Hans M. Kristensen
President George W. Bush’s announcement on November 13 that the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal will be reduced to 1,700-2,200 deployed warheads over the next 10 years raises important questions about the need for transparency of nuclear arsenals in the 21st century. No sooner had Bush said that the cuts involved “reducing and destroying the number of warheads to get down to specific levels” than national security adviser Condoleezza Rice corrected the record: “I believe that what the president was referring to is [that] we will not have these warheads near the places at which they could be deployed. In other words, they will truly not be deployable warheads. In that sense, their capability will not be accessible to the United States.”1
This glitch in the Bush administration’s first attempt to outline its new nuclear policy is no insignificant matter. It comes only a few weeks before Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is expected to announce the results of a review of nuclear forces and policy, and it indicates that the Bush administration will continue what is known as the “hedge,” a reserve of thousands of nuclear warheads permitted by arms control treaties that mandated the destruction of launchers but not warheads. The hedge is not included in the future “operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads” referred to by Bush, but it nonetheless makes up an increasing portion of the total stockpile.
This article presents new information about the hedge that has recently been declassified and released under the Freedom of Information Act. Newly available documents demonstrate that the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), which is responsible for U.S. nuclear forces, repeatedly warned during the 1990s that increased transparency of the nuclear arms reduction process was more important after START II than new cuts, suggesting that Bush’s inclusion of only operationally deployed strategic warheads in the new round of cuts is unwise because it will contribute to the hedge and therefore the opacity of U.S. forces.
Although the details of Bush’s cuts will not become known until Rumsfeld completes the Nuclear Posture Review in December, the size of the remaining force also suggests that the reductions largely follow already established force structure analysis conducted by STRATCOM back in the early to mid-1990s. This means that President Bush’s “new strategic framework” is based on the old strategic assumptions about the triad, credible deterrence, and counterforce targeting that guided Cold War nuclear policy.
Origins of the Hedge
The hedge of thousands of active and inactive nuclear weapons that the United States maintains outside arms control agreements and public scrutiny was conceived in the late 1980s and formally approved by the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review. All of the warheads in the hedge, which are maintained at various levels of readiness, are retired warheads from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty and the 1991 START I accord, which required destruction of delivery vehicles (bombers and missiles) but not warheads.
The hedge—composed of an “active reserve” and an “inactive reserve”—has grown substantially as START I has been implemented, and it continues to grow as the United States makes other changes to its nuclear force posture. For example, the United States currently deploys 18 Trident nuclear submarines, each of which carries 24 Trident I or Trident II missiles with eight warheads per missile, for a total of 3,456 warheads. The Navy has finally begun to implement the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review by reducing the number of submarines to 14, and it plans to decrease the number of warheads per missile to five to stay below the START II limit of 1,700 SLBM warheads. Most of the surplus warheads will not be destroyed but rather will be moved to the hedge.
The warheads in the hedge are designed to serve several purposes. Some are designated as replacements for warheads destroyed each year in routine reliability and safety tests. More are intended to safeguard against catastrophic failure of operationally deployed weapons. For example, one force structure study published by Strategic Air Command in September 1991 described three ways that a leg of the U.S. nuclear triad could fail: a communications failure could force U.S. ICBMs to “ride out” a full attack; a breakthrough could make the ocean transparent to satellites, thus rendering submarines and their missiles vulnerable; or a design flaw in the Minuteman III or Trident II missiles or their associated warheads could render the systems inoperable.2 In any of these cases, reserve warheads from the hedge would be used to replace defective warheads or to compensate for the loss of a delivery system by increasing loadings on other launch platforms.
Most warheads in the hedge, however, are intended to provide the capability to increase the size of the operational arsenal quickly by “reconstituting” or “uploading” retired warheads onto nuclear missiles and bombers in case Russia returns to a hostile regime or some other threatening nuclear power appears on the horizon. Central to this concern has been the “breakout” potential that U.S. nuclear planners say Russia has because of its large warhead production capacity, which probably exceeds 1,000 warheads per year.3 The United States halted warhead production in 1992 (although small-scale reproduction was started in 1999) and has since determined that the service life of its modern warheads can be safely extended to maintain a reliable and enduring arsenal. Russian warheads, in contrast, were designed for a shorter life with less capability for extension, requiring a larger ongoing production capacity. Therefore, as Russia evolved from “the Evil Empire” to a partner and as arms control treaties dramatically reduced the size of deployed strategic nuclear forces, the United States saw the hedge as a prudent precaution against a dangerous and uncertain future.
