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

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

By Hans M. Kristensen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Hans M. Kristensen

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

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

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

Achievements by the Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Context

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

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

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

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

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

The symbolic importance of New START could not be greater!

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

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

By Hans M. Kristensen

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

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

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

Submarines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ICBMs

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

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

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

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

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

Heavy Bombers

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead

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

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

NNSA’s New Nuclear Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan

By Hans M. Kristensen

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

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

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

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

Nuclear Nuts and Bolts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And The Money?

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

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

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

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

Some LEP programs appear to have insufficient funding.

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

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

Production Infrastructure

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

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

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

Testing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions and Recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US B-1B bomber assurance missions to Korea

Two USAF B-1B Lancer bombers fly alongside a JASDF F-2 over the East China Sea, October 21, 2017. Photo: PACAF, http://www.pacaf.af.mil/News/Photos/igphoto/2001830673/

By Adam Mount

As the Trump administration has prioritized North Korea, it has expanded military exercises around the peninsula to attempt to coerce the regime and assure US allies in Seoul and Tokyo. Perhaps the most dependable signal has been B-1B bombers missions to allied airspace. Though the flights were staged regularly during the Obama administration, they have become more frequent over the last year and more assertive. A review of official press releases and public reporting places this week’s flight of a conventional B-1B bomber near the Korean peninsula as the thirteenth of 2017.

The B-1B bomber originally entered service in 1986 as a supersonic nuclear bomber intended to serve as an interim step between the aging B-52 and the stealthy B-2. The B-1B’s nuclear mission was eliminated in 1994, after which the Air Force did not expend money to maintain its nuclear certification. To meet its obligations under the START treaties, the B-1B was converted to a conventional only platform by welding a metal sleeve onto the aircraft to prevent installation of cruise missile pylons and by removing cable connections in the weapon bays necessary to arm nuclear munitions. As part of New START, Russian observers inspected these modifications in 2011 and accepted the bomber as nonnuclear.

Though effectively nonnuclear, the regional perception of the B-1B is more nuanced. South Korea regularly refers to these flights as demonstrating “strategic assets,” a term usually applied to nuclear-capable platforms. By allowing the term to refer to the intercontinental range of the aircraft in this context, the United States mollifies South Korean officials who desire frequent signals of the US nuclear commitment without devaluing their nuclear signaling options.

Perceptions of the flights are additionally complicated by the fact that North Korea regularly refers to the B-1B as a nuclear platform. For example, North Korea decried this week’s flight a “nuclear strike drill.”  Whether they do so for propaganda purposes or genuinely believe the aircraft is nuclear-capable is not clear, but defense strategists must consider the possibility that Pyongyang perceives a nuclear signal, even if the US officials did not intend to send one. What is clear is that the B-1B flights are of particular concern for Pyongyang. In August, 2017, state propaganda agency KCNA described “the operational plan for making an enveloping fire at the areas around Guam” by firing four Hwasong-12 IRBMs as a way of containing” B-1B flights. The threat was an early attempt to brandish North Korea’s new long-range missiles in an attempt to coerce the US-South Korea alliance to modify its deterrent posture.

The missions are meant to ensure interoperability with allied forces and reassure allies of US defense commitments. US defense observers now widely doubt that the missions have any deterrent value and have instead become essentially routine signals of assurance to South Korea. North Korea now expects that any major test or provocation will elicit a B-1B flight in response. The assurance value of the flights is also an open question. Though ROK officials appreciate the signal, in the wake of the North Korean ICBM and thermonuclear weapons tests, they have also reportedly sought explicit signals of the US nuclear commitment as well as new conventional military signals. As such, the flights now probably have limited value to the alliance and several observers suggest that they could be modified if North Korea proved willing to negotiate tensions reductions measures.

B-1B missions more frequent and more assertive

(1) reported by CNN
(2) two flights
(3) airshow visit

‘For the first two months of the Trump administration, US Pacific Air Force did not carry out B-1B flights. From March through June, there was one flight per month. Since then, the alliance has conducted two B-1B flights to Korea per month, often in direct response to North Korean missile or nuclear tests. (USAF carried out additional bilateral missions with Japan as well as flights to the South China Sea.)

