that moving them out of Turkey will cause the other members of the so-called nuclear sharing arrangement (Belgium, Germany, Holland, Italy) to question why they should continue to store U.S. nuclear weapons. Withdrawal from Turkey could, so the argument goes, trigger a domino effect of withdrawal from other countries as well.

But the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear bombs from Greece in 2001 and from England five years later did not cause the other countries to demand withdrawal as well or the collapse of NATO. If they truly believe deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons is important for NATO security, then they will stay. If the mission falls with withdrawal from Turkey, then they obviously don’t think it’s important and the weapons should be withdrawn from all the countries anyway. The U.S. extended deterrence posture in Europe can adequately be maintained with advanced conventional forces backed up by strategic forced in the background.

The B61 bombs at Incirlik could easily be dispersed to empty storage vaults in the other countries. Space is not a problem. There are a total of 96 empty weapon slots in the active WS3 vaults in Belgium, Germany, Holland, and Italy. Moreover, there are 25 empty and inactive WS3 vaults with room for 100 bombs at RAF Lakenheath. But public and parliamentary opposition would likely prevent increasing the number of nuclear bombs stored in those countries. If the order goes out to evacuate Incirlik, it seems more likely the bombs would be returned to the United States.

There will be some people who will argue that deteriorating relations with Russia and Moscow’s alleged increased reliance on a so-called “escalate-to-deescalate” strategy of using tactical nuclear weapons first prevent the United States from reducing – certainly withdrawing – its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe. Those are curiously the same people who also argue that the United States should deploy a new low-yield warhead on its strategic submarines and a new nuclear cruise missile on its attack submarines to better counter Russian tactical nuclear weapons – a thinking that was recently endorsed by the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review. That seems to signal to the European allies that the United States actually no longer believes the deployment of B61 nuclear bombs in Europe is credible and that other and better weapons are needed.

Whatever one might think about U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, Turkey is no longer an acceptable location. Erdogan’s confrontational and authoritarian leadership is rapidly undermining Turkey’s status as a reliable NATO ally, and the deteriorating security situation in the region presents a real physical threat to the weapons at Incirlik. That threat is real and the U.S. military sees it as real. So much so that an extra security force squadron deployed to Incirlik from Aviano Air Base in Italy to beef up nuclear security in response to “regional turmoil and government instability” according to USAF source, and Ohio Army National Guard military police reportedly were dispatched to Incirlik specifically to increase base security.

The security threat to the weapons at Incirlik is urgent and the continued deployment of nuclear weapons at the location is unjustifiable and incompatible with U.S. nuclear security standards. If you don’t believe that, ask yourself this question: If there were no U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey and someone asked for them to be deployed to Incirlik, would the Pentagon approve?

I doubt it. It’s time to face reality and withdraw the weapons from Turkey before they have to be evacuated under fire.

Additional information:

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

New START Treaty Data Shows Treaty Keeping Lid On Strategic Nukes

By Hans M. Kristensen

The latest data on US and Russian strategic nuclear forces limited by the New START treaty shows the treaty is serving its intended purpose of keeping a lid on the two countries’ arsenals.

The data was published by the State Department yesterday.

Despite deteriorating relations and revival of “Great Power Competition” strategies, the data shows neither side has increased deployed strategic force levels in the past year.

The data set released is the last before the New START treaty enters its final year before it expires in February 2021. The treaty can be extended for another five years by the stroke of a pen, but arms control opponents in Washington and Moscow are working hard to prevent this from happening. If they succeed, the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals will be completely unregulated for the first time since the 1970s.

By The Numbers

The latest data shows that the United States and Russia combined, as of March 1st, 2019, deployed a total of 1,181 strategic launchers (long-range ballistic missiles and heavy bombers) with a total of 2,802 warheads attributed to them (see chart below). That is very close to the combined forces they deployed six months ago. These two arsenals constitute more strategic launchers and warheads than all the world’s other seven nuclear-armed states possess combined.

For Russia, the data shows 513 deployed strategic launchers with 1,426 warheads. That’s a slight decrease of 11 launchers and 3 warheads compared with March 2019. Russia is currently 187 launchers and 124 warheads below the treaty limit for deployed strategic weapons.

