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Russian SSBN Fleet: Modernizing But Not Sailing Much

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The second Borei-class SSBN (Alexander Nevsky) is fitting out at the Severodvinsk Naval Shipyard in northern Russia. Six of its 16 missile tubes are open on this August 2011 satellite image by DigitalGlobe/GoogleEarth.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The Russian ballistic missile submarine fleet is being modernized but conducting so few deterrent patrols that each submarine crew cannot be certain to get out of port even once a year.

During 2012, according to data obtained from U.S. Naval Intelligence under the Freedom of Information Act, the entire Russian fleet of nine ballistic missile submarines only sailed on five deterrent patrols.

The patrol level is barely enough to maintain one missile submarine on patrol at any given time.

The ballistic missile submarine force is in the middle of an important modernization. Over the next decade or so, all remaining Soviet-era ballistic missile submarines and their two types of sea-launched ballistic missiles will be replaced with a new submarine armed with a new missile (see also our latest Nuclear Notebook on Russian nuclear forces).

The new fleet will carry more nuclear warheads than the one it replaces, however, because the Russian military is trying to maintain parity with the larger U.S. nuclear arsenal. Continue Reading →

PREPCOM Nuclear Weapons De-Alerting Briefing

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By Hans M. Kristensen

Greetings from Geneva! I’m at the Palais des Nations for the second Preparatory Committee (PREPCOM) meeting for the 2015 Review Conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). I was invited by the Swiss and New Zealand UN Missions to brief our report Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons.

With me on the panel was Richard Garwin, an FAS board member who for more than five decades has advised U.S. governments on nuclear weapons and other issues, and Gareth Evans, former Australian Foreign Minister and now Chancellor of the Australian National University.

The panel was co-chaired by Ambassador H.E. Dell Higgie, the head of the New Zealand UN Mission and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Conference on Disarmament, and Ambassador Benno Laggner, the head of the Swiss Foreign Ministry’s Division for Security Policy and Ambassador for Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. Switzerland and New Zealand have for several years spearheaded efforts in the United Nations to reduce the alert level of nuclear weapons.

I wrote the de-alerting report together with Matthew McKinzie who directs the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Click to download my briefing slides (7.6 MB) and prepared remarks.

New START Data: US Reductions Finally Picking Up; Russia Flatlining

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By Hans M. Kristensen

After two years of stalling, the latest New START Treaty aggregate data released today by the State Department indicates that U.S. warhead reductions under the treaty are finally picking up.

Russia, which is already below the treaty limit, has been more or less flatlining over the past year.

Seen in perspective, however, the warhead reductions achieved under New START so far are not impressive: since the treaty entered into effect in February 2011, the world’s two largest nuclear weapons states – with combined stockpiles of nearly 10,000 warheads – have only reduced their deployed arsenals by a total of 203 warheads!  Continue Reading →

Q&A Session on Recent Developments in U.S. and NATO Missile Defense with Dr. Yousaf Butt and Dr. George Lewis

Dr. Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, is professor and scientist-in-residence at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The views expressed are his own.

Dr. George N. Lewis is a senior research associate at the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Cornell University.

missiledefense4Researchers from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) asked two physicists who are experts in missile defense issues, Dr. Yousaf Butt and Dr. George Lewis, to weigh in on last week’s announcements on missile defense by the Obama administration.

Before exploring their reactions and insights, it is useful to identify salient elements of U.S. missile defense and place the issue in context. There are two main strategic missile defense systems fielded by the United States: one is based on large high-speed interceptors called Ground-Based Interceptors or “GBI’s” located in Alaska and California and the other is the mostly ship-based NATO/European system. The latter, European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) to missile defense is designed to deal with the threat posed by possible future Iranian intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles to U.S. assets, personnel, and allies in Europe – and eventually attempt to protect the U.S. homeland.

The EPAA uses ground-based and mobile ship-borne radars; the interceptors themselves are mounted on Ticonderoga class cruisers and Arleigh Burke class destroyers. Two land-based interceptor sites in Poland and Romania are also envisioned – the so-called “Aegis-ashore” sites. The United States and NATO have stated that the EPAA is not directed at Russia and poses no threat to its nuclear deterrent forces, but as outlined in a 2011 study by Dr. Theodore Postol and Dr. Yousaf Butt, this is not completely accurate because the system is ship-based, and thus mobile it could be reconfigured to have a theoretical capability to engage Russian warheads.

