"...the Arms Control Association [does] so much to keep the focus on the issues so important to everyone here, to hold our leaders accountable to inspire creative thinking and to press for change. So we are grateful for your leadership and for the unyielding dedication to global nuclear security."
– Lord Des Browne
Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
U.S. Nuclear Weapons

Trump Inherits Nuclear Budget Time Bomb

The daunting fiscal challenge posed by current plans to upgrade America’s nuclear arsenal is now President Donald Trump’s problem. If the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review by the administration does not reshape these plans—or worse, accelerates or expands upon them—spending on nuclear weapons will pose a major threat to higher priority national security programs, to say nothing about Trump’s pledge to expand the non-nuclear military. That’s the key takeaway from a new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report released Wednesday on the projected cost of U.S. nuclear forces over the next decade...

Markey-Lieu Legislation Underscores Undemocratic, Irresponsible Nature of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Use Protocol



TAKE ACTION: Tell Congress to Restrict Trump's Authority to Launch Nuclear Weapons

For Immediate Release: January 24, 2017

Media Contacts: Kingston Reif, director for disarmament policy, (202) 463-8270 ext. 105; Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107


The Arms Control Association applauds Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) for reintroducing legislation to highlight the unconstrained and undemocratic ability of the president to initiate the first-use of U.S. nuclear weapons. The Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017 would prohibit the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress.

Operation Ivy, the eighth series of American nuclear tests, carried out to  upgrade the U.S. arsenal in response to the Soviet nuclear weapons program. (Photo: Wikipedia)Put simply, the fate of tens of millions depends in large part on the good judgment and stability of a single person. At any moment, there are roughly 800 U.S. nuclear warheads–all of which are far more powerful than the weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945–that can be launched within minutes of an order by the president. The president, and the president alone, has the supreme authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. Congress currently has no say in the matter. Continuing to vest such destructive power in the hands of one person is undemocratic, irresponsible, and increasingly untenable.
In an August 2016 HuffPost/YouGov survey, two-thirds of respondents said the United States should use nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear attack or not at all, while just 18 percent think that first-use is sometimes justified. Indeed, it is all but impossible to imagine a scenario where the benefits of the first-use of U.S. nuclear weapons would outweigh the severe costs.
The inauguration of President Donald Trump has heightened fears about the sole authority of the commander in chief to use nuclear weapons. Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed deep concern about his erratic behavior and loose talk on nuclear weapons. Now is the time to put responsible checks on the use of nuclear weapons in place. Such a decision is far too important to be left in the hands of one person.
Numerous options can be pursued to bring greater democracy and transparency to U.S. nuclear decision-making and reduce the risk of nuclear use. In addition to the proposal in the Markey and Lieu legislation, additional options include:

  • Requiring that a decision to use nuclear weapons be made by more than one person. This could include the president, vice president, secretaries of state and defense, and perhaps one or more designated members of Congress, such as the speaker of the House.
  • Eliminating the requirement to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) under attack, which in some scenarios would give the president only minutes to decide whether to launch the missiles before some or all of them are destroyed on the ground. Given that a president would almost certainly not make the most consequential decision a president has ever made in a matter of minutes, retaining a launch under attack posture is unnecessarily risky and eliminating it would increase the time available to consider the possible use of nuclear weapons in retaliation to a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies.
  • Provide Congress with more information on U.S. nuclear war plans, including targeting data, attack options, damage expectancy requirements, estimated civilian casualties, and more, which is currently not shared with Members of Congress.

The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.

Statement by Kingston Reif and Daryl Kimball

Trump Nuclear Tweet Sparks Controversy

January/February 2017

By Kingston Reif

President-elect Donald Trump tweeted in December that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability” and later told a television host that he would “outmatch” and “outlast” other potential competitors in a nuclear arms race. 

The comments mostly prompted condemnation and concern in the United States and around the world. Trump tweeted on the morning of Dec. 22 that an expansion would be required “until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

Increasing the arsenal would constitute a fundamental departure from U.S. policy and could prompt similar efforts by other nuclear-armed countries.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has reduced the size of its arsenal, including through arms control agreements with Russia, from roughly 19,000 operational warheads in 1991 to 4,571 as of September 2015, according to U.S. government figures. The United States has begun a program to sustain and upgrade the arsenal at a cost that could reach and possibly exceed $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

It is unclear what Trump has in mind, as aides offered interpretations seemingly at odds with his words. Jason Miller, at the time a top spokesman for the Trump transition, said in a statement later that day that the president-elect was referring to “the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it, particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes.” During the campaign, Trump had “emphasized the need to improve and modernize [the U.S.] deterrent capability as a vital way to pursue peace through strength,” he added.

Despite Miller’s attempt at clarification, Trump seemed to reiterate a willingness to expand the U.S. arsenal in a Dec. 23 telephone conversation with cable news channel MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski. When asked to explain what Trump meant by his tweet, Brzezinski said the president-elect told her, “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” 

Transition aides again scrambled to interpret Trump’s comments. Incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told NBC that “[i]f another country wants to expand their nuclear capability,” Trump would “not…sit back and allow them to undermine our safety, our sovereignty.” 

“He is going to match other countries and take action,” Spicer said. He added that there would not be a new arms race because Trump will ensure that countries such as Russia understand the president-elect’s resolve and “they will come to their senses.” 

Trump’s statements prompted varied reactions from Russia and China. 

In a press conference on Dec. 23, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that “there is nothing unusual” about what Trump tweeted because, during the campaign, “he talked about the need to strengthen the U.S. nuclear capability and armed forces.”

Putin added that the United States had already “paved the way to a new arms race by withdrawing from the [1972] Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty” and expanding its missile defense capabilities, which prompted Russia to respond by building “efficient means of overcoming this missile defense system and improving its own” offensive nuclear forces. 

But Putin said that Russia “will never be dragged into an arms race to spend more than we can afford,” noting that Russian spending on defense would drop from 4.7 percent of gross domestic product in 2016 to 2.8 percent by 2019. 

During the election campaign, Trump expressed a desire to improve the U.S. relationship with Russia, but did not say whether he would seek to engage in further bilateral arms control beyond the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. 

China is “paying close attention” to Trump’s nuclear pronouncements and declared that the “countries that have the largest nuclear arsenals should bear special responsibility for nuclear disarmament,” said a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry. That was a reference to the United States and Russia, which together possess more than 90 percent of the estimated 15,500 nuclear warheads worldwide. 

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers strongly criticized Trump’s tweet and subsequent arms race comments. 

U.S. policy on nuclear weapons “is not something that should be altered with a dangerously vague tweet,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, wrote in a Dec. 24 post on his Facebook page. “The fact is we do not need another nuclear arms race. We have too many nuclear weapons as it is—nearly 5,000—more than enough to meet our national security needs and deter any major adversary.” 

Some Republicans were also dismayed by Trump’s tweet. Outgoing Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) told Politico on Dec. 23 that “the general consensus among my colleagues in Congress is that the world is safer with fewer nuclear weapons than more.”

Do his 23 words foreshadow a fundamental shift from reducing nuclear arsenals?

Time Expires on Obama Nuclear Agenda

January/February 2017

By Kingston Reif

President Barack Obama headed into the final days of his presidency with an unfinished nuclear weapons risk-reduction agenda. But as he prepared to hand off control of the nuclear arsenal to President-elect Donald Trump, his administration announced a further reduction to the U.S. nuclear-weapons stockpile.

In a Jan. 11 speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Vice President Joe Biden revealed that the administration had removed 553 reserve warheads from the military stockpile during the past year, reducing the arsenal to 4,018 warheads. Overall, the administration reduced the stockpile by more than 1,000 warheads since taking office in 2009. In periodically making public the warhead numbers over the past eight years, the Obama administration has been more open about the size of the nuclear stockpile than any previous administration. 

The decision to retire additional reserve warheads came after Obama and his national security team for months had discussed measures to advance the nuclear risk-reduction goals the president first outlined in his April 2009 address in Prague. 

