Media Backgrounder: Nuclear Weapons and the Foreign Policy Debate

Backgrounder: Nuclear Weapons, National Security, and the
October 22 Foreign Policy Debate

For Immediate Release: October 22, 2012

Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, (202) 463-8270 ext 107; Tom Z. Collina, Research Director, (202) 841-7536; Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, (703) 946-4407

(Washington, D.C.) Good policy depends on solid information-especially when it comes to nuclear weapons.

Fifty years after the Cuban missile crisis almost led to nuclear war, nuclear weapons still pose enormous risks to U.S. and global security. Today, there still are nearly 20,000 nuclear weapons, and there are nine nuclear-armed states. More countries have access to the technologies needed to produce nuclear bomb material, and the threat of nuclear terrorism is real.

This backgrounder provides some key facts concerning nuclear weapons issues that will shape the national security choices of the next U.S. president over the next four years:

Iran's Nuclear Capabilities and "Red Lines"
A central issue in 2013 will be how to handle Iran's nuclear program, which could be used as the basis for building nuclear weapons in the years to come.

President Obama has said repeatedly that he will not allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons. Governor Romney has also said he will not allow a "nuclear-armed" Iran. However, in October 8 speech he said:  "I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability."

By 2007, the U.S. Intelligence Community had assessed that Iran had already gained a nuclear weapons capability--that is, "Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so." But senior intelligence officials continue to assess that it has not made such a decision.

The most difficult part of building a nuclear weapon is acquiring sufficient fissile material--such as weapons grade uranium. So far, Iran has been enriching and stockpiling uranium hexafluoride to levels of 3.5% (U-235 concentration) and 20% -- the former for power reactor fuel and the latter for producing medical isotopes.

Although neither activity is banned under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), either could be used as the basis for further enrichment to the 90% level used in nuclear weapons. The larger and more highly enriched Iran's uranium stockpiles are, the shorter the period of time Iran would need to produce the ingredients for a nuclear bomb.

At the beginning of 2009, Iran's stockpile of 3.5% was not enough, even if further enriched to supply the ingredients of one weapon. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as of August 2012, Iran's 3.5% and 20% stockpiles were enough, if further enriched, to supply five weapons. However, producing fissile material would take some time.

Once Iran accumulates enough 20%-enriched uranium to make a bomb--it currently has only half as much as it needs--it would still take at least two months to enrich it further to weapons grade. If Iran started immediately enriching toward weapons grade from its existing 3.5%-enriched stockpiles, it would take several months to accumulate enough for a single bomb.

Because Iran's uranium enrichment facilities and uranium stockpiles are monitored by the IAEA, it would be likely that any diversion of nuclear material for further enrichment would soon be noticed - long before it could be used for fashioning a weapon.

Once Iran had enough fissile material for a bomb, it would have to design a warhead, fashion the uranium hexafluoride gas into the metallic form needed for the warhead, and probably test that design to assure its reliability.

Starting from today, Iran would require, not a few weeks, but many months to build a deliverable nuclear weapon. Secretary of Defense Panetta recently estimated that it would take 2-3 years, similar to the estimate made by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

If Iran were to move toward building a bomb, it would need to expel IAEA inspectors, use existing facilities and stockpiles to produce weapons grade uranium, and probably test a nuclear device, all of which would raise the alarm to the international community.--GREG THIELMANN

Options for Preventing a Nuclear-Armed Iran
A decade has elapsed since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran had secretly built a uranium-enrichment facility (Natanz) and three years since a second deep underground facility (Fordow) was revealed. Iran apparently has not made a strategic decision to build nuclear weapons and does not yet have the necessary ingredients for an effective nuclear arsenal. But its capabilities are improving and concerns remain about past weapons-related experiments.

Both candidates have said that "all options" to deal with Iran's nuclear program--including diplomacy, sanctions, and military force--should be considered, but each puts a different emphasis on those options. The Obama administration has stated that there is time for diplomacy but the time for diplomacy must not be wasted by Iran. Mr. Romney has argued that the threat of military strikes should be further emphasized and made more credible in order to change Iran's behavior.

In recent years, increasingly tough international sanctions, as well as unilateral US and EU sanctions, have slowed Iran's nuclear and missile programs and increased pressure on Tehran to negotiate. A new round of EU and possibly UN Security Council sanctions are on the way. Yet sanctions alone have clearly not induced Iran to provide the necessary level of cooperation.