However, no sooner had the Nuclear Posture Review endorsed the hedge than its contradiction with other U.S. policy goals became apparent. Following talks in 1994, President Bill Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin agreed in May 1995 to negotiate agreements aimed at increasing the “transparency and irreversibility” of nuclear arms reductions, a step that likely would entail subjecting each side’s nondeployed arsenals to international scrutiny and mandating that nondeployed warheads be destroyed so that a rapid reconstitution of nuclear forces would no longer be possible.4
This decision was made for several reasons. Partly it was due to concerns over the safety of Russian nuclear weapons and fissile material. The United States was anxious to learn what happened to the thousands of nuclear warheads Russia removed from operational status and to prevent dismantled nuclear weapons or fissile materials from being stolen or bought by “rogue” states, such as Iran, or terrorist organizations. The commitment to transparency and irreversibility was also prompted by increasing international pressure on the two superpowers to do more to fulfill their disarmament obligations under Article VI of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Clinton and Yeltsin issued their statement only two days before the end of the critical NPT review and extension conference in New York, where the nuclear powers were eager to assemble enough support for the indefinite extension of the treaty.
However, at the same time as he was working to open Russia’s nuclear infrastructure to greater scrutiny, President Clinton had also issued Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 37, a secret document that established four “first principles” to guide arms control efforts for nuclear reductions beyond START II: deterrence, stability, equivalence, and the hedge.5 Thus, despite the public pledge to pursue “transparency and irreversibility” in nuclear arms reductions, PDD-37 also endorsed a reserve of unaccountable nuclear warheads that could preserve the U.S. ability to reverse its nuclear arms reductions quickly.
This contradiction in U.S. policy was magnified when PDD-37 reached STRATCOM, where commander-in-chief Admiral Henry D. Chiles directed the Policy and Doctrine Branch to prepare a paper that outlined STRATCOM’s position on post-START II arms control. The resulting white paper was approved by the Strategy and Policy Division on September 16, 1996, and used the four “first principles” in PDD-37 to formulate five objectives for U.S. arms control efforts after START II:
• Protect U.S. strategic nuclear delivery vehicle force structure. There are currently no new platforms planned, so it’s important to retain as many of the existing ones as possible. Hedge
• Retain U.S. warheads at a level consistent with war-fighting needs. Deterrence
• Minimize the impact of those Russian systems, [deleted], that pose the greatest threat to U.S. interests. Deterrence, Stability
• Reduce and eliminate U.S. and Russian non-deployed warheads and fissile materials. Equivalence, Stability
• Address non-strategic nuclear forces as part of the overall effort to stem the proliferation threat. [deleted]. Equivalence, Stability6
The STRATCOM white paper assumed that “warhead elimination must be the centerpiece of post-START II arms control, and should come before further force structure reductions occur,” and the fourth objective called for reducing and eliminating nondeployed warheads. At the same time, however, the first objective emphasized the importance of retaining as many of the existing “delivery platforms” as possible to “ensure adequate hedge capability.” The reason for this inconsistency was that, as a nuclear war-fighting command, STRATCOM not surprisingly viewed the arms control process as a means of achieving strategic advantages. Cold War or not, STRATCOM’s foremost concern was to ensure that the United States would triumph in a nuclear clash. To that end, the hedge served to safeguard U.S. nuclear superiority, while transparency and warhead elimination helped bring Russian weapons under greater control.
Thus, throughout the early and mid-1990s, the U.S. government and military faced a conflict between the desire to lower the overall number of nuclear weapons and improve relations with Russia while maintaining some sort of insurance against potential future challenges.
Today, the role of the hedge in protecting U.S. security by insuring against a vast Russian nuclear rearmament is less important, both because of a warming in U.S.-Russian relations and because of a contraction of Russia’s arsenal. Although Russia’s current inventory of unaccountable warheads is even larger than that of the United States, its arsenal is likely to shrink dramatically over the next decade. Of an estimated 20,000-25,000 nuclear warheads,7 some 9,000 are considered operational (5,600 strategic and 3,500 tactical),8 with approximately 13,500 warheads awaiting dismantlement. Unless significant numbers of Russian warheads are refurbished, remanufactured, and returned to operational forces, the stockpile may shrink to as few as 1,000 strategic and several hundred tactical warheads9 within the next 10 years.
