While defense hawks try to block funding for implementing the US-Russian New START treaty, the US military is making rapid process toward meeting the treaty limits by February 2018.
The latest full declassified aggregate data for the US force structure under New START shows that both the ICBMs and bombers appear to have reached the force level planned and more than two-thirds of the SSBN fleet has been converted as well.
But the implementation also raises questions about what the plan is for the future bomber force structure. Depending on how many new B-21 bombers the Air Force will deploy how soon and how many will be nuclear-capable, the Air Force might have to withdraw the B-52 from the nuclear mission by the early 2030s.
This also raises questions about the need to deploy the new nuclear air-launched cruise missile (RLSO) on the B-52 bombers. The new B-21 is intended to take over the nuclear air-launched cruise missile mission. The B-2 appears to have been eliminated as a future LRSO platform. Continue reading →
At a time when public government intelligence resources are being curtailed, the NASIC report provides a rare and invaluable official resource for monitoring and analyzing the status of ballistic and cruise missiles around the world.
Having said that, the report obviously comes with the caveat that it does not include descriptions of US, British, French, and most Israeli ballistic and cruise missile forces. As such, the report portrays the international “threat” situation as entirely one-sided as if the US and its allies were innocent bystanders, so it will undoubtedly provide welcoming fuel for those who argue for increasing US defense spending and buying new weapons.
Also, the NASIC report is not a top-level intelligence report that has been sanctioned by the Director of National Intelligence. As such, it represents the assessment of NASIC rather than necessarily the coordinated and combined conclusion of the US Intelligence Community.
Nonetheless, it’s a unique and useful report that everyone who follows international security and ballistic and cruise missile developments should consult.
Overall, the NASIC report concludes: “The last decade has seen a dramatic increase in ballistic missile capabilities to include accuracy, post-boost maneuverability, and combat effectiveness.” During the same period, “there has been a significant increase in worldwide ballistic missile testing.” The countries developing ballistic and cruise missile systems view them “as cost-effective weapons and symbols of national power” that “present an asymmetric threat to US forces” and many of the missiles “are armed with weapons of mass destruction.” At the same time, “numerous types of ballistic and cruise missiles have achieved dramatic improvements in accuracy that allow them to be used effectively with conventional warheads.”
Some of the more noteworthy individual findings of the new report include:
Russia’s nuclear modernization is, despite claims by some, not a “buildup” but the size of the Russian ICBM force will continue to decline.
The Russian RS-26 “short” SS-27 ICBM is still categorized as an ICBM (as in the 2013 report) despite claims by some that it’s an INF weapon.
The report is the first US official document to publicly identify the ground-launched cruise missile that Russia has developed and deployed in violation of the INF treaty: 3M-14. The weapon is assessed to “possibly” have a nuclear option. [Note: A corrected version of the NASIC report published in June removed the reference to a “ground” version of the 3M-14.]
The Russian SS-N-26 (Oniks or Onix) anti-ship cruise missile that is currently replacing several Soviet-era cruise missiles “possibly” has a nuclear option.
The range of the dual-capable SS-26 (Islander) SRBM is listed as 350 km (217 miles) rather than the 500-700 km (310-435 miles) often claimed in the public debate.
The number of Chinese warheads capable of reaching the United States could increase to well over 100 in the next five years, six years sooner than predicted in the 2013 report. (The count includes warheads that can only reach Alaska and Hawaii, not necessarily all of continental United States.)
Deployment of the Chinese DF-31/DF-31A ICBMs appears to have stalled.
China’s long-awaited DF-41 ICBM will “possibly” be capable of carrying multiple warheads but is not yet deployed.
Two Chinese medium-range ballistic missile types (DF-3A and DF-21 Mod 1) have been retired.
The Chinese ground-launched DH-10 land-attack cruise missile is no longer listed as “conventional or nuclear” but only as “conventional.”
None of North Korea’s ICBMs are listed as deployed.
Below I go into more details about the individual nuclear-armed states:
Russia is now more than halfway through its modernization, a generational upgrade that began in the mid/late-1990s and will be completed in the mid-2020s. This includes a complete replacement of the ICBM force (but at lower numbers), transition to a new class of strategic submarines, upgrades of existing bombers, replacement of all dual-capable SRBM units, and replacement of most Soviet-era naval cruise missiles with fewer types.
The NASIC report states that “Russian in September 2014 surpassed the United States in deployed warheads capable of reaching the United States,” referring to the aggregate number reported under the New START treaty. The report does not mention, however, that Russia since 2016 has begun to reduce its deployed strategic warheads and is expected meet the treaty limit in 2018.