As negotiations stalled in mid-2012, calls for military action increased, particularly from the Israeli government.  However, a range of military experts have argued that U.S. or Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear and military targets would be counterproductive. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned in October that: "The results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could, in my view, prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world." He said that such an attack would not eliminate Iran's nuclear capability and "would make a nuclear-armed Iran inevitable. They would just bury the program deeper and make it more covert."

Over the past decade Iran and the Western powers missed several opportunities to negotiate an agreement that reduces the risk of a nuclear-armed Iran. In 2012, the Obama administration and P5+1 allies once again reengaged with Iran to try to reach a deal, but without success so far. Meanwhile, Iran has so far refused to agree to an IAEA plan to investigate concerns about "potential military dimensions" of Iran's program.

U.S. and P5+1 negotiators have sought to achieve a temporary suspension of all Iranian enrichment activities and other sensitive nuclear fuel cycle projects, a permanent restriction on Iran's enrichment to normal reactor-grade levels, and more intrusive IAEA inspections to ensure that Iran has halted all weapons-related work. Iran has insisted that its "right" to pursue the peaceful use of nuclear energy must not be abridged and that sanctions should be lifted before Iran limits its nuclear activities. A new round of talks is expected later this year.

Many experts believe a revised proposal calling for a halt to Iran's accumulation of 20 percent-enriched uranium, which is closer to weapons grade, in exchange for fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor for medical isotope production, could buy time and build momentum toward a comprehensive solution. --DARYL G. KIMBALL AND GREG THIELMANN

U.S. and Global Nuclear Forces 2012
In the 20 years since the end of the Cold War, successive U.S. and Russian presidents have reduced the size of their enormous nuclear stockpiles through  bilateral arms control agreements and reciprocal nuclear risk reduction initiatives.

Under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (New START), the United States and Russia agreed to reduce their respective arsenals to no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads on 700 missiles and bombers by 2018. New START reestablished regular on-site monitoring and information exchanges to verify compliance and build stability.

New START was negotiated by the Obama administration in 2009 and 2010. In December 2011, the Senate approved the treaty by a vote of 71-26, with the support of 13 Republicans and a long, bipartisan list of military leaders. At the time, Governor Romney wrote an oped opposing New START, prompting a rebuttal from Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). More recently, Romney has said that if elected, he would "review" the implementation of the treaty.

As of Sept. 2012, the United States deployed some 1,700 strategic nuclear warheads on 800 bombers and sub- and land-based missiles. Russia deployed some 1,500 strategic nuclear warheads on 490 bombers and sub- and land-based missiles. Each side possesses additional tactical nuclear weapons, reserve strategic warheads, and warheads awaiting dismantlement.

After Russia, the only other potential U.S. adversary with a sizeable nuclear arsenal is China, which has an estimated total of 240-300 nuclear weapons, no more than 50 of which are on intercontinental-range ballistic missiles that can reach the United States.

No other nuclear-armed country has the ability to deliver nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles that can reach the United States. North Korea's arsenal is limited in size (it has enough fissile material for about 10 bombs) and range.--DARYL G. KIMBALL

Further U.S.-Russian Nuclear Cuts and China
Every President since Reagan has sought to reduce the total number of U.S. (and Russian) nuclear weapons. A January 2012 Pentagon strategic review has determined: "It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy."

The next presidential administration will face a number of choices about whether and how to seek further cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles. Key decisions on how to re-size and structure U.S. nuclear forces to meet presidential guidance on nuclear deterrence policy are pending.

President Obama has said repeatedly that he would like to pursue further verifiable cuts in all types of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons: strategic, nonstrategic, deployed, and nondeployed. Many Republican Senators have expressed support for reductions in Russian tactical nuclear weapons.

In March, Obama said: "My Administration's nuclear posture recognizes that the massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War is poorly suited for today's threats, including nuclear terrorism.  I firmly believe that we can ensure the security of the United States and our allies, maintain a strong deterrent against any threat, and still pursue further reductions in our nuclear arsenal."

Achieving progress on a follow-on to the New START treaty will be difficult without an understanding with Russia on the future purpose and scope of U.S. ballistic missile defense deployments, which Russia believes could compromise its nuclear retaliatory potential in the years ahead.