Indeed, General James Cartwright has explicitly mentioned this possible reconfiguration – or global surge capability – as an attribute of the planned system: “Part of what’s in the budget is to get us a sufficient number of ships to allow us to have a global deployment of this capability on a constant basis, with a surge capacity to any one theater at a time.”

In the 2011 study, the authors focused on what would be the main concern of cautious Russian military planners —the capability of the missile defense interceptors to simply reach, or “engage,” Russian strategic warheads—rather than whether any particular engagement results in an actual interception, or “kill.” Interceptors with a kinematic capability to simply reach Russian ICBM warheads would be sufficient to raise concerns in Russian national security circles – regardless of the possibility that Russian decoys and other countermeasures might defeat the system in actual engagements. In short, even a missile defense system that could be rendered ineffective could still elicit serious concern from cautious Russian planners. The last two phases of the EPAA – when the higher burnout velocity “Block II” SM-3 interceptors come on-line in 2018 – could raise legitimate concerns for Russian military analysts.

A Russian news report sums up the Russian concerns: “[Russian foreign minister] Lavrov said Russia’s agreement to discuss cooperation on missile defense in the NATO Russia Council does not mean that Moscow agrees to the NATO projects which are being developed without Russia’s participation. The minister said the fulfillment of the third and fourth phases of the U.S. ‘adaptive approach’ will enter a strategic level threatening the efficiency of Russia’s nuclear containment forces.” [emphasis added]

With this background in mind, FAS’ Senior Fellow on State and Non-State Threat, Charles P. Blair (CB), asked Dr. Yousaf Butt (YB) and Dr. George Lewis (GL) for their input on recent developments on missile defense with eight questions.


Q: (CB) Last Friday, Secretary of Defense Hagel announced that the U.S. will cancel the last Phase – Phase 4 – of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) to missile defense which was to happen around 2021. This was the phase with the faster SM-3 “Block IIB” interceptors. Will this cancellation hurt the United State’s ability to protect itself and Europe? Continue Reading →

Meteors Against Nukes

The meteor impacted near large Russian nuclear weapons facilities..

By Hans M. Kristensen

When the news media reported that a meteor had exploded over Chelyabinsk in Russia, the location name sounded familiar: the region is home to some of Russia’s most important nuclear weapons production and storage facilities.

Impact sites still have to be found but one reportedly was Chebarkul Lake, some 72 kilometers (45 miles) southwest of the city of Chelyabinsk. Another piece impacted near the town of Zlatoust some 80 kilometers (49 miles) to the northwest.

Approximately 88 kilometers (55 miles) northeast of Chebarkul Lake is Chelyabinsk-65 (Mayak), a plutonium production and fissile material storage complex. Another 40 miles to the north is Chelyabinsk-70 (Snezhinsk), a nuclear warhead design and storage complex.

Right in the meteor’s path, approximately 115 kilometers (72 miles) southwest of Chebarkul Lake, is Zlatoust-36, one of the two main warhead assembly and disassembly facilities in Russia. Adjacent to the facility is a national-level nuclear weapons storage site.

The odds of a meteor hitting one of these nuclear weapons production or storage site are probably infinitely small, but on a cosmic scale it got pretty close. Just how much damage a direct hit of a sizable chunk of the meteor could have caused is unknown, but the 17-meter (55 feet) meteor reportedly released energy equivalent to nearly 500 kilotons of TNT. That’s roughly the explosive yield of one of the W88 warheads carried on Trident II missiles onboard U.S. ballistic missile submarines.

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

New Report: Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons

click on image to download report

.By Hans M. Kristensen

The United States and Russia have some 1,800 nuclear warheads on alert on ballistic missiles that are ready to launch in a few minutes, according to a new study published by UNIDIR. The number of U.S. and Russian alert warheads is greater than the total nuclear weapons inventories of all other nuclear weapons states combined.

The report Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons is co-authored by Matthew McKinzie from the Natural Resources of Defense Council and yours truly.

France and Britain also keep some of their nuclear force on alert, although at lower readiness levels than the United States and Russia. No other nuclear weapon state has nuclear weapons on alert.