President Barack Obama leaves the stage after his news conference at the conclusion of the Nuclear Security Summit April 1, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)Obama delivered his first major foreign policy address as president on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation in Prague on April 5, 2009. The speech outlined his vision for strengthening global efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and moving forward on practical, immediate steps “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

The administration has highlighted progress in the areas of nonproliferation, the security of nuclear weapons-usable materials, and disarmament over the past eight years. These include securing vulnerable nuclear materials around the world through the nuclear security summit process, measures to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy, the negotiation and U.S. Senate approval of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), and the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. 

But other key administration priorities, such as stopping the advance of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, achieving further reductions beyond New START, and ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), have not been fulfilled. 

In remarks June 6 at the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting in Washington, Benjamin Rhodes, assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, disclosed that the president was reviewing a variety of proposals on nuclear weapons for possible action before the end of his presidency. (See ACT, July/August 2016.) “[O]ur work is not done on this issue,” he said.

The different categories of options under consideration included further reductions in the U.S. stockpile of nondeployed, or reserve, nuclear warheads; “additional steps” to lessen the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy and reduce the risk of inadvertent nuclear use; reaffirming the “international norm against” nuclear explosive testing; and putting “more nuclear material under appropriate monitoring,” he said.

In addition, Rhodes said the president would continue to evaluate current plans to ramp up spending in the coming years to maintain and modernize U.S. nuclear weapons and decide whether to “leave the next administration” with recommendations on how to “move forward.” 

“Our administration has already made plain our concerns about how the modernization budget will force difficult trade-offs in the coming decades,” Rhodes said. 

The review did result in actions in a few of those areas. In addition to reducing the warhead count, the United States introduced a resolution in the UN Security Council in September that urged the eight countries that have yet to ratify the CTBT to do so “without further delay” and called on all states to refrain from conducting nuclear tests, emphasizing that current testing moratoria contribute to “international peace and stability.” (See ACT, October 2016.)

The Security Council approved the resolution, the first of its kind to specifically support the CTBT, by a 14-0 vote, with Egypt abstaining. A total of 42 countries, including Israel, co-sponsored the resolution, which comes 20 years after the treaty was opened for signature.

In addition, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced at an International Atomic Energy Agency meeting on nuclear security in December that the United States is “embarking on an effort to dilute and dispose of approximately six metric tons of excess plutonium” and is consulting with the IAEA on agency monitoring and verification of the process (See ACT, January/February 2017).

Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, works with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on drafting a statement announcing the Iran nuclear agreement on April, 2, 2015. (Photo credit: Pete Souza/U.S. White House)Yet, no action was taken on most of the options Rhodes said were under consideration. “We did not accomplish all that we hoped,” Biden said. 

News reports last summer and fall indicated that the administration considered adjusting U.S. nuclear declaratory policy to state that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. Washington retains and has always retained the option to use nuclear weapons first in extreme circumstances, even if the United States or an ally has not suffered a nuclear attack.

Biden said that both he and Obama strongly believe that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons should be to deter a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies. But Obama reportedly decided not to adopt a no-first-use policy due to concerns expressed by some members of his cabinet and close U.S. allies.

The president also considered reducing the number and diversity of deployed strategic nuclear weapons, according to a September 2016 article in The Guardian newspaper.

Obama, with the support of the Defense Department, determined in 2013 that the United States could reduce the size of the deployed arsenal by up to one-third below the New START limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. Yet, the president did not unilaterally cut the size of U.S. forces. Rather, he invited Russia to negotiate a further one-third reduction of each country’s strategic nuclear arms, an offer that Moscow has repeatedly rebuffed. 

Other options reportedly considered included reducing the alert status of the nation’s land-based intercontinental ballistic missile force, reducing military stockpiles of nuclear weapons-useable fissile materials, appointing a blue ribbon presidential commission to assess and identify possible alternatives to current U.S. nuclear modernization plans, and delaying the planned purchase of a new fleet of 1,000 nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles. 

Although Rhodes in June had expressed concern about the affordability of the nuclear modernization plans, a senior administration official praised the current plans for the nuclear weapons and related infrastructure, which could cost more than $1 trillion over the next 30 years, in a Jan. 4 email to Arms Control Today. “[W]e’re sustaining deterrence by taking steps to ensure that all three legs of our nuclear triad do not age into obsolescence,” the official said.

Officials considered actions such as implementing a no-first-use policy and reductions in nondeployed warheads.

Trump Tweet Could Signal Dangerous Nuclear Policy Shift

Today president-elect Donald Trump used his ever-active Twitter feed to say: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” As with most 140-character Trump pronouncements, deciphering its actual meaning and intent can be a difficult task. Trump’s comments today might simply be an expression of support for current U.S. efforts to maintain, upgrade, and replace U.S. nuclear forces, the price of which is likely to exceed $1 trillion over the next 30 years. On the campaign trail, Trump expressed...

Mr. Trump and the Bomb

December 2016

By Daryl G. Kimball

For decades, U.S. presidents from both parties have been confronted with a range of nuclear weapons perils. So far, despite several near misses and close calls, we have avoided catastrophe and limited the spread of nuclear weapons to nine states. But with the election of Donald Trump, the United States and the world move into uncharted and dangerous nuclear territory.

(Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)Beginning Jan. 20, the devastating power of the U.S. nuclear arsenal will be under the control of an impulsive and unpredictable commander-in-chief. During the 2016 campaign, Trump made a number of casual and deeply troubling statements that suggest he has a poor understanding of the unique dangers posed by nuclear weapons and may not be up to the task of managing the risks. 

When asked in January 2016 when he might consider using nuclear weapons, Trump said, “Well, it is an absolute last stance…[but] you want to be unpredictable,” implying that he might engage in dangerous nuclear brinksmanship in a crisis.

Trump said it would be acceptable if Japan or South Korea sought their own nuclear weapons to counter North Korea’s because, he claimed, “it’s going to happen anyway.” Such an attitude contradicts decades of U.S. policy and undermines the global consensus against proliferation.

Trump also pledged to “dismantle” the 2015 agreement between six world powers and Iran, which is verifiably working to block Iran’s pathways to the bomb. If he tries even to “renegotiate” the deal, he would open the door to the rapid reconstitution of Iran’s capabilities, alienate all major U.S. allies, and trigger another disastrous war in the Middle East. If Trump or the Republican-led Congress sabotage the deal, they will own the grave geopolitical consequences.

Unlike President Barack Obama, who came into the White House with a detailed nuclear threat reduction game plan, Trump has no discernable strategy for managing today’s most daunting nuclear challenges.

The most urgent problem is North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons capability. Even with tougher international sanctions, the North’s program will continue to advance, and calls for nuclear weapons in South Korea will grow. With additional nuclear and missile tests, Pyongyang could have an operational arsenal of several dozen nuclear-armed, medium-range ballistic missiles by the end of Trump’s first term.

During the campaign, Trump said he would be willing to talk with North Korea’s leader, but he also suggested the problem could be outsourced to China. In reality, Beijing will not exert what influence it has without clear U.S. support for a renewed and wide-ranging dialogue with Pyongyang.

Shortly after Inauguration Day, Trump should direct a personal representative to communicate the United States’ interest in a deal leading to denuclearization and a formal end to the Korean conflict. As a first step, the parties should agree to a verifiable halt of further North Korean longer-range missile and nuclear tests and fissile material production and a temporary cessation of major U.S. military exercises in the region. This approach does not guarantee success, but maintaining the current policy assures failure.

Trump must also engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin to defuse rising tensions and head off a NATO-Russia confrontation that could lead to nuclear war. To do so, his still-to-be-named team will need to revitalize existing risk reduction and confidence-building mechanisms, ensure that Russia respects international borders, preserve the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, address Russian fears about U.S. missile interceptor capabilities, and develop rules of the road to prevent destabilizing cyberattacks.