A State Department advisory group has suggested that as an alternative both countries could accelerate their New START reductions and go below the New START ceilings. The United States and NATO will likely seek talks with Russia on transparency and accounting for tactical nuclear weapons, including the 180 U.S. bombs stationed in five NATO countries. The Obama administration has also opened up discussions with the five original nuclear weapon states, including China, on nuclear weapons policy and transparency issues.

Some Republicans, including retiring Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) who opposed New START, have argued that steep reductions in the number of deployed U.S. strategic weapons would be unwise because it would mean that "anybody that wanted to could build up to that number and be a peer with the United States."

China is the only country that might conceivably build-up. Today it has a total nuclear arsenal of about 300 nuclear weapons, mostly on short-range systems, mainly designed for a conflict involving Taiwan. Over the last three decades China has added about 30 warheads that could reliably reach the United States. China now fields some 40-50 warheads on intercontinental systems, compared to the 1,700 deployed warheads by the United States that could reach China--a 30-1 numerical advantage. --DARYL G. KIMBALL

Nuclear Modernization and Nuclear Weapons Spending
The President and the Congress face key decisions about how to manage the sizeable costs of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the infrastructure to support it.

According to a 2012 study by two Stimson Center researchers, U.S. spending on nuclear weapons is approximately $31 billion per year and the projected costs for maintaining and modernizing the current U.S. nuclear force will cost additional tens of billions in the coming decade.

Nuclear Weapons Delivery Systems: In the next 2-3 years, key decisions must be made regarding costly, long-term strategic submarine and bomber modernization programs. The Navy has been seeking to replace the current force of 14 strategic ballistic missile submarines with 12 new submarines carrying more than 1,000 nuclear warheads into the 2070s, at a total cost of almost $350 billion. The Air Force wants new, nuclear-armed strategic bomber that would cost at least $68 billion, as well as a new fleet of land-based ballistic missiles that would cost billions more.

In July 2011, then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright stated that "... we have to recapitalize all three legs [of the nuclear triad], and we don't have the money to do it."

In response to bipartisan deficit reduction requirements, in January 2012, the Pentagon said it would delay procurement of the proposed Ohio-class replacement nuclear-armed submarine by two years, which could save some $6-7 billion in the next ten years. However, without a reduction in the size of the force, the overall cost of the program will remain the same.

An ACA analysis found that by reducing the Trident nuclear-armed sub fleet from 14 to 8 or fewer boats and building no more than 8 new nuclear-armed subs, the United States could save roughly $18 billion over 10 years. With changes to warhead loadings on each sub, the Navy could still deploy the same number of strategic nuclear warheads at sea on a smaller, 8-sub fleet.

In June, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said the administration "should consider going far lower" than the warhead caps set by New START to bring the nation's arsenal in line with a diminished nuclear threat and tighter military budgets."I can't see any reason for having as large an inventory as we are allowed to have under New START, in terms of real threat, potential threat," Sen. Levin told The New York Times.

Nuclear Weapons Infrastructure: President Obama, along with Congressional members on both side of the aisle appear to agree that "As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal ...." They have from time to time differed on how to do that and how much taxpayer monies should be spent to the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories programs and facilities.

In 2010, the Obama administration put forward a 10-year, $85 billion funding plan for maintaining the nuclear weapons complex and refurbishing each of the major U.S. nuclear warhead types  without nuclear explosive testing.

Following the passage of the Budget Control Act and budget cuts made by the Republican controlled appropriations committee in the House, the administration has been forced to re-evaluate the pace of its plan to modernize major National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) facilities. Some House and Senate Republicans have complained that the administration's $7.6 billion request for NNSA weapons activities for FY 2013 is 4 percent lower than projected in 2010. However, this figure also represents a healthy 5 percent increase over the 2012 enacted budget.

The main issue of contention is a plutonium laboratory, called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) Facility, to be built at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, which the administration deferred for at least five years.

The Republican-led House Appropriations Committee complained that the facility should have been shelved sooner. "By not fully considering all available options, millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent for work which will not be needed until a much later date," the appropriations committee wrote about CMRR on April 24.