The report concludes that the warning made by opponents of de-alerting, that it could trigger a re-alerting race in a crisis that count undermine stability, is a “straw man” argument that overplays risks, downplays benefits, and ignores that current alert postures already include plans to increase readiness and alert rates in a crisis.

According to the report, “while there are risks with alerted and de-alerted postures, a re-alerting race that takes three months under a de-alerted posture is much preferable to a re-alerting race that takes only three hours under the current highly alerted posture. A de-alerted nuclear posture would allow the national leaders to think carefully about their decisions, rather than being forced by time constraints to choose from a list of pre-designated responses with catastrophic consequences.”

During his election campaign, Barack Obama promised to work with Russia to take nuclear weapons off “hair-trigger” alert, but the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) instead decided to keep the existing alert posture. The post-NPR review that has now been completed but has yet to be announced hopefully will include a reduction of the alert level, not least because the Intelligence Community has concluded that a Russian surprise first strike is unlikely to occur.

The UNIDIR report finds that the United States and Russia previously have reduce the alert levels of their nuclear forces and recommends that they continue this process by removing the remaining nuclear weapons from alert through a phased approach to ensure stability and develop consultation and verification measures.

Full report: Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons (FAS mirror)

This publication was made possible by a grant from the Swiss Government. General nuclear forces research is supported by the Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons Discussed in Warsaw

The conference was held in this elaborate room at the Intercontinental Warsaw hotel.

By Hans M. Kristensen

In early February, I participated in a conference in Warsaw on non-strategic nuclear weapons. The conference was organized by the Polish Institute of International Affairs, the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It was supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland, with the participation of the U.S. State Department.

The conference had very high-level government representation from the United States and NATO, and included non-governmental experts from the academic and think-tank communities in Russia and NATO countries. The Russian government unfortunately did not send participants.

The United States and NATO want to broaden the arms control agenda to non-strategic nuclear weapons, which have so far largely eluded limitations and verification. The objective of the conference was to try to identify options for how NATO and Russia might begin to discuss confidence-building measures and eventually limitations on non-strategic nuclear weapons.

The conference commissioned eight working papers to form the basis for the discussions. My paper, which focused on identifying common definitions for categories of non-strategic nuclear weapons, recommended starting with air-delivered weapons as the only compatible category for negotiations on U.S-Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons.

Background: Working papers and lists of participants are available on the PISM web site. For background on non-strategic nuclear weapons, see this FAS report.

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

Options for Reducing Nuclear Weapons Requirements

By Hans M. Kristensen

With the ink barely dry on the New START Treaty, Jeff Smith at the Center for Public Integrity reports that the Obama administration has determined that the United States can meet its national and international security requirements with 1,000-1,100 deployed strategic nuclear warheads – 450-550 warheads less than planned under the New START Treaty.

The administration is exploring how to get Russian agreement to the reductions without a new treaty, according to the New York Times. That would avoid a new agreement being held hostage to conservative Cold Warriors in Congress who fought ratification of the New START Treaty. Their efforts will be complicated by the fact that the U.S. military (and others) backs the reduced force level.

This is great news that reaffirms the administration’s commitment to continuing reducing excessive nuclear force levels. The fact that the new force level ended up closer to 1,000 than 1,200 warheads continues the 30 percent step-by-step reduction trend of the New START Treaty. The new initiative apparently also seeks reductions of non-deployed and non-strategic nuclear weapons, although it is unclear whether this is part of the first phase of the effort.

The lower force level has the potential to save billions of dollars, but how much depends on how the administration decides to implement it. Continue Reading →

New Report: Trimming Nuclear Excess

The US and Russian nuclear arms reduction process needs to be revitalized by new treaties and unilateral initiatives to reduce nuclear force levels, a new FAS report argues (click on image to download report).

By Hans M. Kristensen

Despite enormous reductions of their nuclear arsenals since the Cold War, the United States and Russia retain more than 9,100 warheads in their military stockpiles. Another 7,000 retired – but still intact – warheads are awaiting dismantlement, for a total inventory of more than 16,000 nuclear warheads.

This is more than 15 times the size of the total nuclear arsenals of all the seven other nuclear weapon states in the world – combined.

The U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals are far beyond what is needed for deterrence, with each side’s bloated force level justified only by the other’s excessive force level.

