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– Hans Blix,
former IAEA Director-General

U.S. Nuclear Weapons

New Nuclear Option Faces Budget Uncertainty

The Trump administration envisions a small number of low-yield nuclear warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles.


April 2018
By Kingston Reif

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) report calls for the near-term deployment of a small number of low-yield nuclear warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), but the administration has yet to find the money needed to do that.

The Defense Department’s budget request for fiscal year 2019, released on Feb. 12, includes $22.6 million for developing the missile variant. The department plans to spend a total of $48.5 million on the effort over the next five years, according to budget documents obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry swears in Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty as administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration on February 22. She told a Senate committee March 14 that the administration is looking at options for funding planned low-yield nuclear warheads. (Photo: NNSA)But the proposed budget for the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which maintains nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure, did not include the funds needed to modify SLBM warheads. The administration plans to modify a small number of 100-kiloton W76-1 SLBM warheads to detonate at a less powerful yield by removing the weapon’s uranium secondary core. The W76 is currently undergoing a $4 billion life extension program that is slated for completion next year.

NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 14 that the agency is “working closely” with the Office of Management and Budget and the Pentagon to identify the necessary funding options. The Pentagon and NNSA say the modification can be completed quickly, perhaps as soon as the end of 2019.

U.S. law requires that the energy secretary specifically request congressional authorization and appropriations to develop a new or modified nuclear warhead. Although the NNSA did not seek funds for the modification in its original budget request, the agency could make a supplemental request later this year or ask Congress for permission to reprogram funds from other activities.

The NPR report also calls for the development of a nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) that could be available for fielding within the next decade. The fiscal year 2019 budget request includes $1 million to begin an analysis of the performance requirements and costs to pursue that capability.

The United States deployed SLCMs during the Cold War, but President George H.W. Bush removed them from attack submarines and surface ships in the early 1990s. President Barack Obama ordered the retirement of the aging warhead for the missile in the report for the 2010 NPR. (See ACT, May 2010.)

The Trump administration NPR report calls for the development of the two additional low-yield nuclear capabilities primarily to counter Russia’s alleged willingness to use or threaten to use tactical nuclear weapons on a limited basis to stave off defeat in a conventional conflict or crisis, a strategy known as “escalate to de-escalate.” (See ACT, March 2018.) Russia possesses a larger and more diverse arsenal of such weapons than the United States.

According to the report, the development of the two options “is not intended to enable, nor does it enable, ‘nuclear war-fighting.’” Rather, expanding U.S. tailored response options will “raise the nuclear threshold and help ensure that potential adversaries perceive no possible advantage in limited nuclear escalation, making nuclear weapons employment less likely,” according to the report. Critics maintain that the report misconstrues Russian nuclear doctrine and that additional low-yield options are unnecessary.

The Trump administration is also pursuing research and development on and concepts and options for conventional ground-launched, intermediate-range missile systems in response to Russia’s alleged violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. (See ACT, January/February 2018.) The fiscal year 2019 budget documents do not specify how much money the Pentagon proposes to spend on this work.

In total, the Defense Department is requesting $24 billion for nuclear forces, an increase of $5 billion from the fiscal year 2018 request. This includes $11 billion for nuclear force sustainment and operations; $7 billion for upgrade programs such as the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine replacement, B-21 “Raider” heavy bomber, and the long-range standoff weapon; and $6 billion for nuclear command, control, and communications. The NPR report acknowledges that the cost to sustain and upgrade the arsenal is “substantial,” but claims the projected bill is affordable and will consume no more than 6.4 percent of the Pentagon budget.

This proposed spending does not include the additional costs that must be borne by the NNSA to upgrade nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure. The administration requested $11 billion for the NNSA nuclear weapons account in fiscal year 2019.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated last fall that the plans President Donald Trump inherited from Obama to maintain and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years would cost $1.2 trillion. (See ACT, December 2017.) The figure does not include the effects of inflation.

Trump, Congress Bulk Up Ballistic Missile Defense

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request includes large funding increases for theater and strategic ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems relative to the administration’s first budget submission in May 2017. Missile defense programs accounted for $12 billion of the 2019 request, including $9.9 billion for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).

Although the proposed request for the agency is up from the fiscal year 2018 request of $7.9 billion, Congress passed an omnibus appropriations bill last month that provides $11.5 billion, a increase of $3.6 billion above the original budget submission. President Donald Trump signed the bill on March 23.

To thwart intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the fiscal year 2019 request proposes $2.1 billion for expanding and modernizing the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system. This includes construction of an additional missile field in Fort Greely, Alaska, bringing the total number of ground-based interceptors to 64. The budget request would cover 14 of the expected 20 new ground-based interceptors, as well as design and testing of the so-called Redesigned Kill Vehicle and Multi-Object Kill Vehicle intended to increase the number of kill vehicles atop each long-range intercepter.

For midcourse defense against less than ICBM-range missiles, the request allocates more funding to the Aegis Afloat ship-based ballistic missile defense system. The largest line item is $6 billion for three new Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, a 50 percent increase from fiscal year 2018. Procurement for software packages and missiles decreased slightly from $2.1 billion in fiscal year 2018 to $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2019. These funds will be used to procure 43 Aegis software packages and 125 interceptor missiles, most of which are the Standard Missile-3 Block IB variant. Forty-three of the missiles are to be completed by 2020.

The envisioned spending on terminal-phase defense remained about the same, including $1.1 billion each for 82 Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors and 240 Patriot Advanced Capability Missile Segment Enhancement interceptors. The fiscal year 2019 request provides for the acquisition of enough interceptors to operate seven THAAD batteries and 15 Patriot battalions worldwide.

On Feb. 16, the MDA provided Congress with a $1.6 billion wish list of 16 unfunded projects not included in the budget request. The top priority on the list is a $73 million space-based Missile Defense Tracking System to track ICBMs in their midcourse phase of flight.—RYAN FEDASIUK

Posted: April 1, 2018

The Wrong Choice for National Security Advisor

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Press release on the appointment of John Bolton as National Security Advisor

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For Immediate Release: March 23, 2018

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107; Kingston Reif, director for disarmament policy, (202) 463-8270 ext. 104

(Washington, D.C.)—The United States already faces an array of complex and dangerous foreign policy challenges that require pragmatic decision and sober diplomatic engagement with American allies and foes alike.

With the choice of John Bolton as his National Security Advisor, President Donald Trump has chosen someone with a record of a hostile attitude toward multilateral security and arms control agreements and effective international institutions designed to advance U.S. national security and international peace and security.

Bolton's extreme views could tilt the malleable Mr. Trump in the wrong direction on critical decisions affecting the future of the Iran nuclear deal, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and the strained U.S. relationship with Russia, among other issues.

Bolton is a nonproliferation hawk, but he has a disturbing and bellicose record of choosing confrontation rather than dialogue, politicizing intelligence to fit his worldview, and aggressively undermining treaties and negotiations designed to reduce weapons-related security threats. 

  • Bolton has long advocated for bombing Iran instead of pursuing negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear program and he has called on the United States to abrogate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which is working to verifiably block Iran’s pathways to the bomb. 
  • In the early 2000s, Bolton was among those in the George W. Bush administration who opposed further dialogue with North Korea which allowed North Korea to advance its nuclear program and test nuclear weapons. More recently, has argued that the United States should launch a “preventive attack” on North Korea, which would result in a catastrophic war. His approach runs counter to Mr. Trump’s own stated policy of using sanctions pressure and diplomatic engagement, including a summit with Kim Jong-un, to halt and reverse North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
  • Bolton has repeatedly criticized the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia, which is one of the few bright spots in the troubled U.S.-Russia relationship and continues to enjoy strong support from the U.S. military. Last year Bolton called the treaty “an execrable deal.”
  • While undersecretary of state for arms control and international security during the George W. Bush administration, Bolton cherry-picked the findings of intelligence community assessments of that country’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities, and was a key player in making the Bush administration’s flawed case for the war in Iraq—a war that Donald Trump has correctly ridiculed as a catastrophic American foreign policy blunder.

If Bolton succeeds in imposing his worldview on Donald Trump’s improvisational and impulsive foreign policy approach, we could be entering in a period of crisis and confrontation.

In particular, if Bolton convinces Trump to unilaterally violate the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May when the U.S. is due to renew sanctions waivers, it would not only open the door to the re-emergence of Iran as a nuclear weapons proliferation risk, but it would undermine President Trump’s very tentative diplomatic opening with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

In the next year or so, Trump will need to decide whether or not to engage in talks with Russia about extending the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is due to expire in 2021. Without the treaty, there would be no verifiable limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972.

We can ill-afford two nuclear proliferation crises, as well as abandoning a key brake on the growing risks of renewed U.S. and Russian nuclear competition and arms racing. 

Congress will need to play a stronger role to guard against further chaos and confusion in U.S. foreign policy, prevent the White House from blundering into unwise and catastrophic military conflicts, and to halt further degradation of the credibility of the United States as a responsible global leader.

Country Resources:

Posted: March 23, 2018

The Future of the ICBM Force: Should the Least Valuable Leg of the Triad Be Replaced?

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Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the plan to overhaul the nation’s nuclear arsenal is the replacement program for the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, the land-based leg of the nuclear triad that also includes submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and heavy bombers.

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March 2018
By Ryan Snyder
Former Visiting Research Fellow at the Arms Control Association

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Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the plan to overhaul the nation’s nuclear arsenal is the replacement program for the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, the land-based leg of the nuclear triad that also includes submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and heavy bombers. The current deployed fleet of 400 silo-based Minuteman III ICBMs are distributed across three bases touching five states and are expected to be removed from service by the U.S. Air Force in the mid-2030s.1 A follow-on ICBM system–known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD)–is scheduled to replace the Minuteman IIIs (and their supporting infrastructure) on a one-for-one basis between 2028 and 2035.2 Many have questioned the need for this program, including former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who has argued for eliminating all ICBMs.3

The latest independent Pentagon acquisition cost estimate to design and build the ICBM replacement ranges from $85 to over $140 billion (in then-year dollars),4 while the cost to operate and sustain the weapons system over its expected 50-year service life is projected at roughly $150 billion.5 This ICBM recapitalization cost is but one piece of a larger plan to sustain and upgrade the nuclear arsenal over the next thirty years, with the total price tag projected to exceed $1.2 trillion (in 2017 dollars).6 Separate modernization programs planned for U.S. conventional forces will require additional outlays. These upgrades will necessitate either a significant and prolonged increase in defense spending, which is unlikely to be forthcoming, or a reallocation of resources within the defense budget.7 Hard choices will likely be required among competing programs.

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review published in February endorses replacing and upgrading the current Minuteman III force with the GBSD program. It will be up to Congress to assess the program’s cost-effectiveness and evaluate alternatives. This paper will examine this issue in several stages: first, by considering whether ICBMs are needed to hedge against threats to the strategic submarines; second, by discussing their possible benefits and risks as a warhead “sponge”; third, by examining whether ICBMs possess necessary capabilities absent from other legs of the triad; and last, by considering the stability implications of developing a new ICBM with enhanced capabilities. Finally, the paper evaluates alternative options to the costly GBSD program of record.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • The deterrent value of the ICBM force is small and diminishing.
  • Without ICBMs, the current absence of any foreseeable threat to the U.S. strategic submarines assures that no adversary can preempt massive retaliation by the United States.
  • ICBMs should not be considered an acceptable hedge against possible future threats to the
  • strategic submarines.
  • ICBMs provide no unique nuclear strike capabilities not already provided by other legs of the strategic triad.
  • The enhanced capabilities planned for the GBSD are either unnecessary or may adversely affect strategic stability.
  • Consequently, the United States should consider eliminating its land-based missiles or abandoning or scaling back the planned GBSD program.

Are ICBMs needed to hedge against foreseeable SSBN vulnerabilities?

A central, if not the central, rationale for maintaining the ICBMs rests upon fears of vulnerability in the strategic nuclear submarine (SSBN) force.8 If the SSBNs are unable to withstand threats to their survivability and deliver nuclear weapons to the homeland of an adversary, it is argued, then the ICBMs provide a backup to carry out that mission. Absent any such threats, maintaining the ICBMs for the purpose of deterring nuclear attacks is more difficult to justify.

Concerns that technology may one day render SSBNs vulnerable have existed since nuclear weapons were first placed on submarines during the Cold War. And while U.S. SSBN vulnerability was last studied in the public domain several years ago, no prior scholarship has revealed any doubt about the survivability of the sea-based leg of the triad. Among these previous studies includes one 1983 paper by Richard Garwin that suggested the extraordinary demands of holding an SSBN in trail by passive acoustics9 would not threaten the force, and in any case, that countermeasures would very likely deter the attempt.10 Garwin further concluded that short-range sensors would be required by the “hundreds of thousands” to make the SSBN force vulnerable to attack.11 A different study claimed that countermeasures are even easier to deploy against attempts to acquire an active acoustic trail and that such threats are easily neutralized.12

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at 2:10 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time Wednesday, August 2, 2017, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (Photo: Ian Dudley/U.S. Air Force)Another study from 1994 by Eugene Miasnikov relied on the fundamental physics of sound propagation in the ocean to calculate the maximum range at which Russian strategic submarines could be detected. Miasnikov found that the ranges were so short that not only were covert trailing threats using passive acoustics implausible, but that the increasing silence of submarines in both the United States and Russia risked causing accidental collisions.13 This suggests that unintended mishaps have been the greater threat to SSBN survivability than from any capability intended to hold them at risk.

In addition, no nonacoustic means of detection has been found to present a survivability threat. All indications suggest that every possible nonacoustic signal–with the possible exception of subsurface water motions detected on the ocean surface by synthetic-aperture radar–can be attenuated if SSBNs patrol at greater ocean depths or if certain operational procedures or other countermeasures are implemented.14

Of course the possible detection of a U.S. SSBN is an insufficient basis upon which to judge their vulnerability. Once detected, an SSBN would need to be localized to within the range and accuracy of the weapon used to destroy it, and then successfully trailed while other U.S. SSBNs at sea were detected, localized, and trailed with acceptable confidence. Only after concluding that this circumstance may arise within a considered period could the survivability of the sea-based leg be brought into question.

Recent advancements in technology, however, have raised questions about possible future vulnerabilities. In particular, improved acoustic sensors, lasers, signal processing advancements, and unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV) have been mentioned as possible threats to the ability of submarines to remain concealed.15 Despite this concern and the need for an up-to-date review of fundamental survivability prospects in the public domain, no analysis has yet challenged the conclusions of the studies cited above.

Any review of SSBN survivability should consider whether these technological advancements neutralize the survivability gains made by the modernization and deployment of increasingly quiet submarines over the past few decades. What’s more, the U.S. Navy is planning to replace the existing fleet of 14 Ohio-class submarines with 12 new Columbia-class submarines that will use new technologies related to stealth to ensure the new boats will remain serviceable through the 2080s.

The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Maryland (SSBN 738) dives before test firing an unarmed Trident II D5 missile off the coast of Florida, August 31, 2016. (Photo: John Kowalski/U.S. Navy)Factors that should be evaluated include: What is the maximum range at which any technology can detect an SSBN? If further localization to bring the target SSBN within range of a weapon to destroy it is necessary, what would be required? How do UUVs and advanced computer processing capabilities affect the challenge of trailing SSBNs? If any evolving technology adversely affects SSBN survivability, are there any countermeasures that could prevent an adversary from identifying real SSBNs? Even if the U.S. government has not developed countermeasures for certain detection technologies, how would an adversary reach this conclusion if possible countermeasures could be imagined? Could the U.S. government develop the necessary countermeasures? What confidence would an adversary then need before convincing itself that detecting and destroying U.S. SSBNs is possible before a second strike response from the United States?

It is important to note that one Ohio-class SSBN is armed with roughly 100 warheads–each with a yield of 100 kilotons (kt)–and carries 500 times more explosive energy than did the atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki at the end of World War II.16 This is almost certainly an underestimate given that some deployed warheads on SSBNs have yields of 455 kt.17 If a single survivable SSBN only had a single 100 kt nuclear warhead uploaded onto each of its 20 Trident II D5 SLBMs, the total explosive energy would be equivalent to 100 Nagasaki bombs. Without ICBMs, each of these SSBNs at sea, both SSBN bases at Kings Bay, Georgia, and Bangor, Washington, and all nuclear-capable heavy bombers would need to be destroyed by an adversary before either a bomber or SSBN could retaliate with nuclear weapons in a second strike.18

Moreover, the long-acknowledged vulnerability of the ICBMs19 make them an unsuitable hedge against any threat to the SSBNs. To provide a useful backup, the ICBMs must be launched under attack, and possibly even on warning of an attack.20 This is unattractive because to prevent their destruction by Russia (and perhaps China in the future) a decision to launch would need to be made in only a few minutes, if not less, after detection and before knowing whether the attack is a false alarm. The deterrent value of this launch posture then rests upon the United States demonstrating commitment to it and hoping that an adversary believes it. While an argument could be made that the prospect of launching ICBMs under attack enhances deterrence, convincing U.S. adversaries that Washington would risk starting an accidental nuclear war to defend the life of the United States–when no adversary is capable of preempting massive U.S. retaliation–should be considered unacceptable.