ICBMs: Contrary to many erroneous claims in the public debate (see here and here) about a Russia nuclear “build-up,” the NASIC report concludes that “the number of missiles in the Russian ICBM force will continue to decrease because of arms control agreements, aging missiles, and resource constraints…” This conclusion fits the assessment Norris and I have made for years that Russia is modernizing its nuclear forces but not increasing the size of the arsenal.
The report counts about 330 ICBM launchers (silos and TELs), significantly fewer than the 400 claimed by the Russian military. The actual number of deployed missiles is probably a little lower because several SS-19 and SS-25 units are in the process of being dismantled.
The development continues of the heavy Sarmat (RS-28), which looks very similar to the existing SS-18. The lighter SS-27 known as RS-26 (Rubezh or Yars-M) appears to have been delayed and still in development. Despite claims by some in the public debate that the RS-26 is a violation of the INF treaty, the NASIC report lists the missile with an ICBM range of 5,500+ km (3,417+ miles), the same as listed in the 2013 version. NASIC says the RS-26, which is designated SS-X-28 by the US Intelligence Community, has “at least 2” stages and multiple warheads.
Overall, “Russia retains over 1,000 nuclear warheads on ICBMs,” according to NASIC, another assessment that fits our estimate from the Nuclear Notebook. The NASIC report states that “most” of those missiles “are maintained on alert, capable of being launched within minutes of receiving a launch order.” (In comparison, essentially all US ICBMs are maintained on alert: see here for global alert status.)
SLBMs: The Russian navy is in the early phase of a transition from the Soviet-era Delta-class SSBNs to the new Borei-class SSBN. NASIC lists the Bulava (SS-N-32) SLBM as operational on three Boreis (five more are under construction). The report also lists a Typhoon-class SSBN as “not yet deployed” with the Bulava (the same wording as in the 2013 report), but this is thought to refer to the single Typhoon that has been used for test launches of the Bulava and not imply that the submarine is being readied for operational deployment with the missile.
While the new Borei SSBNs are being built, the six Delta-IVs are being upgrade with modifications to the SS-N-23 SLBM. The report also lists 96 SS-N-18 launchers, corresponding to 6 Delta-III SSBNs. But that appears to include 3-4 SSBNs that have been retired (but not yet dismantled). Only 2 Delta-IIIs appear to be operational, with a third in overhaul, and all are scheduled to be replaced by Borei-class SSBNs in the near future.
Cruise Missiles: The report lists five land-attack cruise missiles with nuclear capability, three of which are Soviet-era weapons. The two new missiles that “possibly” have nuclear capability include the mysterious ground-launched cruise missile that Russia has developed and deployed in violation of the INF treaty. The US first accused Russia of treaty violation in 2014 but has refused to name the missile, yet the NASIC report gives it a name: 3M-14. The weapon exists in both “ground, ship & sub” versions and is credited with “conventional, nuclear possible” warhead capability. [Note: A corrected version of the NASIC report published in June removed the reference to a “ground” version of the 3M-14.]
Ground- and sea-based versions of the 3M-14 have different designations. The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) identifies the naval 3M-14 as the SS-N-30 land-attack missile, which is part of the larger Kalibr family of missiles that include:
The 3M-14 (SS-N-30) land-attack cruise missile (the nuclear version might be called SS-N-30A; Pavel Podvig reported back in 2014 that he was told about an 8-meter 3M-14S missile “where ‘S’ apparently stands for ‘strategic’, meaning long-range and possibly nuclear”);
The 3M-54 (SS-N-27, Sizzler) anti-ship cruise missile;
The 91R anti-submarine missile.
The US Intelligence Community uses a different designation for the GLCM version, which different sources say is called the SSC-8, and other officials privately say is a modification of the SSC-7 missile used on the Iskander-K. (For public discussion about the confusing names and designations, see here, here, and here.)
The range has been the subject of much speculation, including some as much as 5,472 km (3,400 miles). But the NASIC report sets the range as 2,500 km (1,553 miles), which is more than was reported by the Russian Ministry of Defense in 2015 but close to the range of the old SS-N-21 SLCM.
The “conventional, nuclear possible” description connotes some uncertainty about whether the 3M-14 has a nuclear warhead option. But President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that it does, and General Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of US European Command (EUCOM), told Congress in March that the ground-launched version is “a conventional/nuclear dual-capable system.”
