"I want to tell you that your fact sheet on the [Missile Technology Control Regime] is very well done and useful for me when I have to speak on MTCR issues."

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Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
Shannon Bugos

Putin’s Latest Nuclear Threats: What’s at Stake and What Can Be Done to Walk Back from the Brink?



Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022
1:00 pm to 2:30 pm U.S. Eastern Time
RSVP here

Sixty years ago this month, the Soviet Union and the world teetered on the edge of nuclear Armageddon over Russian missile deployments in Cuba. Once again, the world is facing the heightened risk of nuclear war, this time due to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s thinly-veiled threats of nuclear weapons use in his war on Ukraine. 

This expert panel will provide detailed analysis on: Russian tactical nuclear weapons capabilities, consequences of their potential use, the pros and cons of potential responses from the United States and the international community to any Russian nuclear detonations, and diplomatic and political options designed to reduce the risk of the first use of nuclear weapons in 77 years.

The panelists are: 

  • Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists and co-author of the Nuclear Notebook column in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the World Nuclear Forces overview in the SIPRI Yearbook.
  • Rose Gottmoeller, is a senior lecturer at Stanford University's Institute for International Studies and its Center for International Security and Cooperation, and previously served as the Deputy Secretary General of NATO (2016-2019), was the U.S. Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, and the chief U.S. negotiator of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russian Federation.
  • Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association. His latest analysis on the topic, "No Viable 'Nuclear Option' for Russia in Ukraine," was published last week.  
  • Shannon Bugos, Senior Policy Analyst, Arms Control Association (moderator) 


Country Resources:

Putin Calls Up Reservists, Renews Nuclear Threat

October 2022
By Carol Giacomo and Shannon Bugos

Despite stunning setbacks in the war against Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has escalated the fight, announcing a mobilization of 300,000 military reservists and brandishing new threats of using nuclear weapons.

Police officers detain a man in Moscow on Sept. 21 during protests against the military mobilization of 300,000 men announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of an effort to replenish forces deployed to fight Russia’s war on Ukraine. (Photo by Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)Although Russia expanded its unprovoked war on Ukraine with an invasion on Feb. 24, Putin now seeks to reframe the military campaign as a defense of Russian sovereignty against Western nations that are attempting to “weaken, divide and ultimately destroy” Russia. “The citizens of Russia can rest assured that the territorial integrity of our Motherland, our independence and freedom will be defended—I repeat—by all the systems available to us,” he said in the official Kremlin translation of a speech on Sept. 21.

“This is not a bluff,” he said.

Hours later, U.S. President Joe Biden used his address at the UN General Assembly in New York to push back. Referring to Russia, Biden made clear that what has happened is that “a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council invaded its neighbor” and aims to “[extinguish] Ukraine’s right to exist as a state.”

Biden condemned Putin’s comments as “irresponsible nuclear threats” and warned him against following through, repeating the Reagan-Gorbachev admonition that “[a] nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Biden also promised that “we will stand against Russia’s aggression,” but assured the assembled leaders that “we do not seek another Cold War.”

Putin has issued several previous threats to employ nuclear weapons against any perceived outside interference in Ukraine, but some U.S. officials and independent experts interpreted the latest threats as blunter and more serious. (See ACT, March and April 2022.)

After U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sept. 25 that the United States had warned Russia there would be “catastrophic consequences” if it used nuclear weapons, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov the next day said that Washington needs to “calm down and cease to inflate the situation [thus] bringing it closer to a dangerous line.”

Meanwhile, Ukrainian regions under Russian control—Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk, and Donetsk—conducted referendums on joining Russia. On Sept. 30, Putin signed decrees annexing the regions as part of Russia in violation of international and Ukrainian law.

After Putin’s address, Andrey Baklitskiy, a nuclear expert with the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, tweeted that Putin’s “statements go beyond the Russian nuclear doctrine, which only suggests Russian first-use [of nuclear weapons] in a conventional war when the very existence of the state is threatened.”

“Putin adds ‘territorial integrity’ and very abstract protection of people, independence, and freedom,” he wrote, adding, “Coming from the person who has the sole decision-making power regarding Russian nuclear weapons, this will have to be taken seriously.”

