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“I also want to thank Daryl Kimball and the Arms Control Association for allowing me to address all of you today and for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferatio nof weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war.”

– Joseph Biden, Jr.
Senator
January 28, 2004
Kingston Reif

UK to Increase Cap on Nuclear Warhead Stockpile


April 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

In a significant departure from an earlier pledge, the United Kingdom announced in March that it will raise the ceiling on its nuclear warhead stockpile by more than 40 percent above its previous target and would no longer publish information about the number of warheads it maintains in an operational status.

The HMS Vengeance returning to its homeport on the River Clyde in Scotland in 2007. Vengeance is one of four Vanguard-class nuclear-armed submarines operated by the British Royal Navy. (Photo: Tam McDonald/MOD)The decision prompted concern around the world and raised questions about the UK’s commitment to its nuclear disarmament obligations under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

London will raise the ceiling on its overall stockpile to 260 warheads by the middle of the decade, according to an integrated review of security, defense, development, and foreign policy published March 16. The new ceiling is a 44 percent increase above the level of 180 warheads that was first announced in the UK’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and reiterated again in 2015. (See ACT, December 2015; November 2010.)

The UK currently has about 195 nuclear warheads, of which 120 are operational, according to an estimate by researchers at the Federation of American Scientists. The UK deploys its entire nuclear arsenal aboard four Vanguard-class submarines, each of which is armed with Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. At least one submarine is always at sea on deterrence patrol. London maintains that a submarine on patrol would require several days’ notice to launch a missile.

The integrated review attributed the change in the warhead stockpile to “the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats” and cited “risks to the UK from major nuclear armed states, emerging nuclear states, and state-sponsored nuclear terrorism.” But the document did not provide further detail about these threats.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab justified the plan to increase the warhead stockpile as “the ultimate insurance policy against the worst threat from hostile states” in an interview with the BBC.

UK Defense Minister Ben Wallace told the BBC on March 21 that the change is a response to what “the Russians and others have been up to in the last few years,” specifically citing Russian investments in ballistic missile defense and new offensive capabilities.

The integrated review also states that the UK will “no longer give public figures for our operational stockpile, deployed warhead or deployed missile numbers” as such “ambiguity complicates the calculations of potential aggressors, reduces the risk of deliberate nuclear use by those seeking a first-strike advantage, and contributes to strategic stability.”

The Johnson government’s decision to increase the warhead stockpile was controversial within the UK.

Keir Starmer, the head of the Labour Party, said the plan “breaks the goal of successive prime ministers and cross-party efforts to reduce our nuclear stockpile. It doesn’t explain, when, why, or for what strategic purpose.”

Foreign governments also criticized the new direction in policy.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on March 18 that “this move is at odds with London’s many statements about its commitment to obligations to promote nuclear disarmament under the NPT.”

“The British leadership’s decisions underscore the urgent need to directly involve U.S. nuclear allies in the efforts to reduce and limit nuclear weapons, which Russia never ends to point out,” she said.

Asked about the UK decision to grow its nuclear stockpile, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, “We don’t want nuclear weapons arsenals to grow. If you don’t want that to happen, you can’t expand them.”

Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, raised similar concerns in a March 17 press briefing. “[W]e do express our concern at the UK’s decision to increase its nuclear weapons arsenal, which is contrary to its obligations under Article VI of the NPT,” he said. “It could have a damaging impact on global stability and efforts to pursue a world free of nuclear weapons.”

But Dujarric walked his remarks back the next day, saying that “we’re not expressing a legal opinion” but rather the view that the UK “announcement is not consistent with the disarmament commitments…all nuclear-weapon states have undertaken.”

A spokesperson for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on March 16 that the NPT “doesn’t require us to reduce the number of warheads. All of our actions are consistent with our nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations.”

“The 260 figure is a ceiling, not a target,” the spokesperson added. “We will continue to keep this under review in the light of the international security environment and make adjustments as appropriate.”

But skeptics warned that London will need to do more to assuage concerns ahead of the NPT review conference, now scheduled to take place in August after being postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. (See ACT, November 2020.)

“The UK will need to clarify how it plans to contribute to and lead on nuclear disarmament amidst these changes in the stockpile number,” said Heather Williams, a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and lecturer at King’s College London.

The change in policy comes as London lobbies Washington to move forward with development of a newly designed, high-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, the W93.

The current warhead for the UK’s Trident ballistic missiles is believed to be based on the U.S. W76 warhead. Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said in February 2020 that the UK has “a parallel replacement warhead program,” although London is responsible for the design and production of its warhead fleet.

The Guardian reported in August that Wallace sent a letter to Congress in April 2020 encouraging funding for the W93. “Congressional funding in [fiscal year 2021] for the W93 program will ensure that we continue to deepen the unique nuclear relationship between our two countries, enabling the United Kingdom to provide safe and assured continuous-at-sea deterrence for decades to come,” he wrote.

Congress in December appropriated the Trump administration’s request of $53 million in fiscal year 2021 to accelerate work on the W93, although not without controversy. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

A new defense policy review results in raising warhead ceiling by 44 percent.