The risk of catastrophic miscalculation remains far too high. Until 2021, each side is allowed to deploy 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, hundreds of which are primed for launch under attack. For a start, Trump and Putin should reaffirm that there can be no winner in a nuclear war and agree to a sustained dialogue on strategic stability. 

If Trump can persuade Congress not to expand costly missile interceptor programs and respects the U.S. nuclear test ban and no-new-nuclear-warhead policies, he may find Russia willing to jointly slash strategic nuclear forces by one-third below the limits of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Such a step would ease tensions and reduce fears of a new nuclear arms race, plus it would reduce the skyrocketing price of nuclear weapons. The current all-of-the-above plan to replace and upgrade the U.S. nuclear triad and supporting infrastructure is projected to cost more than half a trillion dollars over the next 20 years and is unsustainable. By reducing nuclear excess and delaying program schedules, deterrence requirements can be met while saving tens of billions of taxpayer dollars. 

The most serious test of any president is whether and how they reduce global nuclear dangers and avoid miscalculation in a nuclear crisis. To succeed or at least avoid major mistakes, the Trump administration must discard reckless campaign rhetoric and learn how to build on his predecessors' substantial efforts to strengthen the taboo against the spread and use of nuclear weapons.

The Trump administration must discard reckless campaign rhetoric and learn how to build on his predecessor’s substantial nonproliferation record.

The Logic of Integrating Conventional and Nuclear Planning

November 2016

By Vincent A. Manzo and Aaron R. Miles

In September, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called for NATO to better integrate conventional and nuclear deterrence. “Across the Atlantic, we’re refreshing NATO’s nuclear playbook to better integrate conventional and nuclear deterrence, to ensure we plan and train like we’d fight, and to deter Russia from thinking it can benefit from nuclear use in a conflict with NATO—from trying to ‘escalate to de-escalate,’ as some there call it.”1

Earlier this year, Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Scher stated that the Department of Defense is “working to ensure an appropriate level of integration between nuclear and conventional planning and operations.”2 

Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks September 26 to troops at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, which is home to Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable B-52 bombers. (Photo credit: Sergeant Brigitte N. Brantley/Defense Department)At first glance, these statements may seem discordant with the long-standing U.S. view that nuclear weapons are distinct and apart from other military capabilities. This fundamental distinction is reflected in almost every aspect of how nuclear weapons are treated. Only the president can authorize the employment of nuclear weapons, and the United States maintains a unique declaratory policy explaining and limiting the conditions under which their use would be considered. Nuclear weapons require special operational considerations and safeguards. Personnel with access to nuclear weapons, facilities, and materials require additional screening and monitoring. The notion of conventional and nuclear weapons integration is often portrayed as threatening to weaken or break down the special status and “profound caution” afforded to nuclear weapons. 

Yet, the statements by Carter and Scher are consistent with U.S. nuclear deterrence policy and the underlying philosophy from which it stems. Much of the integration debate boils down to differing characterizations of the ends and ways of conventional and nuclear weapons integration, a question of objectives, and how to achieve them. Ensuring “an appropriate level of integration” requires a mix of maintaining and improving key aspects of integration. Doing so serves U.S. security interests, in particular, providing effective nuclear deterrence, without increasing reliance on nuclear weapons, blurring the distinction between non-nuclear and nuclear conflict, or lowering the threshold for nuclear use. 

Indeed, better integration will reduce the likelihood of an adversary’s nuclear use while maintaining the U.S. threshold at its appropriately high level. Deeper integration between conventional and nuclear planning and operations is essential to ensure U.S. nuclear weapons can continue to effectively fulfill their fundamental deterrence role in the 21st century. 

Fulfilling an Enduring Role 

The primary role of U.S. nuclear weapons has not changed since the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, that is, to deter nuclear attacks on the United States and its allies and partners. Deterrence is strengthened by the arsenal’s capacity to perform its secondary role of “achieving U.S. and allied objectives if deterrence fails.” Neither of these roles is new, but the security environment in which U.S. nuclear posture and strategy must support these roles is changing. So too are the nuclear deterrence challenges for which the United States must prepare.

The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) report illuminated this changing context, stating that U.S. nuclear forces communicate to “potential nuclear-armed adversaries that they cannot escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression.”3 More than a massive surprise nuclear attack in peacetime or a suicide attack on the U.S. homeland, the QDR highlights the danger of a calibrated and limited attack amid a conventional conflict gone awry.

Developments in Russia, North Korea, and China demonstrate why this is a salient deterrence challenge. These countries may see tacit or explicit nuclear threats as a potent means of demonstrating to U.S. leaders that U.S. stakes are materially lower than their own, thereby weakening U.S. commitment to come to the aid of allies should they find themselves in a regional conflict.4 Numerous analysts have observed that Russia sees limited nuclear attack as a potential means of de-escalating a conventional conflict by demonstrating a favorable asymmetry of stakes or at least views threatening such a course of action as useful for deterring U.S. engagement at the outset. The working assumption would be that following an initial limited nuclear attack, the side with more skin in the game would be more willing to continue the fight and accept the attendant risk of further nuclear escalation. At the other end of the capability spectrum, North Korea may see the threat of limited nuclear escalation early in conflict as an effective means of deterrence and wartime coercion in the face of vastly superior U.S. and South Korean conventional forces. Finally, China has a no-first-use declaratory policy, but debates within China over what constitutes first use and whether the declaratory policy would hold in a conflict suggest some consideration for threatening or using nuclear weapons for purposes other than responding to nuclear attack. 

There is a strategic logic to these considerations of threatening nuclear use for purposes other than deterring nuclear attack. Notions of accepting and even enhancing escalation risk and of utilizing nuclear weapons to achieve a favorable outcome in conventional war have precedent in the theory of military strategy and the actual strategies of nuclear-weapon states, including the United States during the Cold War.5 

Because there is escalation risk inherent in any conflict between nuclear-armed states, it would be irresponsible to extend security commitments to U.S. allies and pledge to deter conventional aggression without taking into account how potential foes may deliberately or haphazardly bring nuclear weapons into play. Thus, when dealing with a nuclear-armed adversary, there is intrinsic and unavoidable linkage between the conventional and nuclear realms. Ignoring that fact invites peril. 

Why Integration?

Managing escalation in confrontations with nuclear-armed adversaries is an essential element of U.S. national security strategy. Escalation management seeks to protect the vital interests of the United States and its allies while convincing an adversary to refrain from using the full military means at its disposal. Deeper integration of nuclear and conventional planning and operations serves three ends of escalation management. Preparing to achieve these ends weakens the coercive nuclear strategies adversaries may develop when contemplating aggression and therefore ultimately strengthens the United States’ ability to deter a conflict from starting in the first place. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a conference at the main command center of the Russian armed forces in Moscow on June 6, 2013. (Photo credit: Michael Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)The first objective of integration is to strengthen one’s ability to deter adversaries from choosing nuclear escalation in a conventional conflict. Because nuclear weapons enable a country to rapidly inflict massive levels of damage, a military confrontation with a nuclear-armed state is fundamentally different from one with a non-nuclear adversary. Whatever other political objectives brought the United States into such a war, deterring first use of nuclear weapons would automatically become a central U.S. objective. 

Second, integration aims to strengthen one’s ability to achieve U.S. and allied objectives if deterrence fails. Presumably, the United States would enter any conventional conflict with a set of war aims tied to political objectives. Those aims and objectives are unlikely to disappear after a limited nuclear attack, although they might change somewhat in substance or priority. Integration facilitates efforts to keep conventional operations and nuclear posture aligned with the political objectives they are designed to support.