The most common mission profile has been “sequenced bilateral” missions in which usually two B-1Bs depart Guam, operate with Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) fighters near Japan (often near Kyushu), then subsequently with Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) fighters. About half the time, the bombers perform a simulated release of munitions or, as in (July, August, and September) release live or inert munitions onto Pilsung range, South Korea.

In September and October, the Air Force has begun to experiment with provocative new mission profiles. On 30 August, the B-1Bs were escorted for the first time by USMC F-35B aircraft from MCAS Iwakuni, Japan. The combination of the stealth fighter with the low-observable bomber will raise new concerns in Pyongyang about the abilities of their air defenses to detect and aerial intrusions. On 23 September, a B-1B mission for the first time flew Northeast of the Demilitarized Zone in international airspace. According to the US Air Force, North Korean air defenses failed to detect the flight, raising additional concerns about their capabilities.

On 11 October, CNN reported that a sequenced bilateral mission had performed a missile release drill in the East Sea (Sea of Japan), following which the B-1Bs and their ROKAF escorts crossed the peninsula and repeated the drill in the West Sea (Yellow Sea). Though B-1B exercises in the West Sea are not unprecedented, they are highly unusual. Additionally, this is the first known report of a missile release drill. The only missiles carried by the B-1B are the standard and extended-range variants of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Munition, a long-range conventional cruise missile. Using the unclassified range of 500 miles, the JASSM-ER is capable of striking Chinese territory from most points in the East Sea and all of the West Sea. Beijing can be struck from the western half of the West Sea without flying north of the DMZ. This fact, combined with the proximity of the flight with US-ROK naval exercises in the West Sea around the time of the landmark Chinese Party Congress, suggests that the flight was an assertive signal not only to Pyongyang but also to Beijing.

Escalation risks

Though B-1B sequenced bilateral missions are now essentially routine, several trends raise the risk that these flights could contribute to military escalation.

This year’s B-1B flights occur in a political and military context distinct from previous administration. The Trump administration has through rhetorical comments and assertive military signaling around the peninsula has signaled that they could order military strikes on North Korea. In the last two weeks, the US-ROK combined forces have staged a series of highly provocative exercises ahead of Mr. Trump’s visit to the region (including major live fire naval exercises in the East and West Seas, drills to evacuate US civilians, port visits from American submarines and the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, and announcements of upcoming deployments of F-35A to Japan and a three-carrier exercise in the Pacific).

Both in exercises and in other announcements, both the United States and South Korea have openly signaled that they are training for decapitation strikes against North Korea’s leadership. The signal is intended to convey to Pyongyang that ordering an attack could place their lives directly at risk and so to deter aggression. Yet, the administration’s rhetorical emphasis on forcible denuclearization of the peninsula may also give the impression that the United States could carry out assassination strikes even absent North Korean aggression. Combined with poor situational awareness of low-observable aircraft, the statements significantly raise North Korea’s incentives to escalate any crisis, the likelihood that they perceive US operations as a prelude to attack, and the risk of nuclear use.

To date, the Trump administration has not conducted a flight of a nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bomber to Korea. In 2013, the Obama administration did carry out a prominent flight from Whiteman AFB, MO to deliver inert munitions at Pilsung, the first and last time a B-2 mission has been disclosed publicly.

However, on 28-29 October, 2017, a B-2 flew from Whiteman to an undisclosed location in the Pacific. The bomber reportedly stopped on Guam, where it swapped crews with the engines running. Though a B-2 flight to Korea is unlikely to be radically destabilizing, in the context of a frequent White House comments playing up the possibility of military action and thinly-veiled nuclear threats to North Korea, planners should be aware that dispatching a B-2 is likely to be significantly more provocative than similar missions in previous years.

In the past, the United States had generally conducted Bomber Assurance and Deterrence (BAAD) flights with B-52 bombers. Because some B-52s are nuclear-capable, these missions were widely interpreted as nuclear deterrent signals. The most recent B-52 flight was in January, 2016, following the fourth DPRK nuclear test. Since 2004, either B-1B, B-52, or B-2 bombers have been rotationally stationed in Guam as part of the “Continuous Bomber Presence” Mission. In 2003, 12 B-52s and 12 B-1B bombers were alerted in the United States and subsequently deployed to Guam after 4 North Korean MiG fighters intercepted an American surveillance plane.

