Republicans love nuclear weapons reductions, as long as they’re not proposed by a Democratic president.
That is the lesson from decades of US nuclear weapons and arms control management.
If that trend continues, then we can expect the new Donald Trump administration to reduce the US nuclear weapons arsenal more than the Obama administration did.
What? I know, it sounds strange but the record is very clear: During the post-Cold War era, Republication administrations have – by far – reduced the US nuclear weapons stockpile more than Democratic administrations (see graph below).
Even if we don’t count numbers of weapons (because arsenals have gotten smaller) but only look at by how much the nuclear stockpile was reduced, the history is clear: Republican presidents disarm more than Democrats (see graph below).
It’s somewhat of a mystery. Because Democratic presidents are generally seen to be more likely to propose nuclear weapons reductions. President Obama did so repeatedly. But when Democratic presidents have proposed reductions, the Republican opposition has normally objected forcefully. Yet Republican lawmakers won’t oppose reductions if they are proporsed by a Republican president.
Conversely, Democratic lawmakers will not opposed Republican reductions and nor will they oppose reductions proposed by a Democratic president.
As a result, if the Republicans control both the White House and Congress, as they do now after the 2016 election, the chance of significant reductions of nuclear weapons seems more likely.
Whether Donald Trump will continue the Republication tradition remains to be seen. US-Russian relations are different today than when the Bush administrations did their reductions. But both countries have far more nuclear weapons than they need for national security. And Trump would be strangely out of tune with long-held Republican policy and practice if he does not order a substantial reduction of the US nuclear weapons stockpile.
Perhaps he should use that legacy to try to reach an agreement with Russia to continue to reduce US and Russia nuclear arsenals to the benefit of both countries.
The latest set of so-called New START treaty aggregate data published by the U.S. State Department shows that Russia is continuing to increase the number of nuclear warheads it deploys on its declining inventory of strategic launchers.
Russia now has 259 warheads more deployed than when the treaty entered into force in 2011.
Rather than a nuclear build-up, however, the increase is a temporary fluctuation cause by introduction of new types of launchers that will be followed by retirement of older launchers before 2018. Russia’s compliance with the treaty is not in doubt.
In all other categories, the data shows that Russia and the United States continue to reduce the overall size of their strategic nuclear forces. Continue reading →
CBS’s 60 Minutes program Risk of Nuclear Attack Rises described that Russia may be lowering the threshold for when it would use nuclear weapons, and showed how U.S. nuclear bombers have started flying missions they haven’t flown since the Cold War: Over the North Pole and deep into Northern Europe to send a warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The program follows last week’s program The New Cold War where viewers were shown unprecedented footage from STRATCOM’s command center at Omaha Air Base in Nebraska.
Producer Mary Welch and correspondent David Martin have produced a fascinating and vital piece of investigative journalism showing disturbing new developments in the nuclear relationship between Russia and the United States.
They were generous enough to consult me and include me in the program to discuss the increasing Cold War and dangerous military posturing.
Nuclear Bomber Operations Context
Just a few years ago, U.S. nuclear bombers didn’t spend much time in Europe. They were focused on operations in the Middle East, Western Pacific, and Indian Ocean. Despite several years of souring relations and mounting evidence that the “reset” with Russia had failed or certainly not taken off, NATO couldn’t make itself say in public that Russia gradually was becoming an adversary once again.
Whatever hesitation was left changed in March 2014 when Vladimir Putin sent his troops to invade Ukraine and annexed Crimea. The act followed years of Russian efforts to coerce the Baltic States, growing and increasingly aggressive military operations around European countries, and explicit nuclear threats against NATO countries getting involved in the U.S. ballistic missile defense system.
Granted, NATO may not have been a benign neighbor, with massive expansion eastward of new members all the way up to the Russian border, and a consistent tendency to ignore or dismiss Russian concerns about its security interests.
But whatever else Putin might have thought he would gain from his acts, they have awoken NATO from its detour in Afghanistan and refocused the Alliance on its traditional mission: defense of NATO territory against Russian aggression. As a result, Putin will now get more NATO troops along his western and southern borders, larger and more focused military exercises more frequently in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea, increasing or refocused defense spending in NATO, and a revitalization of a near-slumbering nuclear mission in Europe.
Six years ago the United States was this close to pulling its remaining non-strategic nuclear weapons out of Europe. Only an engrained NATO nuclear bureaucracy aided by the Obama administration’s lack of leadership prevented the withdrawal of the weapons. Russia has complained about them for years but now it seems very unlikely that the modernization of the F-35A with the B61-12 guided bomb can be stopped. The weapons might even get a more explicit role against Russia, although this is still a controversial issue for some NATO members.