ONI predicts that Kalibr-type missiles (remember: Kalibr can refer to land-attack, anti-ship, and/or anti-submarine versions) will be deployed on all larger new surface vessels and submarines and backfitted onto upgraded existing major ships and submarines. But when Russian officials say a ship or submarine will be equipped with the Kalibr, that can potentially refer to one or more of the above missile versions. Of those that receive the land-attack version, for example, presumably only some will be assigned the “nuclear possible” version. For a ship to get nuclear capability is not enough to simply load the missile; it has to be equipped with special launch control equipment, have special personnel onboard, and undergo special nuclear training and certification to be assigned nuclear weapons. That is expensive and an extra operational burden that probably means the nuclear version is only assigned to some of the Kalibr-equipped vessels. The previous nuclear land-attack SLCM (SS-N-21) is only assigned to frontline attack submarines, which will most likely also received the nuclear SS-N-30. It remains to be seen if the nuclear version will also go on major surface combatants such as the nuclear-propelled attack submarines.
The NASIC report also identifies the 3M-55 (P-800 Oniks (Onyx), or SS-N-26 Strobile) cruise missile with “nuclear possible” capability. This weapon also exists in “ground, ships & sub” versions, and ONI states that the SS-N-26 is replacing older SS-N-7, -9, -12, and -19 anti-ship cruise missiles in the fleet. All of those were also dual-capable.
It is interesting that the NASIC report describes the SS-N-26 as a land-attack missile given its primary role as an anti-ship missile and coastal defense missile. The ground-launched version might be the SSC-5 Stooge that is used in the new Bastion-P coastal-defense missile system that is replacing the Soviet-era SSC-1B missile in fleet base areas such as Kaliningrad. The ship-based version is replacing the SS-N-19 on the nuclear-propelled Kirov-class cruisers and Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier. Presumably it will also replace the SS-N-12 on the Slava-class cruisers and SS-N-9 on smaller corvettes. The submarine version is replacing the SS-N-19 on the Oscar-class nuclear-propelled attack submarine.
NASIC lists the new conventional Kh-101 ALCM but does not mention the nuclear version known as Kh-102 ALCM that has been under development for some time. The Kh-102 is described in the recent DIA report on Russian Military Power.
Short-range ballistic missiles: Russia is replacing the Soviet-era SS-21 (Tochka) missile with the SS-26 (Iskander-M), a process that is expected to be completed in the early-2020s. The range of the SS-26 is often said in the public debate to be the 500-700 km (310-435 miles), but the NASIC report lists the range as 350 km (217 miles), up from 300 km (186 miles) reported in the 2013 version.
That range change is interesting because 300 km is also the upper range of the new category of close-range ballistic missiles. So as a result of that new range category, the SS-26 is now counted in a different category than the SS-21 it is replacing.
The NASIC report projects the “number of Chinese ICBM nuclear warheads capable of reaching the United States could expand to well over 100 within the next 5 years.” Four years ago, NASIC projected the “well over 100” warhead number might be reached “within the next 15 years,” so in effect the projection has been shortened by 6 years from 2028 to 2022.
One of the reasons for this shortening is probably the addition of MIRV to the DF-5 ICBM force (the MIRVed version is know as DF-5B). All other Chinese missiles only have one warhead each (although the warheads are widely assumed not to be mated with the missiles under normal circumstances). It is unclear, however, why the timeline has been shortened.
The US military defines the “United States” to include “the land area, internal waters, territorial sea, and airspace of the United States, including a. United States territories; and b. Other areas over which the United States Government has complete jurisdiction and control or has exclusive authority or defense responsibility.”
So for NASIC’s projection for the next five years to come true, China would need to take several drastic steps. First, it would have to MIRV all of its DF-5s (about half are currently MIRVed). That would still not provide enough warheads, so it would also have to deploy significantly more DF-31As and/or new MIRVed DF-41s (see graph below). Deployment of the DF-31A is progressing very slowly, so NASIC’s projection probably relies mainly on the assumption that the DF-41 will be deployed soon in adequate numbers. Whether China will do so remains to be seen.
China currently has about 80 ICBM warheads (for 60 ICBMs) that can hit the United States. Of these, about 60 warheads can hit the continental United States (not including Alaska). That’s a doubling of ICBM warheads that can hit the United States (including Guam) over the past 25 years – and a tripling of the number of warheads that can hit the continental United States. The NASIC report does not define what “well over 100” means, but if it’s in the range of 120, and NASIC’s projection actually came true, then it would mean China by the early-2020s would have increased the number of ICBM warheads that can hit the United States threefold since the early 1990s. That a significant increase but obviously but must be seen the context of the much greater number of US warheads that can hit China.
