Special Report: In modernizing nuclear
arsenal, U.S. stokes new arms race
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[November 21, 2017]
By Scot Paltrow
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack
Obama rode into office in 2009 with promises to work toward a
nuclear-free world. His vow helped win him the Nobel Peace Prize that
The next year, while warning that Washington would retain the ability to
retaliate against a nuclear strike, he promised that America would
develop no new types of atomic weapons. Within 16 months of his
inauguration, the United States and Russia negotiated the New Strategic
Arms Reduction Treaty, known as New START, meant to build trust and cut
the risk of nuclear war. It limited each side to what the treaty counts
as 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads.
By the time Obama left office in January 2017, the risk of Armageddon
hadn’t receded. Instead, Washington was well along in a modernization
program that is making nearly all of its nuclear weapons more accurate
And Russia was doing the same: Its weapons badly degraded from neglect
after the Cold War, Moscow had begun its own modernization years earlier
under President Vladimir Putin. It built new, more powerful ICBMs, and
developed a series of tactical nuclear weapons.
The United States under Obama transformed its main hydrogen bomb into a
guided smart weapon, made its submarine-launched nuclear missiles five
times more accurate, and gave its land-based long-range missiles so many
added features that the Air Force in 2012 described them as “basically
new.” To deliver these more lethal weapons, military contractors are
building fleets of new heavy bombers and submarines.
President Donald Trump has worked hard to undo much of Obama’s legacy,
but he has embraced the modernization program enthusiastically. Trump
has ordered the Defense Department to complete a review of the U.S.
nuclear arsenal by the end of this year.
Reuters reported in February that in a phone conversation with Russian
President Vladimir Putin, Trump denounced the New START treaty and
rejected Putin’s suggestion that talks begin about extending it once it
expires in 2021.
Some former senior U.S. government officials, legislators and
arms-control specialists – many of whom once backed a strong nuclear
arsenal -- are now warning that the modernization push poses grave
"REALLY DANGEROUS THINKING"
They argue that the upgrades contradict the rationales for New START -
to ratchet down the level of mistrust and reduce risk of intentional or
accidental nuclear war. The latest improvements, they say, make the U.S.
and Russian arsenals both more destructive and more tempting to deploy.
The United States, for instance, has a “dial down” bomb that can be
adjusted to act like a tactical weapon, and others are planned.
To see the bomb's improvements, view this graphic:
“The idea that we could somehow fine tune a nuclear conflict is really
dangerous thinking,” says Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and
threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, a
Washington-based think tank.
One leader of this group, William Perry, who served as defense secretary
under President Bill Clinton, said recently in a Q&A on YouTube that
“the danger of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during
the Cold War.”
Perry told Reuters that both the United States and Russia have upgraded
their arsenals in ways that make the use of nuclear weapons likelier.
The U.S. upgrade, he said, has occurred almost exclusively behind closed
doors. “It is happening without any basic public discussion,” he said.
“We’re just doing it.”
The cause of arms control got a publicity boost in October when the
International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a Geneva
organization, won the Nobel Peace Prize for its role in getting the
United Nations General Assembly in July to adopt a nuclear prohibition
treaty. The United States, Russia and other nuclear powers boycotted the
The U.S. modernization program has many supporters in addition to Trump,
however. There is little or no pressure in Congress to scale it back.
Backers argue that for the most part the United States is merely
tweaking old weapons, not developing new ones.
Some say that beefed up weapons are a more effective deterrent, reducing
the chance of war. Cherry Murray served until January as a top official
at the Energy Department, which runs the U.S. warhead inventory. She
said the reduction in nuclear weapon stockpiles under New START makes it
imperative that Washington improve its arsenal.
During the Cold War, Murray said in an interview, the United States had
so many missiles that if one didn’t work, the military could simply
discard it. With the new limit of 1,550 warheads, every one counts, she
“When you get down to that number we better make sure they work,” she
said. “And we better make sure our adversaries believe they work.”
An Obama spokesman said the former president would not comment for this
story. The Russian embassy in Washington did not respond to multiple
requests for comment.
Asked about Trump’s view on the modernization program, a spokeswoman for
the White House National Security Council said the president’s goal is
to create a nuclear force that is “modern, robust, flexible, resilient,
ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and
reassure our allies.”
A BUDGET BUSTER?