The United States deploys 668 strategic launchers with 1,376 warheads attributed to them, according to the new data, or a slight increase of 12 launchers and 11 warheads compared with March 2019. The United States is currently 32 launchers and 174 warheads below the treaty limit for deployed strategic weapons.

These increases and decreases since March 2019 are normal fluctuations in the arsenals due to maintenance and upgrades and do not reflect an increase or decrease of the force structure or threat level.

Click on table to view full size

It is important to remind, that the Russian and US nuclear forces reported under New START are only a portion of their total stockpiles of nuclear weapons, currently estimated at 4,330 warheads for Russia and 3,800 for the United States (6,500 and 6,185, respectively, if also counting retired warheads awaiting dismantlement). Both sides could upload many hundreds of warheads extra on their launchers if New START was allowed to expire.

Build-Up, What Build-Up?

Both Russia and the United States are engaged in significant modernization programs to extend and improve their strategic nuclear forces. So far, however, these programs largely follow the same overall structure and are unlikely to significantly change the strategic balance of those forces. The New START data shows the treaty is serving to keep a lid on those modernization plans.

That said, both countries are working on modifications to their strategic nuclear arsenals. Russia has been working for a long time – even before New START was signed – to develop exotic intercontinental-range weapons to overcome US ballistic missile defense systems. These exotic weapons, which are not yet deployed or covered by the treaty, include a ground-launched nuclear-powered cruise missile (Burevestnik) and a submarine-launched torpedo-like drone (Poseidon). The Trump administration is complaining these new weapons should be included in the treaty. A third weapon, an  ICBM-launched glide-vehicle commonly known as Avangard, is close to initial deployment and will be accountable under the treaty but would likely replace existing deployed warheads. All of these weapons are limited in numbers and insufficient to change the overall strategic balance or challenge extension of New START. The treaty provides for adding new weapon types if agreed by the two parties, although neither side has formally proposed to do so.

Russia is not at an advantage in terms of overall strategic nuclear forces and the new data shows it does not appear to try to close the significant gap that exists in the number of deployed strategic launchers – 155 in US favor by the latest count (up 23 launchers from March 2019). To put things in perspective, 155 launchers are the equivalent of an entire US ICBM wing, or more than seven Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines fully loaded, or more than twice the size of the entire US nuclear bomber fleet. If the tables were turned, US officials and hardliners would certainly be complaining about a Russian advantage. Given this launcher disparity, one could also suspect that Russia might seek to retain more non-deployed launchers for potential redeployment to be able to rapidly increase the force if necessary. Instead, the New START data shows that Russia has continued to decrease its non-deployed launchers (down 12 since March 2019).

Instead of trying to close the launcher gap, Russia is compensating for the disparity by maximizing warhead loadings on its new missiles to be able to keep overall parity with the United States. Since 2016, the New START data indicates that Russia has been forced to reduce the normal warhead loading on some of its ballistic missiles in order to meet the treaty limit for deployed warheads. This demonstrates New START has a real constraining effect on Russian deployed strategic forces.

Having said that, Russia could potentially – like the United States – upload large numbers of non-deployed nuclear warheads onto deployed strategic launchers if a decision was made to break out of the New START limits or the treaty was allowed to expire in 2021. Those launchers would include initially bombers, then sea-launched ballistic missiles, and in the longer term the ICBMs. Significantly increasing the force structure, however, would take decades to achieve because both sides have based their long-term planning on the assumption that the New START force level would continue.

The United States has dismantled and converted more launchers than Russia because the United States had more of them when the treaty was signed, not because Washington was handed a “bad deal,” as some defense hardliners have claimed. But Russia has complained – including in an unprecedented letter to the US Congress – that it is unable to verify that launchers converted by the US to a conventional role cannot be returned to nuclear use. The New START treaty does not require irreversibility, however, and the US insists the conversions have been carried out in accordance with the treaty provisions that Russia agreed to when it signed the treaty.