Land-Based Ballistic Missiles: The report describes the long and gradual upgrade of the Chinese ballistic missile force. The most significant new development is the fielding of the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) with 16+ launchers. The missile was first displayed at the 2015 military parade, which showed 16 launchers – potentially the same 16 listed in the report. NASIC sets the DF-26 range at 3,000+ km (1,864 miles), 1,000 km less than the 2017 DOD report.
China does not appear to have converted all of its DF-5 ICBMs to MIRV. The report lists both the single-warhead DF-5A and the multiple-warhead DF-5B (CSS-4 Mod 3) in “about 20” silos. Unlike the A-version, the B-version has a Post-Boost Vehicle, a technical detail not disclosed in the 2013 report. A rumor about a DF-5C version with 10 MIRVs is not confirmed by the report.
Deployment of the new generation of road-mobile ICBMs known as DF-31 and DF-31A ICBMs appears to have stalled; the number of launchers listed in the new report is the same as in the 2013 report: 5-10 DF-31s and “more than 15” DF-31As.
Yet the description of the DF-31A program sounds like deployment is still in progress: “The longer range CSS-10 Mod 2 will allow targeting of most of the continental United States” (emphasis added).
For the first time, the report includes a graphic illustration of the DF-31 and DF-31A side by side, which shows the longer-range DF-31A to be little shorter but with a less pointy nosecone and a wider third stage (see image).
The long-awaited (and somewhat mysterious) DF-41 ICBM is still not deployed. NASIC says the DF-41 is “possibly capable of carrying MIRV,” a less certain determination than the 2017 DOD report, which called the missile “MIRV capable.” The report lists the DF-41 with three stages and a Post-Boost Vehicle, details not provided in the previous report.
One of the two nuclear versions of the DF-21 MRBM appears to have been retired. NASIC only lists one: CSS-5 Mod 2. In total, the report lists “fewer than 50” launchers for the nuclear version of the DF-21, which is the same number it listed in the 2013 report (see here for description of one of the DF-21 launch units. But that was also the number listed back then for the older nuclear DF-21 (CSS-5 Mod 1). The nuclear MRBM force has probably not been cut in half over the past four years, so perhaps the previous estimate of fewer than 50 launchers was intended to include both versions. The NASIC report does not mention the CSS-5 Mod 6 that was mentioned in the DOD’s annual report from 2016.
Sea-Based Ballistic Missiles: The report lists a total of 48 JL-2 SLBM launchers, corresponding to the number of launch tubes on the four Jin-class (Type 094) SSBNs based at the Longpo Naval Base on Hainan Island. That does not necessarily mean, however, that the missiles are therefore fully operational or deployed on the submarines under normal circumstances. They might, but it is yet unclear how China operates its SSBN fleet (for a description of the SSBN fleet, see here).
The 2017 report no longer lists the Xia-class (Type 092) SSBN or the JL-1 SLBM, indicating that China’s first (and not very successful) sea-based nuclear capability has been retired from service.
Cruise Missiles: The new report removes the “conventional or nuclear” designation from the DH-10 (CJ-10) ground-launched land-attack cruise missile. The possible nuclear option for the DH-10 was listed in the previous three NASIC reports (2006, 2009, and 2013). The DH-10 brigades are organized under the PLA Rocket Force that operates both nuclear and conventional missiles.
A US Air Force Global Strike Command document in 2013 listed another cruise missile, the air-launched DH-20 (CJ-20), with a nuclear option. NASIC has never attributed nuclear capability to that weapon and the Office of the Secretary of Defense stated recently that the Chinese Air Force “does not currently have a nuclear mission.”
At the same time, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) recently told Congress that China was upgrading is cruise missiles further, including “with two, new air-launched ballistic [cruise] missiles, one of which may include a nuclear payload.”
The NASIC report states that “Pakistan continues to improve the readiness and capabilities of its Army Strategic Force Command and individual strategic missile groups through training exercises that include live missile firings.” While all nuclear-armed states do that, the implication probably is that Pakistan is increasing the reaction time of its nuclear missiles, particularly the short-range weapons.
The report states that the Shaheen-2 MRBM has been test-launched “seven times since 2004.” While that fits the public record, NASIC doesn’t mention that the Shaheen-2 for some reason has not been test launched since 2014, which potentially could indicate technical problems.
The Abdali SRBM now has a range of 200 km (up from 180 km in the 2013 report). It is now designated as close-range ballistic missile instead of a short-range ballistic missile.
NASIC describes the Ababeel MRBM, which was first test-launch in January 2017, as as “MIRVed” missile. Although this echoes the announcement made by the Pakistani military at the time, the designation “the MIRVed Abadeel” sounds very confident given the limited flight history and the technological challenges associated with developing reliable MIRV systems.
