Faking Nuclear Restraint: The Bush Administration's Secret Plan For Strengthening U.S. Nuclear Forces

After a year in office the Bush administration has completed the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) mandated by Congress in the fall of 2000. The NPR establishes the broad outline of Pentagon planning for U.S. nuclear strategy, force levels and infrastructure for the next 10 years and beyond. It also endorses significant revisions to the nuclear war planning process to enhance its flexibility and responsiveness, which would allow the Pentagon to generate new nuclear attack plans and have them approved quickly in a crisis.

The administration has provided the public with a cursory view of the NPR, but the entire report remains secret. The NPR has received little attention from the news media and even less from analysts. This is unfortunate. The logic and assumptions underlying the administration's hostility to arms control, and its infatuation with nuclear weapons, deserve vigorous public scrutiny and debate. Not since the resurgence of the Cold War in Ronald Reagan's first term has there been such an emphasis on nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy. Behind the administration's rhetorical mask of post Cold War restraint lie expansive plans to revitalize U.S. nuclear forces, and all the elements that support them, within a so-called "New Triad" of capabilities that combine nuclear and conventional offensive strikes with missile defenses and nuclear weapons infrastructure.

NRDC has learned from a variety of sources more about the likely implications of this review for the evolution of the U.S. nuclear posture. Words and phrases in quotation marks are said to be from the NPR or the Department of Defense (DOD) special briefing on the NPR:

Nuclear Weapons Forever?

  • The Bush administration assumes that nuclear weapons will be part of U.S. military forces at least for the next 50 years. Starting from this premise it is planning an extensive and expensive series of programs to sustain and modernize the existing force and to begin studies for a new ICBM to be operational in 2020, a new SLBM and SSBN in 2030, and a new heavy bomber in 2040, as well as new warheads for all of them. Nuclear weapons will continue to play a "critical role" because they possess "unique properties" that provide "credible military options" for holding at risk "a wide range of target types" important to a potential adversary's threatened use of "weapons of mass destruction" or "large-scale conventional military force."

  • The NPR uses terminology from the September 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review, which states the purpose of possessing nuclear weapons is fourfold: to "assure allies and friends," "dissuade competitors," "deter aggressors" and "defeat enemies."

  • The Bush administration will not eliminate the relatively inflexible nuclear "counterforce" Major Attack Options that characterized the Cold War nuclear planning process, despite the administration's pronouncements about being in a post-Cold War world. Instead, the administration will scale the attack options to the size required to preempt opposing threats, and supplement them by an "adaptive planning" process that anticipates a range of nuclear contingencies and is flexible enough to respond quickly where and when a crisis occurs.

The Numbers Game

  • The United States is "adjusting its immediate nuclear force requirements" for "operationally deployed forces" downward, from 8,000 warheads today to 3,800 in 2007, in recognition of the changed relationship with Russia, but "Russia's nuclear forces and programs remain a concern." Barring unforeseen adverse developments, the NPR's eventual "goal" is to reach the level of 1,700 to 2,200 "operationally deployed weapons" in 2012.

  • Over the next 10 years, the Bush administration's plans call for the United States to retain a total stockpile of intact nuclear weapons and weapon components that is roughly seven to nine times larger than the publicly stated goal of 1,700 to 2,200 "operationally deployed weapons." This is an accounting system worthy of Enron. The operationally deployed weapons are only the visible portion of a huge, hidden arsenal. To the "accountable" tally of 2,200 one must add the following:

In other words, the Bush administration is actually planning to retain the potential to deploy not 1,700 to 2,200 nuclear weapons, but as many as 15,000.

Future Plans

  • The administration plans to deactivate the MX/Peacekeeper ICBMs in phases over a three-year period beginning October 1, 2002. It will withdraw them in conjunction with introducing Trident II missiles into the Pacific. In the order of their conversion to Trident IIs, the Pacific fleet SSBNs are the Alaska (SSBN-732), Nevada (SSBN-733), Henry M. Jackson (SSBN-730), and Alabama (SSBN-731). Current plans call for the MX silos to be retained, rather than destroyed as specified in the SALT and START treaties. MX missile stages and nuclear warheads will also be retained.