A senior White House official, briefing reporters in New York on Sept. 21, said “the language and formula [Putin] used today is quite similar to how he’s spoken before” about a potential nuclear weapons use. But the official added, “We don’t see anything in terms of specific information, signals, or moves that would indicate” that any moves with nuclear or unconventional weapons is imminent.

In a Sept. 18 interview with CBS 60 Minutes, Biden refused to detail how the United States would respond to Russian nuclear use, offering only that, “It’ll be consequential. [Russia will] become more of a pariah in the world than they ever have been, and depending on the extent of what they do, will determine what response would occur.” According to previous media reports, the Biden administration is focusing primarily on non-nuclear responses, such as sanctions and conventional strikes. (See ACT, July/August 2022.)

Rose Gottemoeller, chief U.S. negotiator for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, warned on Sept. 13 that Putin may “strike back now in really unpredictable ways that may even involve weapons of mass destruction,” such as nuclear weapons. She recommended that if this happens, the United States should not respond in kind.

“We’ve been concerned from the outset of this crisis with Putin rattling the nuclear saber that he might put in play for a nuclear demonstration strike,” Gottemoeller said in an interview with the BBC. She said the strike could be “a single strike over the Black Sea or perhaps a strike at a Ukrainian military facility.”

In the Sept. 21 briefing, the White House official described the latest Russian moves as “an act of weakness” resulting from Putin failing to achieve his strategic objectives. This is another episode where “Putin has tried to rattle his saber, tried to scare us off, tried to make us think twice about our strategy. He has not succeeded before; he won’t succeed now,” the official added.

Russia and many in the West expected Russian forces to overrun Ukraine within weeks after the invasion. Instead, the Ukrainians have held their ground and are even regaining lost territory. An estimated 60,000 Russian forces have been killed, thousands of vehicles have been destroyed or captured, and there have been major problems with supply chains, training, and recruitment.

Putin’s decision to call up 300,000 men for military service has provoked protests and resistance and caused thousands of Russian men to flee the country.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin escalated the war in Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden decried Putin’s nuclear threats as “irresponsible.”

U.S. Conditions Talks on New START Inspections

October 2022
By Shannon Bugos

The United States declared in September that any negotiation of a new nuclear arms control arrangement to follow on from the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) depends on the resumption of the treaty’s on-site inspections of nuclear-related facilities, which Russia has impeded.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Wesley Baptiste (L) and Airman Daniel Peryer perform a “simulated missile reduction” in accordance with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, in 2011. Such inspections, and the treaty itself, are now at risk because of Russia's failure to resume the inspections amid its war on Ukraine.  (Photo credit: U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Desiree Esposito)The two countries agreed to suspend inspections in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although talks had been ongoing since last year to resume these inspections, Russia undermined such efforts and further extended the pause with its decision in August to prohibit inspections of its relevant facilities subject to New START. (See ACT, September 2022.)

“The first step is to resume inspections” under New START, “and we have been trying to work with the Russians toward that end,” a U.S. National Security Council spokesperson said on Sept. 1. New START is the last remaining U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control agreement and will expire in February 2026. Washington paused arms control talks with Moscow following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February. (See ACT, March 2022.)

Russia claimed that its flight crew and inspectors have faced difficulties in obtaining the necessary documents, such as visas, to carry out inspections in the United States, which has imposed, alongside U.S. allies, sanctions and restrictions on Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine.

But U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Aug. 16 that “U.S. sanctions and restrictive measures imposed as a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine are fully compatible” with New START and “don’t prevent Russian inspectors from conducting treaty inspections in the United States.” Another State Department spokesperson later added, “The United States has and will continue to engage Russia on the resumption of inspections through diplomatic channels,” such as the Bilateral Consultative Commission established by the treaty to address implementation and verification concerns.

Although the pause of on-site inspections is concerning, U.S. officials continue to assess that Russia does not appear poised to employ nuclear weapons imminently.

Since the outset of the war, the United States has consistently monitored Russian nuclear forces for any signs of impending use, thus far seeing none.

Against this backdrop of rising tensions, the United States moved ahead with a long-planned test of an unarmed nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Minuteman III, on Sept. 7. The test ICBM carried three reentry vehicles and traveled 4,200 miles from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California to a test range at the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

In March, the Pentagon delayed and then cancelled an ICBM test so as not to exacerbate tensions amid the Russian war in Ukraine. It also delayed by two weeks an ICBM test in August due to heightened tensions with China over Taiwan. (See ACT, April and September 2022.)

