Produce to Reduce: The Hedge Gamble

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By Nickolas Roth, Hans M. Kristensen and Stephen Young

Note: This is the fourth of four posts analyzing the FY 2012 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, each jointly produced by the Federation of American Scientists and Union of Concerned Scientists. See previous posts: 1, 2, 3.

The FY2012 SSMP repeats the promise made in numerous previous government documents and official statements: construction of new factories with greater warhead production capability might enable retirement of some “hedge” warheads after the “responsive complex” has come online in the early-2020s and thereby reduce the overall size of the stockpile.

Today, the United States has approximately 2,150 operational warheads and another 2,850 in the hedge, for a stockpile total of 5,000. The FY2011 SSMP stated (Annex D, p. 2) that the planned production complex would be able to support a stockpile of 3,000-3,500 warheads, a level 1,500-2,000 warheads below today’s stockpile. However, it did not provide a timetable or strategy for any such reductions.

The FY2012 SSMP does, however, place conditions on further reductions. The report states that the number of nuclear weapons in the nation’s stockpile “may be reduced…if planned LEPs are completed successfully, the future infrastructure of the NNSA enterprise is achieved, and geopolitical stability permits” (emphasis added). The first two items on this list will not be accomplished for at least twenty years, but the plan shows that production of “hedge” warheads will continue even after that.

Specifically, the FY2012 SSNP states that this new production capacity is required “regardless of the size of stockpile” and shows that NNSA now plans to produce W78 hedge warheads during the 2021-2024 W78 LEP and even “continue production of additional hedge warheads” through 2035.

NNSA Plans Production of More Hedge Warheads
Despite a promise that construction of new warhead production facilities will permit a reduction of the “hedge” of non-deployed warheads in the stockpile, the FY2012 SSMP shows that the new facilities will be used to produce “additional hedge warheads.” The key phrase is enlarged above. Click on image to see the original.

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The chart hints that hedge warhead production might also be part of the other warhead LEPs in the NNSA plan. The reason for the additional W78 hedge production in 2025-2035 is not stated. Right now, there are approximately 600 W78s in the stockpile, of which 350 are in the hedge. Are they planning to increase the latter number? Or is that simply continuing production of the “common or adaptable” warhead that would be actually used in the W88 LEP later on? Have other LEPs not been performed on warheads in the hedge, but they will here? The answer is a mystery.

Yet the use of new warhead production facilities to produce additional hedge warheads undermines the administration’s message that the new facilities are needed to allow a reduction of the stockpile. It suggests that even with a new “responsive” warhead production complex, the future stockpile will still include a sizeable hedge of reserve warheads.

Additionally, although the SSMP states that these facilities are needed to “maintain a safe, secure, and reliable arsenal over the long term,” these facilities will not be operational until most of the currently planned Life Extension Programs are either completed or well underway. That makes the plan to use the new facilities to produce additional hedge warheads particularly problematic.

About the authors: Nickolas Roth is Policy Fellow for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and a graduate student at the University of Maryland, Hans M. Kristensen is the Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, and Stephen Young is a Senior Analyst at Union of Concerned Scientists.

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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2 Responses to “Produce to Reduce: The Hedge Gamble”

  1. Distiller September 19, 2011 at 2:44 pm #

    Might be a placeholder. You can’t just stop if you want to keep the whole complex (from mining to the operational warhead) alive.

    The hedge will still be absurdly huge. And too heavy on strategic, while too weak on tactical.

  2. Adam Neira October 4, 2011 at 7:30 pm #

    Erdogan: Israel is a nuclear threat in the Mideast (Jpost)

    There is a way forward on the nuclear issue. Israel uses plausible deniability to say that it doesn’t have nukes when everyone knows it does. Iran is playing games at the moment. The American enrichment offer explained by Charles Ferguson at FAS is part of the current intrigue. Some trust beacons are being put out there to test the waters. The nuclear question is a two faced genie. Nuclear power is a boon for humankind. Nuclear weapons need to be phased out over the next few decades. They are a by-product of certain past geo-political moves. Like nine poker players all with various stacks returning dangerous chips to the house one by one, the risk needs to be reduced over time and in a way that builds trust. A core group of people could oversee and facilitate this process. Call it the “Committee to Oversee the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons by 2030.” I’m sure some clever person can come up with an appropriate acronym.

    The problem with Time Magazine and other similar journals in today’s interconnected age is that one week is a very long time in geopolitics. The geometries can change very quickly. Especially so with various leader’s mindsets. Prime Minister Erdogan has made quite a few public statements over the past two weeks. His comments have varied in tone quite remarkably from his Tripoli statements to the discussions he had with Charlie Rose on Bloomberg. He may appear to be all over the place but I think he is trying to satisfy various audiences all at the same time. It is not an easy job being the leader of a vast nation like Turkey and also having a role in the wider international community. I do believe his general demeanor towards Israel has calmed down a lot over the past few weeks. The embers of enmity in the region should not be stoked by anyone at the moment. Especially the leaders of various nations.

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