The Russia complaints about converted launchers and the US complaints about incorporating new strategic weapons are issues that should be resolved in the treaty’s Bilateral Consultative Committee (BCC).

The US complains new Russian strategic weapons should be included in New START and Russia complains it can’t verify irreversibility of converted US launchers

Verification and Notifications

Although not included in the formal aggregate data, the State Department has also disclosed the total number of inspections and notifications conducted under the treaty. Since February 2011, this has included 313 onsite inspections  (25 this year) and 18,803 notifications (2,387 last 12 months). This data flow is essential to providing confidence and reassurance that the strategic force level of the other side indeed is what they say it is. It also provides each side invaluable insight into structural and operational matters that complements and expands what is possible to ascertain with national technical means.

What Now?

Although bureaucrats and Cold Warriors in both Washington and Moscow currently are busy raising complaints and uncertainties about the New START treaty, there is no way around the basic fact: New START is strongly in the national security interest of both countries – as well as that of their allies.

But the treaty expires in February 2021 and the two sides could – if their leadership was willing to act – extend it with the stroke of a pen.

Unfortunately, Russian complaints that it is incapable of confirming US conversion of strategic launchers, US complaints that new exotic Russian weapons circumvent the treaty, Russia’s violation and the US decision to withdraw from the INF treaty, as well as the growing political animosity and bickering between East and West, have combined to increase the pressure on New START and put extension in doubt.

This all captures well the danger of Cold War mindsets where nationalistic bravado and chest-thumping override deliberate rational strategy for the benefit of national and international security. Bad times are not an excuse for sacrificing treaties but reminders of the importance of preserving them. Arms limitation treaties are not made with friends (you don’t have to) but with potential adversaries in order to limit their offensive nuclear forces and increase transparency and verification. If officials focus on complaining and listing problems, that’s what they’ll get.

It is essential that Russia and the United States decide now to extend the New START treaty. Without it, the two sides will switch into a worst-case-scenario mindset for long-term planning of strategic forces that could well trigger a new nuclear arms race.

Additional information:

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

No Bret, the U.S. Doesn’t Need More Nukes

Last week, on the 74th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, many took time to reflect upon the destruction caused by the only uses of nuclear weapons in wartime. But not the New York Times’ Bret Stephens, who took the opportunity to argue in favor of building more nuclear weapons.

In an op-ed entitled “The U.S. Needs More Nukes,” Stephens laid out his case against arms control: “the bad guys cheat, the good guys don’t,” and all the while, the US nuclear arsenal is becoming “increasingly decrepit.”

It’s a simple narrative; it’s also false. In fact, Stephens’ article is largely littered with bad analogies, flawed assumptions, and straight-up incorrect facts about the nature of nuclear weapons and arms control.

As examples of arms control agreements where the “bad guys cheat” and the “good guys don’t,” Stephens cites the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (from which the United States withdrew in 2002), the Iran Deal (which was working until the United States withdrew last year), and the Treaty of Versailles (which famously isn’t an arms control agreement), among others. None of these involved significant cheating on the part of the “bad guys,” unless you count the Trump administration’s violation of the Iran Deal in 2018.

Stephens also cites the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty as a prime example of an arms control agreement gone wrong. Yes, it appears that Russia likely violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by developing and deploying a banned ground-launched cruise missile; however, as we’ve written previously, Trump’s decision to pull out of the treaty makes the United States needlessly complicit in its demise and frees Russia from both the responsibility and pressure to return to compliance. Contrary to Stephens’ thesis, when someone breaks the law, you shouldn’t throw away the law.

And contrary to the title of Stephens’ piece, the United States doesn’t need more nukes. As we explain in our latest US Nuclear Notebook, the Trump administration wants to develop two new ones––a low-yield warhead and a sea-launched cruise missile––both of which are dangerous, and neither of which are necessary. Aside from lowering the threshold for nuclear use, the “low-yield” aspect of the low-yield warhead is a misnomer; it’s roughly one-third the yield of the Hiroshima bomb that killed 100,000 people. And the new sea-launched cruise missile is a concept brought back from the dead: the United States had one until 2013, when the Obama administration retired it because it was pointless, wasteful, and politically controversial.