Meanwhile, Moscow announced in mid-August the deployment of Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles on Mikoyan MiG-31 fighter jets based at the Chkalovsk Air Base in the Kaliningrad enclave as part of “additional measures of strategic deterrence,” according to the Russian Defense Ministry. Although the deployed missiles are conventional, the Kinzhal is thought to be nuclear capable.

Over the course of the war, Russia has used Kinzhal missiles to strike targets in Ukraine in March and possibly in May, leading a U.S. defense official to estimate that Russian forces have employed about a dozen hypersonic missiles in total. (See ACT, April and June 2022.)

“We have deployed [the Kinzhal system] three times during the special military operation” in Ukraine, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in an Aug. 31 interview with Russian media, “and three times it showed brilliant characteristics.” U.S. defense officials, in contrast, have asserted that the Russian use of hypersonic weapons has not proved to be a game-changing decision in the war.

Russia declared that the United States would become a party to the conflict if it “cross[ed] the red line” by supplying Ukraine with longer-range missiles, such as the Army Tactical Missile System that has a range of up to 300 kilometers.

“We reserve the right to protect the Russian territory by all available means,” Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said in a Sept. 15 briefing.

Russia and the United States suspended inspections in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic; Russia has extended the pause.

U.S., Russia Agree to Call for Negotiating New START Successor

The United States and Russia committed to a statement expressing the need for the world’s two largest nuclear-weapon states to negotiate a follow-on arms control arrangement to the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ), which expires in under four years. This commitment came during the monthlong 10 th review conference for the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty ( NPT ) held in August, at which U.S. President Joe Biden stated that his administration stands prepared to begin such arms control talks. “The Russian Federation and the United States commit to the full...

Russia Further Pauses New START Inspections

September 2022
By Shannon Bugos

Russia informed the United States in August of its decision to prohibit on-site inspections of its nuclear weapons-related facilities subject to the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), even as the leaders of both countries, at a major international meeting at the United Nations, emphasized the importance of avoiding nuclear war.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles such as this Russian Topol system, shown outside Moscow in 2008, will be off-limits to U.S. inspectors if Russia follows through on its threat to prohibit on-site inspections of nuclear-related weapons facilities that are now required under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. (Photo by Dima Korotayev/AFP via Getty Images)The Russian Foreign Ministry claimed in an Aug. 8 statement that Moscow resorted to this move in response to Washington’s attempt to hold inspections “on conditions that do not take into account existing realities and are creating unilateral advantages for the United States.” The ministry said that the United States attempted to conduct an inspection without prior notice and with ongoing unresolved issues.

The U.S. State Department commented on Russia’s decision by saying that “we keep discussion between the parties concerning treaty implementation confidential.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council commented that “[r]esuming mutually beneficial inspections under New START is a key part of our cooperation that must continue, even where geopolitical tensions are high.”

The on-site inspections allowed under New START’s verification regime have been paused since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the two countries have been in talks for about a year on how to safely resume treaty activities. Russia’s official withdrawal of its facilities subject to the treaty mandates will further delay a potential resumption of inspections.

Russia has protested that its flight crew and inspectors have faced difficulties in receiving visas and obtaining permission to enter airspace from the United States and its allies in order to travel and conduct inspections.

Just days prior to Russia’s announcement, the U.S. and Russian presidents issued remarks in support of reducing the risk of nuclear war at the start of the month-long review conference for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at the UN.

“We believe that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, and we stand for equal and indivisible security for all members of the world community,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Aug. 1.

That same day, U.S. President Joe Biden emphasized that Washington is “ready to expeditiously negotiate a new arms control framework to replace New START when it expires in 2026.”

“But negotiation requires a willing partner operating in good faith,” he added, noting that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made this challenging.

The United States and Russia last met for a round of their bilateral strategic stability dialogue, which includes discussions on arms control, in January. (See ACT, March 2022.) Whether they will resume arms control talks in that format or in more formal negotiations remains to be seen.

The two countries have continued to trade data on their respective nuclear forces as required by New START, with the last exchange in March and the next scheduled for September. (See ACT, May 2022.)