  • The administration plans to cut the number of Trident ballistic missile submarines from 18 to 14 by FY2007 (of which two in overhaul at any given time will not be considered part of the "operationally deployed force"). Four Trident SSBNs ( Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Georgia ) will be converted to each carry up to 154 conventional cruise missiles. The submarines also may be used to support Special Operations Forces. There is $1 billion in the FY 2003 budget to begin the conversion. The submarines would remain accountable under the START I Treaty, though they will not carry SLBMs or the 768 warheads attributed to them.

  • After these initial modest force reductions, the NPR provides that "no additional strategic delivery platforms are scheduled to be eliminated from strategic service."

  • Each of the 500 Minuteman III ICBMs to be retained and modernized under the administration's plan will be equipped with a single reentry vehicle/warhead combination, either the Mk12A/W78 or a Mk21/W87. The Safety-Enhanced Reentry Vehicle (SERV) program permits the MM III to carry the Mk21. NRDC estimates that the 150 Minuteman IIIs at Minot AFB and 150 at Malmstrom AFB would carry the W78, while 150 Minuteman IIIs at F.E. Warren AFB and 50 more at Malmstrom would carry the W-87.

  • The Pentagon is considering extending the life of the dual-capable F-16C/D and F-15E or to make some of the new Joint Strike Fighters nuclear capable.

  • In the event of an international crisis, "the U.S. may need to revise its nuclear force levels and posture" by returning weapons from what henceforth will be labeled a "responsive" reserve back to the "operationally deployed" force. This "uploading" could be accomplished in a period ranging from days or weeks to months or years, depending on the particular weapon system.

Satellites, Intelligence and C3

  • The administration believes that our military satellites are not "optimized" for the "current and developing mobile target challenge." Consequently, the DOD plans to develop extensive new real-time intelligence systems and long-range precision strike weapons to "dissuade a potential adversary from investing heavily in mobile ballistic missiles" or other "threatening capabilities." Planned improvements would provide the capability to rapidly locate and track mobile targets "from the time they deploy from garrison until they return."

  • The administration will continue to invest in better intelligence capabilities for "Information Operations targeting, weaponeering, and strike execution," including better data on "adversary computer local area networks" and "other command and control systems."

  • The current nuclear command and control system architecture will be expanded "to a true C2 conferencing system" through deployment later in the decade of new secure wideband and survivable Extremely High Frequency satellite communication systems.

Missile Defense

  • The administration believes that deploying missile defenses will increase the United States' ability to "counteract WMD-backed coercive threats" by defeating small-scale missile attacks intended to coerce the United States into abandoning an embattled "ally or friend."

  • The administration plans to integrate missile defense into the New Triad, which will enhance the United States' ability "to use its power projection forces" by "improving the ability to counterattack an enemy," and may also provide the president with "an option to manage a crisis" involving "one or more" opponents with weapons of mass destruction.

  • The administration believes that missile defenses can have a "dissuasive effect" on potential adversaries by making it "more arduous and costly for an adversary to compete militarily with or wage war against the United States."

  • The administration is considering an "emergency missile defense capability" for the 2003-2008 time period consisting of a single Airborne Laser for "limited operations" against "ballistic missiles of all ranges," a "rudimentary" Alaska-based midcourse interceptor system against "longer-range threats," and a sea-based Aegis system with "rudimentary midcourse capability" against "short-to-medium range threats."

  • Based on the technical progress achieved with these early systems, the United States could deploy "operational capabilities" in the 2006-2008 time frame, including two to three Airborne Laser aircraft, "additional" ground-based midcourse sites, four sea-based midcourse ships, and "terminal" defense systems, such as the PAC-3 (an upgraded version of the Patriot "Scudbuster" missile that missed most of its targets in the 1991 Persian Gulf War) and the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, slated for deployment by 2008.

The Nuclear Complex and Infrastructure

  • The administration plans to revitalize U.S. nuclear infrastructure with the capacity to: upgrade existing systems, "surge" production of weapons, and develop and field "entirely new systems." All of this is designed to "discourage" other countries from "competing militarily with the United States."