If concerns exist about SSBN vulnerability, consideration should be given to developing a mobile or another more survivable ICBM basing mode with plans to deploy it quickly if any threat to the SSBNs arises. Mobile missiles would probably force an attacker to barrage a deployment area with nuclear weapons and deceptive basing modes would proliferate an attacker’s aim points, but both would provide a more survivable SSBN backup. Due to drastically higher costs and land constraints, however, alternatives to the fixed silo-based ICBMs appear politically infeasible; indeed, the current GBSD program plans to retain silo-basing. In any case, given expected SSBN invulnerability, threats to a more survivable ICBM are more likely to materialize first.

No rationale based upon fears of SSBN vulnerability therefore exists for spending a large sum of money to replace the ICBM force, and vulnerable silo-based ICBMs with a launch under attack option should not be considered an acceptable hedge against possible future SSBN threats.

Limitations of the ICBM “sponge” rationale

During his January 2017 confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee to become Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis stated that the deterrent value of the ICBMs is derived from the notion “that they are so buried out in the central U.S. that any enemy that wants to take us on is going to have to commit two, three, four weapons to make certain they take each one out. In other words, the ICBM force provides a cost-imposing strategy on an adversary.”21

This is a common justification for retaining a large and distributed ICBM force given the unlikely prospect of an adversary successfully destroying 400 targets. If an adversary also accepts Mattis’s premise, the large number of ICBMs could provide meaningful deterrence. Even if an adversary imagined it was possible to destroy all 400, their need to use a significant fraction of their arsenal to do so would then limit the number of warheads remaining to target U.S. cities. This is known as the warhead “sink” or “sponge” rationale for retaining the ICBM force.

Yet this reasoning has significant limitations, beginning with how improving missile accuracy will make the ICBM force less of a warhead “sponge” in the future. Today the probability of destroying a Minuteman III missile silo with a single Russian warhead could exceed 98 percent given advancements in inertial guidance that could be aided with a Global Positioning System (GPS) and maneuverable reentry vehicles (MaRVs) to improve accuracy.22 While this may be an overstatement now, it should not be expected to remain one.

From the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) level of 1,550 warheads, a successful 1:1 attack on each of the 400 U.S. ICBMs would leave Russia with 1150 strategic nuclear warheads free to target U.S. command and control and civilian population centers. Even if two Russian warheads were needed to destroy each Minuteman III silo with the desired probability, 750 warheads would still remain–more than enough to destroy American society.

Furthermore, a 1986 study calculated that the nuclear blast and radioactive fallout from an attack with two 500 kt warheads exploding over each of the then 1,000 operational U.S. ICBM silos, 100 launch control centers (LCCs), and 16 missile test silos at Vandenberg Air Force Base would cause between 2.4–15.0 million deaths and an additional 4.0–31.8 million casualties.23 While this calculation should be updated, a nuclear attack on 400 ICBMs today could still cause millions of fatalities given the larger populations living downwind of the bases.24

Maintaining the ICBMs for use as a warhead “sponge” requires that Russia direct its warheads at the American homeland in order to target missiles that can destroy their country in the event of a nuclear war. Conversely, Russia would not need to threaten millions of American lives­ in this manner if the ICBMs did not exist. The number of homeland targets used for launching nuclear weapons should therefore be kept as small as possible to limit the number of nuclear warheads an adversary would be required to detonate inside the United States. As nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling wrote in 1987:25

“If we unilaterally dismantled our land-based missiles, we would instantly deprive a large part of the Soviet land-based missile force for its raison d’être. It might look to them as if they had much less to preempt. They actually would not, because the U.S. missiles they might have preempted were redundant in the first place. Looking over a seascape inhabited by U.S. submarines and at bombers likely to be launched on warning, they would see, without the smoke and the ruins, what would have been left over after they preempted. So if we cannot dismantle their land-based missiles by negotiation, we may gain a lot by dismantling their targets instead.”

Schelling went on to add that, “It may be hard to know which it is that the land-based missile forces on both sides would lament most–the loss of their missiles or the loss of their favorite targets.”26

If one still accepts the “sponge” rationale, however, a new GBSD missile is unnecessary because an adversary would still be required to attack life-extended Minuteman III missiles to limit damage. In any case, there is no way to eliminate the capability to target American cities other than by reducing the number of nuclear weapons through arms control.

Yet this analysis of the ICBMs as a warhead “sponge” is incomplete, having thus far only suggested that more American lives would be saved without an adversary needing to target U.S. ICBMs in a nuclear war. But what about the effect of ICBMs on the likelihood of nuclear war itself? Does the ICBM force increase or decrease the chances of a nuclear exchange?

Despite whatever complications may exist for executing a successful first strike on 400 ICBMs, reliance on them to deter attacks is problematic given their vulnerability, and the consequent deterrence value they provide should be considered small. That being said, how would the motivation arise during peacetime to attempt such an attack if the SSBNs–and possibly other survivable means of retaliation by the American military–could not also be destroyed? It is doubtful that ICBM vulnerability in this case invites preemptive attack.

In a severe crisis that involves missile exchanges, major battles, or the loss of some strategic nuclear targets by conventional means, however, an adversary could conclude that escalation to the nuclear level is imminent. And if they decide that it is preferable to be attacked with fewer weapons rather than more,27 attention could turn to the ICBMs and other vulnerable U.S. military targets. This concern is supported by both Russian and U.S. nuclear counterforce doctrines designed to limit damage if nuclear war appears inevitable, with the risk heightened from ever-improving counterforce capabilities against silo-based ICBMs due to missile accuracy improvements worldwide. In this case, nuclear warheads directed against 400 ICBM targets would kill millions of more Americans than if only vulnerable U.S. command and control targets, bomber bases, and SSBN bases were preemptively destroyed.

This appears to be the most likely circumstance in which the ICBM force could be targeted–an escalating conflict that convinces an adversary to do as well as possible. The benefits imagined from destroying more versus fewer targets could then increase the likelihood of an attack. In such a crisis, it may therefore be better to demonstrate more clearly what forces cannot be preempted rather than what can. As Thomas Schelling wrote about the prospect of the United States dismantling its ICBMs: “It looks like a posture quite stable against all the motivations that could lead to an outbreak of unwanted nuclear war.”28

Do ICBMs provide other benefits?

Beyond complicating the execution of a successful first strike, the ICBMs are assumed to offer other benefits. One of these is that of the three triad legs, the ICBMs can be launched most quickly. As a December 2016 report by eight U.S. Senators in the ICBM Coalition claimed, the “ICBMs give the President a timely response option.”29

Yet a 1993 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated that Communications, Command, and Control (C3) to SSBNs “is about as prompt and reliable as to ICBM silos, under a range of conditions.”30 The same report also found “no operationally meaningful difference in time to target” between the ICBMs and SLBMs indicating that the ICBMs were not needed for any time-sensitive targets.31

There also exists a presumption that ICBMs either are or should be used for targeting an adversary’s nuclear forces and command and control–known as “counterforce” targeting–to limit damage to the United States. While this is possible, their vulnerability would require a “launch under attack” option to destroy targets of any value. Avoiding this unattractive option leaves doubt about whether any ICBMs would survive an attack, and then the consequent demand that targeting requirements be satisfied without them would be as if the ICBMs did not exist at all.32

In addition, ICBM flight trajectories to plausible targets in China, North Korea, and Iran must pass over Russian territory.33 If Russia interprets a U.S. ICBM launch intended for another state as an attack on them, they may retaliate with a nuclear strike of their own. This possibility should rule out applying any credible deterrence rationale for the ICBM force to these other US adversaries because all could reasonably conclude that retaliation with ICBMs is unlikely if it risks triggering an unwanted nuclear war with Russia. In other words, without other weapons systems to deter nuclear attacks by other adversaries, ICBMs should not be expected to deter.

Without ICBMs, the United States could still deploy an arsenal of 1,150 New START accountable warheads against the following counterforce targets:34

Russia: WMD targets (456 warheads in 2-on-1 attacks against 228 missile silos); leadership command posts (110 warheads); war-supporting industry (136 warheads). At least 80 of these warheads would likely be assigned to destroy targets in the greater Moscow area alone

China: WMD targets (150 warheads in 2-on-1 attacks against 75 missile silos); leadership command posts (33 warheads); war-supporting industry (136 warheads).

North Korea, Iran, Syria: Each country would be covered with (43) warheads.

This plan lays out how U.S. warheads could be directed against the fixed targets of plausible adversaries. The total number could exceed 1,150 because each bomber is only counted as one under New START counting rules. Also neglected here are the very substantial counterforce capabilities of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons and conventional forces. This destructive power is more than sufficient to deter any rational adversary and provides the same counterforce coverage to limit damage to the United States regardless of whether the ICBMs are maintained.35

In sum, any imagined benefits regarding the promptness of ICBMs to deliver nuclear warheads to their assigned targets and counterforce targeting capability are practically nonexistent. The “launch under attack” requirement for using ICBMs in counterforce would also reduce the time the president has to evaluate response options, thereby increasing the risks posed by false warnings or miscommunication in a crisis.

A technological arms race may adversely affect strategic stability

Proponents of the ICBM leg also argue that replacing the Minuteman III with the GBSD should be valued for the capability enhancements to be included on the new missiles. In particular, some claim that new capabilities are necessary for penetrating the future ballistic missile defenses of U.S. adversaries and improving counterforce capabilities.

When asked at a congressional hearing why the new ICBM needed more capability and accuracy, General Robin Rand, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, replied:36

“Potential adversaries are continuing their modernization efforts of their defensive systems to attempt to minimize what our ICBM force can effectively hold at risk. In order to maintain a credible deterrent, the ICBM force must have the performance to overcome these defensive measures.

Improved ICBM capability and accuracy has the benefit of providing ICBM strike planners the weaponeering options of either achieving a higher probability of effect on a given target; using fewer warheads per target while still achieving the desired level of effect and thus allowing more targets covered; or provide opportunities to potentially reduce yield size while still achieving the desired level of effect. These weaponeering options will be critical if changes to the current strategic weapon stockpile would otherwise adversely impact what targets could effectively be held at risk.”

This claim is not convincing. The land-based leg of the triad can utilize a whole repertoire of countermeasures to overpower growing ballistic missile defenses: adding additional warheads on each missile; deploying decoys or radar-reflecting wires (chaff) to complicate warhead detection; jamming adversary radars or leading an attack with a nuclear explosion to blind infrared detectors; or adding thrusters to warheads to enable maneuvers.37 And this is only a small sample of potential options. The claim that new capabilities on the GBSD are necessary to defeat future missile defense deployments therefore requires much greater scrutiny before it can be seriously considered.

An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM shoots out of its silo during an operational test launch February 25, 2012 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.  (U.S. Air Force photo)A more serious implication is what the stated need for this missile may suggest to the world about U.S. motivations. As discussed, ICBMs must be launched under attack to be used in counterforce, but a strong presumption against this risk requires that targeting requirements be satisfied without them. What General Rand’s comments suggest instead is that the United States may wish to improve the first-strike counterforce capabilities on its ICBMs.

Advancing this prospect by equipping U.S. ICBMs with improved accuracy is unnecessary, and together with new low-yield options for its warheads, could be destabilizing. If hypersonic delivery becomes possible with a follow-on ICBM that shortens the warning time of an incoming attack, strategic stability may be further adversely affected. These acquisitions risk driving a technological arms race around the world where a country’s growing awareness that an increasing fraction of its nuclear deterrent may be successfully destroyed–possibly without warning—coupled with that same country’s growing confidence in its own counterforce capabilities against an adversary’s targets may increase the chances that nuclear weapons will be used. These evolving capabilities would only add to crisis stability concerns previously discussed.

Therefore, a new ICBM is unnecessary to defeat ballistic missile defenses and does not require enhanced counterforce capabilities given existing capabilities on other legs of its triad. Regardless of whether other states pursue new technological enhancements for their weapons, similar acquisitions by the United States­ will only drive these destabilizing efforts further.

Options for ICBM force deployment

Given the excessive redundancy, risks, and costs associated with the existing ICBM force, “launch under attack” posture, and replacement plans, the United States should consider several alternative deployment options. The alternatives presented here range from comparatively small ICBM reductions and cost savings to more substantial changes. Each of the following alternatives would still allow for a deployed strategic nuclear force with more than sufficient retaliatory capacity to deter nuclear attacks on the United States or its allies.

  1. Eliminate one squadron (50 missiles and their silos) at each of the three Air Force ICBM bases, reducing the number of deployed ICBMs to 300.38 If the number of SSBNs were also reduced to 10–but 1,550 warheads remained deployed–the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that $40 billion would be saved over the next three decades.39 This force structure would still allow the United States to deploy the 1,550 warheads allowed under New START. With only 150 ICBMs, 8 SSBNs, and 1,000 deployed warheads, $85 billion would be saved over the next three decades.40 (See chart above.)
  2. Reduce the total number of ICBMs and rotate the remaining missiles among the 400 remaining silos. This would preserve the “sink” rationale by requiring an adversary to attack every remaining silo–unless it could confirm which are empty–to ensure destruction of every ICBM. More money could be saved if some of the silos were also eliminated.
  3. Extend the life of the Minuteman III force. A 2014 study from the RAND Corporation found no evidence that long-term sustainment of the Minuteman III missiles, with incremental modernization, could not continue in perpetuity.41 And a recent CSIS report suggested that the life of Minuteman IIIs could be extended beyond 2030 for a period of time while deferring a decision on GBSD.42 If GBSD was deferred for 20 years, CBO estimates that $37 billion could be saved over this period and $17.5 billion over the next thirty years by simply life extending the Minuteman III.43 This would leave open the option for gradually reducing the size of the deployed ICBM force over time, either through unilateral reductions or in conjunction with a nuclear arms reduction agreement.
  4. Eliminate the ICBM force. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that $149 billion could be saved between 2017–2046 if the ICBM force was eliminated immediately, and that $120 billion could be saved over this period if the ICBMs were eliminated at the end of the Minutemen IIIs service life.44 In the unlikely event that future SSBN vulnerabilities arise and it is determined by national decision-makers that a backup to the SSBN force is required, a more survivable ICBM basing option could be developed and deployed. However, it is important to note that this would likely involve a mobile ICBM, which would likely cost more to acquire than the GBSD.

Conclusions

Without a technically valid explanation for how an adversary could imagine it is possible to destroy the U.S. SSBN force, the land-based ICBMs are redundant for deterring nuclear attacks on the United States. Their location and vulnerability also hold at risk millions of American lives that no adversary would be required to threaten if the ICBMs did not exist. And because they require a “launch under attack” alert posture to be survivable, should be considered an unacceptable backup to SSBN vulnerability. ICBMs are also unnecessary for time-sensitive targets and counterforce targeting requirements must be satisfied without them in the event of a nuclear war.

Perhaps most importantly, ICBM vulnerability may attract a preemptive nuclear attack in an escalating conflict that U.S. opponents believe will inevitably escalate to the nuclear level or that threatens their lives, regimes, or other vital interests. These motivations are consistent with both U.S. and Russian nuclear counterforce doctrines which posit that it is better to be attacked with fewer weapons rather than more. Growing confidence in counterforce capabilities against fixed silo-based ICBMs only heighten this risk.

Lastly, a new ICBM with enhanced capabilities officially supported for the purpose of penetrating the modernizing missile defense systems of U.S. opponents and improving counterforce kill probabilities is unnecessary and potentially destabilizing. The range of countermeasures that can overwhelm missile defense systems are extensive and already accessible for inclusion on current weapons, and steps that indicate the United States may be motivated to develop disarming first-strike capabilities could accelerate a technological arms race that increases the chances of nuclear use.

The public debate over the new Nuclear Posture Review and start of the GBSD program provide an opportunity to reevaluate the least valuable leg of the U.S. nuclear triad. Given the confluence of growing budget pressures, unnecessary risks, and diminishing benefits of maintaining the ICBMs outlined here, U.S. interests would best be served by deciding to significantly reduce or eliminate them.

ENDNOTES

1 Lauren Caston, et. al., “The Future of the U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Force,” RAND Corporation, 2014. http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG1210.html

2 Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “United States Nuclear Forces, 2017,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Volume 73, 2017, pp. 48–57. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00963402.2016.1264213

3 William J. Perry, “Why It’s Safe to Scrap the ICBMs,” New York Times, September 30, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/30/opinion/why-its-safe-to-scrap-americas-icbms.html

4 Kingston Reif, “New ICBM Replacement Costs Revealed,” Arms Control Today, March 2017. https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2017-03/news/new-icbm-replacement-cost-revealed

5 Kingston Reif, “Price Tag Rising for Planned ICBMs,” Arms Control Today, October 2016. https://www.armscontrol.org/ACT/2016_10/News/Price-Tag-Rising-for-Planned-ICBMs

6 “Approaches to Managing the Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017–2046,” U.S. Congressional Budget Office, October 2017, p. 2. https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/115th-congress-2017-2018/reports/53211-nuclearforces.pdf

7 Unless it is revised or replaced, the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, which includes caps on military spending through the end of the decade, will force a significant scaling back of the Trump administration’s defense budget proposal over the next five years. An aging population, increased interest payments on the national debt, and projected increases in healthcare costs will only add to pressures for assigning priorities in defense spending after the BCA expires.

8 The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) stated that while the strategic nuclear submarines (SSBNs) were the most survivable leg of the triad, all three legs must be maintained as a hedge against potential future technical problems or vulnerabilities.

9 Passive acoustics relies upon detecting the sound emitted by submarines, whereas active acoustics involves the generation of sound and detecting its reflection from them.

10 Richard Garwin, “Will Strategic Submarines Be Vulnerable?” International Security, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Fall 1983), pp. 52–67.

