Disarm and Modernize

In terms of warhead numbers, the nuclear arms race may
 be over. But massive weapons upgrades now underway challenge the entire disarmament regime.

By John Mecklin
Illustrations by Carl de Torres

In the early decades of the Cold War, NATO made arrangements to bury what were known as atomic demolition munitions (in essence, nuclear mines) at key points in West Germany, to be detonated if Warsaw Pact forces ever invaded. Although this plan, if enacted, might have slowed the enemy advance, it also almost certainly would have turned vast West German territories into radioactive wastelands littered with corpses and smoldering buildings—the stuff of hellish alternative-
history scenarios. The West viewed such tactical nukes—NATO fielded 7,000 to 8,000 of these shorter-
range, smaller-yield weapons for most of the Cold War—as tripwires in anticipation of the Soviet Union’s own Strangelovian plans for its thousands of tactical weapons. That is to say, the forward positioning of these nukes was a signal: If the Soviet Union invaded Europe, confrontation would escalate quickly to the nuclear realm, and the United States would intervene.

With the end of the Cold War and the reduced risk of a Russian invasion, NATO eliminated almost all its tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Today, five NATO countries—Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Turkey—are widely believed to host roughly 200 U.S.-owned nuclear bombs at their air bases. These weapons, variants of the B61 warhead, a stalwart of the American thermonuclear arsenal since the late 1960s, are viewed by some security experts as provocative anachronisms. The critics argue that strategic missiles and bombers posted in the United States and the United Kingdom, along with missiles on nuclear submarines, provide more than enough deterrence against any Russian aggression.

But in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of Ukraine, the controversy about B61s is being heightened and compounded. In addition to retaining tactical nukes in Europe, the United States plans to modernize the weapons, as well as its arsenal back home, in a remarkably expensive way. This decision has inflamed debate about the depth of the U.S. commitment to the Nuclear Non-
Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which allows the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France to have nuclear weapons if they promise to eventually disarm.

Today, weapons innovation threatens to become the new mode for arms competition. Washington’s upgrading of the B61-4 bomb, for example, would equip the device with a tail assembly, making it into a precision-guided standoff weapon. An irony is attached to this redesigned device, called the B61-12: It would be able to attack the same targets as previous gravity bombs in the U.S. arsenal, but would do so more accurately and efficiently, using smaller yields that would create less collateral damage and less radioactive fallout. This means the bombs might be seen as more conceivably usable in a limited or tactical conflict. And this is precisely why the U.S. Congress rejected the Air Force’s requests for low-yield, precision-guided nuclear weapons in the 1990s: Their very accuracy increases the temptation to use them.

These transformations and upgrades, designed to make weapons harder to shoot down and more precise and reliable, ensure that the world will be no less dangerous—and perhaps even more perilous—than it is now.

Nonetheless, under current plans, approximately 480 B61-12s are set to be produced by the mid-2020s, and they would serve all U.S. gravity-bomb missions contemplated for five different aircraft. In addition to deployment in Europe, the U.S. Air Force also intends to use the B61-12 to arm heavy B-2 and B-52 bombers based in America. Even by the standards of defense budgets, the B61 modernization program is exorbitant: Estimates place its ultimate cost north of $10 billion, or
 more than if the bombs were constructed of solid gold.

But the high cost and questionable utility of the B61 program are not anomalies—nor is the fact that the plan has received little publicity. Countries with nuclear weapons have recently embarked on highly ambitious and costly programs, largely unexamined outside national security circles, to renew the strategic and tactical weapons in their arsenals. These projects include both technological upgrades and entirely new systems; as documented by Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris, nuclear-arsenal experts at the Federation of American Scientists, the modernizations run the gamut, from ballistic missiles to bombers, warheads to naval vessels, cruise missiles to even weapons factories. Russia is in the process of phasing out and replacing all its Soviet-era nuclear weapons systems. The proposed U.S. maintenance and modernization program has been projected to cost some $355 billion over the next decade and $1 trillion or more over 30 years. And every nuclear country is following suit.

While these efforts will not necessarily increase the number of deployed warheads in the world, the programs and the enhanced weapons they are projected to produce will last for decades. The race for ever-more nukes has become, instead, a race for ever-better, -sleeker, and -stealthier ones. And these transformations and upgrades, designed to make weapons harder to shoot down and more precise and reliable, ensure that the world will be no less dangerous—and perhaps even more perilous—than it is now.