Third, integration increases the likelihood of successfully restoring deterrence following an adversary’s nuclear weapons use. If an adversary resorts to using nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict, the possibility that it would use them again will seem very real. Just like deterring first use of nuclear weapons would be a central U.S. objective in any conflict with a nuclear-armed adversary, deterring further nuclear use and escalation would automatically become a central objective once an adversary crossed the nuclear threshold. Scher touched on this as well, saying that “integration means being prepared to restore deterrence following adversary nuclear use, so that failure to deter first use does not translate into failure to deter subsequent nuclear use.”6 

Strengthening Integration 

There are three principal ways to improve integration consistent with the special status afforded to U.S. nuclear weapons. The first two represent areas where improvement is needed, and the third is principally a matter of ensuring that current capabilities remain viable. Together, these aspects of integration strengthen U.S. escalation management strategy by helping the United States avoid miscalculation leading to nuclear war. If deterrence fails, they help ensure that the president’s options for responding to a nuclear attack are not limited to ceding victory to the aggressor or ordering a massive nuclear counterattack. Integration enables the additional options of continuing the conventional war after adversary nuclear weapons use without responding in kind or responding in kind while continuing conventional military operations. 

Planning conventional campaigns to shape adversary escalation calculus. Deterring nuclear escalation within a conventional conflict is an important 21st century challenge. The United States must prepare to operate under the nuclear shadow while navigating through the fog of conventional war. The core principles of nuclear deterrence remain the same after the fighting starts: willingness to respond forcefully and purposefully to nuclear weapons use and willingness to show certain forms of restraint as long as the adversary does not use nuclear weapons. Yet, effectively communicating resolve and restraint—the ying and the yang of the deterrence message—amid the confusion and emotion of war may require additional measures.

The threat of response must effectively convey that the United States and its allies will not allow an adversary to escalate its way to victory, split alliances through coercive threats or nuclear attack, or achieve a favorable military situation by using nuclear weapons. At the same time, U.S. officials must sustain and communicate the promise of restraint that is inherent in every deterrence threat, the assurance that choosing to remain below the nuclear threshold will spare the adversary the threatened cost of crossing it. 

Harmonizing this deterrence strategy with U.S. conventional operations is a key point of integration. As Scher explained, “[I]ntegration means conventional operations must be planned and executed with deliberate thought as to how they shape the risk that the adversary will choose nuclear escalation.”7 The United States may need to forgo certain objectives, such as regime change, that would likely lead adversary leadership to see nuclear weapons use as its only viable option for survival. In order for the adversary to understand and believe that this restraint is contingent on it not using nuclear weapons, the United States would also need to avoid military operations the adversary is likely to perceive as a precursor to regime change or disarming strategic attacks. This would likely require withholding attacks on adversary nuclear forces, nuclear command and control, political leadership, and assets or capabilities critical to an adversary’s basic ability to defend its homeland. 

As the United States, Russia, China, and others expand their strategic postures and operational concepts to include conventional, space, cyber, and nuclear forces, integration requires looking across domains and functional capabilities to fully analyze escalation risks. Will a particular cyber- or space operation impact an adversary’s nuclear operations? How will adversary leadership interpret the intent of the operation? If an operation is intended to strip away adversary intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, how will it impact the adversary’s ability to gauge U.S. and allied limited aims?

The twin objectives of effectively waging the conventional campaign and seamlessly executing a nuclear deterrence strategy will likely engender tension and require difficult trade-offs. For example, the United States may be at a disadvantage in executing in a conventional conflict if it does not launch conventional strikes against adversary air defenses or conventional missile systems. If these targets are located in a nuclear-armed adversary’s homeland, however, U.S. officials may be concerned that adversary leadership will perceive such actions as indicative of a drive for regime change. Integration cannot eliminate these tensions and trade-offs, but it can help illuminate critical decision points. This will help senior decision-makers weigh the benefits and escalation risks of certain courses of action. Ultimately, whether certain conventional military operations should be ruled out or curtailed in order to reduce the risk of nuclear escalation is a presidential decision. The purpose of this aspect of integration is to enable informed decisions about U.S. strategy in confrontations with nuclear-armed adversaries and to ensure U.S. military and diplomatic means are poised to execute that strategy as precisely as possible. 

Strengthening conventional resiliency to nuclear operations. An adversary may see nuclear escalation as an efficient means to shift the conventional military balance in a conflict, even if only for a short period of time. Strengthening the resiliency of conventional operations to adversary nuclear attack is a second way to strengthen integration. 

Conventional resiliency includes the ability to communicate, operate, and resupply in a nuclear environment. There are a variety of means for enhancing resiliency, including hardening, redundancy, and dispersing forces and points of debarkation to reduce vulnerable single points of failure.8 Yet, enhancing resiliency is also a matter of intelligence and imagination. How might an adversary employ its nuclear forces to disrupt U.S. conventional operations? What are the vulnerabilities an adversary may target? Exploring these questions will be essential as the United States enters a period of technological and operational innovation to maintain conventional deterrence against Russia and China.9

This aspect of integration contributes to managing escalation for two reasons. First, it preserves presidential flexibility in the face of limited nuclear use. Wherever possible, the president should have the option of continuing the conventional fight even after an adversary employs nuclear weapons. Furthermore, this should not be a binary strategy where conventional and nuclear options for responding to a nuclear attack are mutually exclusive. Denying presidential flexibility would essentially offer the adversary the ability to dictate the means of the conflict by choosing nuclear escalation. This would more likely favor the side that perceives itself as conventionally weaker and therefore more reliant on nuclear weapons. 

Second, conventional resiliency reduces the potential benefits of attacking U.S. forces with nuclear weapons. If a limited nuclear attack is unlikely to result in a decisive operational-military advantage, then using nuclear weapons carries high risk but scant rewards. In other words, conventional resiliency contributes to deterrence. 

For both of these reasons, ignoring conventional resiliency invites adversaries to elevate the role of nuclear weapons in their strategies. 

Providing integrated response options that are limited and credible. Possessing credible options for responding to first use of nuclear weapons reinforces all three ends of escalation management (deterring nuclear escalation and, if deterrence fails, restoring deterrence and achieving other U.S. and allied objectives). Potential adversaries may conclude they can calibrate a nuclear attack to coerce the United States into capitulating without causing sufficient destruction to provoke a large nuclear response. The ability to respond to an attack purposefully and proportionately helps convince adversaries that no such sweet spot exists. Of course, what constitutes a purposeful and proportionate response would depend on the context. As a general rule, the U.S. response would need to be integrated into the conventional campaign to avoid disrupting U.S. conventional operations. In order to deter rather than spur another nuclear attack, the response would need to be consistent with U.S. efforts to communicate its resolve and its limited war aims to the adversary. Finally, it would also need to be integrated into the broader political strategy for orchestrating an end to the conflict. 

This ability underpins the strategic message that the United States will defend the core interests of its allies even in the face of nuclear threats. Relying solely on large-scale response options may indeed be credible for deterring attacks on the U.S. homeland, but as the sole means for reacting to a limited attack overseas, it runs the risk of appearing as a hollow bluff to allies and adversaries alike. Limited options are thus an important part of extending deterrence and assuring U.S. allies. 

This is not a call for returning to nuclear artillery or using nuclear weapons for tactical military effects that could be achieved with conventional forces. Rather, the United States should retain the diversity and flexibility of its current arsenal, particularly its nuclear-capable bomber and fighter aircraft. These aircraft are key to effectively deterring and responding to limited nuclear attack because they can be used to demonstrably signal deterrence messages (they are the only component of U.S. nuclear forces that is visible and recallable), they can be forward deployed in crisis and conflict and well as in peacetime, and the weapons they can carry contribute to the range of yields in the U.S. stockpile. Under the current stockpile reduction plan, these aircraft will carry a single type of gravity bomb (the life-extended B61), and the bomber force will also carry a single type of nuclear-armed cruise missile (the air-launched cruise missile, to be replaced with the modernized long-range standoff weapon).

Owing to tremendous reductions in warhead numbers and types over the past three decades as a result of negotiated and unilateral actions, the U.S. arsenal and suite of delivery platforms have reached a minimum acceptable level of diversity and flexibility. Although some numerical reductions may still be possible, warhead and delivery platform types should not be further reduced in the near term. On the contrary, those remaining capabilities should be sustained and, where necessary to remain viable, modernized to maintain the existing range of credible and proportionate response options.