11 Ibid., p. 66.

12 Donald C. Daniel, Anti-Submarine Warfare and Superpower Strategic Stability, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press), 1986, p. 23.

13 Eugene Miasnikov, “Can Russian Strategic Submarine Survive at Sea? The Fundamental Limits of Passive Acoustics,” Science & Global Security, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1994), pp. 213–251.

14 Tom Stefanick, Strategic Antisubmarine Warfare and Naval Strategy, Institute for Defense & Disarmament Studies, (Lexington and Toronto: Lexington Books), 1987.

15 See Bryan Clark, The Emerging Era in Undersea Warfare (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Affairs, 2015); James Holmes, “Sea Changes: The Future of Nuclear Deterrence,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 72, No. 4 (July 2016), pp. 228–233; and Bryan Clark, “Undersea Cables and the Future of Submarine Competition,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 72, No. 4 (July 2016), pp. 234–237; Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The New Era of Counterforce,” International Security, Volume 41, Issue 4, (Spring 2017), pp. 9–49.

16 Kristensen and Norris, “United States Nuclear Forces, 2017.”

17 Ibid.

18 The 14 Ohio-class SSBNs operate out of two bases in Bangor, Washington, and Kings Bay, Georgia, with around eight to 10 at sea at any given time and typically five on “hard alert” in patrol areas. The bombers are organized into three bases: Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, and Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. Assuming only eight SSBNs are at sea, the U.S. nuclear deterrent is then distributed over only 13 targets. See Kristensen and Norris, “United States Nuclear Forces, 2017.”

19 Thomas C. Schelling, “Abolition of Ballistic Missiles,” International Security, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Summer 1987), pp. 179–183.

20 “Launch on warning” is a launch in response to a sensor indication of an attack on the continental United States, while “launch under attack” is a launch after a high-confidence determination of a massive attack. Because “launch under attack” requires more time to reach that higher level of confidence, a decision about whether to launch with this option must be made in a shorter time for ICBMs to survive the incoming attack. The definitions for these launch postures are approximately those provided by the Air Force, as mentioned in Richard L. Garwin, “Launch Under Attack to Redress Minuteman Vulnerability,” International Security, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Winter, 1979-1980), pp. 117–139.

21 U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Armed Services, To Conduct a Confirmation Hearing on the Expected Nomination of Mr. James N. Mattis to be Secretary of Defense, 115th Cong., 1st sess., January 12, 2017.

22 If the circular error probable (CEP) of an 800 kt warhead from a Russian ICBM is 200 m, the single-shot kill probability (SSKP) against a U.S. Minuteman III silo is 0.88. If the CEP = 150 m (still a conservative estimate and less accurate than the U.S. Minuteman III), the SSKP is 0.98.

23 William Daugherty, Barbara Levi, and Frank von Hippel, “The Consequences of “Limited Nuclear Attacks on the United States,” International Security, Volume 10, Number 4, Spring 1986, pp. 3–43.

24 This is also likely true because a Russian nuclear attack today on U.S. ICBMs would require the use of warheads with a yield of 800 kt–the most common yield among Russian ICBMs—not the 500 kt modeled in Daugherty, Levi, and von Hippel, “The Consequences of “Limited” Nuclear Attacks on the United States.”

25 Schelling, “Abolition of Ballistic Missiles.”

26 Ibid., pp. 180–181.

27 This danger exists on the U.S. side as well.

28 Ibid., p. 180.

29 Senate ICBM Coalition, “The Enduring Values of America’s ICBMs,” December 2016. https://www.hoeven.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/ICBM Coalition White Paper December 2016 - final.pdf

30 U.S. Governmental Affairs Committee, Evaluation of the U.S. Strategic Triad, S. Hrg. 103-457, (1994). U.S. General Accounting Office, The U.S. Nuclear Triad: GAO’s Evaluation of the Strategic Modernization Program (plus 8 classified volumes), GAO/TPEMD-93-5, (1993). http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO/T-PEMD-93-5

31 Ibid.

32 It deserves mention that the ICBMs receive some support for their potential use as first-strike counterforce weapons. Because one never knows how a nuclear exchange may begin, however, ICBMs cannot be used in counterforce targeting unless the United States is willing to commit to a “launch under attack” posture or the decision arises in a conflict to use them first before any warning of an incoming attack. The psychological effect that the presence of ICBMs may have on an adversary in contributing to nuclear deterrence due to their potential use as first-strike weapons is not necessary given the absence of any technically valid rationale for how an adversary could preempt massive retaliation by the SSBNs. Their presence is more likely to contribute towards convincing an adversary that the United States is about to launch a disarming first-strike–thereby increasing the chances of nuclear use–and as mentioned, their vulnerability only adds to the chance that they will be attacked first in an escalating conflict.

33 “Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission Report: Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Force Structure, and Posture,” Global Zero, May 2012 http://www.globalzero.org/files/gz_us_nuclear_policy_commission_report.pdf

34 These numbers were taken from the report “Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission Report: Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Force Structure and Posture,” Global Zero, 2012, and numbers for Russian and Chinese nuclear missile silos were obtained from Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Russian nuclear forces, 2017,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 73:2, 115–126, and Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Chinese nuclear forces, 2016,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 72:4, 205–211. Three warheads were added to each total in the Global Zero report for warheads covering North Korea, Iran, and Syria to make the total number of warheads add up to 1,150. China may not currently have as many as 75 ICBM silos, but it could have more than this in the future.

35 It deserves mention that there is no meaningful difference in kill probabilities between ICBMs or SLBMs against the strategic targets of U.S. adversaries and that SLBMs are able to reach any target within range of the ICBMs.

36 U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Armed Services, Hearing on National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 and Oversight of Previously Authorized Programs, 114th Cong.,
2nd sess., March 2, 2016.

37 George N. Lewis, Theodore A. Postol, and John Pike, “Why National Missile Defense Won’t Work,” Scientific American, August 1999.

38 Eliminating 50 silos at each of the three ICBM bases reduces the total number of ICBMs to 300 and not 250 because there are currently 50 empty silos that contain no ICBMs. This recommendation assumes that these empty silos were eliminated along with 100 others that contain ICBMs.

39 “Approaches to Managing the Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017–2046,” p. 37.

40 Ibid., p. 48.

41 Caston, et. al.,“The Future of the U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Force.”

42 Todd Harrison, “Options for the Ground-Based Leg of the Nuclear Triad,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 2017. https://www.csis.org/analysis/options-ground-based-leg-nuclear-triad

43 “Approaches to Managing the Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017–2046,” p. 30.

44 Ibid., p. 37.


Ryan Snyder is a nuclear physicist and was previously a Visiting Research Fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is now a researcher with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research based in Geneva. The views expressed here are those of the author.

 

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Posted: March 19, 2018

U.S. Negative Security Assurances at a Glance

March 2018

Contacts: Daryl Kimball, Executive Director; (202) 463-8270 x107; Kelsey Davenport, Director of Nonproliferation Policy, (202) 463-8270 x102; Kingston ReifDirector of Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy, (202) 463-8270 x104

Updated: March 2018

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review repeats exisiting U.S. negative security assurances by stating that Washington "will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations." Previously, in the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the United States declared that it would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are members in good standing of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Before 2010 successive administrations had maintained a policy of "strategic ambiguity" by refusing to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in response to biological or chemical weapons attacks, even from NPT member states.

Background

The 2018 NPR upholds but adds qualifications to earlier versions of U.S. "negative security assurances" first enunciated in 1978 and reaffirmed in 1995. Most notably, the report stipulates that the United States reserves the right to amend its negative assurance if warranted by "the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies," including cyber capabilites.

The 1995 formulation left open the option to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that were “in association or alliance with” a nuclear-weapon state—generally understood to be a reference to the Warsaw Pact allies of the Soviet Union. The United States also specified at that time that non-nuclear-weapon states had to be in compliance with the NPT to be eligible for this assurance.

In 1995, UN Security Council Resolution 984 recognized the U.S. assurances and similar ones from Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom. These coordinated assurances were a key part of the multilateral decision to indefinitely extend the NPT that year.

Outside of the NPT context, however, senior U.S. officials maintained "strategic ambiguity" about Washington’s military options in key situations.  For example, just before the U.S. war with Iraq in 1991, former Secretary of State James Baker told Tariq Aziz, Iraq's foreign minister, that if "you use chemical or biological weapons against U.S. forces, the American people will demand vengeance and we have the means to exact it." Baker said that "it is entirely possible and even likely, in my opinion, that Iraq did not use its chemical weapons against our forces because of that warning. Of course, that warning was broad enough to include the use of all types of weapons that American possessed."

Similarly, in April 1996, in reference to a suspected Libyan chemical weapons facility at Tarhunah, then-Secretary of Defense William Perry said that "if some nation were to attack the United States with chemical weapons, then they would have to fear the consequences of a response from any weapon in our inventory."  Perry noted that "in every situation that I have seen so far, nuclear weapons would not be required for response."

The 2001 NPR report maintained the possibility that U.S. nuclear forces could be used against non-nuclear nations. In addition to nuclear-armed China, the 2001 NPR cited five states that at the time did not have nuclear weapons (Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Syria) as driving "requirements for nuclear strike capabilities."  All five states were at the time suspected of nuclear weapons ambitions and were believed to have biological and/or chemical weapons or programs.  In February 2002, then-State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said it was U.S. policy that "[i]f a weapon of mass destruction is used against the United States or its allies, we will not rule out any specific type of military response."

In September 2002, the classified National Security Presidential Directive 17 was signed, which stated that "the United States will continue to make clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force—including potentially nuclear weapons — to the use of WMD against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies." 

Following the release of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review report, President Barack Obama announced on April 6, that the United States was updating its negative security assurance policy to emphasize “the importance of nations meeting their NPT and nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained in an interview broadcast April 11, 2010 on CBS’s Face the Nation, negative security assurances are “not a new thing. The new part of this is saying that we would not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state that attacked us with chemical and biological weapons.”

As for chemical weapons, Gates said April 11 that “[T]ry as we might, we could not find a credible scenario where a chemical weapon could have the kind of consequences that would warrant a nuclear response.”  On biological weapons, the 2010 NPR hedges: “Given the catastrophic potential of biological weapons and the rapid pace of bio-technology development, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and U.S. capacities to counter that threat.”

For both scenarios, Gates said April 6 that “[i]f any state eligible for this assurance were to use chemical or biological weapons against the United States or its allies or partners, it would face the prospect of a devastating conventional military response.” And for states that have nuclear weapons or are not in compliance with the NPT all options are on the table—including the use of nuclear weapons first or in response to a non-nuclear attack.

Under the NPT, the five recognized nuclear-weapon states are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Three other states, India, Pakistan, and Israel, possess nuclear weapons but never joined the NPT. 

2018 NPR

Although the 2018 NPR report makes clear that the primary role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to “deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners,” the weapons serve other missions, too, including deterring non-nuclear attacks, assuring U.S. allies and partners, achieving U.S. objectives if deterrence fails, and hedging against future uncertainty. This falls short of a declaration that the “sole purpose” of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack and represents a significant break with past U.S. efforts to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in the world.

The 2018 NPR report does state that the first use of nuclear weapons will only be considered under “extreme circumstances,” but it defines these circumstances more broadly than previous reports, including in the definition “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” against “U.S., allied or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.” Although the policy does not explicitly define “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood clarified at the February 2 press conference following the report’s release that this could include chemical and biological attacks, large-scale conventional aggression, and cyberattacks. The scenarios provided for in the 2018 NPR report are much broader than the “narrow range of contingencies” laid out in the 2010 report.

The document also breaks from the 2010 report on the role of non-nuclear forces. Whereas the 2010 report called for enhanced non-nuclear capability to maintain deterrence, the 2018 document states that “non-nuclear capabilities can complement but not replace U.S. nuclear capabilities” for the purpose of deterrence. Moreover, if deterrence fails, the 2018 report also declares that Washington may use nuclear weapons to end a conflict on the “best achievable terms for the United States.”

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Posted: March 16, 2018

U.S. Nuclear Modernization Programs

March 2018

Contact: Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy, (202) 463-8270 x104

Updated: March 2018

Contents

Cost Overview

The United States maintains an arsenal of about 1,650 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), and Strategic Bombers and some 180 tactical nuclear weapons at bomber bases in five European countries.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) published a major report in October 2017 that estimates the nuclear weapons spending plans President Donald Trump inherited from his predecessor will cost taxpayers $1.2 trillion in inflation-adjusted dollars between fiscal years 2017 and 2046. This amounts to about 6 percent of all spending on national defense anticipated for that period, as of President Barack Obama’s final budget request to Congress in February 2016. When the effects of inflation are included, the 30-year cost would approach $1.7 trillion, according to a projection by the Arms Control Association.

The CBO estimate captures spending on the triad of nuclear delivery systems and command and control systems at the Defense Department and on nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure at the Energy Department’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Nearly every element of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is slated to be upgraded over the next 20 years. Most of these efforts are in the early stages, and a few others have yet to begin.

Other nuclear-armed states, notably Russia and China, are upgrading their arsenals and have tested, produced, and deployed more brand new systems than the United States over the past decade. But the U.S. military has upgraded and refurbished nearly all of its existing strategic and tactical delivery systems and the warheads they carry to last well beyond their originally planned service life and is now in the early stages of replacing many of these aging systems with new systems. Though decades old, these modernized forces are more capable than the originals and the new systems will include additional capability upgrades. The current and planned U.S. financial investment in nuclear forces is unrivaled by any other nuclear power.

Gen. Paul Selva, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee in March 2017 that while Russia and China continue to modernize their nuclear forces, "we [the United States] do have a qualitative advantage." 

The Trump administration, as outlined in its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released on Feb. 2, 2018, intends to continue the modernization plan laid out by the Obama administration, and also develop several new nuclear weapons capabilities that will add to the price tag for nuclear forces, including the near-term development of a low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and the longer-term development of new nuclear submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM).

The NPR acknowledges that the upgrade costs are “substantial” but claims that nuclear weapons will consume no more than 6.4 percent of the defense budget. This projection does not include the cost of the new capabilities proposed in the review nor the major costs that must be borne by NNSA to upgrade nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure.

The CBO estimates that annual spending on nuclear weapons will peak at about $50 billion during the late 2020s and early 2030s. During this period, nuclear weapons would consume about 8 percent of total national defense spending and 15 percent of the Defense Department’s acquisition costs. The CBO estimate includes the full cost to sustain and upgrade long-range strategic bombers.

White House and Pentagon officials and defense budget watchers have expressed concern that the current triad modernization plans may not be executable in the absence of significant and sustained increases to overall military spending in the coming 15-20 years, in large part due to the fact that nuclear costs are scheduled to rise and overlap with a large "bow wave" in projected spending on conventional weapon system modernization programs, as well as rising personnel and readiness costs.

Former head of U.S. Strategic Command Gen. Robert Kehler said in November 2017 that he is "skeptical that we are capable of remaining committed to a long-term project like this [nuclear modernization] without basically messing with it and screwing it up."

The 2011 Budget Control Act puts in place caps on military spending through 2021. According to the CBO, in the long-term an aging population, rising health care costs, and the rising interest on the national debt will constrain the amount of funding available for discretionary spending, including defense spending, if tax revenues do not increase significantly. However, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 increased the FY 2018 cap for national defense spending by $80 billion to $269 billion and increased the FY 2019 cap by $85 billion to $647 billion. Regardless, pressure on the defense budget and the implicit trade-offs within that budget are likely to persist into the 2020s and 2030s. 

For FY 2019 President Trump requested $11 billion to fund NNSA's nuclear weapons activities. This represents a massive 19 percent increase over the FY 2017 appropriation and reflects the direction in the NPR to significantly expand the agency’s work to prepare the United States to develop, test, and deploy new nuclear weapons and to increase the size of the nuclear stockpile. According to former deputy NNSA administrator Madelyn Creedon, “The biggest challenge laid out in the 2018 report is the new assignment for the NNSA.”

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report issued last year, warned that the “NNSA’s plans to modernize its nuclear weapons do not align with its budget, raising affordability concerns.” And former agency administrator Frank Klotz said in a Jan. 23 interview just two days after leaving office that the agency is “working pretty much at full capacity.”

Nuclear Modernization Snapshot

The overall nuclear modernization effort includes: 

  • Modernized Strategic Delivery Systems: Existing U.S. nuclear delivery systems are undergoing continual modernization, including complete rebuilds of the Minuteman III ICBM and Trident II SLBM. The service lives of the Navy’s 14 Trident Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines are being extended. Additionally, a new submarine, the Columbia class, which will replace the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, is undergoing development and is expected to cost about $128 billion to develop, according to the Defense Department. The B-2 strategic bomber, a relatively new system, is being upgraded, as is the B-52H bomber. The Air Force is also planning a new strategic bomber, the B-21, and a new nuclear-capable cruise missile, known as the Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO) to replace the existing Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM).
  • Refurbished Nuclear Warheads: The U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads and bombs is continually refurbished through NNSA’s Life Extension Program (LEP). Existing warheads are certified annually to be safe and reliable. The NNSA is currently pursuing a controversial and expensive plan to consolidate the existing number of nuclear warhead types from 10 down to 5, although this program has been delayed. Known as the "3+2" strategy, the five LEPs associated with this approach are estimated to cost over $60 billion.
  • Modernized Production Complex: The nuclear weapons production complex is being modernized as well, with new facilities planned and funded. For example, the FY 2019 NNSA budget request includes $703 million for the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The total construction cost for UPF is estimated at $6.5 – 7.5 billion, according to an independent study conducted by the Corps of Engineers, although some estimates put the price tag at $11 billion. NNSA has pledged to complete construction by 2025 for $6.5 billion.
  • Command and Control Systems: The Defense Department maintains command, control, communications, and early-warning systems that allow operators to communicate with nuclear forces, issue commands that control their use, and detect or rule out incoming attacks. The department plans to spend $40.5 billion on these activities between FY 2017 and FY 2026. This estimate is probably understated as the Pentagon is still developing its plan for modernizing these systems. In addition, the 2018 NPR calls for placing greater attention and focus on sustaining and upgrading command and control capabilities. 
  • Nuclear Force Improvement Program: In the wake of revelations of professional and ethical lapses and poor morale in the U.S. nuclear force, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced in November 2014 steps the department is taking to address the numerous setbacks. These include changing the conduct of inspections to reduce the burden on airmen and sailors, eliminating micromanagement of nuclear personnel seen as overtaxed by excessive bureaucratic and administrative requirements, and elevating the head of Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the Air Force’s nuclear forces, from a three- to a four-star rank.