With a Russian “breakout” becoming less likely, and concern that rogue states or terrorists could acquire warheads or fissile material increasing, a large reserve of unaccountable U.S. warheads is a growing liability to national security. If a large proportion of the U.S. arsenal remains opaque, it will be extraordinarily difficult to convince Russia to open its stockpile to inspection, especially in the absence of a more formal arms reduction agreement. U.S. interests would then be threatened as thousands of Russian warheads are removed from service to storage facilities whose security may have been weakened over the last decade by Russia’s poor economy. The result could be a failure to bring Russian unaccountable nuclear warheads and fissile material under control.
President Bush’s initiative to reduce only operational strategic nuclear forces will move thousands of U.S. warheads into the unaccountable hedge categories, and it completely ignores the proportionally increasing number of nonstrategic nuclear warheads. This perpetuates a dangerous transformation of the U.S. stockpile. Before START I, about 5 percent of the total stockpile was in the inactive category, but the current trend is that deployed (accountable) strategic warheads are a shrinking fraction of the stockpile. Present plans for the START II stockpile could increase that ratio to a 1:1 ratio, with the reserve constituting as large a stockpile as the deployed stockpile.10 Over the next 10 years, this trend could transform the composition of the U.S. nuclear stockpile to a predominantly clandestine posture, in which less than a quarter of all warheads are accountable.
Rather than bringing greater transparency to the nuclear arms reduction process when it is most needed, President Bush’s apparent continued endorsement of the hedge decreases transparency, undercutting incentives that Russia would have for disclosing the status of its thousands of non-operational tactical nuclear warheads.
The Bush administration’s aversion to a new formal nuclear-reductions agreement and its focus on operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads is also inconsistent with STRATCOM advice. In the past few years, STRATCOM—a strong proponent of a hedge force and of maintaining a nuclear war-fighting advantage over Russia, as indicated above—has repeatedly and publicly emphasized the importance of greater transparency and irreversibility of nuclear arms reductions. In connection with his nomination as commander-in-chief of STRATCOM, Vice Admiral Richard W. Mies stated in a written response to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 1998:
Further reductions in strategic delivery systems beyond START III should be complimented by more comprehensive considerations of increased stockpile transparency, greater accountability and transparency of non-strategic/tactical nuclear warheads, limitations on production infrastructures, third party nuclear weapon stockpiles, the impact on our allies, and the implications of deploying strategic defensive systems. [With fewer weapons, these issues] become more complex and sensitive. Whereas at existing START I/II levels our deterrent forces are relatively less sensitive to “cheating.”
Even after President Bush issued National Security Presidential Directive 4 in early 2001,11 which ordered a review of U.S. nuclear offensive and defensive postures, STRATCOM continued to stress the need for transparency. Admiral James Ellis, the current head of STRATCOM, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in September that, as reductions to low levels are implemented, “issues such as disparity in non-strategic nuclear forces, transparency, irreversibility, production capacity, aggregate warhead inventories, and verifiability become more complex and more sensitive.”
Whether the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review reflects STRATCOM’s appeal will be apparent when the results are announced before the end of the year. So far, however, Bush’s cuts appear to favor protection of the hedge over greater transparency and irreversibility of nuclear arms reductions.
The Crawford summit promised a new era in U.S.-Russian relations, but with respect to nuclear policy issues it fell far short of expectations. Rather than moving toward a true “new strategic framework” that takes arms control beyond the Cold War paradigm, President Bush seems to be regressing to an early 1990s mentality that requires the United States to prepare for possible Russian rearmament, even as the president proclaims America’s new and growing friendship with Russia.
Indeed, even the size of the president’s proposed reductions ring of Cold War conflict. In the early 1990s, STRATCOM analysis established a “preferred force structure” that protected a triad of modern and flexible nuclear forces in a “stable nucleus,” while gradually reducing excess operational weapons. The analysis was the basis for START II, the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, and the START III framework, which called for a 2,000-2,500 warhead level. This same thinking seems to be underlying Bush’s policy. Bush says that the goal continues to be to maintain a credible deterrent, but a continued deployment of about 2,000 warheads indicates that STRATCOM will adhere to the same concepts of triad, counterforce targeting, and flexible response as it did a decade ago. “I can guarantee you,” former STRATCOM commander-in-chief General Eugene Habiger said during an interview in 1998, that “our analysis and assessment will be based on an analysis of the threat, if you will, potential for threat, and not just on ‘well, 1,500 or 2,000 looks about right.’”12
Bush’s cut of operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,700-2,200 is not deep enough or different enough to indicate a shift in nuclear policy of the magnitude that he alluded to in his May 2001 speech at the National Defense University. His announcement provoked a tepid response from President Vladimir Putin, who issued only a vague promise that Russia would “try to respond in kind.” The summit simply reaffirmed how deeply rooted in Cold War nuclear planning the United States continues to be.