In addition to his well-established denialism of issues like systemic hunger, rape culture, and climate change, Stephens is known for his hawkish––and often inaccurate––takes on nuclear issues. In 2013, he claimed that the Iran Deal was worse than Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in 1938. In 2017, he argued in favor of regime change in North Korea. Later that year, he derisively referred to ICAN––the group that won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to ban nuclear weapons––as “another tediously bleating ‘No Nukes’ outfit.” In June, he wrote that “If Iran won’t change its behavior, we should sink its navy.” Remember, this is coming from a guy who awarded Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz “Man of the Year” in 2003 (The runners-up? Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Tony Blair, and George W. Bush).

Furthermore, in last week’s piece, he erroneously stated that Iran repeatedly violated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a claim which the International Atomic Energy Agency—the international organization charged with monitoring Iran’s compliance––has continuously rebutted. Noticeably, Stephens linked to Mark Fitzpatrick’s work to back up his claim, but when Mark tweeted out that his article didn’t say anything of the sort, the link was changed. It now references David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, who is known for his hawkish views on Iran.

Stephens’ columns are clearly emphasizing ideology over accuracy. And publishing a pro-nukes article on the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing––without acknowledging the human cost of nuclear weapons, or even the anniversary itself––demonstrates that he is clearly not guided by empathy.

But perhaps most evidently, Stephens’ piece is driven by fear. And understandably so: we’re currently locked into an ever-increasing nuclear arms race with no signs of it slowing down. If you’re not afraid, you’re probably not paying attention. However, crying “more nukes” without articulating any kind of strategic vision isn’t going to get us out of this mess. 

In reality, the best way to get out of an arms race is by refusing to play. The United States shouldn’t base the size of its nuclear arsenal in response to how other countries are tweaking theirs––this only makes sense if you believe that nuclear weapons are for fighting wars. But to quote Reagan’s old adage, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Instead, as explained in Global Zero’s Alternative Nuclear Posture Review, the United States should move towards a “deterrence-only” nuclear posture, which would allow for sizable cuts to the US nuclear arsenal without changing the strategic balance.

Very simply, we need to start enacting ambitious solutions that are equal to the problems that we face. Not just reflexively demanding more nukes.

(image: Yosuke Yamahata, one day after the Nagasaki bombing)

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

The INF Treaty Officially Died Today

By Matt Korda and Hans M. Kristensen

Six months after both the United States and Russia announced suspensions of their respective obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), the treaty officially died today.

The Federation of American Scientists strongly condemns the irresponsible acts by the Russian and US administrations that have resulted in the demise of this historic and important agreement.

In a they-did-it statement on the State Department’s web site, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo repeated the accusation that Russia has violated the treaty by testing and deploying a ground-launched cruise missile with a range prohibited by the treaty. “The United States will not remain party [sic] to a treaty that is deliberately violated by Russia,” he said.

By withdrawing from the INF, the Trump administration has surrendered legal and political pressure on Russia to return to compliance. Instead of diplomacy, the administration appears intent on ramping up military pressure by developing its own INF missiles.

Signed in 1987, the INF Treaty dramatically helped reduce nuclear threats and stabilize the arms race for thirty-two years, by banning and eliminating all US and Russian ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers––a grand total of 2,692 missiles. And it would have continued to have a moderating effect on US-Russia nuclear tensions indefinitely, if not for the recklessness of both the Putin and Trump administrations.

The United States first publicly accused Russia of violating the treaty in its July 2014 Treaty Compliance Report, stating that Russia had broken its obligation “not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.” Russia initially denied the US claims, repeating for years that no such missile existed. However, once the United States publicly named the missile as the 9M729––or SSC-8, as NATO calls it––Russia acknowledged its existence but stated that the missile “fully complies with the treaty’s requirements.” Since then, the United States claimed that Russia had flight-tested the 9M729 from fixed and mobile launchers to deceive, and has deployed nearly a hundred missiles across four battalions.

