The Defense Department announced in April that it had finalized its plans for implementing nuclear arsenal reductions under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia. The final numbers differ only slightly from projections the administration made four years ago.
New START limits each side to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 700 long-range delivery vehicles, composed of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and bombers. The treaty also limits each country to 800 deployed and nondeployed missile launchers and bombers.
In May 2010, soon after President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed New START, the White House informed the Senate that its 700 delivery vehicles would comprise 420 Minuteman III ICBMs, 60 B-2 and B-52 bombers, and 240 Trident D-5 SLBMs, for a total of 720, or 20 more than allowed. (See ACT, June 2010.)
As of last year, the United States fielded about 450 ICBMs, 260 SLBMs, and 90 bombers, according to the State Department.
As required by the fiscal year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, the Pentagon issued a report last month stating that the extra 20 delivery vehicles will be taken from the overall number of ICBMs, bringing the total down to 400. The United States had previously said that all Minuteman III ICBMs are to be reduced to a single warhead and that the number of SLBM launch tubes will be reduced from 24 to 20 on each of 14 Ohio-class submarines, only 12 of which are deployed at a time.
50 ‘Warm’ Silos
The recent Pentagon announcement specifies the number of nondeployed missile launchers and bombers that the United States will retain. The major surprise, according to congressional staffers, was that the United States will maintain all 454 ICBM silos, with 400 silos holding missiles and 54 sitting empty but “warm,” meaning they can be reactivated. The 50 extra ICBMs will be kept in storage. New START places no limits on delivery vehicles in storage.
The Air Force will determine which 50 missiles will be pulled from the 450 silos currently in use across the three missile fields. Four test launchers at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California are also counted as nondeployed launchers.
The decision to keep all of the ICBM silos came after a strong push by members of Congress from the states with ballistic missile bases—Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming—against eliminating any silos.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) called the Pentagon’s announcement “a big win for our nation’s security and for Malmstrom Air Force Base,” home of the 341st Missile Wing with 150 Minuteman III missiles. “ICBMs are the most cost-effective nuclear deterrent, and keeping silos warm is a smart decision,” Tester said.
Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein, Air Force commander of all U.S. ICBMs, said keeping the silos warm would avoid any personnel cuts. He told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle on April 18 that “We still have to maintain 45 launch control centers, we still have to maintain the three wings, and we still need the same amount of maintenance people.”
Senators from the ICBM coalition had said they would block nuclear policy-related nominations unless their demands were met. For example, the only Democratic senators to vote against the nomination of Rose Gottemoeller to be undersecretary of state for arms control and international security were Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Jon Tester (Mont.), and John Walsh (Mont.), all from ICBM states. (See ACT, April 2014.) Lawmakers from ICBM states had also put a hold on the nomination of Madelyn Creedon, currently an assistant secretary of defense, for a top position with the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, and of Frank Rose to replace Gottemoeller at the State Department as an assistant secretary.
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) told The Wall Street Journal on April 8 that, with the decision to preserve the ICBM silos, the coalition would lift its holds and allow the nominations to proceed.
To keep all 450 silos, the military will have to make other cuts to the nuclear force to meet the limits of 800 deployed and nondeployed launchers. The Navy will remove 40 SLBMs from two submarines in dock, a plan it had previously announced, and the Air Force will convert 30 B-52H bombers to conventional aircraft so they cannot carry nuclear weapons.
Under the treaty, the United States does not have to reach New START limits until February 2018. It plans to make “many reductions toward the end” of the implementation period, according to the Pentagon announcement. The treaty specifies that each party can decide for itself how to structure its forces to comply with the limits.
Defense officials said the force structure plan was announced now because the first submarine is scheduled for maintenance in October and the number of launch tubes needs to be reduced from 24 to 20 during that time. The submarine conversions need to be planned within a strict schedule, officials said.
The Pentagon report said implementation of New START would cost $301 million from 2014 to 2018.
According to State Department figures released April 1, the United States remains above New START limits with 1,585 strategic warheads deployed on 778 delivery vehicles. Russia is below treaty limits with 1,512 warheads on 498 delivery vehicles.