Nuclear Modernization Overview

The following is a status update of existing programs to enhance the nuclear stockpile and modernize the delivery systems that make up each element of the U.S. nuclear triad:

1. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) 

The United States Air Force currently deploys about 399 Minuteman III ICBMs (as of September 1, 2017) located at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming; Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana; and Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. U.S. nuclear-armed ICBMs are on high alert, meaning the missiles can be fired within minutes of a presidential decision to do so. Under the New START treaty, the United States maintains 50 extra missile silos in a "warm" reserve status.

Today's Minuteman weapon system is the product of almost 40 years of continuous enhancement. The Pentagon has spent over $7 billion over the past 15 years on life extension efforts to keep the ICBMs safe, secure and reliable through 2030. This modernization program has resulted in an essentially "new" missile, expanded targeting options, and improved accuracy and survivability. 

Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent

The Air Force is planning to replace the Minuteman III missile, its supporting launch control facilities, and command and control infrastructure. The Air Force intends to purchase over 600 missiles, 400 of which would be operationally deployed through 2070. The remaining missiles would be used for test flights and as spares. The replacement program is known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). The serivce is seeking to make significant capability upgrades as part of the recapitalization program. The Pentagon in August 2016 set the estimated acquisition cost of the program at $85 billion and the total life-cycle cost at $238 billion (in then-year dollars). The $85 billion estimate is at the lower-end of an independent Pentagon cost-estimate that put the acquisition price tag as high as $140 billion.

For FY 2019, the Trump administration requested $345 million for the program, a 60 percent increase over 2018.  On Aug. 21, 2017, the Air Force awarded contracts to both Boeing Company and Northrop Grumman to continue development and begin design of the new ICBM system.

W78 and W87 Warheads

The Air Force has also upgraded the Minuteman’s nuclear warheads by partially replacing older W78 warheads with newer and more powerful W87 warheads, formerly deployed on the now-retired MX Peacekeeper ICBMs. The W87 entered the U.S. stockpile in 1986, making it one of the newest warheads in the arsenal with the most modern safety and security features, including insensitive high explosive and a fire-resistant pit design, which can help to minimize the possibility of plutonium dispersal in the event of an accident. Under a 2004 LEP, the W87 warhead was refurbished to extend its service life past 2025.

NNSA has proposed a joint LEP to field a common, refurbished warhead to replace the W78 and W88 (see SLBMs, below). Congress approved NNSA's 2014 proposal to delay production of this warhead by five years from 2025 to 2030. However, the 2018 NPR proposes to accelerate the program by one year and the FY 2019 budget request would provide $53 million for the project.

2. Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) and Submarines

The United States Navy deploys, as of September 2017, 212 Trident II D5 SLBMs on 12 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) based out of Bangor, Washington (7 boats) and Kings Bay, Georgia (5 boats). The Ohio-class submarines have a service life of 42 years — two twenty-year cycles with a two-year mid-life nuclear refueling. The total fleet includes 14 boats but due to the refueling process, only 12 SSBNs are operational at any given time. Four to five submarines are believed to be "on station" in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans ready to fire their missiles at targets at any given time.

The Ohio-class SSBNs were first deployed in 1981, and will reach the end of their services at a rate of approximately one boat per year between 2027 and 2040. The Navy plans to replace each retiring boat, starting in 2031, with a new class of ballistic missile submarine, now referred to as the Columbia class. The Navy originally planned to begin using the replacement boats in 2029, but in 2012 the Pentagon announced a two-year delay to the replacement program. This pushed back completion of the first new submarine to 2031.

Taking into account the delay, the Navy now plans to purchase the first Columbia class submarine in 2021, the second in 2024, and one per year between 2026 and 2035. The first vessel is scheduled to become operational in 2031. As a result, the Navy will field 10 ballistic missile submarines between 2030 and 2040. 

In its FY 2019 request, the Navy asked for $3.7 billion for the Columbia class program — a 97 percent increase over 2018, making it the second-most expensive program in the 2019 Pentagon budget request, next to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Navy ultimately wants 12 boats, and in 2017 estimated the cost to develop and buy the submarines to be $128 billion in then-year dollars at the total life-cycle cost to be $267 billion. However, a report on the Columbia class program published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in December 2017 warned that the program is not adequately funded to address program risks and that the acquisition cost is likely to exceed $128 billion.

Under New START, each Ohio-class submarine serves as a launch platform for up to 20 SLBMs loaded with up to eight warheads each, or 240 total SLBMs. The Columbia class will carry up to 16 SLBMs, for a maximum of 192 deployed SLBMs when the fleet is fully converted to the new boats in 2040.

Trident II D5 Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles

First deployed in 1990, the force of Trident II D5 missiles has been successfully tested over 160 times since design completion in 1989 and is continuously evaluated. (By contrast, Russia's newest SLBM, the Bulava, has failed in roughly half its flight tests.) The Trident II D5 LEP is underway to modernize key components, notably the electronics, and extend the life of the missile until 2042. In 2008, 12 life-extended variants of the D5 were purchased; 24 D5s were produced each year through 2012 for a total of 108 missiles at a total cost of $15 billion. The first modified D5s were deployed in 2013. The Navy’s FY 2019 budget request includes a proposed $1.23 billion to fund the Trident II LEP. 

The Pentagon has yet to establish replacement program of record for the Trident II (D5), development of which is likely to begin in the 2020s.

W76 and W88 Warheads

The D5 SLBMs are armed with approximately 768 W76 and 384 W88 warheads. In 2009, NNSA began delivery of the W76-1, a refurbished version of the W76 that extends its service life for an additional 30 years. NNSA plans to complete the $4 billion production of up to 2,000 W76-1 warheads by 2019. NNSA requested $114 million for the W76 life extension program for FY 2019, down from $222 million the year before. 

The W88 entered the stockpile in 1989, making it the newest warhead in the arsenal. The W88 was the last U.S. warhead produced before the Rocky Flats Plants - which made plutonium "pits" - was shut down in 1989. NNSA re-established pit production capacity at Los Alamos National Laboratory with the first "certifiable" pit in 2003, and new production resumed in 2007. A new plutonium research and pit production facility, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF), was planned for Los Alamos, but was put on hold for budget reasons in 2012. 

With the rebuilt Trident D5 missile in service to 2042, the W76-1's life extended to 2040-50, the relatively new W88 in service, and a new class of SSBNs lasting into the 2070s, the U.S. Navy’s Trident Fleet will be kept robust and modern deep into the 21st century.

3. Strategic Bombers

The United States Air Force currently maintains 20 (11 deployed) B-2 Spirit bombers at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, and 46 (38 deployed) B-52H bombers at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, and Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, that can be equipped for nuclear missions as of September 2017.  

Projected spending on nuclear weapons modernization programs could account for as much as 19% of estimated Pentagon modernization spending over the next 15 years, according to a recent analysis of 120 planned major Defense Department acquisition programs. (Source: Todd Harrison, CSIS)

B-52H Bomber

The B-52H fleet, first deployed in 1961, has an on-going modification program, beginning in 1989, incorporating updates to the global positioning system, updating the weapons capabilities to accommodate a full array of advanced weapons developed after the procurement of the B-52H, and modifying the heavy stores adapter beams to allow the B-52H to carry up to 2,000 pound munitions and a total of 70,000 pounds of mixed ordnance armaments. In FY 2011 the Air Force added to its modernization efforts for the B-52H, receiving funding for the Combat Network Communications Technology (CONECT) program, which updates the B-52 computer infrastructure. The upgrade is projected to cost a total of $1.1 billion.

The B-52H is expected to remain in service until 2040. 

B-2 Bomber

The Air Force continually modernizes the B-2 fleet, which first became operational in 1997 and is expected to last through 2058.

Ongoing B-2 modifications include an incremental three-part program to update the Extremely High Frequency Satellite Communications and Computer Upgrade program (EHF SATCOM). Increment 1 will upgrade the B-2’s flight management computers. Increment 2 provides more secure and survivable strategic communications by integrating the Family of Beyond-Line-of-Sight Terminals with the low observable antenna. Increment 3 connects the B-2 with the Global Information Grid. The Air Force also began procuring components for a Radar Modernization Program (RMP) in FY 2009. The RMP includes replacing the original radar antenna and upgrading radar avionics.

The Air Force announced in February 2018 that "once sufficient B-21 aircraft are operational, the B-1s and B-2s will be incrementally retired."

B-21 Bomber

The Air Force is planning to purchase at least 100 new, dual-capable long-range penetrating bombers that will replace the B-1 and B-52 bombers. Known as the B-21, the Pentagon estimates the average procurement unit cost per aircraft will be between $546 million and $606 million (in Fy 2016 dollars). Fielding is slated to begin in the mid- 2020s. The Trump administration requested $2.3 billion for the program in FY2019. The Air Force plans to spend $38.5 billion between FY 2017 and FY 2026 on research and development for the new bomber (in then-year dollars). The Air Force has refused to release the value of the contract awarded to Northrop Grumman Corp. in October 2015 to begin developing the B-21 program and the estimated total cost of the program, citing classification concerns.

The CBO estimates the B-21 program will cost $97 billion (in FY 2017 constant dollars).

Air-Launched Cruise Missile and Long-Range Standoff Cruise Missile

The B-52H carries the air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), first deployed in 1981. Each ALCM carries a W80-1 warhead, first produced in 1982. The Air Force retained roughly 570 nuclear-capable ALCMs as of the spring of 2015. Roughly 200 of these missiles are believed to be deployed at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota with the W80-1 nuclear warhead. 

Some reports indicate that the reliability of the ALCM could be in jeopardy due to aging components which are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.

The Air Force is developing the long-range standoff cruise missile (LRSO) to replace the existing ALCM. The new missile will be compatible with the B-2 and B-52H bombers, as well as the planned B-21. The first missile is slated to be produced in 2026. The LRSO would carry the refurbished W80-4 warhead.

The current Air Force procurement plan for the LRSO calls for about 1,000 new nuclear-capable missiles, roughly double the size of the existing fleet of ALCMs. According to the service, the planned purchase of 1,000 missiles includes far more missiles than it plans to arm and deploy with nuclear warheads. For FY 2019, NNSA requested $654 million for the W80-4, making it the second-most expensive nuclear warhead, next to the B61-12. In addition,  the Air Force requested $615 million for development of the LRSO missile.

The Pentagon projects the cost to acquire the new missile fleet at about $11 billion (in then-year dollars) and the cost to operate and sustain the missile fleet over its expected life at over $6 billion (in constant FY 2016 dollars). The Energy Department projects the cost of the life extension program for the ALCM warhead to be between $8  billion and $11.6 billion (in then-year dollars).

B61 and B83 Warheads

The B-2 carries the B61 and B83 strategic gravity bombs. The B61 has several mods, 3, 4, 7, 10, and 11. B61-3 and B61-4 are non-strategic weapons deployed in Europe for NATO aircraft as part of America’s extended nuclear commitment.

The B61-7 and B61-11 are strategic weapons deployed on the B-2 bomber. An LEP recently extended the life of the B61-7 for an additional 20 years by refurbishing the bomb’s secondary stage (canned subassembly) and replacing the associated seals, foam supports, cables and connectors, washers, o-rings, and limited life components. The ongoing B61 LEP would combine mods 3, 4, and 7 into a single bomb, the B61 mod 12. The B61-12 is slated to begin production in 2020 and will refurbish the bomb  with new firing, arming, and safety components, updated radar components, permissive action link components and equipment, modified power supplies, thermal batteries, join test assemblies, weapon trainers, and test and handling gear.  The LEP will also modify the B61 for compatibility with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The LEP will extend the life of the B61s for 20-30 years.

An updated assessment of the B61 life extension program (LEP) performed by the NNSA in 2016 put the direct cost of the program at $7.6 billion, an increase of $200 million over the agency’s estimate of $7.4 billion provided in its fiscal year 2017 budget materials. The NNSA’s independent Office of Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation, however, told the GAO that its assessment of the program projects a total cost of approximately $10 billion and a two-year delay to the agency’s estimated March 2020 first production-unit date. NNSA requested $794 million for the B61 LEP in FY 2019. 

The upgraded B61 will be equipped with a new tail-kit guidance assembly that will make the bomb more accurate and allow it to have a lower yield than some of the existing variants. The new tail kit is being developed by the Air Force and is estimated to cost $1.3 billion.

The B83 was first produced in 1983, making it one of the newer weapons in the stockpile and the only remaining megaton-class weapon in the stockpile. The B83 has the most modern safety and security features, including insensitive high explosive and a fire-resistant pit. 

The Obama administration stated that the B83 would be retired once confidence in the B61 mod 12 is projected to be achieved in the mid 2020s. However, the Trump NPR reverses this decision and calls for retaining the B83 until a suitable replacement is found.

US NUCLEAR MODERNIZATION PROGRAMS

Department of Defense Programs

System

Modernization Plan

Costs

Length of Deployment

Additional Information

Minuteman III ICBM

Modernization and Replacement Program

$7 billion

through 2030 

Modernizes the propellant, guidance systems, propulsion system, targeting system, reentry vehicles and continues work on the rocket motors

New ICBM (GBSD)

Replace the Minuteman III missile and associated launch control and command and control facilities

$85-$140 billion (DoD estimate; FY 2017-2046)

2080s

Air Force plans to purchase over 600 new ICBMs

B-2 Bomber

Modernization Program

$9.5 billion (FY 2000-2014)

2050s

Improves radar and high frequency satellite communications capabilities for nuclear command and control

B-52H Bomber

On-going modifications

 

2040s

Incorporates global positioning systems, updates computers and modernizes heavy stores adapter beams, and a full array of advance weapons

Long Range Strike Bomber (B-21)

Research and development phase

$38.5 billion (FY 2017-2026)

2080s

The exact specifications of the new bomber are classified

Long Range Standoff Cruise Missile (LRSO)

Replacement for the ALCM

$20 billion (estimated; includes cost of W80-4 warhead refurbishment)

2060s

Air Force plans to procure ~1,000 LRSOs

Columbia Class SSBN (SSBN(X))

New ballistic missile submarine

$128 billion (2016 Navy acquisition estimate)

2031 - 2080s

Navy plans to purchase 12 new submarines to replace the existing 14 Ohio-class submarines

Trident II D5 SLBM LEP

Modernization and life extension

$6 billion (FY 2019-2023

2042

 

Strategic Arms Control and Policy

Posted: March 9, 2018

Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: The United States

March 2018

Updated: March 2018

According to the Federation of the American Scientists, as of February 2018, the United States possesses 4,000 stockpiled strategic and non-strategic nuclear warheads and an additional 2,550 retired warheads awaiting dismantlement, for a total of 6,550 nuclear warheads. On Feb. 2, 2018, the Trump administration released its Nuclear Posture Review, detailing the size and role of U.S. nuclear forces for this administration. The United States has destroyed about 91% of its chemical weapons arsenal as of 2017 and is due to complete destruction by 2023. It is party to the Biological Weapons Convention and has destroyed its biological weapons arsenal, although Russia alleges that U.S. biodefense research violates the BWC.

Contents

Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements and Treaties

Export Control Regimes, Nonproliferation Initiatives, and Safeguards

Nuclear Weapons Programs, Policies, and Practices

  • The Nuclear Arsenal, an Overview
  • Delivery Systems
  • Ballistic Missile Defense Systems
  • Nuclear Doctrine
  • Fissile Material
  • Proliferation Record

Biological Weapons

Chemical Weapons

Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities

  • New START
  • Nuclear Reduction Beyond New START
  • Civilian Nuclear Trade with India & the 123 Agreement
  • Nuclear Weapons Free Zones
  • Nuclear Security Summits
  • Syrian Chemical Weapons
  • Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements and Treaties

 

Signed

Ratified

Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

1968

1970

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

1996

- - -

Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM)

1980

1982

CPPNM 2005 Amendment

- - -

2015

Chemical Weapons Convention

1993

1997

Biological Weapons Convention

1972

1975

International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism

2005

2015

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Export Control Regimes, Nonproliferation Initiatives, and Safeguards

Group

Status

Australia Group

Member

Missile Technology Control Regime

Member

Nuclear Suppliers Group

Member

Wassenaar Arrangement

Member

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol

Signed in 1998, entered into force January, 2009.

Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism

Co-founder with Russia

Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation

Participant

Proliferation Security Initiative

Founder

UN Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1673

The United States has filed reports on its activities to fulfill the resolutions and volunteered to provide assistance to other states.

