International Security Studies

Latest US Nuclear Strategy Calls for Fewer, but Newer, Nuke Weapons

Commentary by Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar and Colonel in the United States Air Force William Eldridge

Oct 03, 2008

The Secretaries of Defense and Energy today released a new nuclear weapons strategy which calls for more reductions in nuclear weapons and replacing what is left with newer warheads.

The 23-page report, titled National Security and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century, outlines a strategy that the Secretaries believe will allow the US to maintain a small but effective nuclear force.

The new strategy builds on both Clinton and Bush approaches to nuclear weapons policy which called for the US to lead the world in nuclear weapons reductions, but to "hedge" against future challenges with an inventory of stockpiled non-deployed warheads.

But instead of hedging with stockpiled weapons, the new strategy calls for hedging with manufacturing and production capacity while continuing reductions in inventory stockpiles. According to the report, this would have the effect of "relying, over time, more heavily on a responsive nuclear weapons design and manufacturing infrastructure to manage risk, and less on an inventory of non-deployed warheads."

The US currently maintains a significant stockpile of non-deployed nuclear warheads. According to the report, the stockpile is kept partly in case of a technical failure in currently fielded weapons, and partly in case of geo-political changes that may require quickly increasing nuclear forces.

To reduce this stockpile, the strategy calls for replacing existing warheads with Reliable Replacement Warheads (RRWs). This would make a portion of the non-deployed warheads, kept as backups in case of reliability problems, unnecessary and breathe life into the US's stagnant manufacturing infrastructure.

The new strategy will have to overcome two obstacles. The first is reviving the industries that design and manufacture nuclear weapons. The report states that "at present the United States does not have the ability to produce new nuclear weapons."

The second is Congressional resistance to the RRW. The RRW program is not new. First funded by Congress in 2005, early design phases were completed before funding was cut in 2007. The program is still under debate and the design process is frozen.

In addition to proposing cuts to current non-deployed warhead caches, the report summarizes recent reductions in operationally deployed inventories. Deployed strategic warheads have been cut by about 80% since the end of the Cold War and non-strategic weapons inventories have been cut by over 90% since 1991. By 2012, the report states that the nuclear stockpile will be reduced to the lowest levels since the Eisenhower era.

Plans to further reduce the operational strategic inventory to 1,700 to 2,200 warheads were achieved in 2007, five years earlier than the 2012 deadline called for in the Moscow Treaty, according to the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, Thomas D'Agostino.

Despite the smaller and less prominent nuclear force, the strategy paper provides reasons for the US to maintain its nuclear arsenal that go beyond simple retaliation for a nuclear attack. The list includes deterring acts of aggression involving nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, helping deter major conventional attacks, and holding targets at risk that cannot be threatened by non-nuclear weapons.

The report also categorizes North Korea and Iran as "States of Concern" and Russia and China as "Major Existing Nuclear States Outside of NATO." With "Violent Extremists and Non-State Actors" as the third challenge to US security, the strategy calls for a viable US nuclear weapons capability.

With North Korea and Iran presumably seeking operational nuclear weapons and with China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom modernizing their nuclear forces, the report emphasizes the need for maintaining "a nuclear force second to none" and "continuing US security commitments to NATO and other allies."

In perhaps the most striking shift in nuclear weapons strategy, the paper divorces determining the required size of the nuclear force from the size of Russian forces and from targeting requirements supporting nuclear strike plans. Instead of military requirements, today's and future warhead numbers are now a function of the capabilities of deployed forces and the infrastructure that supports them. This departure from traditional military planning reflects "the view that the political effects of US strategic forces…are key to the full range of requirements for these forces and that those broader goals are not reflected fully by military targeting requirements alone" the paper declares.

By 2012, the size of this force will include 450 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, 14 Ohio class nuclear submarines, and 76 bombers—20 B-2s and 56 B-52 bombers. These platforms will employ the 1,700 to 2,200 warheads that will remain in the inventory with some portion "on alert and readily available."

Modernizing these forces would take some effort, according to the report. The Minuteman III will undergo life-extension to keep it viable until 2030, but the bomber and submarine forces do not yet have programmed replacements. Additionally, any new warhead replacement program may take up to ten years to start and take until 2052 to replace a stockpile of 2,500 weapons at a rate of 80 weapons per year.

Seeing this strategy through cannot be accomplished by DoE and DoD alone. Congressional support and funding is critical, and as the paper summarizes, the new strategy "will require a partnership between the Executive Branch and the Congress."

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