In terms of sheer numbers, the nuclear arms race of the Cold War may be over. But the worldwide modernization craze scrambles the calculus of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation efforts, challenging the aging underpinnings of the NPT itself. Approximately 16,000 nuclear weapons are still on the planet, and the massive, long-term plans that nuclear nations have in place strongly suggest that they have no intention of giving up their nukes anytime soon. All this makes it reasonable to ask: Is the international arms-control regime an outdated charade? That question will be on the minds of arms experts as the 190 signatories to the NPT convene in New York this spring for a review conference they hold every five years. The mood there, it’s fair to assume, is unlikely to be upbeat.

Opened for signature in 1968, the NPT not only allows five states to keep nuclear weapons, but it expressly prohibits the remaining 185 signatories from possessing them. So far, this arrangement has worked reasonably well. At the height of the Cold War in the mid-1980s, for example, six countries (the five nuclear weapons states, as well as Israel) had more than 70,000 nuclear weapons; today, nine countries (India, Pakistan, and North Korea have since joined the nuclear club) possess about 10,000 warheads, with another 6,000 or so “retired” but intact weapons in storage, awaiting dismantlement. The United States and Russia have more than 90 percent of those weapons.

The standard narrative of disarmament asserts that, despite the fits and starts inevitable in international politics, continued arms-control efforts will lead to ever-shrinking arsenals, thereby saving governments enormous amounts of money and improving global security. Among these efforts to date, in addition to the NPT, is the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which would prohibit all nuclear testing, above and below ground. The treaty has yet to come into force for various reasons. Some states question whether it would be verifiable (even though a body of research strongly suggests it would be), while some officials in nuclear states insist that the option to test should be kept open, to ensure that stockpiles do not become unreliable. Twenty out of 183 CTBT signatory states have not ratified the treaty, including the United States (largely as a result of opposition from Republicans in Congress).

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the United States and Russia, which took effect in early 2011, does not require the destruction of a single warhead, but both countries agreed to limit the number they deploy on land- and sea-based ballistic missiles to 1,550 each by 2018. In a 2013 speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, U.S. President Barack Obama proposed that each country cut its deployed warheads by about one-third, to roughly 1,000. Obama also vowed to seek “bold reductions” of nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe and to push for Senate ratification of the CTBT.

The modernization programs in the United States, Russia, and elsewhere threaten to open the door to a new arms competition—and an ever-increasing number of nuclear weapons states.

But disarmament efforts have languished during much of Obama’s second term. Almost immediately after the president’s Berlin speech, for instance, U.S. congressional opponents and Russian leaders raised objections. Republicans asked whether such cuts would threaten national security, and Moscow decried U.S. missile-defense efforts, saying they threatened Russia’s strategic missile force and made new arms cuts impossible. With Republicans taking control of both houses of Congress this year, ratification of the CTBT now seems extremely unlikely.

Numbers show the slowdown in arms-control progress: The U.S. nuclear stockpile was reduced by only about 300 warheads from 2009 to 2013, and Russia retired about 1,000 weapons, Kristensen and Norris have written. These reductions were at a much slower pace than those in the previous five-year period, when Washington nixed more than 3,000 weapons and Moscow roughly 2,500 in a spring-cleaning of outdated and unreliable arsenals. Now, the Ukraine crisis seems likely to further slow the arms-control process. And, in general, the relatively sluggish reduction rate suggests that U.S. and Russian arsenals are not so much headed toward zero as plateauing for the foreseeable future.

In the face of this deceleration, the world’s patience is wearing thin. Many of the 185 countries that agreed not to build nukes have become increasingly unhappy. Three conferences held in the past few years on the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons were seen widely as attempts to force the nuclear powers to move faster on disarmament. The nuclear club largely ignored the first two conferences, sponsored by the governments of Norway and Mexico. But the events had grown to include most of the world’s non-nuclear-weapons countries by the time of the third gathering, held in Vienna in December 2014 and sponsored by the Austrian government; more than 150 countries signed up to attend. In the end, the United States sent a representative, though with the disclaimer that “this conference is not the appropriate venue for disarmament negotiations or pre-negotiation discussions.”

Current StockpilesThe United States and Russia have more than 90 percent of the 16,000-plus nuclear weapons on the planet today. North Korea also holds nuclear weapons, though the extent of its program remains unknown. (Source: Federation of American Scientists.)