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Nuclear Weapons Programs, Policies, and Practices

The Nuclear Arsenal, an Overview

According to the Federation of the American Scientists, as of February 2018, the United States possesses 4,000 stockpiled strategic and non-strategic nuclear warheads and an additional 2,550 retired warheads awaiting dismantlement, for a total arsenal of 6,550 warheads. Under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the United States can deploy no more than 1,550 treaty accountable strategic warheads until February 2021 when the treaty expires. According to the February 2018 New START data exchange, the United States deploys 1,350 strategic nuclear warheads on 652 ICBMs, SLBMs, and strategic bombers. However, these numbers may be artificially low due to a temporary fluctuation in deployed and non-deployed weapons at the time of the exchange. The United States also deploys an additional 150 tactical (non-strategic) nuclear warheads based in Europe. While the United States and Russia maintain similarly sized total arsenals, the United States possesses a much larger number of strategic warheads and delivery systems while Russia possesses a much larger number of non-strategic (or tactical) nuclear warheads.

The United States has conducted 1,030 total nuclear tests, far more than any other nuclear-armed state. The United States is the only nation to have used nuclear weapons against another country, dropping two bombs (one apiece) on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Delivery Systems

(For a detailed overview of current and planned U.S. nuclear modernization programs, see our fact sheet here.)

Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM)

  •  As of September 2017, the United States Air Force deploys 399 LGM-30G Minuteman III ICBMs.
    • The Minuteman III has a range of over 6,000 miles (9,650-13,000 km).
    • Each missile is equipped with either one 300 kt W87 warhead or one 335 kt W78 warhead.
  • Under New START, the United States reduced the number of deployed ICBMs from 450 to 400. 50 excess silos have not been destroyed but have been kept in a “warm” operational status and can be loaded with missiles relatively quickly if necessary.
  • In 2015, the United States concluded a multibillion dollar, decade-long modernization program that will extend the service life of the Minuteman III to beyond 2030.  
  • The U.S. Air Force is also developing a new ICBM, known as the ground-based strategic deterrent, which is intended to replace the Minuteman III between 2028 and 2035.

Submarines and Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM)

Ohio-class submarines

  • The U.S. Navy operates 14 Ohio-class SSBNs submarines, two of which are undergoing overhaul of their nuclear reactors at any given time. The remaining 12 are available for deployment. However, since some operational SSBNs also undergo minor repairs at any given time the actual number of SSBNs at sea usually numbers at around 10.
  • 7 submarines are based out of Bangor, Washington and 5 submarines are based out of Kings Bay, Georgia.
  • The submarines originally had 24 missile tubes for Trident II D5 SLBMs, but under New START, the Navy deactivated 4 tubes on each submarine, finishing this process in 2017.
  • The Ohio-class submarines have a life-span of 42 years.

Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile

  • The Trident II D5 was first deployed in 1990 and has an operational range of 7,400-12,000 km.
  • The Trident II D5 missile can hold up to eight warheads (but usually holds an average of four to five) and carries 3 variants:
    • the W88—a 475 kt Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) warhead.
    • the W76-0—a 100 kt MIRV warhead.
    • the W76-1—a 100 kt MIRV warhead.
  • To comply with New START, the Navy will not deploy more than 240 missiles. As of September 2017, 212 missiles carrying a total of 945 warheads were deployed. 
  • An ongoing life extension program is expected to keep the Trident II D5 in service until  2042.
  • The Trident II D5 is the only MIRV’ed strategic missile remaining in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Bombers

  • As of September 2017, the Air Force deploys 38 nuclear-capable B-52H Stratofortress bombers and 11 nuclear-capable B-2A Spirit bombers.
  • The Air Force will deploy no more than 60 nuclear-capable strategic bombers under New START.
  • An estimated 980 nuclear warheads are assigned to the strategic bombers, but only about 300 are typically deployed at bomber bases.
    • B-52H Stratofortress bombers: dual-capable; can carry 20 AGM-86B cruise missiles. The AGM-86B has a range of 2,500 km and is equipped with a 5-150 kt W80-1 warhead
    • B-2A Spirit bombers: dual capable; can carry 16 B61-7, B61-11, or B83-1 gravity bombs.
  • The United States also maintains several fighter-aircraft that serve in a dual-capable role. The F-15E and F-16C have been the cornerstone of this aspect of nuclear deterrence, carrying the B61 gravity bomb. The new stealth F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, will replace the F-16 as the U.S. Air Force’s primary nuclear capable fighter-aircraft.

Nuclear Doctrine

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released on Feb. 2, 2018, details the Trump administration’s approach to the size and role of U.S. nuclear forces. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, in a Feb. 2, 2018 press briefing, claimed that the 2018 NPR “reaffirms that the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear policy is deterrence.” Critics of the document argue that the NPR reverses previous policy to reduce the role and number of U.S. nuclear weapons.

Declaratory Policy

The NPR dictates that the use of nuclear weapons will only be considered under “extreme circumstances” to defend the “vital interests” of the United States and its allies. It defines “extreme circumstances,” which the 2010 NPR did not, to include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” against “U.S., allied or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.” For more on declaratory policy, see: Nuclear Declaratory Policy and Negative Security Assurances.

Negative Security Assurance

The NPR also includes a negative security assurance that the United States will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapons states that are “party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and are in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.” It caveats its negative security assurance by retaining “the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and U.S. capabilities to counter that threat.” For more on negative security assurances, see: U.S. Negative Security Assurances at a Glance.

Ballistic Missile Defense Systems

The United States develops and deploys several ballistic missile defense systems around the world. To learn more, see: "U.S. Missile Defense Programs at a Glance." 

Fissile Material

Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU)

  • The United States has publicly declared that it no longer produces fissile material for weapons purposes. It stopped production of HEU in 1992.
  • In March 2016, the United States announced the declassification of its national inventory of highly enriched uranium (HEU), as of September 30, 2013.
  • The United States halted the production of HEU for weapons in 1964 and ceased plutonium separation for weapons in 1992.
  • Estimates from 2016 place the U.S. HEU stockpile at around 600 metric tons, including 253 metric tons of military HEU and 264 metric tons of fresh and spent naval HEU.
  • According to the 2015 Global Fissile Material Report, the United States has about 40 metric tons of HEU remaining to be downblended of the 187 metric tons it declared as excess to defense requirements and has committed to dispose.

Plutonium

  • The United States ended production of separated plutonium in 1988.
  • At the end of 2014, U.S. military plutonium stockpiles amounted to a total of 87.6 declared metric tons (49.3 metric tons of which are declared as excess military plutonium).
  • In October 2016, citing U.S. failure to meet its obligations under the agreement, Russia suspended its own implementation of the deal. Russia refuses to resume the agreement’s implementation until U.S. sanctions against Russia are lifted and NATO forces in Europe are reorganized along lines favorable to Russia. Russia contends that U.S. plans to abandon the conversion of plutonium into MOX fuel in favor of a cheaper and faster downblending method does not meet the terms of the deal because doing so would fail to change the composition of the plutonium from weapons grade to reactor grade. 
  • The United States possesses no separated civilian plutonium but at the end of 2014, an estimated 625 metric tons of plutonium were contained in spent fuel stored at civilian reactor sites.
  • Under the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), finalized with Russia in 2000, the United States committed to disposing of 34 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium beginning in 2018. The agreement was amended in 2010 to change the agreed disposition methods in which Russia abandoned using mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in light-water reactors in favor or irradiating plutonium in its fast-neutron reactors. The amendment also expressed renewed U.S. commitment to provide $400 million towards the Russian disposition program. Russia suspended cooperation with the agreement in November 2016.

 Proliferation Record

  • A close relationship exists between U.S. and British nuclear weapons programs. The United States supplies the United Kingdom with the Trident II D5 SLBM.
  • Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey all host U.S. tactical nuclear gravity bombs as part of NATO nuclear sharing agreements. The estimated 180 weapons remain under U.S. custody during peacetime, but some may be released to U.S. allies for delivery in times of war.
  • Beginning with President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” initiative, the United States has engaged in extensive worldwide trading and exchanging of fissile materials and technical information for nuclear science research and the peaceful use of nuclear technology. In 1954, an amendment to the Atomic Energy Act allowed bilateral nuclear agreements with U.S. allies to proceed, with the intent of exporting only low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel; however, this soon expanded to include HEU.
  • Under the “Atoms for Peace” program a number of former, aspiring, and current nuclear weapon-states such as South Africa, Iran, India, Pakistan, and Israel all received, directly or indirectly, training and technology transfers utilized in their nuclear weapons programs. For example, in 1967, the United States supplied Iran with a 5 megawatt nuclear research reactor along with HEU fuel. Iran admitted to using the reactor in the early 1990s for the production of small amounts of Polonium-210, a radioactive substance capable of starting a chain reaction inside a nuclear weapon.
  • Since the end of the Cold War the United States has tried to mitigate the adverse effects of the “Atoms for Peace” initiative and returned exported HEU and plutonium to the United States.

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Biological Weapons

  • In the early 1970s, the United States destroyed its entire stockpile of biological weapons, which had been developed between 1943 and 1969.
  • In 2001, the Bush administration opposed and killed an effort dating back to 1995 to augment the Biological Weapons Convention with a legally binding verification protocol. U.S. officials said the protocol would be too burdensome on legitimate governments and private biodefense programs, while at the same time failing to deter cheaters.
  • According to a 2016 State Department report, “In December 2015 at the annual Meeting of States Parties to the BWC, the delegation of the Russian Federation asserted that the United States had knowingly transferred live anthrax spores to a foreign country for use in open-air testing, and that this constituted a ‘grave violation’ of Articles III and IV of the BWC [Biological Weapons Convention].”
  • The United States maintains that these transfers were a blunder. The report also notes that, “All U.S. activities during the reporting period were consistent with the obligations set forth in the BWC. The United States continues to work toward enhancing transparency of biological defense work using the BWC confidence building measures.”

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Chemical Weapons

  • Behind Russia, the United States has declared the second-largest stockpile of chemical agents.
  • As of Oct. 31, 2017, the United States had destroyed 25,154 metric tons, or about 91 percent, of its declared Category 1 chemical weapons stockpile. The United States has completed destruction of all its Category 2 and 3 chemical weapons. 
  • The United States received several extensions on its initial deadline for chemical weapons destruction under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and it now due to destroy its chemical weapons arsenal by 2023.
  • Destruction of the United States’ largest remaining stockpile of chemical weapons began in March of 2015 at Colorado’s Pueblo Chemical Depot. Upon completion, the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, Kentucky will have the last remaining chemical agent stockpile in the United States.

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Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities  

New START
In April 2010, the United States and Russia signed a successor agreement to the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) accord. The 2010 agreement, known as New START, commenced on Feb. 5, 2011. It requires that both sides reduce their arsenals to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons on no more than 700 ICMBs, SLMBs, and bombers by Feb. 5, 2018 and both sides met the limits by the deadline. In addition, it contains rigorous monitoring and verification provisions to ensure compliance with the agreement. President Donald Trump has repeatedly questioned the value of New START, calling it a “one-sided” agreement.

Nuclear Reduction Beyond New START
In February 2013, President Obama announced that the United States intended to engage with Russia to further reduce deployed strategic warheads by one-third below the New START limit to around 1,100 to 1,000 deployed warheads. However, there has been little progress toward achieving such reductions due to the deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Russia’s insistence that other issues, such as limits on U.S. missile defenses, be part of negotiations on further reductions.

Civilian Nuclear Trade with India & the 123 Agreement
In July 2005, the United States signed a controversial agreement with India to repeal most U.S. and multilateral civilian nuclear trade restrictions on India. In 2006, Congress amended its own domestic legislation to allow nuclear trade with India to proceed. The two governments later concluded a “123 Agreement,” which was approved by Congress and signed into law in October 2008. In September 2008, India received a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The United States has pushed for India to become a member of the NSG, but in January 2017, China and other countries blocked India's membership bid on the grounds that India has not yet signed the NPT.

Nuclear Weapons Free Zones
The United States has ratified a protocol to the Latin America and the Caribbean Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) treaty pledging not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the contracting parties. The U.S. has declined to ratify similar additional protocols to any of the remaining NWFZ treaties for Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. 

Nuclear Security Summits
In April 2010, the United States hosted the first Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Washington, DC. Participants included 47 countries, 38 of which were represented at the head of state or head of government level, and the heads of the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the European Union. At the summit, the participants unanimously adopted the goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material in the next four years. The United States also attended the NSS in Seoul, South Korea, on March 26-27, 2012 and the third NSS on Mar. 24-25, 2014. Washington hosted a fourth summit in the Spring of 2016 where attendees developed action plans for five global organizations to continue the work of the summits.

Syrian Chemical Weapons
In September 2013, in the aftermath of the large-scale use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, United States reached an agreement with Russia to account, inspect, control, and eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. Before the deal was reached, the United States was planning to use airstrikes to punish the perpetrators of the attack, which the United States blamed on the Syrian government. By July 2014, Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile had been successfully removed from the country and flagged for destruction following a broad multilateral operation. However, the United States has raised concerns about the accuracy of Syria’s declaration.

In September 2014, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed that chlorine gas was being used in Syria. The UN Security Council adopted a resolution on Mar. 6, 2015 condemning the use of chlorine gas in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry was quick to suggest that the Assad regime was the likely perpetrator of the chlorine gas attacks; Russia, however, was hesitant to assign blame. In August 2016, the third report of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism was released, finding that the Syrian government was responsible for chemical weapons attacks.

In April 2017, another chemical weapon attack was carried out in the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun where Syrian government warplanes were accused of spreading a nerve agent via bombs, killing dozens. U.S. President Donald Trump responded by immediately blaming the regime of Bashar Assad and launching 59 Tomahawk missiles targeting the airfield that had allegedly launched the. Following the launches, Trump stated that “It is in this vital national security of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” As a justification for the U.S. response, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that “If you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.”   

(For a detailed timeline on Syrian chemical weapons, see our fact sheet here.)

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)
Under the Obama administration the United States played the central role in the brokering of the July 2015 JCPOA, better known as the “Iran deal,” which limits and rolls back Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. Congress in September 2015 debated a resolution that would have blocked implementation of the accord, but it failed to receive enough votes to pass the Senate. In January 2016, financial and oil sanctions on Iran were lifted along with the release of $100 billion worth of frozen Iranian assets after international inspectors confirmed that Iran had rolled back large sections of its nuclear program. In an effort to preserve the deal before leaving office, the Obama administration worked to fend off additional sanctions and encouraged American companies to conduct business in Iran.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized the agreement. During the presidential campaign, he made comments about “tearing up” the deal, although as of January 2018, he has re-issued waivers on nuclear-related sanctions on Iran to meet U.S. obligations under the agreement.

Conference on Disarmament (CD)

The Conference on Disarmament was established in 1979 as a multilateral disarmament negotiating forum by the international community. At the 65-member CD, the United States has expressed support for continuing discussions on the CD's core issues: nuclear disarmament, a fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT), prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), and negative security assurances. The United States has been a prominent supporter of a proposed FMCT.

In March 1995, the CD took up The Shannon Mandate which established an ad hoc committee directed to negotiate an FMCT by the end of the 1995 session. A lack of consensus over verification provisions, as well as desires to hold parallel negotiations on outer space arms control issues, prevented negotiations from getting underway. Later, in May 2006, the United States introduced a draft FMCT along with a draft mandate for its negotiations. However, following an impasse in negotiations on a FMCT in 2010, the United States (and others) signaled its desire to look at alternative approaches outside the CD and called for negotiations to be moved to the United Nations General Assembly where the agreement could be endorsed by a majority vote. However, the United States no longer makes comments to this effect.

 The United States does not support negotiations on PAROS, deeming it unnecessary because there are no weapons yet deployed in outer space. China and Russia continue to articulate a desire to hold parallel negotiations, a point which has further stalled efforts to begin FMCT negotiations.

 

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Posted: March 8, 2018

Remarks to the Maryland House of Delegates Rules Committee on Nuclear Weapons Launch Procedures

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Description: 
Daryl Kimball offered the following testimony before the Maryland House of Delegates Rules Committee on Monday, March 5, 2018, regarding legislation introduced by Maryland delegates Queen (Montgomery Co.), Gibson (Baltimore City), and Gutierrez (Montgomery Co.).
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By Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director
Arms Control Association
March 5, 2018
Annapolis, Maryland

Good afternoon. I want to commend Delegates Queen, Gibson, and Gutierrez for introducing House Joint Resolution 12, which:

… “calls upon Maryland’s Congressional delegation to take all necessary steps to establish a system of checks and balances with regard to the first use of nuclear weapons and to ensure that the President of the United States shall no longer have the sole and unchecked authority to launch nuclear weapons, except in circumstances of retaliation.”

At this very moment, the United States and Russia each deploy massive strategic nuclear arsenals, approximately 1,550 bombs on each side. Each side possesses thousands more nonstrategic warheads and warheads in reserve. These arsenals are far in excess of what it would take to decimate the other and far more that is required to deter a nuclear attack.

Executive Director Daryl Kimball testifies before the Maryland House of Delegates Rules Committee on legislation urging its congressional delegation to support limits on presidential nuclear launch authority. (Photo: Maryland General Assembly)Worse still, each side maintains a significant portion of its land and sea-based missile forces on a prompt launch posture to guard against a “disarming” first strike.

As a result, there are roughly 800 U.S. nuclear warheads – all of which are far more powerful than the weapons that destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 – that can be launched within about 15 minutes of an order by the president and the president alone.