We assess that involves 16 launchers with 64 missiles (plus spares), likely collocated with Iskander SRBM units at Elanskiy, Kapustin Yar (possibly moved to a permanent base by now), Mozdok, and Shuya. It is possible, but unknown, if more battalions have been deployed.

It is possible that Russia made the decision to violate the INF Treaty as early as 2007, when its UN proposal to multilateralize the treaty failed. Although it’s likely that the groundwork was laid even further back. According to Putin, a new arms race truly began in 2002 when the Bush administration withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty––understood by Putin to be the cornerstone of the US-Russia arms control regime.

For its part, Russia has responded to US accusations with claims that the United States is the true violator of the treaty, stating that US missile defense launchers based in Europe could be repurposed to launch INF-prohibited missiles, among other violations. In a detailed report, the Congressional Research Service has refuted all three accusations.

Regardless of who violated the INF, the Trump administration’s decision to kill the treaty is the wrong move. As we wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists when Trump first announced his intention to quit the treaty, withdrawal establishes a false moral equivalency between the United States, who probably isn’t violating the treaty, and Russia, who probably is. It also puts the United States in conflict with its own key policy documents like the Nuclear Posture Review and public statements made last year, which emphasized bringing Russia back into compliance through diplomatic, economic, and military measures.

The bottom line is this: when someone breaks the law, you shouldn’t throw away the law. By doing so, you remove any chance to hold the violator accountable for their actions. If the ultimate goal is to coax or coerce Russia back into compliance with the treaty, then killing the treaty itself obviously won’t achieve that. Instead, it legally frees Russia to deploy even more INF missiles.

The decision to withdraw wasn’t based on long-term strategic thinking but appears to have been based on ideology. It was apparently the product of National Security Advisor John Bolton––a hawkish “serial arms control killer”––having the President’s ear. Defense hawks chimed in with warnings about Chinese INF-range missiles being outside the treaty (which they have always been) and recommendations about deploying new US INF missiles in the Pacific.

Now, we find ourselves on the brink of an era without nuclear arms control whatsoever. With the demise of the INF, the only remaining treaty – the New START treaty – is in jeopardy, a vital treaty that caps the number of strategic nuclear weapons the United States and Russia can deploy and provides important verification and data exchanges. Although it could easily be extended past its February 2021 expiry date with the stroke of a pen, John Bolton maddeningly says that it’s “unlikely.” And Russian officials too have begun raising issues about the extension. Allowing New START to expire would do away with the last vestiges of US-Russia nuclear restraint, and open the world up to a new open-ended nuclear arms race.

Congress must do whatever it can to convince President Trump to extend the New START treaty.

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

Russia Upgrades Western Nuclear Weapons Storage Sites

By Hans M. Kristensen

Amidst a deepening rift between the United States and Russia about the role of non-strategic nuclear weapons, Russia has begun to upgrade an Air Force nuclear weapons storage site near Tver, some 90 miles (145 kilometers) northeast of Moscow.

Satellite photos show clearing of trees within the site as well as the construction of a new security fence and guard post. The upgrade, which started late-2017 and was completed late last year, was followed by the arrival of what appears to be weapons transport and service trucks earlier this year (see image below).

Upgrade of Russian nuclear weapons storage site near Tver. Click on image to view full size.

The Tver site includes two nuclear weapons bunkers as well as service and security buildings. The new security fence and gate added within the site separates the bunker area from the service area. The site is near the Migalovo Air Base, which is not thought to be housing nuclear strike aircraft but might serve a nuclear weapons transport function. If so, it could potentially be responsible for the distribution of nuclear warheads to tactical air bases in north-western Russia in a crisis.

It is impossible to determine from the satellite images if the Tver site stores nuclear weapons at this time, but it is clearly active with considerable personnel and activities indicating weapons might be present. Alternatively, Tver could serve as an Air Force storage site in a crisis. Tver is one of several dozen nuclear weapons storage sites operated by the Russian ministry of defense and military services (see here and here.