They also have continued to exchange various notifications on the status and basing or facility assignment of their respective strategic forces, for a total of 24,296 notifications as of Aug. 18. The notification system recently was seen in action in April, when Russia alerted the United States prior to a test of its new nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile called the Sarmat.

The Russian move could unravel the last remaining treaty restraining Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear arsenals.

China Showcases Hypersonic Weapon Near Taiwan, U.S. Tests

September 2022
By Shannon Bugos

The United States completed tests for four different hypersonic weapon prototype systems this past summer, with one failure and three successes. Securing wins in hypersonic weapons development has been a major priority for the U.S. Defense Department in its quest to catch up to China, which recently launched a hypersonic glide vehicle in an exercise near Taiwan, and Russia, which used hypersonics for the first time in warfare in Ukraine.

In late May, the Operational Fires (OpFires) program run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) successfully executed its first flight test of a hypersonic weapon at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. (Photo courtesy of DARPA)Members of Congress have repeatedly expressed dismay with the Pentagon’s perceived lack of advancement in the development and deployment of new hypersonic weapons. Russia first deployed a hypersonic short-range ballistic missile, the Kinzhal, in 2017 and a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, the Avangard, in 2019. China followed in 2020 by deploying the Dongfeng-17 (DF-17) system, a road-mobile hypersonic boost-glide system.

“What we are concerned about is falling behind” in the deployment of new hypersonic weapons capabilities, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) told Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall in a May hearing.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has taken issue with that narrative, explaining in April that “hypersonics is a capability, but it’s not the only capability.”

After three testing failures in 2021, the Air Force’s Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) system conducted two consecutive successful flight tests in May and July. (See ACT, June 2022.)

The ARRW system, slated to be the first deployed U.S. hypersonic weapon, completed its primary and secondary objectives during the most recent test, according to an Air Force statement.

“We have now completed our booster test series and are ready to move forward to all-up-round testing later this year,” said Maj. Gen. Heath Collins, the program executive officer for weapons in the Air Force.

Nevertheless, the service is still determining what mix of capabilities it requires to counter U.S. adversaries and how hypersonic weapons, such as the ARRW system, fit into that equation.

“Obviously, you wouldn’t buy something that doesn’t work,” said Andrew Hunter, the top Air Force acquisition official, on July 16. “But even if it does work, it’s got to be the right contribution to the overall weapons mix and the highest priority targets.”

Adding to the list of wins for the Pentagon, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) conducted two successful tests of hypersonic weapons systems: Operational Fires (OpFires) and the Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC).

OpFires, a hypersonic boost-glide weapons system, fulfilled all of the test objectives during its first flight test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in late May, according to a July 13 DARPA statement. The test marked the first use of a Marine Corps logistics truck as a medium-range missile launcher, the agency noted. The capability is scheduled to have additional flight tests and finish up a critical design review this year.

The May test was a “promising step” toward developing an “on-demand capability for accurately firing medium-range missiles from highly agile, readily available logistics trucks that are already in both the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps inventory,” remarked Lt. Col. Joshua Stults, the DARPA program manager for the OpFires system.

DARPA then successfully tested the HAWC system, an air-launched hypersonic cruise missile, in early July. The test featured the Raytheon Technologies version of the vehicle, which was last tested in September 2021. Lockheed Martin tested its version of the HAWC system in March. (See ACT, May 2022; November 2021.)

After release from an aircraft, the HAWC vehicle was boosted to the correct point, at which the scramjet engine fired up and propelled the vehicle at an unspecified hypersonic speed for more than 345 miles.

But not all U.S. hypersonic weapons tests achieved the desired results. The collaboration between the Army and the Navy on the common hypersonic glide body was met with failure in the system’s first all-up-round test on June 29 due to the occurrence of an “anomaly” after ignition.

“While the [Defense] Department was unable to collect data on the entirety of the planned flight profile, the information gathered from this event will provide vital insights,” said Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Cdr. Tim Gorman.

The Navy leads the design of the common hypersonic glide body, developing a new booster for a glide vehicle adapted from an Army prototype system. Each service will tailor its own launchers for the new vehicle, with the Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon system launching from trucks and the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike system launching from a submarine or destroyer.