Pentagon Reviews Nuclear Budget


April 2021
By Kingston Reif

The Defense Department has begun an initial review of aspects of the costly U.S. plan to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal amid continued support from military leaders for the modernization program and debate in Congress about the need for and affordability of the effort.

The Defense Department has begun an initial review of aspects of the costly U.S. plan to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal amid debate in Congress about the need for and affordability of the effort. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)In a Feb. 17 memo, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks directed the director of the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) to lead a set of reviews “on a very small number of issues with direct impact on [fiscal year] 2022 and of critical importance” to President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Among those issues is a review of lower-yield nuclear weapons and select command, control, and communications topics.

Although the exact scope of the review of the nuclear enterprise is unclear, the language in Hicks’ memo suggests the review is confined to an assessment of the Trump administration’s proposal to develop and field a new low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead variant, known as the W76-2, and a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile. (See ACT, March 2018.)

The Navy began fielding the W76-2 in late 2019. (See ACT, March 2020.) The new cruise missile is currently undergoing an analysis of alternatives to determine possible options for the weapon.

The Biden administration is planning to release the defense budget on May 3. Multiple press reports indicate that the topline for national defense is likely to remain roughly the same level as the $741 billion appropriations for the current fiscal year.

The Hicks-directed review and likelihood of a flat defense budget comes as the ambition and price tag of the U.S. program to maintain and replace the U.S. nuclear triad and its associated warheads and supporting infrastructure grew significantly under the Trump administration.

President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2021 budget request of $44.5 billion for the arsenal was a 19 percent increase over the previous year. Over the next several decades, spending is likely to top $1.5 trillion.

Administration officials have indicated that the budget review will be followed by a more comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear policy, but it remains to be seen when such a review will commence and what form it will take.

Austin said in response to advance questions prior to his confirmation hearing on Jan. 19 that “[i]n keeping with past practice for incoming Administrations, I would anticipate that President-elect Biden will direct the interagency to conduct a thorough set of strategic reviews, including of U.S. nuclear posture.”

Similarly, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a group of Japanese reporters on March 17 that the Biden administration is “going to undertake something called the Nuclear Posture Review” and “that I think will begin in the weeks ahead.”

Some military officials are counseling the new administration to consider a broader strategic deterrence review that evaluates nuclear, space, cyber, and missile defense issues as a unified whole.

Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Air Force Association in late February that strategic deterrence is not “just about nuclear posture…not about missile defense, not just about space…. [I]t’s about all those things together that provide our overall strategic capability and our ability to strategically deter our adversaries.”

Austin and Hicks said at their confirmation hearings that they support the continued maintenance of a nuclear triad and highlighted modernization of the triad as a top priority. They did not commit to continuing the status quo on every modernization program, most notably the program to build a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system, and instead said they would closely review the current plans before making any recommendations.

But top Pentagon military leaders are continuing to express strong support for the modernization effort.

Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, told reporters on Jan. 5 that the purpose of a new nuclear policy review should be “[v]alidation, that we like the strategy that we have.”

Richard added that it is no longer possible to extend the life of the existing Minuteman III ICBM, an alternative advocated by critics of the new missile plan. (See ACT, October 2020.)

“It is getting past the point of…not [being] cost effective to life-extend Minuteman III,” he said. “You’re quickly getting to the point you can’t do it at all.”

Meanwhile, supporters and opponents of the current modernization plans in Congress continued to debate the merits of the plans ahead of the release of the Biden administration’s first budget request. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking members on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, respectively, wrote in February that Biden “must prioritize long-overdue investments in the nuclear triad, or risk permanently losing our most effective means for deterring existential military threats.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) responded in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on March 5 by arguing that the United States has more nuclear weapons than it needs for its security and questioning whether the current modernization plans “are really necessary to have a deterrent.”

Other Democrats have been more supportive of continuing forward with the status quo. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) told Bloomberg in a Feb. 23 interview that bipartisan support for modernizing the nuclear triad is “very strong.” He added that “we need a replacement” for the Minuteman III.

Under evaluation are lower-yield nuclear weapons, and select command, control and communications.

U.S. Nuclear Warhead Costs Surge


April 2021
By Kingston Reif

The projected long-term cost to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure has skyrocketed to unprecedented heights, according to the Energy Department’s latest Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, published last December.

U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles carry the W76-1 nuclear warhead. According to the National Nuclear Security Administration, the W76-1 Life Extension Program extends the originally designed warhead service life of 20 years to 60 years. NNSA completed refurbished warhead production in December 2018. (Photo: Getty Images)Prepared annually by the department’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the report highlights the growing scope of the NNSA modernization plans and the fiscal challenge they will pose to the Biden administration.

The fiscal year 2021 version projects $505 billion in spending, after inflation, on NNSA efforts related to sustaining and modernizing the nuclear warhead stockpile over the next 25 years. This is an increase of $113 billion, or 29 percent, from the 2020 version of the plan. (See ACT, September 2019.)

The document states that the NNSA “considers this program to be affordable,” but does not provide a detailed explanation of why the agency believes that to be the case or why the cost of the 2021 plan is so much higher than the previous version.