In most scenarios, the president would have just minutes to listen to the list of retaliatory options and decide whether or not to order one of the nuclear strike plans. No cabinet secretary, adviser, or military official has the authority to override the president’s decision. Congress currently has no say in the matter.

Current U.S. nuclear policy also allows for the possible use of nuclear weapons first, or in response to a non-nuclear attack on the U.S. or our allies, such as in a conflict on the Korean peninsula.

Continuing to vest such destructive power in the hands of one person and to maintain a prompt-launch posture is undemocratic, irresponsible, unnecessary and untenable.

Cavalier and reckless statements from President Donald Trump about nuclear weapons use and threatening and boastful comments from Russian President Vladimir Putin about his country’s nuclear retaliatory capabilities underscore the risks of a system that puts the authority to launch nuclear weapons in the hands of these individuals.

Defenders of the status quo argue that altering the current system would deprive the president of the ability to respond quickly in a crisis—including by using nuclear weapons first in response to a non-nuclear attack—and undermine the credibility of deterrence.

Such arguments ignore the fact that throughout the history of the nuclear age, there have been several incidents in which false signals of an attack have prompted U.S. and Russia officials to consider, in the dead of the night and under the pressure of time, launching nuclear weapons in retaliation.

The reality is that this “launch-under-attack” policy is unnecessary because U.S. nuclear forces and command-and-control systems could withstand even a massive attack. Given the size, accuracy, and diversity of U.S. forces, the remaining nuclear force would be more than sufficient to deliver a devastating blow to any nuclear aggressor.

In addition, retaining the option to use nuclear weapons first is unnecessary and risky. Given the overwhelming conventional military edge of the United States and its allies, there is no plausible circumstance that could justify—legally, morally, or militarily—the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat.

As then-Vice President Joe Biden said in public remarks in January 2017: “Given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats—it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary. Or make sense.”

Congress and the executive branch can and should take a number of steps to reduce these dangers:

  • Requiring that a decision to use nuclear weapons be made by more than one person. This could include the president, vice president, secretaries of state and defense, and perhaps one or more designated members of Congress, such as the speaker of the House or Senate majority leader.
  • Prohibiting the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) have introduced bipartisan legislation the "Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017" that would put this policy into place.
  • Eliminating the requirement to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles under attack, which would increase the time available to consider the possible use of nuclear weapons in retaliation for a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies.
  • Declaring that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons and that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack. Congressman Adam Smith and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee has introduced H.R. 4415 to establish a “No First Policy” for nuclear weapons.
  • Clarify that only Congress can authorize U.S.-initiated military action against North Korea, which would likely result in a nuclear exchange, and urge the administration to “avoid actions that could contribute to a breakdown in talks, and continue to search for confidence-building measures that are conducive to dialogue,” as state in bipartisan legislation introduced in the House and Senate (H.R. 4837/S. 2016).

Your support for Maryland House Joint Resolution 12 can help push Congress to re-examine and revise nuclear decision making so that fate of millions in not decided by one person in the span of a few minutes.

Since 2001, Daryl G. Kimball has served as the executive director the independent, non-partisan Arms Control Association and publisher of the monthly journal, Arms Control Today. The Association is a national membership organization established in 1971 to provide information and analysis on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and to promote practical policy solutions to address the risks they pose.

Posted: March 5, 2018

A Question of Dollars and Sense: Assessing the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review

The new NPR comes with a high price tag. That is not the only issue.


March 2018
By Madelyn Creedon

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is consistent in many respects with long-standing nuclear policies. Yet, certain elements are deeply troubling.

In terms of consistency, it reiterates that the primary mission of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack; rejects a declaratory no-first-use policy; retains the long-standing policy of ambiguity as to what constitutes U.S. vital interests, although with less ambiguity; seeks to assure allies; and reinforces the U.S commitment to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). These are pillars of U.S. deterrence policy.

Sandia National Labratories technologists Curt Tenorio, left, and Jessie Fowler install instrumentation on a B61-12 nuclear bomb unit for a vibration and shaker-shock test. Sandia has sophisticated tests and computer models to qualify non-nuclear components under its nuclear-weapons stockpile stewardship role. (Photo: Randy Montoya/Sandia Labs)The choices that are troubling include the intention to seek a new low-yield nuclear capability, the rejection of future arms control agreements, and the plan to increase U.S. nuclear weapons production capability. These matters, in particular, deserve close scrutiny by Congress and public debate.

Certainly, the international security environment has been evolving since the Cold War ended and since the previous NPR during the Obama administration. Change was the backdrop for the 2010 NPR and remains the backdrop for the 2018 review, which highlights major nuclear modernization programs by Russia and China, rapid nuclear weapons advances by North Korea, and growing cyberthreats by state and nonstate actors.1

The report on the 2010 NPR concluded that “the threat of global nuclear war has become remote, but the risk of nuclear attack has increased.” This conclusion remains valid. The underlying assumption in the 2018 NPR, however, is that the risk of nuclear attack, although not quantified, has increased, that it is the greatest risk facing the United States, and that the country’s deterrent is not sufficiently robust to counter or deter the increased risk. Alternatively, even if the risk has not increased, the latest NPR report seemingly calls into question whether the U.S. deterrent is sufficiently robust to deter the same level of risk.

Thus, the new report concludes that U.S. nuclear forces must be “supplemented” now. To that end, it calls for the nuclear complex to be positioned to develop new nuclear weapons, possibly resume explosive nuclear testing, increase the size and makeup of the nuclear stockpile, and increase the diversity of the delivery systems. The report argues that without expanding the capabilities of the nuclear enterprise, particularly the ability of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to move beyond its current focus on life-extension programs for warheads, this and future administrations will not be able to tailor deterrence to the changing nature of potential adversaries.

In contrast, the prior NPR report determined that the greatest risks were presented by terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear or radiological capabilities, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons capabilities to states such as North Korea. Based on this conclusion, significant emphasis was placed on addressing these proliferation and terrorism threats, including securing, consolidating, and eliminating highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium that could be used by terrorists in an improvised nuclear device. Although there is no indication that these threats have diminished, they are not given priority in the 2018 NPR report. One can only hope that the language urging funding trade-offs among programs does not include the programs that prevent proliferation and ensure the security of weapons-usable materials.

The 2010 NPR report by no means ignored “the more familiar challenge of ensuring strategic stability with existing nuclear powers—most notably Russia and China.” Although it identified five pillars to address threats across the spectrum, it certainly did not diminish the importance of deterrence, clearly stating that the United States would maintain safe, secure, reliable, and effective nuclear forces. It recognized that nuclear forces continue “to play an essential role in deterring potential adversaries and reassuring allies and partners around the world as long as nuclear weapons exist.”

Realistically, however, the 2010 review also recognized that nuclear deterrence alone was not the answer but rather that a wide spectrum of highly capable U.S. conventional capabilities, including missile defense, in conjunction with nuclear forces would provide the best deterrent for the United States and its allies and partners.

In a bold step, the 2010 NPR report tried to identify and set the conditions for meaningful compliance with the disarmament provision in NPT Article VI, while clearly recognizing that the conditions were not currently suited to achieve those goals and might not be for many years. Since 2010, unfortunately, the global security conditions have become even less conducive to achieving a world without nuclear weapons. The 2010 report, while aspiring to these goals, reflected a growing concern that the world was approaching a nuclear tipping point where more states and more weapons would be the norm.

Although the nuclear deal with Iran has removed that country’s nuclear weapons capability for the time being, North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability has qualitatively and quantitatively improved, China and Russia have embarked on nuclear weapons modernization programs, and the nuclear arsenals of India and Pakistan have grown.

Russia, China, and even North Korea are expanding their conventional and nuclear programs to match or offset the U.S. conventional force advantage. The United States has been very public about Russian deployment of a new nuclear-capable missile system in violation of the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.2 China has continued its assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region, growing and diversifying its conventional capabilities and modernizing its nuclear forces. While remaining small in number, their nuclear forces are becoming increasingly more capable and survivable.

These disturbing trends are unlikely to change in the near term.

Philosophies articulated in the 2010 NPR report, including the need for a strong and credible deterrent, continue in the new report. The prior report reaffirmed long-standing U.S. policy that “[t]he United States will continue to ensure that in the calculations of any potential opponent, the perceived gains of attacking the United States or its allies and partners would be far outweighed by the unacceptable costs of response” and that “any attack on the United States or our allies and partners, will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons will be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming.” Similarly, the 2018 NPR report concluded that “the highest nuclear policy and strategy priority is to deter potential adversaries from nuclear attack of any scale.”

Different in Tone and Tenor

Notwithstanding such similarities, the new NPR report is remarkably different in tone and tenor from its predecessor, placing the bulk of the emphasis on the nuclear forces and much less emphasis on nuclear terrorism and nonproliferation. This NPR is consistent with the National Security Strategy’s shift to a new era of great power rivalries.3

Chinese soldiers applaud during a military parade at the Zhurihe training base in China's northern Inner Mongolia region on July 30, 2017. The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review says China’s military modernization “has resulted in an expanded nuclear force, with little to no transparency into its intentions.” (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)Although focused and driven primarily by Russian behavior, China’s growing conventional capabilities, including space and cyber capabilities, also shape the decisions in the 2018 report. In addition to the near-term decision to “supplement” the nuclear forces with a low-yield variant of the W76-1 warhead for ballistic missile submarines, the new report lays out a long-term plan to prepare the United States to develop, test, and deploy new nuclear weapons and to increase the size of the nuclear stockpile. In short, prepare for a new arms race.

This new version of a hedging strategy—being able to address geopolitical and technical uncertainty, a key tenant of the 2010 and previous reports—includes a decision to retain more weapons longer and make new weapons faster.

The United States can hedge in two complementary ways. One is by having a robust nuclear weapon production infrastructure that has the design, engineering, and manufacturing capabilities needed to quickly produce new or additional weapons needed to address changes in the threat environment. Another approach is to retain a significant non-deployed inventory of weapons that can be added to current delivery vehicles to address geopolitical threat or technical failure.

One disturbing aspect of the new approach is the apparent decision to keep the last megaton weapon in the U.S. arsenal, the B83. How long this warhead will be retained is unclear, but one section of the NPR report indicates that it will be retained until replaced.

On the other hand, the report continues previous decisions to maintain the nuclear triad and replace the delivery systems: a new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, a new intercontinental ballistic missile, a new long-range bomber, and a new air-launched cruise missile. A new addition to the ongoing programs is a sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM). Whether the SLCM goes forward is highly dependent on Russia and whether it continues to violate the INF Treaty or returns to compliance.

The new low-yield warhead, although designed to counter Russia’s growing arsenal of novel nonstrategic systems, may prove to be counterproductive. To deploy the new low-yield warhead, the United States, unlike Russia, will sacrifice some of its strategic warheads because nonstrategic nuclear warheads are not counted under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Russia has taken advantage of this fact by substantially increasing its arsenal of nonstrategic weapons, while complying with the limitations on strategic systems. Because the Trident II D5 ballistic missile on U.S. ballistic missile submarines and any warheads on it are counted under New START, the low-yield warhead will be subject to the treaty limits, just like the higher-yield W76-1. In other words, it is a one-for-one trade-off. How many low-yield weapons will be produced is unknown, but having fewer high-yield warheads, such as the W76-1, seems to advantage Russia.

A concept of operations has yet to be explained for the new low-yield weapon. The sea leg of the nuclear triad is the most survivable leg in large part due to the ability of Ohio-class submarines to be invisible in the open ocean. Launching a high-value D5 missile from a ballistic missile submarine will most likely give away its location. China and Russia are expanding their ability to detect a missile launch and will be able to locate a U.S. submarine if it launches a D5 missile. Is having a low-yield warhead worth the risk of exposing the location of a ballistic missile submarine at sea?

Moreover, if the reason to have a low-yield warhead is to respond to Russian first use of a low-yield weapon, rather than sticking to the promise of the 2010 NPR report to use overwhelming force in response to nuclear use, responding with a low-yield warhead also seems to advantage Russia and weaken deterrence. Signaling that a low-yield weapon would be used to respond to low-yield weapon use might persuade Russia to lower the nuclear threshold, thus risking nuclear war-fighting. President Ronald Reagan cautioned against this in 1984 when he said, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used.”

Budget Challenges

Whether there is the political and budgetary will to implement the 2018 NPR report remains to be seen.

The biggest challenge laid out in the 2018 report is the new assignment for the NNSA. The NNSA is well into the process of fixing its aging infrastructure, but has a long way to go. It cannot fund these very expensive, one-of-a-kind nuclear facilities within its existing budget plan. A new state-of-the-art HEU storage facility is complete, and the design of the new uranium processing facility is well along. The NNSA is deciding where to build a new plutonium facility, but needs new funding, and the 1976-era PF-4 plutonium facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory must be replaced at some point. Continuing resolutions in Congress and changing requirements add to the cost and delay schedules.

Air Force General John Hyten, U.S. Strategic Command commander, addresses the 5th Bomb Wing airmen at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., June 6, 2017. "The ICBMs that we have here are the most ready element [of the nuclear triad], the bombers that we have here are the most flexible, the submarine element is the most survivable, and when you put those three together, you come up with a deterrent capability that our adversaries fear and they need to fear those capabilities,” he told the Bismarck Tribune during the visit. “I hope to never have to employ them but they have to be ready all the time.” (Photo: J.T. Armstrong/U.S. Air Force)The NNSA does not have out-year funding to implement the next generation of stockpile stewardship, build new experimental facilities, conduct and diagnose more subcritical experiments at the Nevada National Security Site, expand computational capabilities necessary to maintain the current stockpile, identify and resolve future problems, conduct life extension programs, and support the fight against nuclear terrorism and proliferation.

New capabilities such as the stockpile responsiveness program and other new efforts to challenge the design and manufacturing skills of the nuclear complex will also need new funding. As the 2018 NPR report points out, although there is a new tritium-extraction facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, the NNSA needs a new tritium loading facility. Lithium facilities must be constructed or a commercial source identified. In the long term, enrichment capabilities must be built to provide suitable low-enriched uranium fuel to produce tritium. If indeed the 2018 NPR is setting the NNSA on a course to build more weapons and new weapons, the NNSA budget must increase significantly.

Not mentioned at all in the NPR report is the cost, which could run into the low billions, to safely tear down the old buildings, such as building 9212 at the Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as the new buildings become operational. Transporting nuclear weapons, materials, and parts is also a mission not mentioned. Because funding for the new secure trailers for the Secure Transportation Asset program4 has been delayed, the new trailers will not be available until 2024, and the program is understaffed.

The fiscal year 2019 budget that President Donald Trump sent to Congress in February calls for $11 billion for NNSA weapons activities. That would be an increase of about $800 million, or 8 percent, from the fiscal year 2018 request and $1.8 billion more, a 20 percent jump, from the enacted funding for fiscal year 2017. It is not clear how much of those budget requests will be enacted by Congress, nor is it clear necessary increases will be sustained under future administrations.

Historically, neither Congress, the Department of Defense, nor the Office of Management and Budget have shown an inclination to fully fund the NNSA program of record, let alone the new initiatives such as those outlined in the 2018 NPR report. Even though the NNSA budget has increased by 60 percent since 2010, the efforts to address the decades of inattention to the infrastructure have not been fully funded. Similarly, stockpile surveillance work and the extremely successful Stockpile Stewardship Program have been cut back to support the ongoing warhead life extension programs.

The NNSA’s challenge is further complicated by an inability, imposed by Congress, to hire the skilled federal workforce needed to design and oversee implementation of the existing programs. Even though the NNSA’s work has grown significantly over the past five years, Congress continues to impose an arbitrary cap on federal staff at 1,690 employees.

The labs, plants, and the NNSA will need to recruit and train new staff and retain new and existing staff to carry out the life extension programs, maintain a robust Stockpile Stewardship Program, and take on the many new initiatives. Staffing efforts, including for the Secure Transportation Asset program, is further hindered by the year-long security clearance process, and the backlog is growing.

Although the 2018 NPR report puts considerable emphasis on the relatively low cost of nuclear deterrence in the overall defense budget, the NNSA’s entire budget already supports the spectrum of deterrence. There are no trade-offs and no untapped sources of funding.

A significant omission in the NPR report is how the NNSA will get the new funding. History has taught us that having the Defense Department move its money to the NNSA is not the answer. That approach, although well meaning, led to dissent and discord in the Defense Department-NNSA relationship. Only an increase in the overall defense budget, which includes the Defense Department and NNSA, can support the full range of efforts. Even the new low-yield weapon will be expensive, despite assertions in the NPR report that it will be easy, fast, and cheap.

The Defense Department must not neglect its efforts to maintain its nuclear enterprise and the existing delivery systems until the new platforms are fielded. This effort, started under Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, is essential to the long-term well-being of the nuclear enterprise. The well-documented loss of focus on all things nuclear starting with Operation Desert Storm forced the military services to devote resources, attention, and a renewed commitment to sustain the nuclear deterrent and the men and women who support it.

The NPR report includes language supporting this ongoing effort, which has already shown results. “The Service reforms we have accordingly implemented were long overdue, and the Department of Defense remains fully committed to properly supporting the Service members who protect the United States against nuclear threats.”

The 2018 NPR report also expresses strong support for upgrading the nuclear command, control, communications, and early-warning system known as NC3.5 Here again, efforts to revitalize the system have been underway for years, such as new secured protected communications and early-warning satellites, but funding is always a challenge, particularly for the related terminals and ground systems.