Neither the Ra’ad ALCM nor the Babur GLCM is listed as deployed, which is surprising especially for the Babur after 13 flight tests. Babur launchers have been fitting out at the National Development Complex for years and are visible at some army garrisons. Nor does NASIC mention the Babur-2 or Babur-3 (naval version) versions that have been test-flown and announced by the Pakistani military.
It is a surprise that the NASIC report only lists “fewer than 10” Agni-2 MRBM launchers. This is the same number as in 2013, which indicates there is still only one operational missile group equipped with the Agni-2 seven years after the Indian government first declared it deployed. The slow introduction might indicate technical problems, or that India is instead focused on fielding the longer-range Agni-3 IRBM that NASIC says is now deployed with “fewer than 10” launchers.
Neither the Agni-4 nor Agni-5 IRBMs are listed as deployed, even though the Indian government says the Agni-4 has been “inducted” into the armed forces and has reported three army “user trial” test launches. NASIC says India is developing the Agni-6 ICBM with a range of 6,000 km (3,728 miles).
For India’s emerging SSBN fleet, the NASIC report lists the short-range K-15 SLBM as deployed, which is a surprise given that the Arihant SSBN is not yet considered fully operational. The submarine has been undergoing sea-trials for several years and was rumored to have conducted its first submerged K-15 test launch in November 2016. But a few more are probably needed before the missile can be considered operational. The K-4 SLBM is in development and NASIC sets the range at 3,500 km (2,175 miles).
As for cruise missiles, it is helpful that the report continue to list the Bramos as conventional, which might help discredit rumors about nuclear capability.
Finally, of the nuclear-armed states, NASIC provides interesting information about North Korea’s missile programs. None of the North Korean ICBMs are listed as deployed.
The report states there are now “fewer than 50” launchers for the Hwasong-10 (Musudan) IRBM. NASIC sets the range at 3,000+ km (1,864 miles) instead of the 4,000 km (2,485 miles) sometimes seen in the public debate.
Likewise, while many public sources set the range of the mobile ICBMs (KN-08 and KN-14) as 8,000 km (4,970 miles) – some even longer, sufficient to reach parts of the United States, the NASIC report lists a more modest range estimate of 5,500+ km (3,418 miles), the lower end of the ICBM range.
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.
Voices in the United States are once again calling for new and better nuclear weapons. The claim is that adversaries somehow would no longer be deterred by existing capabilities and that new or significantly modified weapons are needed to better match the adversaries and more efficiently destroy targets with lower yield to reduce radioactive fallout.
In December 2016, the US Defense Science Board – a semi-independent group that advises the Secretary of Defense – warned that “the nuclear threshold may be decreasing owing to the stated doctrines and weapons developments of some states.” Therefore, the DSB recommended DOD should “provide many more options in stemming proliferation or escalation; and a more flexible nuclear enterprise that could produce, if needed, a rapid, tailored nuclear option for limited use should existing non-nuclear or nuclear options prove insufficient.” This would involve “lower yield, primary only options” for strategic warheads on long-range ballistic missiles. (Emphasis added.)
Others have chimed in as well. In 2015, CSIS published Project Atom to define US nuclear strategic and posture. The report, that included contributions from several people that are now involved in the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, recommended that the United States should acquire “a suite of low-yield, special-effects warheads (low collateral, enhanced radiation, earth penetration, electromagnetic pulse, and others as technology advances), including possibly a smaller, shorter-range cruise missile that could be delivered by F-35s.” Several of the co-authors advocated a wide range of lower-yield and more flexible nuclear weapons – even beyond those already found in the arsenal. One of the co-authors is now the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development.
Even James Miller, who was President Obama’s Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, and as such part of the decision to retire the nuclear Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile (TLAM-N) in 2010, recently recommended (in an article co-authored with a board member from Raytheon that makes the Tomahawk) that the Trump administration’s NPR “should bring back the TLAM-N” to “provide NATO with a far more credible rung on an escalation ladder that currently is binary between conventional weapons and all-out nuclear war.”
Miller’s view was echoed by General Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of US European Command, who recently told Congress that there is “a mismatch in escalatory options” in Europe because of Russia’s deployment of an illegal ground-launched cruise missile.