Lastly, the missions may be sending precisely the opposite message from the one intended. For the last several years, the United States has continued to work to improve trilateral coordination between the United States, South Korea, and Japan in order to present North Korea with a united front. However, the sequenced bilateral missions only serve underscore the reticence of the ROKAF and JASDF to operate together. Though JASDF fighters sometimes “hand off” the US bombers to ROK pilots, trilateral missions would send a far stronger signal of cohesion and capability, especially if conducted over ROK airspace.

These considerations raise serious questions about the value of B-1B assurance flights. At a time of rapid advance in North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities, with a US leadership that has made statements exacerbating South Korea’s concerns that the United States could decouple from its allies, it is unlikely that routine and symbolic flights are an effective signal either for deterring Pyongyang or assuring Seoul.

 

CBO Study Presents Options For A More Affordable Nuclear Modernization Plan

new report by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the current plan to sustain and modernize US nuclear forces will cost $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years – or $41.4 billion per year.

A study by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in 2014 projected the cost would be “over $1 trillion” over 30 years.

CBO projected in February 2017 that US nuclear forces will cost $400 billion over the 10-year period 2017 to 2026, or $40 billion per year. The projection was a 15% increase over the $345 billion estimate from January 2015 for the period 2015 to 2024.

Although the cost of US nuclear forces is limited compared with the size total defense budget, the cost will increase significantly in the next decade and compete with other non-nuclear defense priorities that also need funding. As a result, the current nuclear modernization plan is unsustainable.

The CBO report therefore presents nine options for changing the nuclear force structure and timing that the Trump administration and Congress could consider for reducing the cost of nuclear forces.

Repeated Warnings

Over the past several years, government officials have warned repeatedly that the current nuclear weapons modernization plan is unsustainable.

“There is a big bow wave out in the ‘20s,” the Air Force’s top program planner acknowledged in 2014. Together with the other nuclear modernization programs of the navy and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the Pentagon’s top acquisition official warned later that year: “We’ve got a big affordability problem out there with those programs.” And in 2015 he said: “We do have a problem in the budget, and that problem is called the recapitalization of the triad … There is no way I can see that we can sustain the force structure and have a reasonable modernization program unless we get more money in the defense budget.”

As Brian McKeon, then principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy, stated in October 2015: “We’re looking at that big bow wave and wondering how the heck we’re going to pay for it, and probably thanking our stars we won’t be here to have to answer the question.”

His warning was echoed in 2016 by Jamie Morin, then DOD’s director of cost assessment and program evaluation, who concluded that, “unless the department was willing to divest the submarine leg of the triad – which we’re not – there’s no way to pay for [nuclear] modernization within the budget.”

“All Or Nothing” Arguments

Despite these warnings, which are now being further substantiated by the CBO report, military leaders, lawmakers, and defense contractors have been relentlessly pushing the excessive “all of the above” modernization program under a false premise of a choice between modernizing or not or having a nuclear deterrent or not. These “all or nothing” arguments set up roadblocks to deal with the real issue.

One “all or nothing” argument is that the United States needs to modernize, otherwise the nuclear deterrent will atrophy. But that’s not the choice. No one is arguing that the United States should not modernize its nuclear forces. The question is how much it can afford to modernize and for what purpose.

Another cost related “all or nothing” argument is that nuclear weapons only cost 4-5 percent of the defense budget. Surely, the United States can afford that. But that’s not the issue. The question is how those 4-5 percent compete with all the other defense needs the taxpayers also have to pay for.

And then there’s the “all or nothing” argument that the United States needs nuclear weapons, otherwise world wars will happen again. But that’s not the choice either. No one is arguing that the United States should unilaterally scrap its nuclear weapons. The question is now how the nuclear posture should be structured to best serve US national and international requirements in the decades ahead.

If the White House, DOD, and Congress don’t make the right choices about priorities now at the outset of the modernization programs, future defense budgets will make the decisions for them. Those decisions will be much harsher: delaying, scaling back, or outright cancelling programs. The effect will be a nuclear posture in turmoil where the budget axe determines the structure rather than carefully thought out planning.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The timing of report is impeccable (and FAS is honored to be referenced several times); only a couple of months before the Trump administration is expected to complete its Nuclear Posture Review.