There are also important upgrades underway at the Mozhaysk-10 storage site about 70 miles (114 kilometers) west of Moscow, including addition of new support facilities as well clearing of a previously tree-covered weapons storage igloo. Mozhaysk-10 is one of a dozen national-level nuclear weapons storage site and includes six underground igloos and appears to be expanding (see below). Mozhaysk-10 might be used to store both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.

Upgrade of Russian nuclear weapons storage site near Mozhaysk. Click image to view full size.

The upgrades at the Tver and Mozhaysk-10 sites follow an ongoing upgrade to a nuclear weapons storage site in Kaliningrad that began in 2016 and appears intended to support nuclear-capable forces in the isolated enclave.

Russia is estimated to possess approximately 6,500 nuclear warheads, of which an estimated 4,330 are thought to be available for use by the military. We estimate that Russia has about 1,830 nuclear warheads assigned to non-strategic forces; the Pentagon says the number is “up to 2,000” warheads. The US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) recently said it expects to see “a significant projected increase in the number of Russia’s non-strategic nuclear weapons” over the next decade, although some past DIA growth projections have turned out to exaggerated.

In response, the United States has begun to increase the upgrade of its non-strategic nuclear weapons beyond the already-planned B61-12 guided gravity bomb for stealthy F-35 fighter-bombers. New weapons with “tactical” missions include the W76-2 low-yield warhead on the Trident II D5LE SLBM and a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile. And NATO has been upgrading US nuclear weapons storage sites in Europe.

Russia and the United States refuse to disclose how many tactical nuclear weapons they have or where they are stored, and none of these weapons are limited by arms control agreements.

We will further describe these developments, and much more, in our upcoming Nuclear Notebook on tactical nuclear weapons scheduled for publication in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in September 2019.

Additional information:

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

Damning new report chronicles missile defense slip-ups

Since 2012, Congress has required that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) provide an annual assessment of the Missile Defense Agency’s activities. Previous reports haven’t been particularly encouraging of the MDA’s progress, but this year’s report, which was released last week, was especially incriminating.

Noting that the “MDA did not meet its planned goals,” the report states that the MDA only completed 65-70% of its planned deliveries and tests for FY18, chalking it up to “failures, cancellations, and delays.”

The two most troubling sections of the report were the appendices which respectively describe the setbacks of the Aegis Ashore missile defense infrastructure in Europe, intended for regional threats like North Korea and Iran, and the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, intended for homeland protection of the United States.

Last year, the Polish Ministry of Defense announced that the completion of the planned Aegis Ashore site at Redzikowo would be pushed back by two years, to May 2020. The announcement came amid rumors of poor contractor performance, but details were otherwise scarce. The GAO report finally offers more of an explanation, noting that the construction team “has failed to meet schedule milestones from the start of the contract.” In particular, “MDA has found the contractor’s performance is still particularly poor in the areas of construction management, identification, procurement, timely delivery of important materials, and timely hiring of staff with appropriate skills.” According to the MDA, these delays will require at least an additional $90 million of taxpayer money.

Performance and technical failures with the interceptors themselves have caused additional delays. Technical issues with the SM-3 Block IB’s throttleable divert and attitude control system forced the program to suspend its deliveries, thereby missing most of its FY18 delivery targets. Similarly, when the SM-3 Block IIA failed a crucial intercept test (FTM-29) in January 2018, its subsequent testing schedule was subject to disruption and delay.

The most damning section, however, describes the setbacks of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense program. The report notes the program’s poor testing record (“less than 50 percent operational realism”), and for the first time provides a distribution breakdown of the different types of kill vehicles.

Nearly half (20/44) of the currently deployed GMD interceptors are fitted with the Capability Enhancement (CE)-I kill vehicle, which has only succeeded in two of its four interceptor tests (the most recent of which took place in 2008). Similarly, over a third of the interceptors are fitted with the CE-II kill vehicle, which also has a 50% testing record. In last year’s report, the GAO noted that the MDA intended to replace the unreliable CE-Is as soon as possible by expediting the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) program. However, this year’s GAO report suggests that the RKV program was accelerated too quickly because of “advancements in the North Korea missile threat.” As a result, “the program accepted too much risk,” causing significant technical delays and costing taxpayers an additional $600 million before eventually being cancelled on May 24th.