Bush’s pledge indicates that, despite its frequent criticism of arms control, the Bush administration has not moved beyond the most significant shortcoming of treaties: the fact that they have counted only operational strategic warheads while ignoring reserve warheads and non-strategic weapons. This means that thousands of non-operational nuclear warheads placed in reserve and thousands of tactical nuclear weapons continue to be unaccounted for by the arms reduction process. If Bush wants to move nuclear arms control out of the Cold War, he must end the distinction between operational and non-operational warheads and seek ceilings on total warheads.
The hedge is a dangerous signal of intent that connotes deceit in our relations with Russia. There seems to be no better way to undermine the very trust that President Bush has said should be the basis for a new U.S.-Russian strategic relationship than to keep thousands of nuclear warheads hidden in secret bunkers in case it turns out that Russia needs to be destroyed after all. If Bush wants to transform our strategic relations with Russia, he must make the entire stockpile accountable.
President Bush could have used the November summit with Putin to increase the transparency and irreversibility of the nuclear arms reduction process. Instead he seems to have taken a step back from the START III framework and complicated efforts to reduce the currency of nuclear weapons in the U.S.-Russian relationship. There now rests a great responsibility with the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review to create clarity and transparency on the nuclear posture.
The B-1 Bomber: Not ‘Conventional-Only’
The B-1 bomber is one of the most dramatic examples of how weapons in the hedge can be quickly reactivated to increase the U.S. nuclear punch, demonstrating the ease of reversing arms reductions and the difficulty of preserving predictability and stability.
The aircraft is widely reported to have been converted from a nuclear-strike bomber to one delivering conventional weapons. STRATCOM officially removed the B-1 from nuclear-strike missions in support of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) and Limited Nuclear Options on October 1, 1997. As a result, the Air Force’s white paper on long-range bombers states, “B-1s are no longer tasked to perform nuclear missions.”1 The aircraft is now, according to a 1998 fact sheet signed by the secretary of the Air Force’s legislative liaison director, “a conventional-only platform.”2
Not so. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the Air Force maintains the B-1 bomber in a Nuclear Rerole Plan intended to return the aircraft to nuclear-strike missions within only six months if necessary. Under the B-1 Nuclear Rerole Plan, which was approved in October 1998—exactly one year after the B-1 was removed from SIOP—“spare” B61 and B83 nuclear bombs are maintained outside arms control treaties in STRATCOM’s secret active reserve stockpile, which is part of the hedge.
Development of the plan began shortly before START II was signed in early 1993, but it was kept secret. When the Nuclear Posture Review was announced in September 1994, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch assured the Senate Armed Services Committee that “we would have no nuclear capability maintained for the B-1 bomber.” In truth, however, the NPR decided that “reorientation [of the B-1 to a conventional aircraft] will not preclude the return of the B-1 fleet to a strategic nuclear role.” The plan was formally enshrined into the FY 1999-2002 Defense Planning Guidance by then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen in 1998.3
Portraying the B-1 as conventional-only served several purposes for the Pentagon. First, it relieved the aircraft of its image as a nuclear relic of the Cold War. The expensive B-2 program had already been cut back to only 21 aircraft, and shifting the B-1 to conventional missions increased its utility in real-world operations. Soon, B-1s began flying around the globe and conducting conventional bombing training in Egypt and South Korea. Behind the scene, however, Air Combat Command (ACC) and STRATCOM were tasked by the Air Force to ensure that the conventional upgrades “would neither preclude future nuclear capabilities (if necessary) nor demand the high cost to maintain an immediate nuclear capability.” So when the B-1 was officially relieved of its SIOP commitment in 1997, the aircraft maintenance procedures did not change, and the nuclear hardness and surety was maintained alongside the Conventional Mission Upgrade Program.