The U.S. modernization effort is not coming cheap. This year the
Congressional Budget Office estimated the program will cost at least
$1.25 trillion over 30 years. The amount could grow significantly, as
the Pentagon has a history of major cost overruns on large acquisition
As defense secretary under Obama, Leon Panetta backed modernization. Now
he questions the price tag.
“We are in a new chapter of the Cold War with Putin,” he told Reuters in
an interview, blaming the struggle’s resumption on the Russian
president. Panetta says he doubts the United States will be able to fund
the modernization program. “We have defense, entitlements and taxes to
deal with at the same time there are record deficits,” he said.
New START is leading to significant reductions in the two rival
arsenals, a process that began with the disintegration of the USSR. But
reduced numbers do not necessarily mean reduced danger.
In 1990, the year before the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States
had more than 12,000 warheads and the Soviets just over 11,000, an
August 2017 Congressional Research Service report says. Soon the two
countries made precipitous cuts. The 1991 START treaty limited each to
somewhat more than 6,000 warheads. By 2009 the number was down to about
2,200 deployed warheads.
Tom Collina, policy director of the Ploughshares Fund, an arms control
group, says that both Moscow and Washington are on track to meet the
1,550 limit by the treaty’s 2018 deadline. The treaty, however, allows
At Russia’s insistence, each bomber is counted as a single warhead, no
matter how many nuclear bombs it carries or has ready for use. As a
result, the real limit for each side is about 2,000. Collina says the
United States currently has 1,740 deployed warheads, and Russia is
believed to have a similar number. Each side also has thousands of
warheads in storage and retired bombs and missiles awaiting
The declining inventories mask the technological improvements the two
sides are making. There is a new arms race, based this time not on
number of weapons but on increasing lethality, says William Potter,
director of nonproliferation studies at the Middlebury Institute of
International Studies in Monterey, California.
“We are in a situation in which technological advances are outstripping
arms control,” Potter says.
One example of an old weapon transformed into a more dangerous new one
is America’s main hydrogen bomb. The Air Force has deployed the B61 bomb
on heavy bombers since the mid-1960s. Until recently, the B61 was an
old-fashioned gravity bomb, dropped by a plane and free-falling to its
THE MOST EXPENSIVE BOMB EVER
Now, the Air Force has transformed it into a controllable smart bomb.
The new model has adjustable tail fins and a guidance system which lets
bomber crews direct it to its target. Recent models of the bomb had
already incorporated a unique “dial-down capacity”: The Air Force can
adjust the explosion. The bomb can be set to use against enemy troops,
with a 0.3 kiloton detonation, a tiny fraction of the Hiroshima bomb, or
it can level cities with a 340-kiloton blast with 23 times the force of
Hiroshima’s. Similar controls are planned for new cruise missiles.
[to top of second column]
An unarmed AGM-86B Air-Launched Cruise Missile is released from a
B-52H Stratofortress over the Utah Test and Training Range during a
Nuclear Weapons System Evaluation Program sortie, 80miles west of
Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., September 22, 2014. Picture taken
September 22, 2014. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Roidan Carlson/Handout via
The new B61 is the most expensive bomb ever built. At $20.8 million
per bomb, each costs nearly one-third more than its weight in 24
karat gold. The estimated price of the planned total of 480 bombs is
almost $10 billion.
Congress also has approved initial funding of $1.8 billion to build
a completely new weapon, the “Long Range Stand-Off” cruise missile,
at an estimated $17 billion total cost. The cruise missiles, too,
will be launched from aircraft. But in contrast to stealth bombers
dropping the new B61s directly over land, the cruise missiles will
let bombers fly far out of range of enemy air defenses and fire the
missiles deep into enemy territory.
Obama’s nuclear modernization began diverging from his original
vision early on, when Republican senators resisted his arms
Former White House officials say Obama was determined to get the New
START treaty ratified quickly. Aside from hoping to ratchet down
nuclear tensions, he considered it vital to assure continued Russian
cooperation in talks taking place at the time with Iran over that
country’s nuclear program. Obama also feared that if the Senate
didn’t act by the end of its 2010 session, the accord might never
pass, according to Gary Samore, who served four years as the Obama
White House’s coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass
Obama hit resistance from then-Senator Jon Kyl, a Republican from
Arizona. Kyl, the Senate’s minority whip, assembled enough
Republicans to kill the treaty.