In concert with U.S. land- and submarine-based ballistic missiles, this suite of capabilities is minimally sufficient for enabling integrated, limited options for achieving U.S. objectives after a limited attack when the president judges that non-nuclear responses alone are insufficient. For example, after a limited nuclear attack on U.S. forces fighting abroad, the president may judge that the United States needs to demonstrate its willingness to respond with nuclear weapons. A conventional response, even if capable of destroying the same target on a comparable timescale, would not have the same psychological impact as a response in kind and risks inviting a follow-on nuclear strike or fracturing an alliance. A larger nuclear response could be disproportionately destructive, triggering physical and operational effects that provoke rather than deter further escalation. 

Under these conditions, a limited nuclear response might succeed in restoring nuclear deterrence and sustaining the alliance. Success would not be guaranteed, but the risks of alternative options would likewise be severe. 

Addressing Counterarguments

Some contend that the objectives of U.S. escalation management strategy, including deterring an adversary from escalating across the nuclear threshold and restoring deterrence if ever it fails, would be better served by reducing nuclear integration rather than by maintaining or increasing it. These critiques typically reduce integration to just its third element—limited response options—and advance one or more of three basic arguments. 

U.S. Army Col. Phil Brooks observes a live-fire demonstration as two High Mobility Artillery Rocket System rockets are fired during Anakonda 2016, the Polish-led exercise held in June that involved about 31,000 participants from more than 20 NATO and partner countries. (Photo credit: SFC John Fries/DVIDS)First, some believe efforts to ensure nuclear and conventional integration lower the nuclear threshold by making it easier for the United States to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. These claims are often tied to the supposed pursuit of new nuclear weapons with lower yields that make them more “usable” than those in the existing arsenal. Neither this general claim nor its supporting elements are consistent with the scope of the U.S. nuclear modernization plans or the defense strategy it supports. Low-yield weapons have been a part of the U.S. stockpile for half a century, and Pentagon officials have stated unequivocally that current plans, including the life extension of the B61 gravity bomb, do not entail expanding the range of yields already available.10 More generally, despite the deliberate ambiguity inherent in U.S. declaratory policy, the notion of U.S. first use for tactical advantage or for de-escalating a conventional conflict is far removed from U.S. nuclear strategy, which focuses on credible options for responding to and therefore deterring nuclear attack. 

Second, some would claim that forgoing the ability to respond in a limited way would strengthen deterrence because it would imply the threat of massive nuclear retaliation in response to even a limited attack. Eliminating limited options would thus decrease the likelihood of adversary first use. Although automatic large-scale retaliation would indeed negate any rational gains an adversary may hope to achieve through a limited attack, the threat to do so only works if the adversary believes it. The United States cannot responsibly count on all adversaries concluding that the threat of massive retaliation is always credible. It is difficult to imagine that, in the immediate aftermath of a limited nuclear attack against a U.S. ally, even critics of limited response options would advise the president to order a massive strike on the grounds that credibility demands it or that total escalation is inevitable. Removing limited options would weaken deterrence if adversaries believe available U.S. nuclear responses are far less likely to produce an acceptable outcome for the United States and its allies, let alone a desirable one. Similarly, sole reliance on large-scale nuclear response options would do a poor job of dissuading allies from seeking independent deterrent capabilities.

Given the costs of capitulating to nuclear coercion and the risks of a strategy based on threatening massive response, what would the United States gain by removing the option of a limited nuclear response? Some contend that a conventional response to limited nuclear use is the better course under any circumstances. They believe that limited options are undesirable because they make it more likely a president will unnecessarily choose a nuclear response and because pursuing them drives requirements for types of nuclear weapons that do not increase U.S. security. A purely conventional response might indeed be the best way to limit further nuclear escalation and achieve U.S. and ally war aims in some cases, but it is unreasonable to assume a priori that this will always be the case. 

Contrary to the objectives of escalation management strategy, solely continuing the conventional fight might encourage further nuclear attacks aimed at finding the U.S. and allied pain threshold or measuring the relative stakes and resolve of the two sides. This is especially likely if the adversary’s goal is to stop the conventional campaign and its initial nuclear attack fails to achieve this goal but does not elicit the type of U.S. response it most fears. Furthermore, a strategy of continuing the conventional campaign toward victory after adversary limited nuclear use would likely provide the enemy with ample time and incentive to employ additional nuclear attacks. Ultimately and in anticipation of or in response to further nuclear attacks, holding to the conventional-only response might create pressure for negotiating a cessation to hostilities at all costs, implying U.S. capitulation and an adversary’s successful implementation of its nuclear coercion strategy. 

Moreover, credible options for deterring subsequent nuclear strikes provide an essential underpinning of a conventional-only response to nuclear attack. In order to restore deterrence, the United States would need to convince the adversary that any further nuclear use would result in costs that outweigh potential gains. For example, an adversary may believe that a limited nuclear attack or even a demonstration shot will compel the United States to capitulate. If that strategy fails and the United States continues fighting, adversary leadership might resort to a nuclear strike on U.S. military forces in the theater to raise the stakes and blunt the ongoing campaign. The fact that deterrence already failed once would no doubt raise questions about U.S. defense strategy, but the likelihood of a U.S. nuclear response in this case might be perceived as higher than the chance the United States would retaliate with nuclear weapons in response to a first attack that inflicted little or no damage. 

The threat of a large-scale response might succeed in deterring follow-on attacks, but it might not be perceived as credible, particularly if the adversary has a survivable arsenal. A large-scale response may also be incompatible with the U.S. political objectives associated with the conventional fight. Thus, we find it difficult to imagine a U.S. president sustaining conventional operations after an initial nuclear attack if massive retaliation is the only nuclear option for responding to a second limited attack. 

The better course is neither to prejudge presidential decisions nor surrender the option most likely to be credible and aligned with political objectives. Some fear that calls for greater integration imply a dangerous level of confidence in U.S. escalation-control strategy. Yet, effective deterrence requires an approach to escalation risk that avoids absolutism of either extreme. Confidence in one’s ability to deliberately start a limited nuclear war between major nuclear powers and control subsequent escalation would be the ultimate miscalculation, but inherent uncertainty about one’s ability to control escalation should not translate into certainty that any nuclear use would automatically lead to uncontrolled escalation up to global annihilation. 

The point about uncertainty is that no one can know for certain what the eventual outcome would be. Virtually everyone would want the president at least to try to limit escalation following an adversary attack. Consequently, it makes no sense to voluntarily relinquish the kind of credible response options below the level of massive retaliation that every president has required since the Soviet Union first acquired the ability to inflict unacceptable damage on the United States. 

Nuclear weapons are unique in their ability to inflict and deter violence and should never be treated as more powerful analogues to conventional munitions. Ensuring and strengthening integration of nuclear and conventional planning and operations is consistent with this long-standing principle. It is also critical to maintaining an appropriately balanced approach to escalation management and meeting the most salient of contemporary deterrence challenges.


1.   U.S. Department of Defense, “Remarks by Secretary Carter to Troops at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota,” September 26, 2016, http://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/956079/remarks-by-secretary-carter-to-troops-at-minot-air-force-base-north-dakota.

2.   Robert Scher, Statement before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, February 9, 2016, p. 3, http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Scher_02-09-16.pdf (hereinafter Scher statement).

3.   Department of Defense, “Quadrennial Defense Review,” p. 14, March 2014, http://archive.defense.gov/pubs/2014_Quadrennial_Defense_Review.pdf.

4.   Nikolai N. Sokov, “Why Russia Calls a Limited Nuclear Strike De-Escalation,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 13, 2014, http://thebulletin.org/why-russia-calls-limited-nuclear-strike-de-escalation; Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “Coercive Nuclear Campaigns in the 21st Century: Understanding Adversary Incentives and Options for Nuclear Escalation,” PASCC Report, No. 2013-001 (March 2013); U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016,” April 2016, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2016%20China%20Military%20Power%20Report.pdf. See Brad Roberts, The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016).  