  • The administration believes that the current arsenal -- a subset of what was in place at the end of the Cold War -- is not what is needed for the future. That arsenal was developed and deployed mainly to deter the former Soviet Union and to carry out the "Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP)." In the administration's view, significantly modified and quite possibly new nuclear warheads will be required to accomplish new military missions, and thus the NPR calls for a revitalized nuclear weapon complex that could, if directed, design, develop, manufacture and certify new warheads. The administration believes that the development of this arsenal must begin now because it will take much longer than a decade to complete. This arsenal would have the capability to target and destroy mobile and re-locatable targets and hard and deeply buried targets.

  • Plans are underway to expand the capacity and capability of the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) Pantex nuclear weapons assembly-disassembly plant near Amarillo, Texas, to meet a planned workload of some 600 warheads (assembled or dismantled) per year, up from the current capacity of 350 warheads per year.

  • For the "long term," the NPR projects the need for "a new modern production facility" to deal with the "large-scale replacement" of plutonium components and "new production." The NNSA is "accelerating preliminary design work" on a "modern pit manufacturing facility" so that new production capacity can be "brought on line when it is needed."

  • The NNSA is embarked on a seven- to eight-year project to expand the capacity and capability of the Y-12 Plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to meet the planned workload for replacing nuclear warhead secondary stages and other uranium components.

  • The NNSA is reestablishing advanced warhead concept design teams at each of the three design laboratories -- Los Alamos, Sandia, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories -- "to energize design work on advanced concepts." This initiative will focus on "evolving DOD requirements," including nuclear weapons to defeat "Hardened and Deeply Buried Targets" and "Agent Defeat Weapons" for attacking chemical and biological warfare sites, and to reduce collateral damage via improved accuracy and variable and reduced yields.

  • The NNSA is launching a program to enhance nuclear explosive test readiness at the Nevada Test Site by "replacing key underground-test-unique components," modernizing test diagnostic capabilities, augmenting key personnel, increasing their proficiency in underground test operations, conducting "test-related exercises of appropriate fidelity," and shortening the time required to show "regulatory and safety compliance."

Spinning the Nuclear Posture Review While Violating U.S. Treaty Commitments

Administration officials have sought to cast the NPR as a watershed step in breaking with the Cold War past. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated in the publicly released foreword:

First and foremost, the Nuclear Posture Review puts the Cold War practices related to planning for strategic forces behind us.… As a result of this review, the U.S. will no longer plan, size or sustain its forces as Russia presented merely a smaller version of the threat posed by the former Soviet Union.

In fact, a fully informed analysis of the NPR suggests that far more has been retained than discarded from the Cold War's doctrine and practice regarding nuclear weapons, and the break is not nearly as clean as suggested.

Moreover, a strong case can be made that the nuclear weapons policies and programs laid out in the NPR effectively preclude further U.S. "good faith" participation in international negotiations on nuclear disarmament. Good faith participation in such negotiations, leading to the achievement of "effective measures" (such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) "relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament," is a legal and political obligation of all parties under Article VI of the nearly universal nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that entered into force in 1970. The Bush administration posture of avoiding further binding legal constraints on the U.S. nuclear arsenal, while pursuing the reinvigoration of the U.S. nuclear weapons production complex and the development of new nuclear weapons, will be viewed by many nations as a blatant breach of the "good faith" negotiating standard under the treaty, and tantamount to a U.S. "breakout" from the NPT.

U.S. Nuclear Forces (2002-2012)

Today there are an estimated 10,650 intact nuclear warheads in the U.S. stockpile (See Table 1). In addition, there are in storage at Pantex and Oak Ridge, respectively, approximately 5,000 plutonium pits and approximately the same number of canned subassemblies, i.e., thermonuclear secondaries, which are retained as a "strategic reserve." There are another 7,000 pits at Pantex that have been declared excess from warheads dismantled during the first Bush and Clinton administrations. The 10,650 intact warheads and the 5,000 "strategic reserve" pits so far have not been included in the Bush administration plans for nuclear reductions. What will change is how they are counted.

The Departments of Defense and Energy characterize the intact nuclear warheads in the stockpile as either active or inactive.

  • Active warheads are maintained in a ready-for-use status with tritium and other limited life components installed.

