This week has seen the release of some important details pertaining to the size of the US nuclear arsenal. Size matters, even if it’s not the only policy criterion that matters. So let’s dive in.
In an April 29 speech at the NPT Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meeting in New York City, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller announced “that as of September 2013, the number of nuclear weapons in the active U.S. arsenal has fallen to 4,804. This newly declassified number represents an 85 percent reduction in the U.S. nuclear stockpile since 1967.”
The nuclear stockpile includes (1) strategic and non-strategic weapons maintained in an operational, ready-for-use configuration, (2) warheads that must be ready for possible deployment within a short timeframe, (3) logistics spares, and (4) inactive warheads maintained at a depot in a non-operational status. The latter three categories make up the bulk of what is commonly referred to as the stockpile “hedge”. In a separatefact sheet the State Department released updated data on the size of the active stockpile back to 1962 and the number of warheads dismantled since 1994. The declassified stockpile number does not include weapons retired and awaiting dismantlement.
While in the post-Cold War era changes to the active stockpile have been influenced by arms control treaties, reductions in this stockpile are not mandated by agreements with Russia and are implemented unilaterally.
This is the second time the Obama administration has declassified the size of the active stockpile. The first announcement came in May 2010, when the administration revealed an arsenal of 5,113 warheads as of September 30, 2009. In the four years between declassifications, the size of the active stockpile shrunk by a total of 309 warheads (or roughly 6%).
The United States deserves credit for divulging the size of a significant portion of its nuclear arsenal. Washington is by far the most transparent of the nine existing nuclear powers. Russia and China have been particularly derelict in this regard. For additional steps the United States and the other nuclear weapons states could take to enhance the transparency of global nuclear stockpiles, see here and here.
Yet a 6% reduction in four years doesn’t seem to reflect favorably on progress toward the lofty goals the President articulated in Prague at the beginning of his first term. It also pales in comparison to the cuts made by the George W. Bush administration, which slashed the stockpile by about 21% (or over 2100 warheads) during its first four years and 50% (or over 5,000 warheads) by the time it left office in 2001.
One of the reasons the Bush administration was able to make such drastic cuts is that it faced an excessive amount of Cold War overhang left over from the Clinton administration, which only reduced the stockpile by about 8% in eight years (using FY 1993 as the starting point).
In addition, Bush did not face opposition from Congress to slashing the stockpile. As I’ve written previously, one of the perks of being a Republican president is the freedom to make drastic changes to US nuclear force levels while Democratic presidents are forced to travel a much tougher political road, often in the pursuit of far less ambitious cuts. President Obama faces similar partisan obstacles.
President Obama’s goal to reduce the arsenal has also been stymied by Russia. Last June, the President announced his willingness to pursue nuclear reductions with Russia of up to one-third below the New START limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. The United States also remains open to negotiating further reductions with Russia in all categories of nuclear weapons – including strategic and non-strategic and deployed and non-deployed weapons. However, Moscow has rebuffed US overtures and concerns in Washington about Russia’s compliance with the INF treaty and its aggression against Ukraine have further reduced the likelihood of additional negotiated cuts.
But external factors are not the only reason the President has made only minimal changes to the size of the stockpile. As Hans Kristensen notes “the administration itself has reaffirmed long-standing nuclear policy, protected the force structure, and emphasized modernizations of nuclear forces.” This is not to say that some modernization isn’t required, but rather that the administration as a whole has placed greater emphasis on that plank of the agenda than it has on reshaping US nuclear posture.
In fact, don’t expect significant reductions below the September 30, 2013, level of 4,804 warheads during the remainder of Obama’s presidency. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released on April 30 reveals that the reduction of weapons as a result of the New START won’t lead to changes in the total size of the stockpile until the late 2020s or early 2030s. According to GAO,
DOD officials told us that the retirement of additional weapons from the stockpile stemming from New START will be predicated on the successful restoration of the NNSA weapons production infrastructure, including the construction and operation of new NNSA facilities supporting nuclear weapons production—the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility at LANL, and the Uranium Production Facility at Y-12—which they did not believe could be achieved until the late 2020s or early 2030s.
Additional reductions to the hedge could take even longer. The FY 2014 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (and its FY 2015 update) suggests that such cuts might not be contemplated for decades. According to the plan, enabling “up to a 50% potential hedge reduction” requires not only the creation of “a responsive infrastructure capable of the full range of activities to produce the future stockpile” but also the successful implementation of the “3+2” warhead modernization strategy, which is likely unaffordable, technically risky, and probably unexecutable. Even if it could be achieved, the plan isn’t slated for completion until the 2050s. And even then, there is only the “potential” for hedge cuts. Indeed, there seems to be a large disconnect between the President’s willingness to negotiate reductions in non-deployed weapons with Russia on the one hand, and plans that condition reductions in non-deployed weapons on decades-long modernization goals on the other.
This begs the question of why it’s not possible to make meaningful reductions to the hedge sooner and at far less cost than current plans. For example, some credible observers have noted that for pit production, requirements “have been fluid, reducing their credibility” and “it is hard to know what capacity is needed, and thus what new facilities or modifications to existing ones are needed.”
In the end, if President Obama wants his nuclear policy legacy to include significant reductions to the nuclear stockpile, he will need to be far bolder than he has been to date.