Role for Arms Control

Finally, the NPR report argues that “arms control can contribute to U.S., allied, and partner security by helping to manage strategic competition among states. By codifying mutually agreed-upon nuclear postures in a verifiable and enforceable manner, arms control can help establish a useful degree of cooperation and confidence among states. It can foster transparency, understanding, and predictability in adversary relations, thereby reducing the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation.”

New START meets these criteria. Extending New START, whose central limits were achieved on February 5 by Russia and the United States, would further support these goals. Russia has not shown any interest in a new treaty, but it did leave open the door for discussion to extend New START by five years, an option provided in the treaty. Discussions beginning this summer or fall to extend New START would go a long way toward demonstrating that arms control remains important.

Does the Trump administration NPR put an end to the decades-long reduction of the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security and military strategy? Does it position the United States for a new nuclear arms race and a return to nuclear weapons testing after a 26-year moratorium? Is there the political and budgetary will to implement this new, more aggressive nuclear force posture and policy and its supporting infrastructure? Does the NPR report present an appropriate approach given an increasingly uncertain and competitive world? These questions need to be addressed as the administration’s newly released fiscal year 2019 budget request is considered by Congress.

ENDNOTES

1 Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review,” February 2018, https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINAL-REPORT.PDF; U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/NPR/2010_Nuclear_Posture_Review_Report.pdf.

2 Michael R. Gordon, “Russia Has Deployed Missile Barred by Treaty, U.S. General Tells Congress,” The New York Times, March 8, 2017.

3 “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” December 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf.

4 Office of Secure Transportation, National Nuclear Security Administration, “Ten-Year Site Plan FY2012 Through FY2021,” April 2011, https://nnsa.energy.gov/sites/default/files/nnsa/inlinefiles/OST%20TYSP%202012-2021%20053111%20cjs.pdf.

5 U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications: Update on Air Force Oversight Effort and Selected Acquisition Programs,” GAO-17-641R, August 15, 2017.


Madelyn Creedon was the Department of Energy’s principal deputy administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration from 2014 to 2017 and was assistant secretary of defense for global strategic affairs from 2011 to 2014.

 

Posted: March 1, 2018

Trump Seeks Expanded Nuclear Capabilities

The Nuclear Posture Review marks significant change from the Obama years.


March 2018
By Kingston Reif

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) report, unveiled Feb. 2, puts deterrence of nuclear and non-nuclear strategic attacks at the top of the U.S. nuclear agenda and pivots away from a number of key Obama administration policy priorities and commitments that sought to lower reliance on nuclear weapons.

“[G]lobal threat conditions have worsened markedly since the most recent 2010 NPR, including increasingly explicit nuclear threats from potential adversaries,” states the review, citing Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. “The United States now faces a more diverse and advanced nuclear-threat environment than ever before.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (L), and Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testify on the Nuclear Posture Review before the House Armed Services Committee on February 6. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)The review, the fourth since the end of the Cold War, makes a case for what it presents as a more flexible, resilient, and adaptable U.S. nuclear posture to meet current and future challenges. But critics warn that the Trump administration is moving in ways that will be costly and potentially destabilizing.

Most controversially, the review addresses the circumstances under which the United States would consider the first use of nuclear weapons to include cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and attacks on nuclear command, control, and communications capabilities; calls for the development of two sea-based, low-yield nuclear options that do not currently exist in the arsenal; and gives relatively short shrift to arms control and nonproliferation.

Whether the NPR has the impact the administration intends is far from certain in light of questions in Congress about the need, effectiveness, and affordability of the strategy; opposition from rival powers Russia and China; and concerns about President Donald Trump’s intemperate and bellicose rhetoric on nuclear weapons.

The United States is “creating a brand-new nuclear force,” Trump said on Feb. 12. “[W]e’re gonna be so far ahead of everybody else in nuclear like you’ve never seen before.”

Since the end of the Cold War, each administration has conducted a comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear policy. These strategy documents outline the president’s views on the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy, maintenance of and upgrades to nuclear forces, and the overall U.S. approach to nuclear arms control and nonproliferation.

The Obama administration’s review, completed in April 2010, concluded that the top priority of the U.S. nuclear agenda should be nonproliferation and prevention of nuclear terrorism. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report stated that “Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries” and that prospects for military confrontation have declined dramatically. (See ACT, May 2010.)

In a January 2017 executive order, Trump directed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to produce a national defense strategy, an NPR, and a ballistic missile defense review. Mattis initiated the NPR in April 2017. (See ACT, May 2017.) A draft of the document was leaked to the Huffington Post on Jan. 11, nearly a month before the planned release date. The final draft largely mirrored the leaked version.

Reactions Mixed

The NPR report contains elements of continuity with long-standing U.S. nuclear policy, such as affirming the strategic triad of land- and sea-based missiles and bombers, continuing the moratorium on nuclear weapons testing, and stating that deterrence of nuclear attack is not the sole purpose for U.S. nuclear weapons.

“This review is consistent with U.S. nuclear policies since the end of the Cold War,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan at a Feb. 2 press briefing. “It reaffirms that the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear policy is deterrence and continues our clear commitment to nonproliferation and arms control.”

But several of the proposed changes in the review have sparked controversy. Critics fear that the changes reverse decades of efforts to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy, increase the risk of nuclear conflict, and add to the crushing financial burden to sustain and upgrade the arsenal in the coming decades.

In a Jan. 29 letter to Trump based on the leaked version of the document, 16 Democratic senators wrote that “creating new nuclear capabilities and widening their possible use constitute an increase in America’s nuclear warfighting capacity that will pressure other nuclear weapons states to follow suit.” The senators criticized the document for failing to address how the administration plans to pay for new nuclear capabilities “on top of the already-unsustainable costs of modernizing our existing U.S. nuclear forces.”

The Congressional Budget Office estimated last fall that the plans Trump inherited from Obama to maintain and upgrade the arsenal over the next 30 years would cost $1.2 trillion in current dollars. (See ACT, December 2017.)

The NPR report acknowledges that the upgrade costs are “substantial,” but claims that they are affordable and, at their projected peak in the late 2020s, will consume no more than 6.4 percent of the Pentagon budget. This estimate does not include the additional costs that must be borne by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to upgrade nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure.

Republican lawmakers have generally expressed support for the recommendations in the NPR report. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a Feb. 2 statement that the review “takes a number of steps in the right direction.”

“[S]ince the end of the Cold War, we have let our nuclear capabilities atrophy under the false belief that the era of great power competition was over,” McCain added.

As with Congress, the reception to the NPR report among allies has also been mixed.

“Japan highly appreciates the latest NPR which clearly articulates the U.S. resolve to ensure the effectiveness of its deterrence and its commitment to providing extended deterrence to its allies including Japan,” said Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono in a Feb. 3 statement.

But German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel blasted the NPR report. “The U.S. administration’s decision to develop new tactical nuclear weapons shows that the spiral of a new nuclear arms race has already been set in motion,” he said Feb. 4. “We need new disarmament initiatives rather than new arms systems.”

Meanwhile, Russia and China reacted harshly. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated on Feb. 3 that “the document is focused on confrontation and is anti-Russian” and the claim that Russia has increased its reliance on nuclear weapons has no “connection with reality.” The following day, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman reiterated China’s commitment that it will not use nuclear weapons first and said that Beijing hopes “the U.S. side will discard its ‘cold-war mentality’ [and] shoulder its own special and primary responsibility for nuclear disarmament.”

Updated Roles

The NPR report says that the use of nuclear weapons will only be considered under “extreme circumstances” to defend the “vital interests” of the United States and its allies. It also includes a so-called negative security assurance that Washington “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.”

The 2010 NPR report used identical language. Yet, unlike the previous administration, the Trump administration defines “extreme circumstances” to include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” against “U.S., allied or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.”

The document does not explicitly define “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” but at various points says it could include chemical and biological weapons attacks, large-scale conventional aggression, and cyberattacks. The report references the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks more than 30 times.

The 2010 NPR report, in contrast, described “a narrow range of contingencies” in which nuclear weapons may play a role in deterring a conventional, chemical, or biological weapons attack and called for reducing the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks. Cyberattacks or attacks on nuclear command, control, and communications capabilities were not cited as grounds for a nuclear response.

The 2018 NPR report also caveats the negative security assurance by retaining “the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and U.S. capabilities to counter that threat.”

The Trump administration argues that the new revised language on declaratory policy does not signal an expansion of the circumstances under which the president would consider nuclear first use but rather makes explicit threats that have always been implicit.

“The Obama policy didn’t rule out anything as a potential extreme circumstance,” Greg Weaver, deputy director of strategic capabilities for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon before the release of the NPR report. “Our intent is to clarify the kinds of things that might constitute extreme circumstance so adversaries don’t miscalculate and cross that threshold unwittingly.”

But some analysts warn that the language of the NPR report could have the effect of lowering the bar for first use of nuclear weapons and that threatening such use in response to cyberattacks or attacks on U.S. command and control capabilities would lack credibility.

The review “opens questions about whether the United States would consider using [nuclear] weapons more readily than it might have in the past or in response to attacks that are less than fully catastrophic,” Rebecca Hersman, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a Feb. 6 commentary.

Using nuclear weapons in response to attacks on command and control capabilities would “violate any notion of proportionality,” argued James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a Feb. 5 article for the War on the Rocks website. “Russian or Chinese non-nuclear strikes on U.S. satellites would almost certainly cause no human casualties.”

New Nuclear Capabilities

The NPR report calls for the development of two additional low-yield nuclear capabilities, primarily to counter Russia’s alleged willingness to use or threaten to use its much larger arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons to stave off defeat in a conventional conflict or crisis, a strategy known as “escalate to de-escalate.”

These “supplements,” as the report describes them, include the near-term deployment of low-yield nuclear warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and, in the longer term, development of a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM).

According to the report, the development of the two options “is not intended to enable, nor does it enable, ‘nuclear war-fighting.’”

“Rather,” the report argues, “expanding U.S. tailored response options will raise the nuclear threshold and help ensure that potential adversaries perceive no possible advantage in limited nuclear escalation, making nuclear weapons employment less likely.”

Critics maintain that the report misconstrues Russian nuclear doctrine and that additional low-yield options are unnecessary. “Rather than lowering the threshold of nuclear use, the Russians are actively seeking to increase it,” wrote Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, a fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, in a Feb. 13 article.

Other analysts have noted that the United States already possesses two types of low-yield warheads for delivery by strategic bombers, making redundant the NPR report’s proposed third and fourth low-yield options.

The Defense Department’s budget request for fiscal year 2019 released on Feb. 12 includes $22.6 million for developing a low-yield SLBM option. The request does not contain funding for a new SLCM. The NNSA budget request does not include additional funds to modify SLBM warheads or to begin development of a warhead for the SLCM.

The NPR also seeks to retain the B83-1 gravity bomb, the only remaining megaton-class warhead in the U.S. stockpile. The decision reverses the Obama administration’s proposal that the warhead be retired once confidence in the under-development B61-12 gravity bomb is achieved.

The plan to keep the B83-1 bomb is part of a larger proposed expansion of NNSA nuclear weapons work that the NPR report says would provide “capabilities needed to quickly produce new or additional weapons” beyond the estimated 4,000 warheads currently in the active U.S. nuclear stockpile.

The administration requested $11.2 billion for the NNSA nuclear weapons account in fiscal year 2019, an increase of $780 million over last year’s request and $1.8 billion over the fiscal year 2017 appropriation.

Arms Control Takes a Back Seat

The NPR report states that “the United States will remain receptive to future arms control negotiations if conditions permit” and if such accords “advance U.S. and allied security, are verifiable, and enforceable.” It adds that the administration “will continue to pursue the political and security conditions that could enable further nuclear reductions.”

But the report does not offer any proposals to advance U.S.-Russian arms control or address the growing challenges to strategic stability more broadly. It also does not commit to an extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is slated to expire in 2021. (See ACT, January/February 2017.)

In addition, the report says, without offering a reason, that the administration will not pursue ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

“One of the things that’s missing in this NPR is a focus on nuclear diplomacy,” said Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, in a Jan. 18 interview with WNYC New York Public Radio. “How are we going to get to our goals of reducing the dangers, reducing arsenals, reducing the role of nuclear weapons?”

 

Nuclear Posture Reviews, Then and Now

The Trump administration's Nuclear Posture Review is the fourth since the end of the Cold War. It differs from the Obama administration's 2010 review in some key areas.

IssueObama, 2010Trump, 2018
Conditions for nuclear useUnder “extreme circumstances” to defend U.S. and allies’ “vital interests”; policy to reduce nuclear role in deterring non-nuclear attacks with the goal of achieving sole-purpose nuclear deterrence“Extreme circumstances” include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” on United States or ally population, infrastructure, nuclear forces, and/or command and control capabilities; no reference to reducing nuclear weapons’ role or implementing sole-purpose policy
Negative security assurancesUnited States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states in compliance with the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT); contains caveat if biological
weapons threat advances
United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states in compliance with NPT; contains caveat if non-nuclear strategic threat advances
Arms reductionsNew START, 1,550 strategic deployed warheads; calls for future reductions to include nondeployed and tactical weaponsSupports New START implementation though 2021, silent on possible five-year extension; open to future arms control if conditions permit and it enhances U.S. and allied security, is verifiable,
and enforceable
New weapons and testingRatify Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); no nuclear testing; no new weapons development; no new missions for nuclear weaponsOpposes CTBT ratification; calls for development of additional low-yield options and ability to rapidly prototype new weapons designs
 

 

Posted: March 1, 2018

The New U.S. Nuclear Strategy is Flawed and Dangerous. Here’s Why.

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In December 2016, President Donald Trump tweeted that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” prompting condemnation in the United States and around the world. Those concerns, it turns out, were well justified.

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Volume 10, Issue 3, February 15, 2018

In December 2016, President Donald Trump tweeted that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability” and later told MSNBC that he would “outmatch” and “outlast” other potential competitors in a nuclear arms race. The comments mostly prompted condemnation in the United States and around the world and raised concerns about the direction the president would take U.S. nuclear weapons policy.

U.S. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General Paul Selva (L), arrives at a closed briefing before the Senate Armed Service Committee January 23, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a closed briefing on the Nuclear Posture Review. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)Those concerns, it turns out, were well justified.

The Defense Department released Feb. 2 a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the fourth since the end of the Cold War. The NPR is a strategy document that outlines the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy, the plans for maintaining and upgrading nuclear forces, and the overall U.S. approach to nuclear arms control and nonproliferation.

Though there are, not surprisingly, elements of continuity with previous reviews, the proposed changes in the new NPR are significant and align with Trump’s more aggressive and impulsive nuclear notions. The document incorporates wish list items long-advocated by parts of the nuclear weapons establishment and breaks with past U.S. efforts to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons worldwide in several key areas.

It is true that the international security environment is less favorable than it was in 2010 when the Obama administration conducted its NPR. Some of the other nuclear-armed states have not been responsible nuclear citizens. Technology is advancing in new and unpredictable ways. And the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal— originally built during the Cold War-era and refurbished since—is aging.

But these developments do not justify the approach advanced in this NPR.

The review proposes to expand the circumstances under which Trump might consider the use of nuclear weapons, including in response to so-called “non-nuclear strategic threats” and calls for the development of new, more usable nuclear weapons capabilities.

The review also walks back from the longstanding U.S. leadership role on arms control and nonproliferation at a time when the global nuclear weapons risk reduction enterprise is facing significant challenges.

Taken together, these and other changes in the Trump Nuclear Posture Review rest on faulty assumptions, are unnecessary and unlikely to achieve their stated goal, set the stage for an even more unsustainable rate of spending on U.S. nuclear weapons, would accelerate global nuclear competition, and could increase the risk of nuclear conflict in the years ahead.

Wider Range of Nuclear Use Options

Instead of deemphasizing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy as previous NPRs have done, the Trump NPR envisions a greater role for the weapons against a wider range of threats. Trump administration officials claim that their NPR is consistent with the 2010 Obama NPR on declaratory policy. Both in tone and substance, it is not.

The 2018 NPR says that the first use of nuclear weapons will only be considered under “extreme circumstances” to defend the “vital interests” of the United States and its allies (p. 21). The 2010 NPR used identical language. Unlike the previous administration, however, the Trump administration defines extreme circumstances more broadly to include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” against “U.S., allied or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.”

The document does not explicitly define “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” but at various points says it could include chemical and biological attacks, large-scale conventional aggression, and cyberattacks. The review references the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks over 30 times.

The 2010 NPR, on the other hand, described “a narrow range of contingencies” in which nuclear weapons may play a role in deterring "a conventional or CBW attack.” There was no reference to cyberattacks or attacks on nuclear command, control, and communications capabilities anywhere in the 2010 document.

“This opens questions,” writes former Pentagon official Rebecca Hersman, “about whether the United States would consider using” nuclear “weapons more readily than it might have in the past or in response to attacks that are less than fully catastrophic.”

In addition, the 2010 NPR stated that the United States “will continue to strengthen conventional capabilities and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks, with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or our allies and partners the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.”

Indeed, by the end of his second term of office President Obama believed that goal had effectively been achieved. As then Vice President Joe Biden put it in remarks delivered in January 2017: “given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats, it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary. Or make sense. President Obama and I are confident we can deter and defend ourselves and our allies against non-nuclear threats through other means.”