5.   David S. Yost, “The History of NATO Theater Nuclear Force Policy: Key Findings From the Sandia Conference,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2 (June 1992): 228-261. 

6.   Scher statement, p. 3.

7.   Ibid.

8.   Joint Defense Science Board/Threat Reduction Advisory Committee Task Force, “The Nuclear Weapons Effects Enterprise,” U.S. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, June 2010, http://www.acq.osd.mil/dsb/reports/ADA523661.pdf

9.   For more information, see Bob Work, speech on the Third Offset Strategy at the Reagan Defense Forum, November 7, 2015, http://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/628246/reagan-defense-forum-the-third-offset-strategy

10.   Scher statement.

Vincent A. Manzo is a fellow in the Defense and National Security Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Aaron R. Miles is a fellow at the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The views are those of the authors.

Deeper integration between conventional and nuclear planning and operations is essential to ensure that U.S. nuclear weapons can continue to effectively fulfill their fundamental deterrence role in the 21st century.

Vote to Begin Treaty Negotiations to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons a Step Forward



Statement from Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball

For Immediate Release: October 27, 2016

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107; Kingston Reif, director for disarmament policy, (202) 463-8270 ext. 105; and Zia Mian, member of the board of directors & co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, and co-author of Unmaking the Bomb, 609-258-5468.

(Washington, D.C.)—Today, members of the United Nations' disarmament and international security committee voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution to launch formal negotiations in 2017 on a “legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” 

Acting on recommendations of its First Committee in December 2012, the General Assembly adopted 58 texts related to disarmament. (Photo: UN/Paulo FilgueirasSponsored by Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria, and South Africa, the resolution (A/C.1/71/L.41) was approved by a vote of 123 to 38 with 16 abstentions. The United States and other nuclear-armed states voted against the resolution. The proposal will be considered and likely approved by the General Assembly in the coming weeks.

The resolution follows three international conferences in 2013 and 2014 to consider the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use and discussions by an open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament in 2016.

The following is a statement from Executive Director Daryl Kimball, on the initiative:

“Today’s vote marks a new phase in the decades-long struggle to eliminate the threats posed by nuclear weapons. In order to attain a world free of nuclear weapons, it will be necessary, at some point, to establish a legally-binding norm to prohibit such weapons. As such, the pursuit of a treaty banning the development, production, possession and use of nuclear weapons is a key step along the way.

Although the world’s nuclear-armed states will likely boycott the negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban, this unprecedented new process could help to further delegitimize nuclear weapons and strengthen the legal and political norm against their use—a worthy goal.

The strong support for negotiations on a ban treaty needs to be understood as a logical international response to the growing risks and catastrophic consequences of a conflict between nuclear-armed states, the accelerating global technological nuclear arms race, and underwhelming pace of progress by the world’s nine nuclear-armed states on nuclear disarmament in recent years.

The coming ban treaty negotiations are not a substitute for necessary, progressive steps on nuclear disarmament, but they do have the potential to strengthen the taboo against the further development and use of nuclear weapons. In the coming months and years, the non-nuclear-weapon states and nuclear-armed states—particularly the United States, Russia, China, India and Pakistan—can and should do more to overcome old obstacles and animosities to advance disarmament and nuclear risk reduction measures, which are essential if we are to avoid nuclear conflict.”

Additional background resources: 


Statement by Arms Control Association's Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball, on the adoption of a resolution by the United Nation's First Committee to begin treaty negotiations on the prohibition of nuclear weapons.

An Insider’s View of Nuclear Weapons Modernization

October 2016

By Don Cook

Although the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile is safe and secure today, technological advances from the research and development portion of the Stockpile Stewardship Program have shown that improvements in safety and security can be achieved by incorporating more advanced technologies than those available during weapons manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s. 

The necessity to ensure reliability as systems age is clear. Automobiles with a comparable average age as the weapons in the stockpile (29 years) have lower reliability today than when they were produced, if they are even still on the road. Rubber and plastic degrade and become brittle, metal corrodes, and connections that were once tight become loose. In undertaking weapons life extension programs (LEPs), often referenced as weapons modernization,1 the emphasis is on returning the weapons to their original level of reliability, which, although classified, was very high. 

The last B53 thermonuclear bomb was dismantled at the Pantex plant near Amarillo, Texas, in 2011. The nine-megaton weapon, 600 times the explosive power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, was carried aboard U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers on alert during the 1960s and remained in active service until 1997. (Photo credit: National Nuclear Security Administration)When nuclear testing ended in 1992, the United States had recently completed production of many new nuclear weapons during the Reagan modernization of the 1980s. The warheads that remain in the current stockpile were young, with an average age of six years. Today, however, the United States has the oldest stockpile it has ever had and the smallest stockpile since the Eisenhower administration, reduced by more than 85 percent from the Cold War peak. The intent of the LEPs is not to introduce new weapons; the programs are focused on extending the life of current U.S. nuclear weapons while improving safety and security and maintaining reliability. 

Formulation of the LEP strategy was guided by the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the Congressionally-mandated comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear deterrence policy, strategy, and force posture for the next five to 10 years. The 2010 NPR Report said, “By pursuing a sound Stockpile Management Program for extending the life of U.S. nuclear weapons, we can ensure a safe, secure, and effective deterrent without the development of new nuclear warheads or further nuclear testing.” Further, it states, LEPs “will only use nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.”2

Intensive study from 2011 to 2014 by the government’s Nuclear Weapons Council and its constituent elements representing the military commands, elements of the Department of Defense, and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) resulted in broad agreement on a national strategy for comprehensive extension of the life of U.S. nuclear warheads. This is labeled the “3+2 strategy.”3

In accordance with the NPR and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia, the United States will consolidate the number of nuclear weapon types and reduce the overall size of its stockpile. The 3+2 strategy lays out a path for reducing the number of nuclear weapon types from 12 to five. Of the five types, two will be air-delivered weapons (one bomb type and one cruise missile type), and three will be interoperable warheads that can be deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). This strategy will take 30-plus years to implement fully. 

Implementing the Strategy

The first implementation element of the 3+2 strategy is the B61-12 LEP. The B61-12, now in its fifth year of full-scale engineering development, will consolidate four variants of the B-61 bomb and will improve the safety and security of the oldest weapons system in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The LEP is centered on the strategic bomb capability, balancing greater accuracy provided by a modern tail kit with a substantial reduction in yield, with no overall change in military requirements or characteristics. The NNSA is accountable for the nuclear ordnance (the bomb body) while the Air Force is accountable for the integrated tail kit.

The B61-12 was recently approved to move into the production engineering phase and is currently planned for a first production unit in fiscal year 2020, consistent with the conclusion of the LEP for the W76-1 SLBM warhead at the Pantex assembly plant in Texas in fiscal year 2019. The B61 remains a key element of the air-delivered leg of the U.S. nuclear deterrent and is a key weapons system in the extended nuclear deterrent covering U.S. allies. Once the B61-12 LEP is completed over roughly a four-year period and confidence is gained with B61-12 weapons in service, the B83—the last megaton-class weapon in the arsenal—will be retired. The result is (1) a reduction of the number of bombs by a factor of two, (2) the removal of a megaton-class weapons system, (3) a reduction in enriched uranium and plutonium of more than 80 percent in the bomb portion of the air leg, and (4) a reduction in overall destructive power by the same amount (80 percent).

The 3+2 strategy calls for a replacement of the current air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). The Nuclear Weapons Council has narrowed options under consideration for the nuclear package. Given the investment in development of modern non-nuclear components for the B61-12 LEP, it makes economic sense to reuse and reapply as much of that component set as possible to the ALCM replacement. Current schedules within the nuclear security enterprise would allow movement of a life-extended cruise missile warhead to follow the B61-12 in manufacturing and assembly at Pantex, with a first production unit in the fiscal year 2025-2027 time frame. 