The Army and Navy successfully tested the common hypersonic glide body in March 2020 and held four more tests, three successful and one unsuccessful, in October 2021 to inform the development of various components of the system. (See ACT, November 2021; April 2020.)

This surge of activity in development of U.S. offensive hypersonic weapons over the past few years was sparked by the deployment of such capabilities by China and Russia. The recent U.S. tests occurred as Beijing and Moscow continue to quickly advance their respective hypersonic programs.

According to state-owned media sources, China launched DF-17 missiles from a ground-based platform during live-fire exercises near Pingtan Island in the Taiwan Strait in early August. A few days before those exercises, Beijing demonstrated the hypersonic weapon system, which was last seen in a 2019 military parade, in a video celebrating the 95th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army.

Russia has two deployed hypersonic systems, the Avangard and the Kinzhal, the latter of which was used to strike targets in Ukraine in March and possibly in May. (See ACT, April and June 2022.)

Russian President Vladimir Putin also announced on July 31 that the Zircon, a sea-launched hypersonic cruise missile he described as having “no obstacles,” will be deployed in August.

“The area in which the ship equipped with Zircon hypersonic cruise missiles will carry out its duty will be selected based on Russia’s security interests,” Putin said. Zircon was last tested in May. (See ACT, July/August 2022.)

The development and deployment of hypersonic weapon capabilities by China and Russia has propelled the United States to quickly build its own such weapons and to establish defenses against Chinese and Russian hypersonics.

The Pentagon has begun investing substantial funds in the creation of a counterhypersonic weapons ensemble, consisting of a constellation of low-orbit surveillance satellites and a regional hypersonic interceptor, called the Glide Phase Interceptor (GPI), designed to strike enemy boost-glide missiles while in the final stage of their flight.

Despite a finding by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that these systems are being advanced without a thorough assessment of the technical risks involved, the Defense Department is rushing ahead with plans for their development and deployment.

In late June, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency awarded Raytheon and Northrop Grumman contracts of approximately $61 million each to develop prototype GPI missiles. After rigorous testing of both prototypes, one will be chosen for full-scale production and be deployed within the Aegis ballistic missile defense system.

A few weeks later, the U.S. Space Development Agency awarded $700 million to L3Harris and $617 million to Northrop Grumman to build 14 satellites each for the so-called tranche-1 tracking layer of a missile warning and tracking system in low-earth orbit.

The rapid development of the satellites, slated to begin launching in 2025, was made possible due to the decision by Congress to appropriate $550 million for the effort in fiscal year 2022. Ultimately, as many as 200 satellites could be deployed as part of this system.

China Showcases Hypersonic Weapon Near Taiwan, U.S. Tests

Rocket for New U.S. ICBM Explodes

September 2022
By Shannon Bugos

The rocket boosting a new reentry vehicle for the future U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system exploded 11 seconds after launch in its first test, setting the $100 billion nuclear modernization program off to a rocky start.

A version of the Minotaur rocket that exploded in its first test on July 6, in a setback for the U.S. nuclear modernization program. (Photo by U.S. Air Force)The test involved a Minotaur II+ rocket carrying a prototype Mark 21A reentry vehicle built by Lockheed Martin. The vehicle will house a W87-1 nuclear warhead, which is in the midst of a modification program administered by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). A nuclear warhead was not used during the July 6 test at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

“The test launch will demonstrate preliminary design concepts and relevant payload technologies in [an] operationally realistic environment,” said the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center in a press release prior to the test. Following the failed test, the center commented only that “an investigative review board has been established to determine the cause of the explosion.”

The blast sparked a fire on the base, prompting the dispatch of local firefighters.

The rocket and reentry vehicle will be placed on the U.S. Air Force’s new LGM-35A Sentinel ICBMs. The Sentinel system was initially known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent before its renaming in the spring. (See ACT, June 2022.)

The Air Force plans to purchase more than 650 Sentinel ICBMs to replace the existing fleet of 400 Minuteman III missiles, plus spares and test missiles, starting in fiscal year 2029. Testing of the Sentinel missiles, under development by Northrop Grumman, is slated to begin in 2024.

The Pentagon had scheduled a long-planned test of a Minuteman III ICBM for early August. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin elected to delay the test by about two weeks due to heightened tensions with China over Taiwan, John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, announced on Aug. 4. The department had cancelled another ICBM test in March. (See ACT, April 2022.)