But the U.S. military would much prefer to base the nuclear portion of its extended deterrence mission in Europe on strategic bombers rather than the short-range fighter-bombers forward deployed there. The non-strategic nuclear weapons are far too controversial and vulnerable to the myriads of political views in the host countries. Strategic bombers are free of such constraints.
A New STRATCOM-EUCOM Link
Therefore, even before NATO at the Warsaw Summit this summer decided to reinvigorate its commitment to nuclear deterrence, former U.S. European Command (EUCOM) commander General Philip Breedlove told Congress in February 2015, EUCOM had already “forged a link between STRATCOM Bomber Assurance and Deterrence [BAAD] missions to NATO regional exercises” as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve to deter Russia.
Less than two months later, on April 1, 2015, four nuclear-capable B-52H bombers took of from their bases in the United States and flew across the North Pole and North Sea in a simulated strike exercise against Russia. The bombers proceeded all the way to their potential launch points for air-launched cruise missiles before they returned to the United States. Such an exercise had not been conducted since the late-1980s against the Soviet Union. Combined, the four bombers could have delivered 80 long-range nuclear cruise missiles with a combined explosive power of 800 Hiroshima bombs.
Despite its strategic implications, Polar Growl also had a distinctive regional – even limited – objective because of the crisis in Europe. Planning for such regional deterrence scenarios have taken on a new importance during the past couple of decades and they have become central to current planning because it is in such regional scenarios that the United States believes it is most likely that nuclear weapons could actually be used.
“The regional deterrence challenge may be the ‘least unlikely’ of the nuclear scenarios for which the United States must prepare,” Elaine Bunn, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy, in 2014 predicted only a few weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, “and continuing to enhance our planning and options for addressing it is at the heart of aligning U.S. nuclear employment policy and plans with today’s strategic environment.”
Two weeks after the bombers returned from Polar Growl, Robert Scher, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities, told Congress: “We are increasing DOD’s focus on planning and posture to deter nuclear use in escalating regional conflicts.” This includes “enhanced planning to ensure options for the President in addressing the regional deterrence challenge.” (Emphasis added.)
Nuclear Conventional Integration
Much of this increased planning involves conventional weapons such as the new long-range conventional JASSM-ER cruise missile, but the planning also involves nuclear. In fact, conventional and nuclear appear to be integrating in a way they have done before. This effort was described recently by Brian McKeon, the Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, during the annual STRATCOM Deterrence Symposium:
In the Department of Defense we’re working to effectively integrate conventional and nuclear planning and operations. Integration is not new but we’re renewing our focus on it because of recent developments and how we see potential adversaries preparing for conflict. This is an area where the focus in Omaha has really led the way and I want to commend Admiral Haney and STRATCOM for being able to shift planning so quickly toward this approach and thinking though conflict. No one wants to think about using nuclear weapons and we all know the principle role of nuclear weapons is to deter their use by others. But as we’ve seen, out adversaries may not hold the same view.
Let me be clear that when I say integration I do not mean to say we have lowered the threshold for nuclear use or would turn to nuclear weapons sooner in a conventional campaign. As we stated in the Nuclear Posture Review, the United States will “only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.” The NPR also emphasized the importance of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, a requirement that has been advanced in our planning consistent with the 2013 Nuclear Employment Guidance, including with non-nuclear strike options.
What I mean by integration is synchronizing our thinking across all domains in a way that maximizes the credibility and flexibility of our deterrent through all phases of conflict and responds appropriately to asymmetrical escalation. For too long, crossing the nuclear threshold was through to move a nuclear conflict out of the conventional dimension and wholly into the nuclear realm. Potential adversaries are exploring ways to cross this threshold with low-yield nuclear weapons to test out resolve, capabilities, and Allied cohesion. We must demonstrate that such a strategy cannot succeed so that it is never attempted. To that end we’re planning and exercising our non-nuclear operations conscious of how they might influence an adversary’s decision to go nuclear.
We also plan for the possibility of ongoing U.S. and Allied operations in a nuclear environment and working to strengthen resiliency of conventional operations to nuclear attack. By making sure our forces are capable of continuing the fight following a limited nuclear use we preserve flexibility for the president. And by explicitly preparing for the implication of an adversary’s limited nuclear use and providing credible options for the President, we strengthen our deterrent and reduce the risk of employment in the first instance.
Regional nuclear scenarios no longer primarily involve planning against what the Bush administration called “rogue states” such as North Korea and Iran, but increasingly focus on near-peer adversaries (China) and peer adversaries (Russia). “We are working as part of the NATO alliance very carefully both on the conventional side as well as meeting as part of the NPG [Nuclear Planning Group] looking at what NATO should be doing in response to the Russian violation of the INF Treaty,” Scher explained.