And most recently, John Harvey, former DOD official now helping out on the Trump administration’s NPR, advocated that the review should consider:
Modifying an existing warhead to provide a low-yield option for strategic ballistic missiles (at least until a viable prompt global conventional strike capability is achieved);
Respond to Russia’s INF violations by 1) acceleration of LRSO and/or 2) bring back the TLAM-N;
Augment US nuclear declaratory policy to address Russia’s (and others) “escalate to win” strategy;
Increase dual-capable aircraft (DCA) readiness in NATO (in consultation with Allies);
Strengthen deterrence and assurance in the Asia-Pacific region (in consultation with Japan and South Korea) by 1) demonstrate the capability to deploy DCA to bases in South Korea and Japan, 2) equip aircraft carriers with nuclear capability (via the F-35C), and 3) bring back TLAM-N on attack submarines.
The Obvious Question: Why?
That sounds a lot like the debate in the early-1990s (even the Cold War) where nuclear laboratory officials started advocating for development of mini-nukes and micro-nukes for use in tailored regional scenarios. During the W. Bush administration there were also attempt to get new low-yield weapons. These efforts failed but now they’re back in full force because, the advocates say, of a more aggressive Russia and North Korea’s nuclear buildup.
Russia has, according to a new DIA report, “since at least 1993 (and most recently codified in the 2014 Military Doctrine)…reserved the right to a nuclear response to a non-nuclear attack that threatens the existence of the state.” That would imply escalation, presumably in an attempt to stop the attack and end hostilities on terms favorable to Russia. But now the nuclear advocates claim that Russia has a new “escalate to de-escalate” strategy that would consider using a few nuclear weapons early in a conflict – perhaps even before a full conflict had broken out.
One former senior defense official claimed in 2015 that “Moscow is using an entirely different definition of ‘escalating to deescalate’” than NATO used during the Cold War when threatening nuclear escalation if its conventional defenses were failing, by “employing the threat of selective and limited use of nuclear weapons to forestall opposition to potential aggression.” (Emphasis added.) Intelligence officials say privately that the idea of very early use is overblown and defense hawks are exploiting the “escalate to deescalate” debate to get what they want.
STRATCOM commander General John Hyten sees it in a different way: “I don’t think the Russian doctrine is escalate to deescalate. To me, the Russian doctrine is to escalate to win. So the purpose of their escalation is to win the conflict because they believe we won’t respond. Therefore, that decision that they would consider is not a tactical decision that is a strategic decision.”
The evidence that Russia believes the US would not respond to nuclear use is hard to find, as is evidence that this has anything to do with the yield or matching weapon types. But as officials involved in nuclear strategy often say, anyone can come up with a scenario that requires a new weapon. What’s missing from the debate is why the existing and planned capabilities are not sufficient. The United States already has flexible nuclear forces, advanced conventional capabilities, tailored war plans, and low-yield warheads in its arsenal.
In fact, there are currently over 1,000 nuclear warheads in the US arsenal that have low-yield options. A yield is considered low if it’s 20 kilotons or less. Many high-yield weapons have selective low-yield options that can be chosen depending on the strike scenario; likewise, many low-yield weapons also have selective higher-yield options. After the planned modernization of the arsenal has been completed, there will still be about 1,000 warheads in the arsenal with low-yield options (see image below).
In response to a question from congressman John Geramendi (D-CA) about the DSB report recommending “expanding our nuclear options, including deploying low yield weapons on strategic delivery systems” and whether there is “a military requirement for these new weapons,” STRATCOM commander General John Hyten, said: “I can tell you that our force structure now actually has a number of capabilities that provide the president of the United States a variety of options to respond to any numbers of threats…” In another event General Hyten explained more about the current flexibility that is worth repeating:
“I’ll just say that the plans that we have right now, one of the things that surprised me most when I took command on November 3 was the flexible options that are in all the plans today. So we actually have very flexible options in our plans. So if something bad happens in the world and there’s a response and I’m on the phone with the Secretary of Defense and the President and the entire staff, which is the Attorney General, Secretary of State and everybody, I actually have a series of very flexible options from conventional all the way up to large-scale nuke that I can advise the President on to give him options on what he would want to do.
So I’m very comfortable today with the flexibility of our response options. Whether the President of the United States and his team believes that that gives him enough flexibility is his call. So we’ll look at that in the Nuclear Posture Review. But I’ve said publicly in the past that our plans now are very flexible.
And the reason I was surprised when I got to STRATCOM about the flexibility, is because the last time I executed or was involved in the execution of the nuclear plan was about 20 years ago and there was no flexibility in the plan. It was big, it was huge, it was massively destructive, and that’s all there. We now have conventional responses all the way up to the nuclear responses, and I think that’s a very healthy thing.” (Emphasis Added.)