Although the MDA’s cancellation of such an expensive and technically deficient program is certainly welcomed, it leaves the GMD program in quite a mess. GMD interceptors only have an initial service life of 20 years, which the twenty currently-deployed CE-Is will reach in the mid-2020s. With nothing scheduled to replace them, the GMD program will lose nearly half of its deployed interceptor arsenal in just over five years. However, given the wasteful, destabilizing, and disastrous nature of the GMD program on the whole, this probably isn’t such a bad thing.

One line in the GAO report serves as a particularly brilliant––and somewhat passive-aggressive––indictment of the entire GMD program: “Our prior work has shown that stabilizing system design before making major production commitments and relying on knowledge rather than deadlines to make acquisition decisions at key milestones are best practices of successful product developers.”

Ouch.

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

DIA Estimates For Chinese Nuclear Warheads

By Hans M. Kristensen

During a Hudson Institute conference on Russian and Chinese nuclear modernizations, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley said in prepared remarks: “Over the next decade, China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile…”

This projection is new and significantly above recent public statements by US government agencies. But how reliable is it and how have US agencies performed in the past?

The public record is limited because estimates are normally classified and agencies and officials are reluctant to say too much. But a few examples exist from declassified documents and public statements. These estimates vary considerably – some seemed downright crazy.

But before analyzing DIA’s projection for the future, let’s examine what the estimated Chinese nuclear stockpile looks like today.

Current Chinese Stockpile Estimate

While warning the Chinese stockpile will “at least double” over the next decade, Lt. Gen. Ashley’s prepared remarks did not say what it is today. But in the follow-up Q/A session, he added: “We estimate…the number of warheads the Chinese have is in the low couple of hundreds.

That estimate is close to statements made by DOD and STRATCOM nearly a decade ago. In our forthcoming Nuclear Notebook on Chinese nuclear forces (scheduled for publication in July 2019), we estimate the Chinese stockpile now includes approximately 290 warheads and is likely to surpass the size of the French nuclear stockpile (~300 warheads) in the near future.

Earlier Chinese Stockpile Estimates

Earlier projections made by US agencies of China’s nuclear stockpile have varied considerably. DIA’s estimates have consistently been higher – even extraordinarily so – than that of other agencies (see graph below). The wide range reflects an enormous uncertainty and lack of solid intelligence, which makes it even more curious why DIA would make them. This record obviously raises questions about DIA’s latest projection.

Click on graph to view full size

In April 1980s, for example, DIA published a Defense Estimate Brief with the title: Nuclear Weapons Systems in China. The brief, which was prepared by the China/Far East Division of the Directorate for Estimates and approved by DIA’s deputy assistant director for estimates, projected an astounding growth for China’s nuclear arsenal that included everything from ICBMs, MRBMs, SRBMs, bombs, landmines, and air-to-surface missiles. The brief concluded a curious double estimate of 150-160 warheads in the text and 360 warheads in a table and projected an increase from 596 warheads in 1989 to as many as 818 by 1994. The brief was partially redacted for many years but it has since been possible to reconstruct in its entirety because of inconsistencies in the processing of different FOIA requests.

In the 1990s, CIA published three estimates, all significantly lower than the DIA projection from 1984. But DIA apparently was reworking its methodology because in 1999 it published A Primer On The Future Threat that was lower than the CIA estimate but projected an increase of the Chinese stockpile from 140-157 warheads to 358-464 warheads in 2020. The Primer predicted that deployment of US missile defenses would cause China to significantly increase its ICBM force, a prediction that has come through to some extent and is now ironically used by DIA and others to warn of a growing Chinese nuclear threat against the United States.

Following an intense debate in 2010 about Senate approval of the New START treaty, then-principle deputy undersecretary of defense for policy James Miller told Congress in 2011: “China is estimated to have only a few hundred nuclear weapons….”

And when false rumors flared up in 2012 that China had hundreds – even thousands – of warheads more than commonly assumed, STRATCOM commander Gen Kehler rebutted the speculations saying: “I do not believe that China has hundreds or thousands more nuclear weapons than what the intelligence community has been saying,” which is “that the Chinese arsenal is in the range of several hundred” nuclear warheads.