Two months ago, a little over a year after Polar Growl, another bomber strike exercise was launched. This time six bombers (4 B-52s and 2 B-2s) flew closer to Russia and simultaneously over the Arctic Sea, North Sea, Baltic Sea, and North Pacific Ocean. The six Polar Roar sorties required refueling support from 24 KC-135 tankers as well as E4-B Advanced Airborne Command Post and E-6B TACAMO nuclear command and control aircraft.
The U.S. Air Force today sent two non-nuclear B-1 bombers to overfly South Korea in response to North Korea’s recent nuclear test.
The operation coincides with the deployment of two non-nuclear B-1 bombers and a recently denuclearized B-52 bomber to Europe for exercise Ample Strike.
To be sure, nuclear bombers continue to deploy to both Asia and Europe, and U.S. strategic bombers have had the capability to deliver conventional weapons for many years.
But the use of exclusively non-nuclear strategic bombers in support of extended deterrence missions signals a new phase in U.S. military strategy that is part of an effort to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. Continue reading →
The US Navy has quietly built a new $294 million underground nuclear weapons storage complex at the Strategic Weapons Facility Pacific (SWFPAC), a high-security base in Washington that stores and maintains the Trident II ballistic missiles and their nuclear warheads for the strategic submarine fleet operating in the Pacific Ocean.
The SWFPAC and the eight Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) homeported at the adjacent Bangor Submarine Base are located only 20 miles (32 kilometers) from downtown Seattle. The SWFPAC and submarines are thought to store more than 1,300 nuclear warheads with a combined explosive power equivalent to more than 14,000 Hiroshima bombs.
A similar base with six SSBNs is located at Kings Bay in Georgia on the US east coast, which houses the SWFLANT (Strategic Weapons Facility Atlantic) that appears to have a dirt-covered warhead storage facility instead of the underground complex built at SWFPAC. Of the 14 SSBNs in the US strategic submarine fleet, 12 are considered operational with 288 ballistic missiles capable of carrying 2,300 warheads. Normally 8-10 SSBNs are loaded with missiles carrying approximately 1,000 warheads.
To bring public attention to the close proximity of the largest operational nuclear stockpile in the United States, the local peace group Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action has bought advertisement space on 14 transit buses. The busses will carry the posters for the next eight weeks. FAS is honored to have assisted the group with information for its campaign. Continue reading →
In its quest to secure Congressional approval for a new nuclear cruise missile, the Pentagon is putting words in the mouth of President Barack Obama and spinning and overstating requirements and virtues of the weapon.
Last month, DOD circulated an anonymous letter to members of Congress after it learned that Senator Dianne Fenstein (D-CA) was planning an amendment to the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act to put limits on funding and work on the new Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) nuclear air-launched cruise missile. The letter not surprisingly opposes the limits but contains a list of amazingly poor justifications for the new weapon.
The letter follows another letter in March from Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall to Senator John McCain that contains false claims about official documents endorsing the LRSO, as well a vague and concerning statements about the mission and purpose of the weapon.
The two letters raise serious questions about DOD’s justifications for the LRSO and Congress’ oversight of the program. Continue reading →
Yesterday I gave a talk at the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting: Global Nuclear Challenges and Solutions for the Next U.S. President. A full-day and well-attended event that included speeches by many important people, including Ben Rhodes, who is Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications in the Obama administration.
My presentation was on the panel “Examining the U.S. Nuclear Spending Binge,” which included Mark Cancian from CSIS, Amy Woolf from CRS, and Andrew Weber, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs. I was asked to speak about the enhancement of nuclear weapons that happens during the nuclear modernization programs and life-extension programs and the implications these improvement might have for strategic stability.
My briefing described enhancement of military capabilities of the B61-12 nuclear bomb, the new air-launched cruise missile (LRSO), and the W76-1 warhead on the Trident submarines. The briefing slides are available here:
Shortly before President Barack Obama is scheduled to arrive for his historic visit to Hiroshima, the first of two Japanese cities destroyed by U.S. nuclear bombs in 1945, the Pentagon has declassified and published updated numbers for the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and warhead dismantlements.
Those numbers show that the Obama administration has reduced the U.S. stockpile less than any other post-Cold War administration, and that the number of warheads dismantled in 2015 was lowest since President Obama took office.
The declassification puts a shadow over the Hiroshima visit by reminding everyone about the considerable challenges that remain in reducing excessive nuclear arsenals – not to mention the daunting goal of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. Continue reading →
After all, there are plenty of issues that deserve to be addressed, including:
– Why NNSA continues to overspend and over-commit and create a spending bow wave in 2021-2026 in excess of the President’s budget in exactly the same time period that excessive Air Force and Navy modernization programs are expected to put the greatest pressure on defense spending?
– Why a smaller and smaller nuclear weapons stockpile with fewer warhead types appears to be getting more and more expensive to maintain?
– Why each warhead life-extension program is getting ever more ambitious and expensive with no apparent end in sight?