That review is expected to carry forward the bulk of the Obama administration’s nuclear modernization plan, possibly sprinkled with a few additions such as a new sea-launched cruise missile and a low-yield warhead option for one of the navy’s ballistic missile warheads.

But that modernization plan is unsustainable.

It would be irresponsible if the NPR reaffirms the current modernization program without adjustments to mitigate the funding threats raised by the CBO report.

The CBO report includes plenty of options that the White House and Congress must consider for how to adjust the nuclear posture and the modernization plan to make it sustainable and still maintain a highly capable and survivable nuclear deterrent.

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

NATO Nuclear Exercise Underway With Czech and Polish Participation

Image: https://www.facebook.com/lowapproach/posts/1468961693225121. Hat tip: Roel Stynen.

By Hans M. Kristensen

NATO reportedly has quietly started its annual Steadfast Noon nuclear strike exercise in Europe.

This is the exercise that practices NATO’s nuclear strike mission with dual-capable aircraft (DCA) and the B61 tactical nuclear bombs the US deploys in Europe.

In addition to nuclear-capable aircraft from Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, local spotters have also seen Czech Gripens and Polish F-16s. The United States will likely also participate with either F-16s from Aviano AB in Italy or F-15Es from RAF Lakenheath in England.

The non-nuclear aircraft from Czech Republic and Poland are participating under NATO’s so-called SNOWCAT (Support of Nuclear Operations With Conventional Air Tactics) program, which is used to enable military assets from non-nuclear countries to support the nuclear strike mission without being formally part of it. Polish F-16s have participated several times before, including in the Steadfast Noon exercise held at Ghedi AB in Italy in 2010.

This year’s Steadfast Noon exercise is taking place at two locations: Kleine Brogel Air Base in Belgium and Buchel Air Base in Germany. Both bases store an estimated 20 US B61 nuclear bombs for use by the national air forces. This is the second year in a row that the exercise has been spread across two bases in two countries. Last year’s exercise was held at Kleine Brogel AB (Belgium) and Volkel AB (Netherlands). The multi-base Steadfast Noon exercises are often coinciding with or preceding/following other exercises such as Decisive North and Cold Igloo.

There are currently an estimated 150 B61 bombs deployed at six bases in five European countries (see figure below).

Click on image to view full size.

Weapons were previously also deployed at RAF Lakenheath but withdrawn sometime between 2004 and 2008. Weapons were also withdrawn from Araxos AB (Greece) in 2001. Consolidation (but not complete withdrawal) also happened in Germany and Turkey (for these earlier changes, see my report from 2005).

In addition to the countries with nuclear-capable aircraft – Belgium, Germany Italy, Netherlands, Turkey (note that the status of Turkey’s nuclear role is unclear, but it’s F-16s are still nuclear-capable), and the United States, there will likely be participation from other NATO countries under the SNOWCAT program.

NATO is adjusting its nuclear posture in reaction to the new adversarial relationship with Russia. The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is expected to reaffirm the continued deployment and modernization of US non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe. But there is a push from hardliners inside NATO to increase the readiness and planning for the non-strategic aircraft. Others say it is not necessary. Last month several B-52 bombers forward-deployed to Europe in support of NATO and many see that as sufficient signaling at the nuclear level. Overall, moreover, NATO’s reaction to Russia is focused on providing non-nuclear defense to Europe.

In a broader context, the nuclear exercise has not been officially announced and NATO is very tight-lipped about it because of the political sensitivity of this mission in mainly western NATO countries. The secrecy of the exercise is interesting because NATO only a few weeks ago complained that Russia was not being transparent about its Zapad exercise. Seems like both sides could do better.

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

‘Small Hands’ Don’t Like Small Nuclear Arsenals

By Hans M. Kristensen

According to an NBC News report, President Donald Trump said during a meeting at the Pentagon on July 20 that “he wanted what amounted to a nearly tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal,” according to three officials who were in the room.

Trump’s statement came in response to a chart shown during the meeting on the history of the U.S. and Russia’s nuclear capabilities. Trump reportedly referenced the highest number on the chart – about 32,000 in the late 1960s – and “told his team he wanted the U.S. to have that many now, officials said.”