In Vienna, Ambassador Adam Scheinman, the U.S. president’s special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, recounted a rosy history of America’s support for a world without the bomb. “It is precisely our understanding of the consequences of nuclear weapons use that drives our efforts to reduce—and eventually eliminate—nuclear weapons,” he said, “and to extend forever the nearly 70-year record of non-use of nuclear weapons.” Scheinman acknowledged that Washington’s approach to disarmament remains an incremental one. But that step-by-step orientation, he said, has led to an 85 percent reduction in Washington’s stockpile since the late 1960s, when it peaked at more than 30,000 weapons.

The next day, Richard Lennane, the officially titled “chief inflammatory officer” of the anti-nuclear NGO Wildfire, offered the conference a more acerbic assessment. He likened the nuclear states to alcoholics, addicted to bombs instead of liquor, and urged the international community to stop enabling them. “How long will you listen to the nuclear-armed states expressing their ‘unequivocal commitment’ to nuclear disarmament and then saying that they need their nuclear weapons for ‘stability’? How long will you wait for the mythical ‘right conditions’ for nuclear disarmament?” he asked. “You can remove the ambiguity that supports their habit.… You can negotiate and adopt and bring into force a treaty banning nuclear weapons.”

The disarmament debate is likely to make this spring’s NPT conference a contentious one and just might be loud enough to make the public aware that a new type of nuclear arms race is unfolding around the world.

Under the Obama administration, the U.S. national security establishment has proposed upgrades to all three legs of the nuclear triad of land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and long-range bombers, something not done since the mainstay planes and missiles of the current nuclear force were built in the Cold War’s early years. The Navy, for example, wants a new class of 12 ballistic missile submarines. The Air Force is reviewing options for a new land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (a mobile missile less vulnerable to detection is one possibility), and it is developing a stealthy long-range bomber to be rolled out in the mid-2020s. The plan is to buy 80 to 100 of these bombers, some of which will be nuclear-capable, at a cost of more than $55 billion. Washington also intends to deploy a new, stealthy, nuclear-
capable fighter-bomber—the F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter—to its allies in Europe, including Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.

The F-35A is expected to carry the upgraded B61-12 bomb, which, as part of the future U.S. arsenal, would potentially join a program aimed at creating a smaller array of interoperable warheads for submarine and land-based missiles. The planned upgrades to warheads could require that they be tested to ensure they would work, threatening the moratorium on testing that has held since the 1990s. Any tests would undermine hope that the CTBT would come into force. This, in turn, would likely create major repercussions for the international arms-control regime.

To produce the new warheads, the Obama administration has proposed an array of expensive enhancements to what is often called the nuclear weapons complex: eight facilities—three national laboratories, four production plants, and the Nevada National Security Site, where nuclear tests were conducted until the 1990s—that are government owned but run by contractors and overseen by the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a part of the U.S. Energy Department. Budget constraints, however, make it unclear whether many of these upgrades will ever be undertaken.

The complex has long had severe management and cost-control problems, as evidenced by multibillion-dollar cost overruns that led the Energy Department last year to suspend work and explore “alternative approaches” to a facility at the Savannah River Site, a weapons plant that would have turned plutonium from retired nukes into fuel for civilian power plants. The management snafus were even more glaringly illuminated in 2012, when three activists—one an 82-year-old nun—penetrated multiple levels of security to protest in front of the United States’ largest storage facility for bomb-grade uranium. This embarrassing security breach and many other management failures led Congress to create an advisory panel that in November 2014 recommended a major overhaul, including elimination of the NNSA and placement of the nuclear weapons complex under the direct control of an Energy Department rebranded as the Department of Energy and Nuclear Security.

It is unclear whether Congress will pay heed to the recommendations of this panel—one in a long line of commissions to study hapless administration of the nuclear weapons complex—or provide the many billions of dollars that would be needed over time to complete all the proposed upgrades to an infrastructure so old that the ceilings of some facilities are actually falling in.

Although Russia is less transparent about weapons than the United States is, reports by Kristensen and Norris suggest that Moscow intends to phase out and replace all its Soviet-era nuclear systems in the next decade. They note Russia is developing three new land-based missiles, including an SS-27 intercontinental ballistic missile modified so it can carry multiple warheads that can be aimed at different targets, thereby expanding the lethality of each missile. Its ballistic submarines are also set to be modernized, with eight new subs that reportedly will be able to launch 16 missiles, each capable of carrying up to six independently targetable warheads—again increasing the number of targets that can be attacked.