So the current capabilities are sufficient to enable STRATCOM to build very flexible strike plans. Yet in its weapons life-extension and modernization plans, the military is nonetheless apparently pursuing additional lower-yield options. According to former STRATCOM commander General Robert Kehler, “we are trying to pursue weapons that actually are reducing in yield, because we are concerned about maintaining weapons that—that would have less collateral effect if the President ever had to use them…”
Collateral damage is a real issue for nuclear strike planners because they have to follow the guidelines for proportionality and discrimination in the Law of Armed Conflict. But whether that requires new or modified weapons is another issue. After all, the yields in the current arsenal have been with us for many years, so it’s unclear where the sudden need to change comes from. It sounds like the war planners are trying to get around some of the constraints imposed by the Law of Armed Conflict. If so, then the pursuit of lower-yield weapons would seem intended to make it easer to use nuclear weapons.
There is to my knowledge no evidence that the US Intelligence Community has concluded that US adversaries have decided to gamble that the US would be self-deterred from using nuclear weapons because they are too big or because the US doesn’t have more or better low-yield nuclear weapons.
General Hyden’s description of the flexibility of the current capabilities and the many options they provide to the president contradicts the EUCOM commander’s claim that there is “a mismatch in escalatory options” the claim by some that the United States needs to build new nuclear weapons, including low-yield nuclear weapons.
Advocates of additional nuclear capabilities seem too fixated on weapon types and don’t seem to understand or appreciate the flexibility of the current capabilities.
US nuclear planning long ago departed from the mindset that US nuclear capabilities necessarily have to match that of the adversaries. Even before the Cold War ended, the US navy began to unilaterally retire all its short-range nuclear weapons. After the Cold War ended the Army was completely denuclearized. Today the United States only retains about 300 non-strategic nuclear bombs, mainly for symbolic reasons to reassure its allies.
This near-elimination of non-strategic nuclear weapons was done despite US knowledge that Russia retained a large inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons and despite growing concerns about regional nuclear adversaries. Those arsenals have continued to evolve without it leading to military requirements to bring back the ASROC, SUBROC, Lance, TLAM-N, or ground-launched cruise missiles.
Yes there are serious challenges in Russia and North Korea, but those challenges can be address with the considerable capabilities in the current nuclear arsenal.
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.
The venerable B-52H Stratofortress long-range bomber is no longer listed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) with a capability to deliver nuclear gravity bombs.
US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) apparently has not been assigning nuclear gravity bombs to B-52 bombers since at least 2010. Today, only the 20 B-2 stealth-bombers are tasked with strategic nuclear gravity bombs under the nuclear strike plans.
The reason for the change appears to be that the B-52 is no longer considered survivable enough to slip through modern air-defenses and drop nuclear gravity bombs on enemy territory.
The B-52s is still equipped to carry the nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missile (ALCM or AGM-86B), which can be launched from well outside the reach of air-defenses, and is scheduled to receive the new LRSO (Long Range Standoff Missile) by the late-2020s (even though that’s probably unnecessary). Continue reading →
The latest set of New START aggregate data released by the US State Department shows that Russia is decreasing its number of deployed strategic warheads while the United States is increasing the number of warheads it deploys on its strategic forces.
The Russian reduction, which was counted as of March 1, 2017, is a welcoming development following its near-continuous increase of deployed strategic warheads compared with 2013. Bus as I previously concluded, the increase was a fluctuation caused by introduction of new launchers, particularly the Borei-class SSBN.
Under the cover of an otherwise legitimate life-extension of the W76 warhead, the Navy has quietly added a new super-fuze to the warhead that dramatically increases the ability of the Navy to destroy hard targets in Russia and other adversaries.
In a new article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Matthew McKinzie from NRDC, Theodore A. Postol from MIT, and I describe the impact of the super-fuze on the targeting capability of the US SSBN force and how it might effect strategic stability.
The new super-fuze dramatically increases the capability of the W76 warhead to destroy hard targets, such as Russian ICBM silos.
We estimate that the super-fuze capability is now operational on all nuclear warheads deployed on the Navy’s Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. The new fuze has also been installed on warheads on British SSBN.
“As a consequence, the US submarine force today is much more capable than it was previously against hardened targets such as Russian ICBM silos. A decade ago, only about 20 percent of US submarine warheads had hard-target kill capability; today they all do.”
The new article builds on previous work by Ted Postol and myself but with new analysis explaining how the super-fuze works.
In the article we conclude that the SSBN force, rather than simply being a stable retaliatory capability, with the new super-fuze increasingly will be seen as a front-line, first-strike weapon that is likely to further fuel trigger-happy, worst-case planning in other nuclear-armed states.
According to Reuters Trump said he wanted to build up the US nuclear arsenal to ensure it is at the “top of the pack.” He said the United States has “fallen behind on nuclear weapons capacity.”