It is often a mystery how Trump reaches his conclusions and his statement about increasing the arsenal is clearly not based on rational reasoning or factual information. Presidential advisors at the meeting reportedly explained why an expansion was not feasible (that must have been an embarrassing moment) and officials said his comments “raised questions about his familiarity with the nuclear posture and other issues.”

Despite Trump’s fantasies, the United States is unlikely to increase its nuclear weapons stockpile. There are currently about 4,000 nuclear warheads in the Pentagon’s stockpile, of which roughly 1,800 are deployed on ballistic missiles and at bomber and fighter bases. The military says it has too many and could meet national and international commitments with up to one-third fewer deployed weapons. And the trend is that the stockpile will continue to decline over the next decade because of changes being made to the force structure as part of the current modernization program.

Fun facts added: The biggest stockpile increase in one year was 1959-1960 when the United States added 6,340 warheads. During the 72 years since the first production of nuclear weapons in 1945, the average number of nuclear weapons added to the U.S. stockpile per year is 56. At that rate, it would take 487 years to increase the stockpile to the peak of 31,255 warheads in 1967.

Yet Trump’s repeated statements demonstrate a predisposition toward more nuclear weapons. The big question is to what extent that will influence the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) currently under preparation. Trump might try to slow the reduction and force the military to hang on to excess warheads even though they don’t need them or want them.

More likely is that Trump with the NPR will try to further increase the capabilities of the remaining weapon types. Again, enhancements are already being added as part of the ongoing modernization programs, but there are people involved in the NPR process that are advocating doing more. The White House apparently is in favor of researching and developing a ground-launched missile that, if tested and deployed, would violate the INF treaty (this is a Cold War tit-for-tat response to Russia’s violation of the treaty).

Despite current challenges to the international nuclear weapons arms control efforts, it is essential that the Trump administration reaffirms long-standing U.S. nuclear policy to reduce nuclear arsenals and work toward the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. Doing otherwise might satisfy defense hawks with no gain for national security, but it would also embolden other nuclear-armed states to further increase their arsenals to the detriment of the security of the United States and its allies.

Background:

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

New START Data: Russia Slashes Deployed Warheads, US Reaches Limits

Click on graph to view full size.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The United States has now reached the limits for all three weapons categories under the New START treaty.

The latest data published by the State Department shows that the United States for the first time since the treaty entered into force in 2011 has reached the limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed strategic launchers. The 660 deployed launchers are also below the treaty limit of 700 and the 1,393 deployed warheads is well below the limit of 1,550. As such, the United States is now technically in compliance with the treaty.

The latest US reductions are the result of denuclearization of bombers and reduction of launch tubes on the Ohio-class submarines.

The data shows that Russia has reduced its deployed strategic warheads by 235 in the past 12 months and is now only 11 warheads above the New START treaty limit of 1,550 warheads to be achieved by February 2018. Russia is already below the treaty limit on deployed launchers as well as deployed and non-deployed launchers.

Russia’s increase in deployed strategic warheads between 2013 and 2016 triggered widespread claims by defense hawks that Kremlin was building up its nuclear forces. As I previously pointed out, that was wrong and the result of temporary fluctuations in the Russian force structure. Russia is modernizing, not increasing, its nuclear arsenal.

The Bigger Picture

The latest data shows that the United States has a significant advantage over Russia in deployed strategic launchers; 660 versus 505. The 155-launcher disparity means Russia emphasizes multiple warhead loading on its ICBMs while the United States has downloaded its ICBMs to carrying only a single warhead each. A future follow-on treaty will need to address this disparity, which is unhealthy for long-term strategic stability.

Although the United States and Russia are now at, near, or below the limits of the New START treaty, the warheads counted by the treaty only constitute a small fraction of the two countries’ total warhead inventories.

We estimate that Russia has a military stockpile of 4,300 warheads with more retired warheads in reserve for a total inventory of 7,000 warheads. For its part, we estimate the United States has a military stockpile of 4,000 warheads with more retired warheads in reserve for a total inventory of 6,800 warheads.

These arsenals are vastly in excess of the nuclear force levels maintained by other nuclear-armed states and constitute more than 90% of the world’s combined inventory of nearly 15,000 nuclear warheads.

