United States Moves Rapidly Toward New START Warhead Limit

Current pace of U.S. strategic warhead downloading could reach New START limit in 2010.


By Hans M. Kristensen

The United States appears to be moving toward early implementation of the New START treaty signed with Russian less than one month ago.

The rapid implementation is evident in the State Department’s latest fact sheet, which declares that the United States as of December 31, 2009, deployed 1,968 strategic warheads.

The New START force level of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads is not required to be reached until 2017 at the earliest. But at the current downloading rate, the United States could reach the limit before the end of this year.

Since the signing of the Moscow Treaty in 2002, the United States has removed an average of 490 warheads each year from ballistic missiles and bomber bases, for a total of approximately 3,436 warheads. There are now only a few hundred strategic warheads left at U.S. bomber bases, with most of the deployed warheads concentrated on ballistic missiles.

The last time the United States deployed less than 2,000 strategic warheads was in 1956. The peak was nearly 12,790 deployed strategic warheads in 1987.

The rapid downloading of U.S. strategic forces illustrates just how confident the military is in the capability of U.S. nuclear forces to provide a credible deterrent even at the New START level. Several thousand non-deployed warheads in storage can be loaded back onto missiles and bombers if necessary.

Even so, the rapid downloading gives the Obama administration a strong basis to argue at the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference that it is serious about moving forward on nuclear arms control.

Additional information: United States Reaches Moscow Treaty Warhead Level EarlyObama and the Nuclear War Plan

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

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5 Responses to “United States Moves Rapidly Toward New START Warhead Limit”

  1. anon May 3, 2010 at 6:28 am #

    Is it possible that the sudden drop in warheads reflects the new trend to not count bomber weapons? Are you sure its a further downloading of ICBMs and SLBMs?

    Reply: These reductions occurred before the “fake” bomber counting rule of the New START was adopted. There was a download of the SLBMs in 2005, the ICBMs are being downloaded, and bomber weapons have been moved off the bases en masse. HK

  2. yousaf May 3, 2010 at 10:53 am #

    [Edited] Yes, surely the military is confident that we don’t need so many operational strategic nukes. In fact, Col. B. Chance Saltzman, chief of the air force’s Strategic Plans and Policy Division, has argued that “the United States could address military utility concerns with only 311 nuclear weapons in its nuclear force structure while maintaining a stable deterrence.” Now, if we can only get some sense on the hair trigger status, the huge reserve stockpiles, the tactical nukes and (ineffective an destabilizing) missile defense.

  3. 3.1415 May 3, 2010 at 11:10 am #

    If the trendline continues, US will not be able to do counterforce in the not too distant future. Maybe the gradualist approach is not such a bad idea afterall. When nothing happens for a long long time, it is harder to support counterforce and not to think about no first use, at least NFU with some qualifications.

    Reply: My understanding is that the war plan already includes a mix of counterforce and countervalue targets. Yet the posture is still very much dominated by the number and types of nuclear forces in Russia, but that target base is shrinking fast with the retirement of SS-18, SS-19, and SS-25s. The really interesting number is the alert force, which is currently just above 800 warheads. Just counting Russian time-urgent nuclear facilities such as silos, garrisons, ports, and bases, constitute about 160 targets. Adding command and control facilities is probably still below 200. Double that for redundancy and urgent Russian targets eat up probably 400 warheads, with the other half being for China and regional adversaries. The other 700+ warheads on non-alert SSBNs and about 1,000 bomber weapons (of which about 300 are at the bomber bases), provide backup to the alert force for broader military and industrial targets. In addition, there are probably another 2,000 strategic warheads in reserve. I think such a posture looks predominantly counterforce. HK

  4. Ed May 3, 2010 at 6:20 pm #

    And what of Russia? Have they also retired or dismantled any nukes; If so, do you have any numbers on this? What of China and the rest? Or is this reduction just for superpowers?

    Off topic kinda: How many nukes would it take to completely destroy all of earth? Just curious…

    Reply: Russia is very hard and has not released much information. Hopefully the U.S. disclosure – adding to those made by Britain and France previously – will put pressure on Russia to be more transparent. They will have to be in order to get to the next round of arms control talks, if it is to be possible to limit non-deployed and non-strategic weapons as well. We estimate that Russia has approximately 4,600 operational warheads, but perhaps as many as 7,300 more in storage. Their dismantlement numbers are not well known, but we estimate that they take apart around 1,000 each year.

    As for the other nuclear weapon states, you can find our estimates here.

    On your last question, how many nukes it would take to destroy the earth, unless you by “destroy” mean physically blow apart, then the answer is no that many. For the specifics, I’ll point you to some important work IPPNW and PSR have done with their 2009 report Zero is the Only Option. HK

  5. 3.1415 May 5, 2010 at 9:46 am #

    The Report “Zero is the Only Option” is definitely an eye opener. No wonder why Carl Sagan did not get into the National Academy of Science. The nuclear establishment may have less doubt about nuclear winter now that we have much better computer models and empirical data.

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