“As China engages in destabilizing military exercises around Taiwan, the United States is demonstrating instead the behavior of a responsible nuclear power by reducing the risks of miscalculation and misperception,” said Kirby.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, denounced Austin’s decision.

“These weak-kneed pearl-clutching attempts at appeasement hurt our readiness and will only invite further aggression by our adversaries,” Rogers said.

The rescheduled test took place on Aug. 16 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. “The ICBM’s reentry vehicle traveled approximately 4,200 miles to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands,” the Air Force said in a statement.

ICBMs constitute the land-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad and are dispersed across three Air Force bases in five states: Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming.

The service released on July 1 a draft report examining the environmental impact from the construction of the Sentinel system to include the missiles themselves, as well as their vast supporting infrastructure, and the decommissioning and disposal of the Minuteman III missile system. The Air Force began work on the statement in the fall of 2020.

The report found that the plan for replacing all Minuteman III missiles with Sentinel missiles will “have potentially significant adverse effects on cultural resources, public health and safety, socioeconomics, and utilities and infrastructure” in the short term and, in some cases, the long term.

As part of the report, the Air Force also had to evaluate possible alternative plans to the Sentinel system for the future of the ICBM force.

The report describes four possible alternatives to the current plan, including rebuilding the Minuteman III missile fleet to existing specifications, constructing and deploying a smaller ICBM, constructing and deploying commercial launch vehicles containing nuclear-capable reentry vehicles, or converting existing Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles for deployment in land-based silos.

The Air Force eliminated these alternatives due to the perception that they did not meet all of the system requirements in areas such as sustainability, integration, performance, survivability, safety, and risk.

The service ultimately determined that only in pursuing the new Sentinel system would the United States be able “to continue to offer long-term tangible evidence to both allies and potential adversaries of our nuclear weapons capabilities, thus contributing to nuclear deterrence and assurance, and providing a hedge against arms competition.”

Notably, an alternative that the Air Force chose not to examine was reducing the size of the ICBM force to below 400, as some arms control experts have suggested.

“The current force level of 400 deployed ICBMs is not––and has never been––a magic number, and it could be reduced further for a variety of reasons, including those related to security, economics, or a good faith effort to reduce deployed U.S. nuclear forces,” Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists wrote in a July 13 blog post.

The Defense Department had solicited a study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on potential alternatives for the land-based leg of the nuclear triad, to possibly include the reduction of the ICBM force. The study was to be completed by the end of January 2022, but has not been made public.

On the original timeline, that study would have been finished at a time when the Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) also wrapped up, leaving little room for the study to influence the U.S. nuclear force posture in a meaningful way. The public release of the NPR has been delayed in part due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, although it is unlikely that the Pentagon will deviate from pursuing the Sentinel program.

Congress supported the new ICBM program in fiscal year 2022 with $2.6 billion. (See ACT, January/February 2022.) In June, the House authorized $3.6 billion for the program in fiscal year 2023, but the defense authorization bill has yet to make its way through the Senate. The relevant pieces of appropriations legislation, which allow for actual spending, have not moved through either chamber. (See ACT, June 2022.)

Overall, the House approved a $37 billion boost to the Biden administration’s request of $813 billion for national defense for fiscal year 2023. The lawmakers rubber-stamped all nuclear modernization programs, including funding for the fleet of Columbia-class submarines, the B-21 Raider strategic bomber, and the long-range standoff weapon, an air-launched cruise missile.

The House also added $45 million for the development of a new sea-launched cruise missile and its associated nuclear warhead, which the Biden administration had not requested.


The test failure is a setback for the $100 billion nuclear modernization program.

U.S.-Russian Dialogue Remains Paused as Putin Wields Nuclear Threats

Editor’s Note : To keep pace with developments, as of July 2022, the Arms Control Association is superseding the “ U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Control Watch ” with the “Nuclear Disarmament Monitor.” The goal of the newsletter’s overhaul is to enable coverage of arms control issues beyond bilateral U.S.-Russian efforts, such as potential nuclear risk reduction and disarmament diplomacy involving China and the other NPT nuclear-armed states. This inaugural issue of the new publication recaps developments since the beginning of 2022. In the opening days of Russia’s war on Ukraine, President...


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