Some Republicans worry that without CMRR, the U.S. does not have the capability to make 50 to 80 newly produced plutonium cores, or "pits," annually for refurbished warheads. The reality, however, is that there is no identified need to produce that many plutonium pits. NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino testified to Congress on April 17 that the U.S. does not need CMRR to maintain an effective stockpile. --DARYL G. KIMBALL AND TOM Z. COLLINA

Preventing Nuclear Terrorism
There is broad bipartisan support for preventing terrorist acquisition of nuclear weapons-usable material. President Obama has made this a priority of his first term, holding two Nuclear Security Summits to encourage nations to better control their nuclear-weapons materials. The first was held in Washington in 2010 and the second in Seoul in 2012. According to ACA's analysis, approximately 80 percent of the 67 national commitments made by global leaders at the Washington Summit have been completed. A third summit will be held in the Netherlands in 2014.

Another important aspect of nuclear security is the U.S.-Russian bilateral program to control the former Soviet Union's large stockpile of weapons of mass destruction left over from the Cold War. However, Moscow said in October that it would not sign a U.S. draft agreement to extend the landmark 20-year partnership, known as the "Nunn-Lugar" Cooperative Threat Reduction program, started in 1991. The Obama administration hopes to renegotiate the agreement before it expires next June.

The bipartisan program's accomplishments include deactivating more than 7,600 strategic nuclear warheads; destroying over 900 ICBMs; and improving security at two dozen nuclear weapons storage sites.  The United States has reportedly spent less than $15 billion over the 20-year life of the program, half of what Washington spends each year to deter a Russian nuclear attack.

Perhaps most importantly, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus no longer have nuclear weapons as a result of the Nunn-Lugar program. Those countries would have been the third, fourth and eighth largest nuclear weapons powers in the world.--TOM Z. COLLINA

Missile Defense Programs
For the past decade, Republicans and Democrats have supported programs to develop, test, and deploy missile defense systems to deal with limited missile threats from Iran and North Korea. There have been differences on what type of system to deploy, where, and when, as well as how to cooperate with Russia. These programs have cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars and produced limited results.

In 2002, George W. Bush abandoned from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and rushed to deploy a "rudimentary" ground-based interceptor (GBI) system intended to defend the United States against a North Korean or Iranian long-range missile attack. The first ground-based interceptors were put in California and Alaska. Bush proposed to deploy 10 more in Poland with a radar in the Czech Republic.

Independent experts noted that the ground-based interceptors were unproven in real-world conditions and were designed to counter a threat that does not exist (long-range Iranian missiles) rather than a missile threat that does exist (shorter- and medium range Iranian missiles).

In 2009, President Obama announced he would shelve the strategic interceptor proposal for Poland, and accelerate efforts to deploy an interceptor system in Europe to defend against short and intermediate-range missiles from Iran. The plan, known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach, calls for the deployment of hundreds of smaller SM-3 interceptors based on Aegis ships and on land in Poland and Romania, and a radar in Turkey, to be deployed in phases by 2020. The first phase--one Aegis ship in the Mediterranean armed with SM-3 IA interceptors and an X-band radar in Turkey--is in place.

In his August convention speech, Governor Romney criticized Obama for "abandon[ing] our friends in Poland by walking away from our missile defense commitments" and for being "eager to give Russia's President Putin the flexibility he desires, after the election."  He said that in his administration, "our friends will see more loyalty, and Mr. Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone." Elsewhere, Romney has pledged to "reserve the option of reverting to President Bush's original plan of deploying proven interceptor technology in Poland."

The United States and NATO are seeking to cooperate with Russia on missile defense by sharing early-warning information and radar data, but Moscow first wants a legally-binding commitment that U.S. interceptors based in Europe would not be targeted against Russian strategic missiles. The Obama administration has repeatedly stated the purpose is not to counter Russia but has refused to provide legally-binding assurances.

The United States currently fields 30 Ground-Based Interceptors in Alaska and California. A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences found that this system is so expensive and ineffective that it should be replaced with a new system.

Both the U.S. and NATO systems would seek to intercept incoming warheads while in space, or in the "midcourse" of their trajectory, where decoys or "countermeasures" must be dealt with. The NAS report concludes that: "there is no static answer to the question of whether a missile defense can work against countermeasures." The answer "depends on the resources expended by the offense and the defense and the knowledge each has of the other's system."

Russia has said it will not pursue further nuclear arms reductions with the United States until its concerns about U.S. interceptors in Europe are resolved.--TOM Z. COLLINA


The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today.