  • Inactive warheads do not have limited life components installed, and may not have the latest warhead modifications.

Currently there are approximately 8,000 active warheads and approximately 2,700 inactive warheads in the U.S. stockpile, according to NRDC estimates.

The Pentagon also characterizes its nuclear forces as either strategic or non-strategic. The strategic forces comprise intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers -- the B-52s and B-2s. NRDC estimates that there are approximately 6,800 active strategic nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal today and that there are about 1,160 active non-strategic warheads (See Table 1).

With the issuance of the NPR some new terms have been introduced into this special lexicon that legislators and reporters should be sensitive to as they analyze this administration's policies and plans. The active warhead inventory is now broken down into deployed warheads, responsive force warheads, and spares. Deployed warheads consist of " operationally deployed warheads" and those associated with weapon systems in overhaul. "Responsive force warheads" consist of active warheads not on deployed systems. These are kept in secure storage, but are available to be returned to the operationally deployed force to meet some contingency. Depending on the particular weapon system this may take days, weeks, months, or as long as a year or more.

For example, if Russia were to deploy forces that the United States determined to be hostile and aggressive, the option is there to reintroduce ICBM or SLBM warheads and/or bomber weapons back into service. Finally, there are a number of spare warheads that are part of the "active," but not "operational" inventory. While each weapon system and warhead type is different, we estimate that the number of spares is about 5 percent to 10 percent of the number of "operational" warheads.

Unlike the counting rules agreed to in past SALT and START treaties, warheads removed from weapon systems in overhaul are not included in the projected level of ~3,800 in 2007 and the goal of 1,700 to 2,000 warheads by 2012. Only operationally deployed warheads are counted.

The Bush administration's proposed stockpile "reductions" are to be implemented in two phases, the first by FY 2007 with "operationally deployed" warheads reduced to ~3,800, and a second step by 2012 to 1,700 to 2,200 warheads. The main actions are retirement of the MX/Peacekeeper, removal of four Trident submarines from strategic service, and the downloading of warheads on deployed ICBMs and SLBMs. Table 2 is our estimate of what an operationally deployed force of 3,800 warheads might look like with 1,400 warheads transferred to the responsive force and 1,000 to the inactive category.

As can be seen by comparing Tables 1 and 2, the total number of warheads remains essentially the same. While there are no treaty requirements or bilateral agreements calling for the elimination of warheads, the U.S. Senate attached the following "condition" in July 1992 to its Resolution of Ratification for the START I Treaty:

Inasmuch as the prospect of a loss of control of nuclear weapons or fissile material in the former Soviet Union could pose a serious threat to the United States and to international peace and security, in connection with any further agreement reducing strategic offensive arms, the President shall seek an appropriate arrangement, including the use of reciprocal inspections, data exchanges, and other cooperative measures, to monitor --

    (A) the numbers of nuclear stockpile weapons on the territory of the parties to this Treaty; and

    (B) the location and [fissile material] inventory of facilities on the territory of the parties to this treaty capable of producing or processing significant quantities of fissile materials.

The Bush administration's plans as laid out in the NPR for further reductions in strategic arms, which the administration has said will be codified in some kind of formal "agreement" with Russia, make no provision for the measures mandated by the Senate in 1992, and would appear to contravene the so-called "Biden Condition," named after its primary sponsor, Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden.

Table 3 is our estimate of what an operationally deployed force of 2,200 warheads might look like in 2012. This was accomplished by further downloading SLBMs and shifting warheads to the responsive force and inactive warhead category. We conclude that under current plans there will be few, if any, real reductions in the size of the total stockpile of active and inactive warheads in the U.S. arsenal between 2002 and 2012 (compare Table 1 and 3). In a decade with only one warhead type scheduled for retirement (approximately 600 W62s), and with a modest new production capability planned, the number will not decrease significantly.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Additional Downloadable Materials for the Press

Table 1. Nuclear Forces (January 2002) in PDF format, 6k.

Table 2. Nuclear Forces (end-FY 2006; conceptual) in PDF format, 6k.

Table 3. Nuclear Forces (2012; Conceptual) in PDF format, 6k.