According to an analysis published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in July 2020, a “reevaluation of the funding needed to meet existing requirements, rather than costs associated with new requirements, was the main factor contributing to the large increase in proposed funding in [the Energy Department’s] fiscal year 2021 budget justification.”

The Trump administration in February 2020 requested $15.6 billion for NNSA nuclear weapons activities account in fiscal year 2021, an increase of $3.1 billion, or 25 percent, above the fiscal year 2020 appropriation and $2.8 billion above the projection for 2021 in the fiscal year 2020 budget request. (See ACT, March 2020.)

An NNSA spokesperson told Arms Control Today in December that “[b]arring unexpected new requirements or additional major programs of record, [the] NNSA’s weapons activities portfolio growth will reach a steady-state period beginning in fiscal year 2021.”

“As new program of record activities begin, previous programs of record will be closing out, and the projected budget trend through fiscal year 2045 will see similar year-to-year increases that account for inflation,” the spokesperson added.

Under the Trump administration, the budget for the NNSA’s nuclear sustainment and modernization program grew well higher than the rate of inflation. The budget for this program has increased by more than 65 percent over the past four years.

The ambition of the agency’s modernization program is unlike anything seen since the Cold War. Allison Bawden, a director at the GAO, told Congress in March 2020 that the federal spending watchdog is “concerned about the long-term affordability of the plans.”

The agency has consistently underestimated the cost and schedule risks of major warhead life extension programs and infrastructure recapitalization projects.

The stockpile plan projects the cost to build a newly designed submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warhead proposed by the Trump administration, dubbed the W93, at $11.8–18.2 billion. The high degree of cost uncertainty reflects the fact that the proposed warhead is still in the early development phase.

The plan also reveals that, in addition to the W93, the agency is planning to eventually replace the existing W76 and W88 SLBM warheads with new warheads.

Existing plans call for a 29 percent increase in funds to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear warheads.

U.S., Russia Signal Willingness to Hold Arms Control Talks

Since securing the extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ) in February, the United States and Russia have both signaled a willingness to hold a dialogue on arms control as part of a broader conversation on strategic stability, though when exactly such discussions may take place remains unclear. “The United States is ready to engage Russia in strategic stability discussions on arms control and emerging security issues,” said U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) on Feb. 22. The Biden administration released interim national...

New UK Defense Strategy A Troubling Step Back on Nuclear Policy

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For Immediate Release: March 15, 2021

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext 107; Kingston Reif, director for disarmament policy, (202) 463-8270 ext 104

The United Kingdom announced today that it will move to increase its total nuclear warhead stockpile ceiling by over 40 percent and reduce transparency about its nuclear arsenal. This is a needless and alarming reversal of the longstanding British policy to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons.

These changes, which are outlined in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, are also inconsistent with the British government’s prior pledges on nuclear disarmament under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The United Kingdom now joins China and perhaps Russia as the permanent members of the UN Security Council that are planning to increase the size of their warhead stockpiles. Open source estimates put the current size of the British arsenal at 195 warheads.

The review attributes the need to increase the total stockpile ceiling from the goal of 180 warheads (which was reaffirmed in 2015) to 260 warheads to “the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats,” but it does not explain how raising the number of warheads will enhance deterrence against these threats.

The United Kingdom’s decision to increase its warhead stockpile will contribute to the growing competition and distrust between nuclear-armed states. There is no compelling military or strategic rationale that justifies such an increase.

The review also states that the United Kingdom, which fields its warheads on sea-based ballistic missiles, will “no longer give public figures for our operational stockpile, deployed warhead or deployed missile numbers.” Like the United States, the United Kingdom’s past commitment to transparency about its nuclear forces has set it apart from other nuclear powers. Both governments have rightly criticized China for its excessive nuclear secrecy, for example. Such opacity is irresponsible and undemocratic.

The next NPT Review Conference slated for this summer was already poised to be a difficult and contentious one given the Trump administration’s efforts to expand the role and capability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Russia’s development of grotesque new nuclear delivery systems (such as a nuclear-armed torpedo), and China’s continued modernization and expansion of its nuclear forces. The United Kingdom’s decision to increase its arsenal and clamp down on transparency will further worsen the atmosphere.

In addition, the United Kingdom’s new direction will complicate the Biden administration’s efforts to pursue further bilateral arms control and reduction measures with Russia. Russia has been adamant that any future nuclear cuts beyond the limits contained in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) should take into account the arsenals of the other nuclear-armed states, especially the United Kingdom and France. Moscow can be expected to make this argument even more forcefully after the United Kingdom’s announcement today.

President Biden and has pledged to “take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”

With the United Kingdom headed in the opposite direction, the Biden administration should cast an even more critical eye on the Trump administration’s weak rationale for accelerating the development of a newly designed third submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead (known as the W93) - and London’s lobbying of the U.S. Congress for support of U.S. funding for this new weapon.

The Trump administration justified the W93 in part on the grounds that it is vital to continuing U.S. support of the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal. But the United States can continue to support its ally without rushing forward with this new and unnecessary new nuclear warhead program.

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Statement from the Arms Control Association 

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