Moreover, the New START treaty does not limit the 2,350 non-strategic nuclear warheads we estimate that Russia and the United States have in their arsenals combined. Both sides are modernizing their non-strategic nuclear forces.

Finally, the New START treaty expires in 2021 unless extended for another five years. The Trump administration has previously indicated opposition to extending the treaty, although recent discussions with Russia may seek to change that. A follow-on treaty seems unlikely given the current political climate but could easily be achieved by reducing the excess nuclear forces of Russia and the United States.

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

NASIC Removes Russian INF-Violating Missile From Report

By Hans M. Kristensen

The U.S. Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) has quietly published a corrected report on the world’s Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threats that deletes a previously identified Russian ground-launched cruise missile.

The earlier version, published on June 26, 2017, identified a “ground” version of the 3M-14 land-attack cruise missile that appeared to identify the ground-launched cruise missile the United States has accused Russia of testing and deploying in violation of the 1987 INF Treaty.

The corrected version, available on the NASIC web site, no longer lists a “ground” version of the 3M-14 (popularly referred to as Kalibr) but only ship- and submarine-launched versions of the missile.

Click on image to view full size

Apart from correcting the spelling of the North Korean Bukkeukseong-2 medium-range ballistic missile and downgrading the operational status of the Iranian Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile from deployed with “fewer than 50” launchers to “undetermined,” the deletion of the “ground” version of the Russian 3M-14 appears to be the only correction in the new NASIC report. (Curiously, the report still doesn’t identify the Russian Kh-102 air-launched cruise missile). Other than these changes buried deep in the report, however, there are no external markings on the new version to indicate that it has been changed (the URL identifies the new report date as July 21, 2017).

The older version of the NASIC report has been deleted from the NASIC web site, but a copy can be found here.

Implications and Recommendations

The deletion of the 3M-14 as the apparent INF-violating missile from the NASIC report is noteworthy, but it doesn’t actually change much. In essence, it returns the public INF debate to square one where it was three months ago. The correction even helps clear up confusion about the origins and status of the alleged Russian INF violation (several of us in the GNO community have been trying to crosscheck and cross-reference missile designations).

The United States has refused to publicly identify the INF-violating ground-launched cruise missile, apparently to protect intelligence sources. Instead, government sources have described what the missile is not (see here for previous statements). Although NASIC took the time to correct the error, it missed the opportunity to identify the actual INF-violating ground-launched cruise missile.

The correction refocuses the attention back on what I’ve heard all along: That the Russian INF-violating missile is thought to be a modification of the ground-launched SSC-7, a short-range cruise missile used on the Iskander system. But U.S. intelligence officials are adamant that the INF-violating missile is not the Iskander but a state-of-the-art missile. The new missile is known in the U.S. intelligence community as the SSC-8. The launcher itself apparently is physically different from the one used for the SSC-7. I co-authored a paper about this with the Deep Cuts Commission in April.

Apparently one battalion is operational and a second is fitting out, potentially embedded with Islander battalions starting in central Russia, and deployments are expected eventually in all four Russian military districts. So far, however, according to U.S. officials, the SSC-8 does not appear to give Russia any military advantage in Europe. And the U.S. military already has the military capability to counter the SSC-8 with sea- and air-launched cruise missiles and other means.

The U.S. refusal to identify the missile has given the Russian government the public space to “play ignorant” and claim it doesn’t know what the U.S. government is talking about. Similarly, the secrecy has made it difficult for allied governments to verify the claim and privately and publicly assist the United States with putting pressure on Russia to return to treaty compliance. That, in turn, has allowed hardliners in the U.S. Congress to propose that the United States should also develop it’s own ground-launched cruise missile (something the U.S. military does not believe is necessary).

Rather than making a bad situation worse, in order to sustain and increase pressure on Russia to return to INF compliance, the United States must reinforce its own commitment to the treaty by rejecting any Cold War proposal to mimic Russia’s bad behavior by developing a U.S. ground-launched cruise missile and instead focus potential military responses on existing forces already widely available, remove public ambiguity by identifying the Russia missile and disclose the information it has shared with Russia (if it can tell the Kremlin, then it can also tell the rest of the world), increase intelligence sharing with allies to improve their ability to work the issue with Russia directly, and pursue the matter directly with Russia in the Special Versification Commission of the INF treaty.

Background information:

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