How many nuclear weapons does the United States have?
Setting aside impertinent questions like How many nuclear weapons does the United States need?, anyone who wants to discuss nuclear weapons or proliferation should start by trying to be clear about how many nuclear weapons the United States has.
If you listened to President Barack Obama when he announced, in 2010, the signing of the latest version of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), you would think the US is on track to reduce its stockpile to 1,575 nuclear warheads. Fair enough. That’s the number he stated, an apparently modest reduction from the stockpile numbers he inherited from his predecessor, who signed a treaty with Russia’s then-President Putin (the SORT Treaty, also called the Moscow treaty) that said the US would reduce its arsenal to 1700-2100 by 2012). The Bush Administration later announced they had met that commitment.
So how does it happen that the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (that’s the agency in charge of nuclear weapons production), Tom D’Agostino, was on Capitol Hill yesterday giving testimony that used numbers like 3,000 – 3,500 nuclear weapons and talked about that as a 40% reduction?
The 3,000 – 3,500 number comes from the Department of Energy’s Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan released last year. The current active stockpile is classified, but most experts have concluded we have around 5,900 warheads; the numbers D’Agostino quoted seems to confirm that estimate.
But how do we get to that number from President Obama’s 1,575?
Easy. President Obama is talking only about operationally deployed weapons. The bigger numbers refer to the active stockpile—the number of warheads we have ready to go. We also maintain other warheads and/or components in a strategic reserve.
Why does it matter (besides the obvious insanity)? Because the size of the stockpile translates directly to the need for new bomb plants—to produce plutonium pits, highly enriched uranium secondaries, and electronic components for the bomb. Right now the DOE/NNSA plan calls for building three bloated facilities (at Los Alamos, NM, Oak Ridge, TN and Kansas City, MO) with a cost to taxpayers of more than $12 BILLION, not to mention the cost to our efforts to constrain nuclear proliferation around the globe. Wait, let’s do mention it: US arms control negotiator and Ambassador Robert Grey says the US will have “zero credibility” if it modernizes its weapons infrastructure and stockpile.
The bigger numbers came up on Capitol Hill when DOE officials were testifying to the Senate Energy and Water committee. Only Senator Diane Feinstein questioned the need for new bomb plants to build new bomb parts if we are reducing the stockpile.
And no one apparently asked why we have 5,900 warheads in our active stockpile when our arms agreements permit only 1,700; or why the NNSA plans to reduce the stockpile only to 3,500 when the START Treaty sets a limit of 1,575. Is it conceivable, in this reality or any alternative reality, that the United States could launch 1, 575 thermonuclear weapons at any enemy or set of enemies and still require more?
Undaunted by Feinstein’s questions, the NNSA officials responded to Senator Lamar Alexander’s friendlier questions by asserting two of the new bomb plants have reached the 50% design level. This year’s budget for money to design the Uranium Processing facility in Oak Ridge will bring the amount spend on designing the new bomb plant close to date to half a billion dollars—even though the final size of the bomb plant has yet to be decided!
These guys are driving these new bomb plants like teenagers who never have to put gas in the tank!
Further complicating the accounting of nuclear weapons is the US stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons—tactical nukes are every bit as big and lethal as strategic nukes, they are just not deliverable to remote targets. The US is believed to have 500 tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe and 700-800 additional tactical nuclear weapons in our arsenal. There is no verifiable, enforceable arms control agreement covering tactical nuclear weapons; their presence in Europe is increasingly controversial at the state level.
So what’s the bottom line?
The bottom line is: if you think the United States is really serious about disarmament or a “world free of nuclear weapons,” think again. The most ambitious US plan is to build three new bomb plants capable of producing 50-80 nuclear warheads every year (expanding our current capacity to produce bombs by about 400%), to maintain a strategic stockpile of at least 3,000 nuclear weapons—the START Treaty notwithstanding, to upgrade and “life extend” thousands of warheads, and to spend $85 Billion (with a B) to do it. You may hear other numbers—those are the numbers for public consumption. If you want the real numbers, you need to eavesdrop when the weaponeers go to the Hill to get their money.
And if the numbers bother you, do something about it.