Building up the US nuclear arsenal would be an unnecessary, unaffordable, and counterproductive move. It is unnecessary because the US military already has more nuclear weapons than it needs to meet US national and international security commitments. It would be unaffordable because the Pentagon will have problems paying for the nuclear modernization program initiated by the Obama administration. And it is counterproductive because it would further fuel nuclear buildups in other nuclear weapon states.
The claim that the US has “fallen behind on its nuclear weapons capacity” is also wrong; the US has the nuclear weapons capability it needs to meet its national and international security commitments. All nuclear-armed states have different nuclear weapons capacities depending on their individual needs. Nuclear planning is not a race but a strategy.
In terms of capacity, the United States is already at the “top of the pack” with highly capable nuclear forces that are backed up by overwhelming conventional forces. See here how the US nuclear arsenal compares with other nuclear-armed states.
Trump also called the New START Treaty “a one-sided deal” and a “bad deal.” Once again he is wrong. The treaty has equal limits for both the United States and Russia: by February 2018, neither side can have more than 1,550 warheads on 700 deployed launchers and no more than 800 total deployed and non-deployed launchers.
Next month the new bi-annual aggregate data set will be published; the previous one from September 2016 showed Russia with 1,796 warheads on 508 launchers compared with the United States with 1,367 warheads on 681 launchers.
Some people got very excited about that saying the larger number of Russian deployed warheads somehow gave Russia an advantage and showed they didn’t intend to comply with the treaty. Warheads can be moved on and off launchers relatively quickly; the important number is the number of launchers where the US was counted with 173 more than Russia.
Indeed, according to the Pentagon and Intelligence Community, Russia “would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario under the New START Treaty…” (Emphasis added.)
But nitpicking about numbers misses the bigger point: the New START treaty was signed with overwhelming support from the US military, Congress, former officials, and experts because the treaty caps the nuclear forces of both countries and continues an important on-site verification system and data exchange.
President Trump may have been briefed by the Pentagon on his role in the nuclear war plan. But his latest interview with Reuters shows that he urgently needs to be briefed on the status of US nuclear forces, other nuclear-armed states, and the basics of the arms control treaties the United States has signed. But that briefing needs to be done outside the White House bubble and include bi-partisan and independent input. Otherwise all indication are that President Trump will be extraordinarily poorly equipped to make informed decisions about the nuclear policy.
The Obama administration has unilaterally cut the number of nuclear weapons in the Pentagon’s nuclear weapons stockpile to 4,018 warheads, a reduction of 553 warheads since September 2015.
The reduction was disclosed by Vice President Joe Biden during a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace earlier today.
This means that the Obama administration during its two terms has reduced the US nuclear weapons stockpile by 1,255 weapons compared with the size at the end of the George W. Bush administration – a number greater than the estimated number of warheads in the arsenals of Britain, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan combined. Continue reading →
Republicans love nuclear weapons reductions, as long as they’re not proposed by a Democratic president.
That is the lesson from decades of US nuclear weapons and arms control management.
If that trend continues, then we can expect the new Donald Trump administration to reduce the US nuclear weapons arsenal more than the Obama administration did.
What? I know, it sounds strange but the record is very clear: During the post-Cold War era, Republication administrations have – by far – reduced the US nuclear weapons stockpile more than Democratic administrations (see graph below).
Even if we don’t count numbers of weapons (because arsenals have gotten smaller) but only look at by how much the nuclear stockpile was reduced, the history is clear: Republican presidents disarm more than Democrats (see graph below).
It’s somewhat of a mystery. Because Democratic presidents are generally seen to be more likely to propose nuclear weapons reductions. President Obama did so repeatedly. But when Democratic presidents have proposed reductions, the Republican opposition has normally objected forcefully. Yet Republican lawmakers won’t oppose reductions if they are proporsed by a Republican president.
Conversely, Democratic lawmakers will not opposed Republican reductions and nor will they oppose reductions proposed by a Democratic president.
As a result, if the Republicans control both the White House and Congress, as they do now after the 2016 election, the chance of significant reductions of nuclear weapons seems more likely.
Whether Donald Trump will continue the Republication tradition remains to be seen. US-Russian relations are different today than when the Bush administrations did their reductions. But both countries have far more nuclear weapons than they need for national security. And Trump would be strangely out of tune with long-held Republican policy and practice if he does not order a substantial reduction of the US nuclear weapons stockpile.
Perhaps he should use that legacy to try to reach an agreement with Russia to continue to reduce US and Russia nuclear arsenals to the benefit of both countries.
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 →