“Hiding” the B-1’s nuclear capability was also important for treaty reasons. START I credited each B-1 with one bomb (a total of 91 bombs for the entire fleet), but the counting rules changed under START II so that each aircraft was credited with 16 bombs. This meant that the B-1 fleet would “cost” almost 1,500 bombs and compete with other more important weapons under the total treaty limit, such as the B-2s and B-52s, which serve as backup to strategic submarines and ICBMs. A one-time nuclear rerole permission was worked into the START II language, and the B-1 was excluded from the treaty. Six months later, ACC and STRATCOM reached formal agreement on how to retain a secret nuclear capability for the B-1.
Maintaining the B-1 in a rerole plan—as opposed to keeping it in nuclear service full-time—also saved money. Achieving full nuclear capability is an inherently expensive and cumbersome process that places a significant additional burden on crew and equipment otherwise needed for conventional missions. ACC’s operational resources were so strained in the 1990s that the command occasionally was forced to ask STRATCOM to be relieved from participating in nuclear exercises. The B-1 Nuclear Rerole Plan removed the B-1s from nuclear exercises and relieved crew from the nuclear weapons certification inspections.
The B-1 Nuclear Rerole Plan is legal under START II, but it makes a mockery of the nuclear arms reduction process, undermining the trust and transparency necessary for advancing a new U.S.-Russian strategic framework.
1. Department of the Air Force, “U.S. Air Force White Paper on Long Range Bombers,” March 1, 1999, p. 18.
2. Secretary of the Air Force, Legislative Liaison, “1998 Air Force Congressional Issue Paper,” n.d. , p. 5.
3. “HQ Air Combat Command B-1 Nuclear Rerole Plan (U),” October 30, 1998, p. 1. This document is available at http://www.nautilus.org/nukestrat/USA/bombers/b1rerole.html.
Support for research used in this article was provided by the Ploughshares Fund and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Editor’s note: Many of the documents referenced in this article can be found on the Nautilus Institute’s Web site, www.nautilus.org. Direct links can be found in the Web version of this article at www. armscontrol.org.
1. Bush quote: The White House, “President Bush and President Putin Talk to Crawford Students,” November 15, 2001. Rice quote: “Press Briefing by National Security Advisor Dr. Condoleezza Rice on Visit of President Putin,” U.S. Newswire, November 15, 2001.
2. U.S. Strategic Air Command/XP, n.t. [“The Phoenix Study”], September 11, 1991, p. 32. Available on the Internet at http://www.nautilus.org/nukestrat/USA/Force/phoenix.html
3. Department of Defense, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology, “Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Nuclear Deterrence,” October 1998, p. 48. Available on the Internet at http://www.nautilus.org/nukestrat/USA/advisory/dsb98.pdf
4. The White House, “Joint Statement on the Transparency and Irreversibility of the Process of Reducing Nuclear Weapons,” May 10, 1995.
5. U.S. Strategic Command, “White Paper: Post-START II Arms Control,” September 18, 1996, pp. 1, 2.
6. Bulleted points are a direct quotation from the “White Paper: Post-START II Arms Control,” pp. 1, 2. Underlining in original.
7. U.S. Strategic Command, “Statement of General Eugene, United States Air Force, Commander in Chief, United States Strategic Command, Before the Senate Armed Services Committee,” March 13, 1997, p. 3. The Defense Department reported in January 2001 that the Russian nuclear stockpile “was estimated [in December 2000] to be well under 25,000 warheads, a reduction of over 11,000 warheads since eliminations began in 1992.” Office of the Secretary of Defense, Proliferation: Threat and Response, January 2001, p. 55.
8. Hans M. Kristensen and Joshua Handler, “Appendix 6A: Tables of Nuclear Forces, 2001,” in SIPRI Yearbook 2001: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 466. Available on the Internet at http://projects.sipri.se/nuclear/06A.pdf
9. William M. Arkin, Robert Norris, and Joshua Handler, “Taking Stock: Worldwide Nuclear Deployments 1998,” Natural Resources Defense Council, March 1998, pp. 2, 13, 27.
10. “Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Nuclear Deterrence,” p. 48.
11. Federation of American Scientists, “National Security Presidential Directives [NSPD] George W. Bush Administration,” http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/nspd/index.html
12. General Eugene E. Habiger, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Command, interview with Defense Writer’s Group, Washington, D.C., March 31, 1998.
Hans M. Kristensen is a senior program officer with the Nautilus Institute in Berkeley, California. He is a contributor to the SIPRI Yearbook and co-author of the “NRDC Nuclear Notebook” in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.