Consolidation of the four present ballistic systems into three interoperable systems will enable an eventual reduction in the number of weapons retained as a hedge against technical failure. In today’s stockpile, if the United States experiences a technical problem in a bomb, cruise missile warhead, or ballistic missile warhead type, there can be a period of time when one of two elements in one leg of the deterrent triad is “out of commission” while the problem is solved. In the future, with two or three types of warheads available for insertion into ICBM or SLBM aeroshells, intraleg technical hedging will be possible. This capability has been shown to remove the need for a significant part of the technical hedge, but only when fully implemented.

The NPR Report recommended initiating a “study of LEP options for the W-78 ICBM warhead, including the possibility of using the resulting warhead also on SLBMs to reduce the number of warhead types.”4 In 2011 a concept study was initiated, focusing on the use of common components, adaptable architectures, and interoperability between ICBM and SLBM platforms.

A budgetary decision made in 2014, supported by a technical assessment from the stockpile surveillance program, deferred further work on the interoperable weapons for five years. In the interim, increased emphasis was given to a new arming, fusing, and firing unit for the W88 warhead. That effort was already in full-scale engineering development in 2014 and was expanded to include replacement of the conventional high explosive component in order to extend the weapon’s lifetime by an additional 10 to 15 years. The W88 Alt 370 will form the basis of the arming, fusing, and firing unit for the current W88 and W87 systems and for the first interoperable warhead, currently designated as the W78/88-1. 

The issue of conventional high explosives (CHE) versus insensitive high explosives (IHE) in nuclear weapons is a factor in life extension efforts. The latter type are powerful explosives that have improved safety characteristics because they are remarkably insensitive to high temperatures, shock, and impact. It has been an objective to move from CHE to IHE in the course of weapons life extensions. All of the air leg is already based on IHE, but progress remains to be made in ballistic systems. Why is this important? Fundamentally, there is no single greater improvement in weapons safety than moving to IHE. Because the energy content per unit of mass of IHE is just 70 percent that of CHE, however, the IHE takes up more space, and IHE-based weapons must have lower yields than CHE-based weapons in order to fit into existing aeroshells. U.S. Strategic Command and the other entities within the Nuclear Weapons Council made the decision at the outset of the work on interoperable weapons to accept a reduction in weapons yield in order to get the safety advantage. 

Recent Actions to Reduce Nuclear Weapons Yield

Reduction of nuclear weapons yield, made possible by improvements in accuracy or method of delivery, has been a decades-long trend for nuclear weapons planners. Although several reductions have been made in the context of arms control agreements, some have been made unilaterally by the United States in the context of changing security considerations. All of these final actions occurred during the Obama administration.

• The decision to remove multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) from the Minuteman III missiles was made in 2010. This action reduced the number of weapons on each missile, within a fixed set of missiles, by up to a factor of three. More recently, the decision on force structure reduced the number of armed Minuteman III missiles from 450 to 400.

• The last W62 warhead unit was dismantled at the Pantex plant in 2010. When the decision to retire the MX missile was made in 2004, the W62 warheads mounted on the Minuteman III missile were replaced by fewer W87 warheads, which had been mounted on the MX, reducing the explosive power carried on each missile. This was seen as a step forward in safety because the W87 uses insensitive high explosives, whereas the W62 used the more volatile conventional high explosives.

• The last B53 unit was dismantled at Pantex in 2011. The replacement of the B53 gravity bomb by the B61-11 earth penetrator bomb in 1998 removed a now unclassified nine-megaton weapon and replaced it with a much smaller yield weapon, which allowed similar targets to be held at risk because of its earth-penetrating capability.

• The last W80-0 unit was dismantled at Pantex in 2013, removing an entire weapons system and not replacing it with anything else.

Weapons Numbers

Reductions in deployed nuclear weapons and delivery platforms are being made bilaterally under the New START. Two significant decisions made in presidential approval of the NPR were the retirement of the W80-0 warheads for submarine-launched cruise missiles (SLCM) and the de-MIRVing of the ICBM fleet, that is, eliminating multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles from each missile. These decisions reduced the number of weapons in the U.S. arsenal and the overall destructive power of the U.S. deterrent by a substantial amount.

One argument advanced against the current LEP plan is that the number of weapons of a specific type should be reduced first, then the remaining weapons should be life extended. In theory, this would work, but it does not work in practice. The reason is that there is insufficient reliability in weapons as they age, and a larger number of “technical hedge” weapons must be retained, just for having the parts to cannibalize to rebuild other weapons. An example is that, in 2000, just 12 years after the W88 weapons system (the most modern one) had entered service, more than 90 percent of the parts were no longer available. For that reason, weapons programs execute a “life of program” procurement, typically sufficient to supply parts from the strategic reserve for up to 25 years. Now, the average age of weapons is 29 years, and replacement parts are not available.

It is only once that an LEP has been completed and field implementation has demonstrated reliability in service, typically two to four years, that there is sufficient confidence to permit retirement and disassembly of the units that the life-extended ones replace. In other words, reduction in weapons numbers comes as a direct result of the LEPs, not instead of them. 

In addition, as the engineering design and production phases of the LEPs progress, the number of weapons that actually go through the process is reduced substantially. Although this depends most heavily on military planning requirements and arms control agreements, the record is clear: By the time the W76-1 LEP is completed at the end of 2019, the number of W76 units in the stockpile, although classified, will have been reduced by a substantial amount. Because the yield of the units was not changed, the overall system yield (that is, the total yield of all weapons of that type) will have been reduced by the same amount. Furthermore, by the time the B61-12 LEP is completed, near the end of 2025, fewer than half of the number of B61 gravity bombs will be in the stockpile. That alone would reduce the overall system yield by half. Yet, because the B61-12 delivery accuracy will be better than that of the current systems, the yield of the B61-12 units will be reduced, preserving the military effectiveness but reducing the amount of special nuclear material needed to produce the required yield. 

Also, as confidence in the B61-12 system was increased in the early phases of the LEP, the decision was made that the earlier planned LEP for the B83 weapon was not needed and that system would be retired as life-extended B61 units entered service and proved their reliability in service deployment. That decision will remove the last of the “megaton-class” weapons in the U.S. arsenal. Collectively, these decisions reduce the amount of special nuclear material in the bomb leg of the deterrent by more than 80 percent, and the overall destructive power of the bomb leg will be reduced by the same amount. Counting numbers of weapons alone is inadequate to depict the reduction in the overall destructive power of the U.S. stockpile.

Sandia Labs mechanical engineer Ryan Schultz adjusts a microphone for an acoustic test on a B61-12 bomb system on October 30, 2014. The unit is surrounded by banks of speakers that expose it to sound pressure at 131 decibels, similar to a jet engine. (Photo credit: Randy Montoya/Sandia Labs)

Numbers Versus Yield

The arms control community understandably has been focused on the reduction in weapons numbers, but less attention has been paid to the associated reduction in weapons yield, or overall destructive power of the stockpile. This has become an issue of debate, particularly over concerns expressed by some in the arms control community that lower yields, coupled with advances in delivery systems improving precision, speed, and stealth, would have the undesired effect of making nuclear weapons more “usable”5 and, further, that if a weapon is more useable, it is more likely to be used. Yet, I believe, a lower-yield, more accurate U.S. weapon constitutes a better deterrent specifically because it will be regarded by an adversary as more usable and that the likelihood of weapons use is, therefore, lower, not higher. This has certainly been a hotly debated issue for the B61-12 LEP.6 

Given the facts that following the W76-1 and B61-12 LEPs, the number of warheads of each type will have been reduced by more than a factor of two and that the B61-12 LEP will have enabled the B83 retirement and reduced the overall destructive power of the air leg by 80 percent, why has the arms control community not been encouraged by the programs? Why focus only on the numbers, rather than the numbers and the yield? The Obama administration and the president have received insufficient credit by the arms control community for the important decisions made. 