In contrast, the new NPR explicitly rejects the idea of “sole purpose” (p. 20). The review extols ambiguity and proposes two new low-yield nuclear capabilities to “expand the range of credible U.S. options for responding to nuclear or non-nuclear strategic attack” (p. 55).

The Trump NPR diverges from the Obama NPR on declaratory policy in still other ways.

The 2010 review updated and strengthened the U.S. pledge of nonuse against non-nuclear-weapon states that are in good standing with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations, even in the unlikely event that one of those states attacks the United States or its allies with chemical or biological weapons. This revised negative security assurance expanded the security benefits for non-nuclear-weapon states of good faith membership in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime.

The 2018 NPR reiterates this pledge but undermines the value of this assurance by retaining “the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and U.S. capabilities to counter that threat” (p. 21).

It is notable that President Trump argued in his 2018 State of the Union address that “we must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression by any other nation or anyone else.”

This approach represents a clear shift away from past U.S. strategy and practice that aims to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. military and foreign policy. The 2010 NPR stated that the “fundamental role” of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack against the United States or its allies, not “any act of aggression.”

The proposed changes in the 2018 NPR on the role of nuclear weapons are real. And they are dangerous.

Threatening nuclear retaliation to counter new kinds of “asymmetric” attacks would lower the threshold for nuclear use, increase the risks of miscalculation, and make it easier for other countries to justify excessive roles for nuclear weapons in their policies. Such threats are also unlikely to be proportional and therefore would be difficult to make credible. For example, though a kinetic or nonkinetic attack on U.S. nuclear command and control capabilities, which support both nuclear and non-nuclear missions, could have major repercussions, such an attack is unlikely to result in any human casualties.

Given the overall conventional superiority of the U.S.-led alliance system, it is in the U.S. interest to raise, not lower, the bar for nuclear use. A more prudent approach to countering potential non-nuclear attacks on U.S. infrastructure and command and control capabilities would include strengthening the resilience of these systems against cyberattack and ensuring the availability of credible symmetric and asymmetric conventional response options.

New, “More Usable” Nuclear Weapons

The Trump NPR calls for the development of new low-yield nuclear capabilities, primarily to counter Russia’s alleged willingness to use nuclear weapons first on a limited basis early in a conventional conflict or crisis (also known as “escalate to deescalate”). The review warns that Russia maintains a much larger arsenal of "non-strategic" nuclear weapons than the United States and is upgrading those weapons.

To attempt to correct Russia's purported "mistaken impression" that its non-strategic forces could "provide a coercive advantage in crises or at lower levels of conflict," the review proposes to supplement the U.S. arsenal with the following capabilities:

  • the near-term deployment of a new low-yield, W76-1 nuclear warhead variant for the D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and
  • the longer-term development of a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM).

To counter Russia’s violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the review also seeks a new (for the time being conventional) ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) that would, if tested and deployed, put the U.S. in violation of the treaty.

The shortcomings in the rationale for additional low-yield options are too numerous to count.

For starters, the claim that Russia has lowered the threshold for the first use of nuclear weapons is hotly disputed. While Russia appears to rely more heavily on nuclear weapons for its security than the United States due to its overall conventional inferiority and concerns about U.S. missile defenses, is violating the INF Treaty, and developing new types of nuclear weapons, Russia’s official nuclear doctrine does not support the claim that it has an “escalate to deescalate” doctrine. As Jeffrey Edmonds, a former director for Russia on the National Security Council, has written, “If the Russian leadership decides to use nuclear weapons in a limited way to gain escalation control, then it is likely doing so as a last measure, reacting from a perception that the Russian state is about to fall.”

In fact, what is far more likely to prompt Russian President Vladimir Putin to perceive that he could get away with limited nuclear use is past and future statements by President Trump questioning the value of NATO and U.S. alliances. Deploying additional low-yield nuclear options won’t solve this political problem.

In any event, the review fails to produce compelling evidence that Russia might believe the United States would be self-deterred from using the weapons in its current arsenal (conventional or nuclear) in response to a limited Russian nuclear attack. Speaking of the weapons in its current arsenal, Washington already possesses hundreds of low-yield warheads as part of the air-leg of the triad and plans to invest over $150 billion in the coming decades to ensure these warheads can penetrate the most advanced air defenses. New low-yield options are a solution in search of a problem.

The NPR argues that additional low-yield options are “not intended to enable” nuclear war-fighting “[n]or will it lower the nuclear threshold” (p. 54). But this assertion ignores the fact that the stated purpose is to make their use “more credible” in the eyes of U.S. adversaries, which means that they are meant to be seen as “more usable.”

The belief that a nuclear conflict could be controlled is dangerous thinking. The fog of war is thick, the fog of nuclear war would be even thicker. Such thinking could also have the perverse effect of convincing Russia that it could get away with limited nuclear use without putting its survival at risk.

Many military targets are in or near urban areas. It has been estimated that the use of even a fraction of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces could lead to the death of tens of millions of people in each country. An all-out exchange would kill hundreds of millions and produce catastrophic global consequences with adverse agricultural, economic, health, and environmental consequences for billions of people.

No country should be preparing to wage a “limited nuclear war” that neither side can guarantee would remain “limited.” Rather, as Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev declared in 1985, today’s Russian and U.S. leaders should recognize that “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”

Even if one buys the rationale that more low-yield options are needed, the two new nuclear capabilities proposed by the review are deeply flawed.

Given that U.S. strategic submarines currently carry SLBMs armed with higher-yield warheads, how would Russia know that an incoming missile armed with a low-yield warhead wasn’t actually armed with high-yield warheads? The answer is it wouldn’t, thereby increasing the risks of unintended escalation.

Deploying nuclear SLCMs on U.S. surface ships and/or attack submarines also raises several concerns. The potential for miscalculation would increase since an adversary would be unable to determine if an incoming missile is armed with a nuclear or conventional warhead. And the Navy is unlikely to be pleased with the additional operational and financial burdens that would come with nuclearizing the surface and/or attack submarine fleet.

The NPR claims that development of a new nuclear SLCM, which would take nearly decade, could serve as a bargaining chip in future arms control negotiations with Russia. The document states that if Moscow “returns to compliance with its arms control obligations, reduces its non-strategic nuclear arsenal, and corrects its other destabilizing behaviors, the United States may reconsider the pursuit of a SLCM” (p. 55). This requirement is so sweeping that it lacks any realistic negotiating value. It’s also not clear how additional nuclear options would be useful bargaining chips given Russia’s concerns about overall NATO conventional superiority.

Ultimately, attempting to mimic Russia by developing more low-yield options would play into Moscow's hands, since it can match NATO in the nuclear sphere. The main deterrence challenge Russia poses to the alliance is not nuclear. That means the United States should continue to invest in maintaining its overall conventional edge, buttress defenses as needed on NATO’s eastern flank where Russia has local superiority, and more effectively defend against and respond to Russia's use of disinformatin, propoganda, and cyber tools to undermine western democratic institutions. At the same time, it should seek opportunities to engage with Moscow to reduce tensions and the risk of renewed military competition.

Undermining the Taboo Against Nuclear Testing

The NPR asserts that “the United States does not support the ratification of the [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty] CTBT” (p. 63) even though the United States and 182 other nations have signed the treaty, and even though there is no technical need to resume nuclear testing. No reason or justification for rejecting the goal of CTBT ratification is provided.

The review says that “the United States will continue to support the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Preparatory Committee” and “the related International Monitoring System and the International Data Center.” It also calls upon other states not to conduct nuclear testing and states that “[t]he United States will not resume nuclear explosive testing unless necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the U.S. arsenal.”

But the NPR proclaims that the United States will remain ready to “resume nuclear testing if necessary to meet severe technological or geopolitical challenges.”

The NPR also seeks “to reduce the time required to design, develop, and initially produce a warhead, from a decision to enter full-scale development.” An annual National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) report released in November 2017 shortens the previous readiness timeline to conduct a “simple [nuclear] test” explosion from 24 to 36 months down to six to 10 months, undermining the global nuclear testing taboo. This shortened timeline means that should the United States decide to conduct a “simple test” explosion, it should be prepared to do so within six to 10 months.

While the NNSA report and the NPR both reaffirm that “there is no current requirement to conduct an underground nuclear test,” the administration’s hasty rejection of CTBT ratification, combined with the NNSA’s revised testing readiness timeline suggests the Trump administration only wants to reap the benefits of the treaty, including the data from the monitoring system, while leaving the door open to resuming nuclear testing.

A Nuclear Force That is Excessive and Unsustainable

The Trump NPR’s proposals to develop new nuclear capabilities come on top of the existing nuclear triad recapitalization program of record that the Trump administration inherited from its predecessor. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the Obama-era plans would cost over $1.2 trillion (excluding the impact of inflation) over the next 30 years.

Massive spending on nuclear weapons on the scale and schedule envisioned by the 2018 NPR will pose a major threat to other high priority national security programs, to say nothing about Trump’s pledge to expand the non-nuclear military. What makes the growing cost to sustain the nuclear mission so worrisome for military planners is that costs are scheduled to reach a peak during the mid-2020s and overlap with large increases in projected spending on conventional weapon system modernization programs. Though the recent budget deal agreed to in Congress has improved the near-term outlook for defense spending, the Pentagon is likely to face continuing budget pressure in the future.

The NPR acknowledges that the upgrade costs are “substantial” but attempts to downplay them by claiming that nuclear weapons will “only” consume more than 6.4 percent of the defense budget (p. 52). This projection does not include the major costs that must be borne by NNSA to upgrade nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure.

The review offers no plan to pay for the rising price tag to upgrade the triad and the coming bow wave of non-nuclear modernization costs. It also fails to examine more pragmatic, cost-effective alternatives.

The force outlined in the NPR calls for maintaining and upgrading U.S. nuclear forces at levels that exceed the deterrence requirements outlined by the Pentagon in 2013, which determined that the deployed strategic arsenal could be reduced by up to one-third below the limits set by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) of 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery systems. Even if the United States maintains its arsenal at the New START levels, it can do so at a significantly lower cost, according to the CBO.

Planning for an Arms Race

President Trump said Feb. 12 that the United States is “creating a brand new nuclear force...[W]e’re gonna be so far ahead of everybody else in nuclear like you’ve never seen before.” The NPR comports with the president’s stated objective by laying the groundwork to provide “capabilities needed to quickly produce new or additional weapons” beyond the 4,000 warheads currently in the active U.S. nuclear stockpile (pgs. 59-64).

One measure of the scale of the plan for building “new or additional weapons” is given in the commitment to “[p]rovide the enduring capability and capacity to produce plutonium pits [nuclear warhead cores] at a rate of no fewer than 80 pits per year by 2030” (p. 62). No basis is offered for this minimum capacity target.

The NPR also calls for options to expand the arsenal by using old warheads, including “modifying warheads,” assessing “the potential for retired warheads and components to augment the future hedge stockpile,” and reducing “the time required to design, develop, and initially produce a warhead, from a decision to enter full-scale development” (p. 63).

In addition, the review proposes to accelerate the life extension programs for the W78 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and W80-1 air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) warheads. It leaves open the option of whether to pursue Obama-era plans to develop common, interoperable warheads for ICBMs and SLBMs. The new NPR also appears to want to keep indefinitely the B83-1 warhead (the only remaining U.S. megaton-class warhead). The previous plan had been to retire it once confidence in the B61-12 had been achieved, if not sooner. In 2013 NNSA estimated that the cost to life extend the B83 would be $4 to $5 billion.

The NPR says that the Pentagon will undertake research and development “for advanced nuclear delivery system technology and prototyping capabilities,” including “on the rapid development of nuclear delivery systems, alternative basing modes, and capabilities for defeating advanced air and missile defenses” (p. 40). This sweeping language suggests the possible pursuit of research and development on mobile ICBMs and hypersonic missiles for nuclear weapons delivery.

These buildup plans go far beyond those proposed by the Obama administration, which married its proposal to develop a more responsive nuclear infrastructure with pledges to reduce the size of the stockpile of nondeployed hedge warheads and accelerate the rate of dismantlement of retired warheads. The Trump NPR does not reiterate these commitments.

The NPR gives short shrift to the additional financial and operational demands preparing for an arms race will put on an already overburdened NNSA. Though NNSA would receive a significant budget increase in the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request, such a buildup is unlikely to be executable.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office report issued last year, the “NNSA’s plans to modernize its nuclear weapons do not align with its budget, raising affordability concerns.” And former NNSA administrator Frank Klotz said in a Jan. 23 interview just two days after leaving office that the agency is “working pretty much at full capacity... And you can draw your conclusion [on the Trump NPR proposals] from that.”

Nevertheless, the NPR makes an open-ended commitment to unleashing a nuclear weapon buildup whenever the U.S. sees fit. It is a clear incitement to other weapon states to do the same, and a clear violation of the NPT obligation to end the arms race and pursue effective disarmament measures.

Undermines U.S. Arms Control and Nonproliferation Leadership

In his January 2018 State of the Union address, Trump dismissed the idea of the elimination of nuclear weapons — a goal embraced by American President’s since the beginning of the nuclear age— as some “magical moment in the distant future.”

President Trump added Feb. 12: “Frankly I’d like to get rid of a lot of ‘em [nuclear weapons]. And if they [other nuclear-armed states] want to do that we’ll go along with them. We won’t lead the way, we’ll go along with them.”

Not surprisingly, the new Trump NPR does not proactively seek negotiations to limit nuclear arms.

Arms control only gets a brief mention at the end of the NPR and it’s a generally dismissive mention at that. The document passively states that “the United States will remain receptive to future arms control negotiations if conditions permit” and negotiations that “advance U.S. and allied security, are verifiable, and enforceable.” No previous nuclear arms control agreement has included enforcement measures.

In contrast, a major and important theme throughout the 2010 NPR was that “by reducing the role and numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons…we can put ourselves in a much better position to persuade our NPT [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] partners to join with us in adopting the measures needed to reinvigorate the nonproliferation regime and secure nuclear materials worldwide.”

The 2018 NPR does state that the “United States will continue efforts to create a more cooperative and benign security environment” (p. 24) and that “the United States will continue to pursue the political and security conditions that could enable further nuclear reductions” (p. 95).

But the review offers next to nothing in the way of proposals to advance particularly U.S.-Russian arms control efforts and address the growing challenges to strategic stability more broadly. As Michele Flournoy, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, put in a Jan. 18 interview:

“One of the things that’s missing in this NPR is a focus on nuclear diplomacy. How are we going to get to our goals of reducing the dangers, reducing arsenals, reducing the role of nuclear weapons, what’s the strategy there? There’s virtually no discussion of the arms control component of U.S. nuclear policy in this document.”

“The NPR essentially abandons the United States' leadership role in nonproliferation and arms control that have marked every president since Dwight Eisenhower,” noted Tom Countryman, former Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation, in a Jan. 23 Arms Control Association briefing on the NPR.

On the one bilateral strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty that is currently in force—New START—the NPR does not commit its possible extension, despite the obvious benefits.

New START has improved strategic stability, predictability, and transparency, and verifiably trimmed the still oversized U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. At a time when U.S.-Russian relations remain strained, New START, which is set to expire in 2021, serves an even more important role in reducing nuclear risks.

The next step should be for Presidents Trump and Putin to agree to extend the treaty for another five years–to 2026. If New START is allowed to lapse in 2021 with nothing to replace it, there would be no limits on U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces for the first time since 1972. The United States would have fewer tools with which to verify the size and composition of the Russian nuclear stockpile.

Flawed Assumptions

Several of the arguments offered in the NPR for expanding the diversity and role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy are highly misleading.

  • The Trump plan is centered on the mistaken belief that the United States is falling behind other countries in the fielding of a reliable and credible nuclear arsenal and it claims that there are gaps in our ability to “credibly” threaten to wage nuclear war. In reality, there is no “nuclear missile gap.” The United States is not falling “behind.” The U.S. arsenal is the most potent in the world and is more than intimidating enough to deter nuclear attack by others—and if ever used—kill hundreds of millions of people.
  • The Trump nuclear plan falsely suggests that U.S. leadership on nuclear disarmament has not contributed to nonproliferation efforts or enhanced U.S. global standing. In reality, the commitment of the nuclear-armed states to halt the arms race and achieve nuclear disarmament established in the NPT has been crucial to preventing proliferation and was essential to the non-nuclear weapon states decision extend the NPT indefinitely in 1995.
  • The Trump nuclear plan argues that the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has been “polarizing” and “could damage the nuclear nonproliferation regime.” In reality, it is nuclear weapons, and U.S. threats of “fire and fury,” that are dangerous and divisive. This more aggressive U.S. nuclear posture gives other nuclear actors a cynical excuse to justify their ongoing nuclear upgrade efforts and build up their own nuclear capabilities. The “Nuclear Ban Treaty,” on the other hand, is a good faith effort by more than 130 states to meet their responsibility as signatories of NPT to help end the arms race. Steps, like the Ban Treaty, aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophic nuclear weapons use are necessary and should be welcomed.

Bottom Line

Despite elements of continuity with previous administrations, the Trump NPR is not a status quo document.

Rather than develop new nuclear roles and capabilities and put additional strain on an already wobbly global nuclear order, the United States needs to show more responsible nuclear leadership.

It will be up to Congress, U.S. allies, the international community, and ultimately the U.S. public to ensure that Trump’s radical nuclear plans do not become the tipping point toward a new and more dangerous nuclear era.—DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director, and KINGSTON A. REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy

Posted: February 15, 2018

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