And it doesn’t stop there. The Russian bomber force is also being upgraded, with plans for a relatively slow but super-stealthy flying wing, known as the PAK-DA, apparently going forward. A new nuclear-
capable cruise missile, long in development, appears to be nearing operational status; the new Iskander-M SS-26 short-range tactical nuclear missile—a mobile system with two missiles per carrier—is being rolled out, and the Su-34 Fullback fighter-bomber is replacing 1970s-era planes as a platform for tactical nuclear strikes. Meanwhile, a nuclear-powered guided-missile attack submarine is about to enter service, along with a long-range cruise missile that may have a nuclear capability. Production of nuclear warheads for these systems continues.

As is the case in the United States, some of Moscow’s efforts could significantly alter warhead designs, which would raise questions about whether Russia might seek to test the upgrades, in breach of the moratorium on testing. This freeze is central to the international arms-control regime.
Currently four countries that are not parties to the NPT—India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan—have nuclear weapons. A resumption of testing could result in more countries trying out and then deploying nuclear weapons. In short, the modernization programs in the United States, Russia, and elsewhere threaten to open the door to a new arms competition—and an ever-
increasing number of nuclear weapons states.

In a multipolar world, tomorrow’s nuclear arsenals could be managed in unpredictable ways by countries whose governments range from fragile to stable and whose approaches to international affairs range from passive to assertive to even aggressive. The United States’ and Russia’s race to modernize their nuclear arsenals is paralleled in China, Europe, and South Asia, with countries all seeking to keep up with former Cold War rivals or compete with the military efforts of neighbors.

China, for one, has long professed a goal of minimum nuclear deterrence—that is, an arsenal that is just large enough to inflict unacceptable damage on any country that attacked China first—and is estimated to have about 250 warheads for delivery by land-based missiles, bombers, and an emerging submarine fleet. But China is also engaged in continuing, low-level disputes with its neighbors—the Philippines, Vietnam, and other countries—over control of the Spratly and Paracel island groups in the South China Sea, where Beijing reportedly has been building man-made islands from reefs and shoals to host military facilities. In the latter stages of an aggressive, two-decade program of upgrading its land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear delivery systems, China is the only member of the five NPT-declared nuclear weapons states increasing its arsenal, albeit slowly.

Global Nuclear Weapons Stockpiles, 1945–2014The number of warheads worldwide has steadily decreased since the mid-1980s. Here, the U.S. and Russian figures reflect warheads in military stockpiles, excluding retired, but still intact, weapons. (Source: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.)

On land, Beijing is significantly upgrading its older liquid-fuel missiles and replacing them with longer-range, road-mobile solid-fuel missiles based at new or upgraded garrisons. This will give a greater portion of China’s future land-based missiles longer ranges and more survivability. At sea, the country is in the process of deploying a new design for a ballistic missile submarine. Three of these so-called Jin-class subs have recently been put into service, each apparently capable of carrying 12 single-warhead missiles. This gives the sub fleet the potential to carry 36 missiles, up from the previous total of 12, which were carried on one submarine that entered service in 1986 and is no longer considered operational. The missiles for these new subs, however, are still in development, and it remains unclear how the submarines may eventually be deployed. U.S. intelligence and military sources have suggested that China is adding a nuclear capability to some of its ground- and air-launched cruise missiles, which could greatly increase the number of nuclear-weapons delivery systems in the country. There has been no official confirmation of such a move or how many cruise missiles it might involve. But any production of nuclear-armed cruise missiles would mark a significant change in China’s deterrence posture and concern neighboring countries, from Japan to South Korea and beyond, that worry about Beijing’s increasingly confrontational ways.

In South Asia, meanwhile, what may be the world’s most threatening nuclear face-off—exacerbated by long-simmering distrust and military competition between Pakistan and India, a continuing border dispute over the Kashmir region, and allegations of Pakistani support for terrorist attacks in India—seems to be spawning a modernization race. Both India and Pakistan are upgrading their weapons complexes to produce increased amounts of bomb-grade uranium and plutonium, which would provide the countries with the ability to build more warheads.

Pakistan’s expansion is notably rapid. Today, the country has an estimated 120 weapons, an increase from around 90 in 2007. At its current pace, Pakistan could have 200 nukes in its arsenal within a decade. Beefing up its tactical weapons, the country is developing a new medium-
range ballistic missile, new air- and ground-launched cruise missiles, and a short-range nuclear missile, the Nasr (officially known as Hatf IX, meaning “vengeance”—a theatrical choice that reflects the nuclear politics of the region). The Pakistani military claims that the Nasr, a mobile system with a range of 60 kilometers (37 miles), is highly accurate and able to carry nuclear warheads. It is designed for “shoot-and-scoot” warfare—that is, firing at a target and then immediately moving to avoid enemy counterfire—and apparently is meant for use in the event of an invasion by India’s conventional forces, widely seen as superior to Pakistan’s.