Moreover, why is the arms control community not taking credit for having urged the administration to go in this direction? My experience is that points made by the arms control community have usually been good ones and ones to which I paid attention. It has been argued that President Barack Obama has reduced the stockpile by smaller amounts than prior, Republican presidents. Yet, it is always easier for a Republican president to make arms reductions because the Democrats will cross party lines to support that. 

Another fact, articulated in the 2010 NPR Report completed by the Obama administration, is the de-MIRVing of the ICBM fleet. That single decision reduced the yield of the sum of the weapons carried by each of the 450 missiles (400 after New START force structure implementation) by a factor of up to three. That reduction is to be completed by February 2018.

In the aggregate, the total destructive power of the U.S. arsenal is shrinking faster than simply the number of nuclear weapons. It is important that the arms control community understand this and discuss the details. The arms control community can be most helpful in taking the next steps in arms control with regard to nuclear weapons in three areas.

1. Pay attention to weapons yields along with numbers of weapons, and advocate a reduction in yields and a reduction in the overall destructive power of the stockpiles of the United States, Russia, and China rather than advocating against lower weapons yields.

2. Recognize and support the U.S. direction of “getting out of the megaton business” and advocate that Russia and China take similar steps.

3. Advocate an extension of the New START that includes all nuclear weapons, both strategic and nonstrategic, and that permits Russia and the United States to make their own decisions on the relative balance between the two types, within the same fixed ceiling on weapons numbers.

A continuing emphasis on weapon dismantlements and component disassemblies is needed. During the Obama administration, more than 2,000 nuclear weapons have been dismantled, and Congress approved the president’s fiscal 2016 budget request to accelerate the dismantlement rate by 20 percent. As the arms control community knows, weapons plans always can change but disassemblies are irreversible.


1.   Kingston Rief, “U.S. Nuclear Modernization Programs,” Arms Control Association, September 2016, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/USNuclearModernization.

2.   U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, pp. 7, 39, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/NPR/2010_Nuclear_Posture_Review_Report.pdf (hereinafter NPR Report).

3.   National Nuclear Security Administration, “Fiscal Year 2016 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan,” March 2015, pp. 1-7, 1-8, https://nnsa.energy.gov/sites/default/files/FY16SSMP_FINAL 3_16_2015_reducedsize.pdf.

4.   NPR Report, p. 39.

5.   William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “As U.S. Modernizes Nuclear Weapons, ‘Smaller’ Leaves Some Uneasy,” The New York Times, January 11, 2016.

6.   Hans Kristensen, “The B61 Life-Extension Program: Increasing NATO Nuclear Capability and Precision Low-Yield Strikes,” Federation of American Scientists, June 2011, https://fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/publications1/IssueBrief_B61-12.pdf.

Don Cook served in the Obama administration as deputy administrator for defense programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration from June 2010 through July 2015. He was managing director and CEO of the Atomic Weapons Establishment in the United Kingdom from 2006 through 2009 following work at Sandia National Laboratories from 1977 through 2005.

The total destructive power of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is shrinking faster than simply the declining number of weapons, and it is important that the arms control community understand this and discusses the details...

Price Tag Rising for Planned ICBMs

October 2016

By Kingston Reif

The projected $85 billion cost to design and build a replacement for the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system, the figure set by the Defense Department’s top acquisition official in advancing the program, is at the low end of an independent Pentagon estimate that found the price tag could exceed $100 billion, an informed source told Arms Control Today.

The Air Force last year published an initial cost estimate of $62.3 billion for the replacement program. (See ACT, July/August 2015.)

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base California on May 21, 2013. (Photo credit: Senior Airman Lael Huss/U.S. Air Force)The growing price of the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program, as it is known, comes as the Obama administration continues to grapple with how to pay for current plans to modernize U.S. nuclear forces and has raised questions about whether there are cheaper alternatives to sustain the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad. 

The estimate of $85 billion to more than $100 billion was prepared by the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) in support of the program’s milestone A decision, a key early benchmark in the acquisition process for the weapons system. Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, approved the milestone A decision on Aug. 23, the Air Force announced in a Sept. 1 press release.

CAPE provides the Defense Department with detailed analysis of the costs of major acquisition programs. The estimate, in then-year dollars, includes inflationary increases expected over the life of the program.

The approved $85 billion program cost baseline is contained in a document written by Kendall known as an acquisition decision memorandum and includes the cost to purchase 666 new missiles and rebuild the existing missile infrastructure, the source said. The higher $100 billion-plus CAPE figure is not included in the memo, the source added.

The projected cost to operate and sustain the weapons system over its expected 50-year service life is roughly $150 billion, putting the total cost of the GBSD program at $238 billion, according to the source. 

Bloomberg News was the first to report on the $85 billion estimate set by Kendall. 

Cost Estimates Uncertain

Kendall’s approval of the milestone A decision was reportedly delayed due to the large gap between the cost estimate prepared by the Air Force and the more recent independent estimate prepared by CAPE. (See ACT, September 2016.)

According to the Bloomberg report, Kendall wrote in the acquisition memo that “there is significant uncertainty about program costs” because “the historical data is limited and there has been a long gap since the last” time the U.S. government built an ICBM. 

In remarks at an event on Capitol Hill on Sept. 22, Jamie Morin, the director of CAPE, said that there were “nontrivial” differences in how the CAPE and Air Force cost estimates were built, including contrasting inputs on the missile portion of the replacement program and assessments of the program’s overall “complexity.” 

According to Morin, CAPE based its cost calculations on historical data that could be culled from previous ICBM procurement efforts, such as the Minuteman and Peacekeeper programs, as well as data from the Missile Defense Agency and the Navy’s Trident missile program. 

Like Kendall, Morin emphasized the uncertainty of the cost estimate at this early stage of the acquisition process and noted that it is rare for CAPE to publish low- and high-end estimates for a major program. 

Questions Raised 

The projected cost of the GBSD program could add to worries about the affordability challenges posed by U.S. nuclear weapons spending plans. (See ACT, May 2016.)

In remarks June 6 at the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting in Washington, Benjamin Rhodes, assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said President Barack Obama would continue to evaluate plans that envision ramping up spending in the coming years to maintain and modernize U.S. nuclear weapons and would decide whether to “leave the next administration” with recommendations on how to “move forward.” (See ACT, June 2016.)

“Our administration has already made plain our concerns about how the modernization budget will force difficult trade-offs in the coming decades,” Rhodes added. 

Rhodes did not specify a timeline for when the president would make a decision on whether to adjust the modernization plans and, if so, when he would announce it.

Meanwhile, some analysts are questioning whether the GBSD program is the most cost-effective way to maintain the ICBM leg of the triad.

Prior to the cost analysis conducted by CAPE, the Air Force had been arguing that the price to build a new missile system would be roughly the same as the cost to sustain the Minuteman III over the next 50 years and would not provide desired capability upgrades. (See ACT, April 2016.

But a 2014 report by the RAND Corp. on the future of the ICBM force found that “any new ICBM alternative will very likely cost almost two times—and perhaps even three times—more than incremental modernization of the current Minuteman III system.”

The report said continuing to maintain the Minuteman III through life-extension programs and “gradual upgrades is a relatively inexpensive way to retain current ICBM capabilities.”

In a Sept. 22 interview with Arms Control Today, Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he did not see a technical reason why the life of the Minuteman III could not be extended for a period of time beyond 2030 if the missile’s solid fuel propellant was replaced and the Pentagon forwent capability upgrades.

Another life extension of the Minuteman III would allow the Air Force to defer a decision on whether to build a replacement system, thereby easing some of the pressure current nuclear and conventional weapons spending plans will put on the defense budget over the next 15 years, Harrison added.

The growing cost for the Minuteman III replacements comes as the Obama administration grapples with how to pay modernizing for U.S. nuclear forces. 


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