A new FAS report – Trimming Nuclear Excess: Options for Further Reductions of U.S. and Russian Nuclear Forces – describes the status and 10-year projection for U.S. and Russian nuclear forces.

The report concludes that the pace of reducing nuclear forces appears to be slowing compared with the past two decades. Both the United States and Russia appear to be more cautious about reducing further, placing more emphasis on “hedging” and reconstitution of reduced nuclear forces, and both are investing enormous sums of money in modernizing their nuclear forces over the next decade.

Even with the reductions expected over the next decade, the report concludes that the United States and Russia will continue to possess nuclear stockpiles that are many times greater than the rest of the world’s nuclear forces combined.

New initiatives are needed to regain the momentum of the nuclear arms reduction process. The New START Treaty from 2011 was an important but modest step but the two nuclear superpowers must begin negotiations on new treaties to significantly curtail their nuclear forces. Both have expressed an interest in reducing further, but little has happened.

New treaties may be preferable, but reaching agreement on the complex inter-connected issues ranging from nuclear weapons to missile defense and conventional forces may be unlikely to produce results in the short term (not least given the current political climate in the U.S. Congress). While the world waits, the excess nuclear forces levels and outdated planning principles continue to fuel justifications for retaining large force levels and new modernizations in both the United States and Russia.

To break the stalemate and reenergize the arms reductions process, in addition to pursuing treaty-based agreements, the report argues, unilateral steps can and should be taken in the short term to trim the most obvious fat from the nuclear arsenals. The report includes 32 specific recommendations for reducing unnecessary and counterproductive U.S. and Russian nuclear force levels unilaterally and bilaterally.

Full report: Trimming Nuclear Excess

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

Cuban Missile Crisis: Nuclear Order of Battle

At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis blockade, unknown to the United States, the Soviet Union already had short-range nuclear weapons on the island, such as this FKR-1 cruise missile, that would most likely have been used against a U.S. invasion.

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By Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris

Fifty years ago the world held its breath for a few weeks as the United States and the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of nuclear war in response to the Soviet deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba.

The United States imposed a military blockade around Cuba to keep more Soviet weapons out and prepared to invade the island if necessary. As nuclear-armed warships sparred to enforce and challenge the blockade, a few good men made momentous efforts and decisions that prevented use of nuclear weapons and eventually defused the crisis.

What the Kennedy administration did not know, however, was that the Soviet Union had 158 nuclear warheads of five types already in Cuba by the time of the blockade. This included nearly 100 warheads for short-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. If the invasion had been launched, as the military recommended but the White House fortunately decided against, it would most likely have triggered Soviet use of those short-range nuclear weapons against the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo and at amphibious forces storming the Cuban beaches. That, in turn, would have triggered wider use of nuclear forces.

In our latest Nuclear Notebook - The Cuban Missile Crisis: a nuclear order of battle, October and November 1962 – we outline the nuclear order of battle that the United States and the Soviet Union had at their disposal. At the peak of the crisis, the United States had some 3,500 nuclear weapons ready to use on command, while the Soviet Union had perhaps 300-500.

The Cuban Missile Crisis order of battle of useable weapons represented only a small portion of the total inventories of nuclear warheads the United States and Russia possessed at the time. Illustrating its enormous numerical nuclear superiority, the U.S. nuclear stockpile in 1962 included more than 25,500 warheads (mostly for battlefield weapons). The Soviet Union had about 3,350.

For all the lessons the Cuban Missile Crisis taught the world about nuclear dangers, it also left some enduring legacies and challenges that are still confronting the world today. Among other things, the crisis fueled a build-up of quick-reaction nuclear weapons that could more effectively hold a risk the other side’s nuclear forces in a wider range of different strike scenarios.

Today, 50 years later and more than 20 years after the Cold War ended, the United States and Russia still have more than 10,000 nuclear weapons combined. Of those, an estimated 1,800 nuclear warheads are on alert on top of long-range ballistic missiles, ready to be launched on short notice to inflict unimaginable devastation on each other. The best way to honor the Cuban Missile Crisis would be to finally end that legacy and take nuclear weapons off alert.

Nuclear Notebook: The Cuban Missile Crisis: A nuclear order of battle, October and November 1962