Prague was never a promise of instant disarmament.

An analysis of the potential use of tactical nukes in South Asia—relying on the outlines of the 1965 India-Pakistan war as a guide to invasion routes—suggests that Pakistan’s detonation of just one
 30-kiloton battlefield weapon would not only affect invading Indian forces, but also cause the loss of at least tens of thousands and probably hundreds of thousands of Pakistani civilian lives, according to Jaganath Sankaran, an associate at the Managing the Atom project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. In turn, India is developing longer-range ballistic missiles, including the Agni-V—agni is the Sanskrit word for “fire”—with a range of 5,000 kilometers (3,107 miles), making it capable of reaching any target in China, its primary regional rival. In addition, India has launched its first ballistic missile submarine, the Arihant, meaning “slayer of enemies” in Sanskrit, which is expected to be followed by several others that will eventually have the capability to launch ballistic missiles. This is significant: Pakistan has long warned that it would consider an Indian submarine armed with nuclear missiles to be destabilizing.

The modernization fervor has also gripped Europe to a degree that could seem unusual for those who view nuclear competition primarily in the historical U.S.-Russia frame. But the nuclear weapons and platforms of European countries are also aging, and these countries continue to have joint defense obligations with one another and the United States. France has undertaken a comprehensive upgrade of its arsenal, deploying an improved submarine-launched missile, the M-51—a multiple-warhead missile with increased accuracy, intercontinental range, and payloads—that will also be outfitted with a new nuclear warhead later this year. An air-launched cruise missile, the Air-Sol Moyenne Portée Amélioré, which has a range of 500 kilometers (311 miles) and an improved warhead, has been integrated into two fighter-bomber squadrons, one at Istres on the Mediterranean coast and the other at Saint-Dizier, in northeastern France.

In 2010, Britain announced its plans to reduce its stockpile to 180 warheads by the mid-2020s, but it is currently bringing out a new class of ballistic missile submarines to replace older submarines scheduled for retirement, starting in 2024. It seems likely that the B61-12 bomb and the deployment of the U.S. stealthy F-35A fighter-bomber in Europe will enhance NATO’s overall nuclear capability across the region while simultaneously raising concerns about a lowering threshold for nuclear weapons use during a time of East-West tension.

Israel, meanwhile, maintains a stance of nuclear ambiguity—neither confirming nor denying that it has weapons—though it has been widely accepted for decades that the country has an arsenal. In the absence of official information, the news media, think tanks, authors, and analysts have given widely varying appraisals of the size of the Israeli nuclear stockpile, from 75 up to more than 400 warheads. (Kristensen and Norris estimate that Israel has about 80 warheads.) The country is also likely modernizing its land-based ballistic missile and a cruise missile for its submarines.

Although North Korea’s nuclear program and bellicose rhetoric have drawn regular media coverage, it is unclear to what extent the country has militarized its nuclear capability. What is clear is that the rhetoric has not diminished. And satellite monitoring and expert consensus suggest that, though the country is not there yet, North Korea is certainly trying to achieve the ability to field deliverable nuclear weapons. It is an understatement to say success could significantly increase tension in the region around the Hermit Kingdom.

It is a well-worn trope in news articles about disarmament to quote from Obama’s stirring April 2009 speech in Prague. “Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be stopped,” he intoned to a rapt crowd. “Such fatalism is a deadly adversary.” The speech provides a dramatic contrast to the general disappointment in his administration’s disarmament efforts in the time since it was delivered. But often, a key portion of the speech is conveniently overlooked: Immediately after asserting America’s commitment to a nuclear-weapons-free world, Obama warned that such a goal would be difficult and might not be reached in his lifetime. Prague was never a promise of instant disarmament.

Today, however, even the Obama administration’s complicated, gradual efforts toward controlling nuclear weapons are being undercut, perhaps even being rendered moot. The nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament regime is centered on the NPT, which entered into force in March 1970, the month when the Beatles released the song “Let It Be” and the Concorde airliner made its first supersonic flight. The decades have certainly added up since then; the Beatles and the Concorde are no more. But the NPT still staggers on, now up against a modernization tide that sees the major nuclear countries continuing to spend enormous fortunes improving their arsenals. Unless the United States, Russia, and other powers find a way to agree on reining in their modernization programs, the world’s non-nuclear countries will have increasingly legitimate reasons to ask how they benefit from being part of the NPT—and why they shouldn’t go their own way.

John Mecklin (@meckdevil) is the editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.


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