Since then, China has started to deploy the modified silo-based DF-5B ICBM that is equipped with multiple warheads (MIRV) – part of the response to the US missile defenses that DIA predicted in 1999, and deployed a significant number of dual-capable DF-26 IRBMs. Even so, Ashley’s most recent statement roughly matches the estimates made by Miller and Kehler nearly a decade ago, when he says: “We estimate…the number of warheads the Chinese have is in the low couple of hundreds.”

How Could The Chinese Stockpile More Than Double?

Although Ashley predicted a significant expansion of the Chinese stockpile, he did not explain the assumptions that go into that assessment. What would China have to do in order to more than double its stockpile over the next decade?

There are several potential options. China could field a significant number of additional launchers, or deploy significantly more MIRVs on some of its missiles, or – if the MIRV increase is less dramatic – a combination of more launchers and more MIRV. It seems likely to be the latter option.

Additional MIRVing seems to be an important factor. China is developing the road-mobile DF-41 ICBM that is said to be capable of carrying MIRV. It is also developing a third modification of the silo-based DF-5 (DF-5C) that may have additional MIRV capability compared with the current DF-5B. Finally, the next-generational JL-3 SLBM could potentially have MIRV capability, although I have yet to see solid sources saying so. There are many rumors about up to 10 MIRV per DF-41 (even unreliable rumors about MIRV on shorter-range systems), but if China’s decision to MIRV is a response to US missile defenses (which DIA and DOD have stated for years), then it seems more likely that the number of warheads on each missile is low and the extra spaces used for decoys.

China is also expanding its SSBN fleet, which could potentially double in size over the next decade if the production of the next-generation Type-096 gets underway in the early-2020s. And China reportedly has reassigned a nuclear mission to its bombers, is developing a new nuclear-capable bomber, and an air-launched ballistic missile that might have a nuclear option. Assuming a few bomber squadrons would a nuclear capability by the late-2020s, that could help explain DIA’s projection as well. Altogether, that adds up to a hypothetical arsenal that could potentially look like this in order to “at least double” the size of the stockpile:

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Conclusions

Whether DIA’s projection comes through of a Chinese stockpile “at least double” the size of the current inventory remains to be seen. Given DIA’s record of worst-case predictions, there are good reasons to be skeptical. It would, at a minimum, be good to hear what the coordinated Intelligence Community assessment is. Does the Director of National Intelligence agree with this projection?

That said, the Chinese leadership has obviously decided that its “minimum deterrent” requires more weapons. To that end, the debate over how much is enough, what the Chinese intentions are, and what the US response should be, are important reminders that the Chinese leadership needs to be more transparent about what its modernization plans are. Lack of basic information from China fuels worst-case assumptions in the United States that can (and will) be used to justify defense programs that increase the threat against China. The recommendation by the Nuclear Posture Review to develop a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile is but one example. Both sides have an interest in limiting this action-reaction cycle.

Even if DIA’s projection of a more than doubling of the Chinse stockpile were to happen, that would still not bring the inventory anywhere near the size of the US or Russian stockpiles. They are currently estimated at 4,330 and 3,800 warheads, respectively – even more, if counting retired, but still largely intact, warheads awaiting dismantlement.

But despite the much smaller Chinese arsenal, a significant expansion of the stockpile would likely make US and Russia even more reluctant to reduce their arsenals – a reduction the Chinese government insists is necessary first before it will join a future nuclear arms limitation agreement. So while China’s motivation for increasing its arsenal may be to reduce the vulnerability of its deterrent, it may in fact also cause the United States and Russian to retain larger arsenals than otherwise and even increase their capabilities to threaten China.

Whether DIA’s projection pans out or not, it is an important reminder of the increasingly dynamic nuclear competition that is in full swing between the large nuclear weapons states. The pace and scope of that competition are intensifying in ways that will diminish security and increase risks for all sides. Strengthening deterrence is not always beneficial and even smaller arsenals can have significant effects.

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