– And why a policy of reductions, no new nuclear weapons, no pursuit of new military missions or new capabilities for nuclear weapons, restraint, a pledge to “put an end to Cold War thinking,” and the goal of disarmament, instead became a blueprint for nuclear overreach with record funding, across-the-board modernizations, unprecedented warhead modifications, increasing weapons accuracy and effectiveness, reaffirmation of a Triad and non-strategic nuclear weapons, continuation of counterforce strategy, reaffirmation of the importance and salience of nuclear weapons, and an open-ended commitment to retain nuclear weapons further into the future than they have existed so far?
What About The Other Nuclear-Armed States?
Despite the contradictions and flaws of the administration’s nuclear policy, however, imagine if the other nuclear-armed states also published summaries of their nuclear weapons plans. Some do disclose a little, but they could do much more. For others, however, the thought of disclosing any information about the size and composition of their nuclear arsenal seems so alien that it is almost inconceivable.
Yet that is actually one of the reasons why it is necessary to continue to work for greater (or sufficient) transparency in nuclear forces. Some nuclear-armed states believe their security depends on complete or near-compete nuclear secrecy. And, of course, some nuclear information must be protected from disclosure. But the problem with excessive secrecy is that it tends to fuel uncertainty, rumors, suspicion, exaggerations, mistrust, and worst-case assumptions in other nuclear-armed states – reactions that cause them to shape their own nuclear forces and strategies in ways that undermine security for all.
Nuclear-armed states must find a balance between legitimate secrecy and transparency. This can take a long time and it may not necessarily be the same from country to country. The United States also used to keep much more nuclear information secret and there are many institutions that will always resist public access. But maximum responsible disclosure, it turns out, is not only necessary for a healthy public debate about nuclear policy, it is also necessary to communicate to allies and adversaries what that policy is about – and, equally important, to dispel rumors and misunderstandings about what the policy is not.
Nuclear transparency is not just about pleasing the arms controllers – it is important for national security.
So here are some thoughts about what other nuclear-armed states should (or could) disclose about their nuclear arsenals – not to disclose everything but to improve communication about the role of nuclear weapons and avoid misunderstandings and counterproductive surprises: Continue reading →
[Updated April 3, 2016] Russia continues to increase the number of strategic warheads it deploys on its ballistic missiles counted under the New START Treaty, according to the latest aggregate data released by the US State Department.
The data shows that Russia now has almost 200 strategic warheads more deployed than when the New START treaty entered into force in 2011. Compared with the previous count in September 2015, Russia added 87 warheads, and will have to offload 185 warheads before the treaty enters into effect in 2018.
The United States, in contrast, has continued to decrease its deployed warheads and the data shows that the United States currently is counted with 1,481 deployed strategic warheads – 69 warheads below the treaty limit.
The Russian increase is probably mainly caused by the addition of the third Borei-class ballistic missile submarine to the fleet. Other fluctuations in forces affect the count as well. But Russia is nonetheless expected to reach the treaty limit by 2018.
The Russian increase of aggregate warhead numbers is not because of a “build-up” of its strategic forces, as the Washington Timesrecently reported, or because Russia is “doubling their warhead output,” as an unnamed US official told the paper. Instead, the temporary increase in counted warheads is caused by fluctuations is the force level caused by Russia’s modernization program that is retiring Soviet-era weapons and replacing some of them with new types.
The aggregate data also shows that Russia is now counted as deploying exactly the same number of strategic launchers as when the New START Treaty entered into force in 2011: 521.
But Russia has far fewer deployed strategic launchers than the United States (a difference of 220 launchers) and has been well below the treaty limit since before the treaty was signed. The United States still has to dismantle 41 launchers to reach the treaty limit of 700 deployed strategic launchers.
The United States is counted as having 21 launchers fewer than in September 2015. That reduction involves emptying of some of the ICBM silos (they plan to empty 50) and denuclearizing a few excess B-52 bombers. The navy has also started reducing launchers on each Trident submarine from 24 missile tubes to 20 tubes. Overall, the United States has reduced its strategic launchers by 141 since 2011, until now mainly by eliminating so-called “phantom” launchers – that is, aircraft that were not actually used for nuclear missions anymore but had equipment onboard that made them accountable.
Again, the United States had many more launchers than Russia when the treaty was signed so it has to reduce more than Russia.
New START Counts Only Fraction of Arsenals
Overall, the New START numbers only count a fraction of the total nuclear warheads that Russia and the United States have in their arsenals. The treaty does not count weapons at bomber bases or central storage, additional ICBM and submarine warheads in storage, or non-strategic nuclear warheads.
Our latest count is that Russia has about 7,300 warheads, of which nearly 4,500 are for strategic and tactical forces. The United States has about 6,970 warheads, of which 4,670 are for strategic and tactical forces.