In e-mailed answers to questions, Kyl said he opposed the accord
because Russia “cheats” on treaties and the United States lacks the
means to verify and enforce compliance. Moscow’s deployment of new
tactical weapons since 2014, he said, was a violation of the 1987
Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. (Russia denies violating
the treaty.) Kyl also faulted New START for omitting Russia’s large
arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons for use on battlefields, a
subject the Russians have refused to discuss.
But Kyl proved willing to let the treaty pass – for a price. In
exchange for ratification, the White House would have to agree to
massive modernization of the remaining U.S. weapons. Obama agreed,
and the Senate passed the treaty on the last day of the 2010
Samore, the former White House arms control coordinator, says Obama
did not oppose taking steps to refurbish superannuated weapons. He
just did not plan the costly decision to do it all at once, Samore
DESTABILIZING THE STATUS QUO
While the number of warheads and launch vehicles is limited by the
treaty, nothing in it forbids upgrading the weaponry or replacing
older arms with completely new and deadlier ones. Details of the
modernized weapons show that both are happening.
The upshot, according to former Obama advisers and outside
arms-control specialists, is that the modernization destabilized the
U.S.-Russia status quo, setting off a new arms race. Jon Wolfsthal,
a former top advisor to Obama on arms control, said it is possible
to have potentially devastating arms race even with a relatively
small number of weapons.
The New START treaty limits the number of warheads and launch
vehicles. But it says nothing about the design of the “delivery”
methods – land- and submarine-based ballistic missiles, hydrogen
bombs and cruise missiles. Thus both sides are increasing
exponentially the killing power of these weapons, upgrading the
delivery vehicles so that they are bigger, more accurate and
equipped with dangerous new features – without increasing the number
of warheads or vehicles.
The United States, according to an article in the March 1 issue of
the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has roughly tripled the
“killing power” of its existing ballistic missile force.
The article’s lead author, Hans Kristensen, director of the
Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project, said
in an e-mail that he knows of no comparable estimate for Russia. He
noted, however, that Russia is making its own extensive
enhancements, including larger missiles and new launch vehicles. He
said Russia also is devoting much effort to countering U.S. missile
The U.S. modernization program “has implemented revolutionary new
technologies that will vastly increase the targeting capability of
the U.S. ballistic missile arsenal,” Kristensen wrote in the
article. “This increase in capability is astonishing.”
Kristensen says the most alarming change is America’s newly refitted
submarine-launched Trident II missiles. These have new “fuzing”
devices, which use sensors to tell the warheads when to detonate.
Kristensen says that for decades, Tridents had inaccurate fuzes. The
missiles could make a direct hit on only about 20 percent of
targets. With the new fuzes, “they all do,” he says.
Under New START, 14 of America’s Ohio Class subs carry 20 Tridents.
Each Trident can be loaded with up to 12 warheads. (The United
States has four additional Ohio subs that carry only conventional
weapons.) The Trident II’s official range is 7,456 miles, nearly
one-third the Earth’s circumference. Outside experts say the real
range almost certainly is greater. Each of its main type of warhead
produces a 475-kiloton blast, almost 32 times that of Hiroshima.
RUSSIA'S DIRTY DRONE
Russia, too, is hard at work making deadlier strategic weapons.
Ploughshares estimates that both sides are working on at least two
dozen new or enhanced strategic weapons.
Russia is building new ground-based missiles, including a super
ICBM, the RS-28 Sarmat. The Russian missile has room for at least 10
warheads that can be aimed at separate targets. Russian state media
has said that the missile could destroy areas as large as Texas or
France. U.S. analysts say this is unlikely, but the weapon is
nonetheless devastatingly powerful.
Russia’s new ICBMs have room to add additional warheads, in case the
New START treaty expires or either side abrogates it. The United
States by its own decision currently has only a single warhead in
each of its ICBMS, but these too have room for more.
Russia has phased in a more accurate submarine-launched missile, the
RSM-56 Bulava. While it is less precise than the new U.S. Tridents,
it marks a significant improvement in reliability and accuracy over
Russia’s previous sub-based missiles.
A Russian military official in 2015 disclosed a sort of doomsday
weapon, taking the idea of a “dirty bomb” to a new level. Many U.S.
analysts believe the disclosure was a bluff; others say they believe
the weapon has been deployed.
The purported device is an unmanned submarine drone, able to cruise
at a fast 56 knots and travel 6,200 miles. The concept of a dirty
bomb, never used to date, is that terrorists would spread harmful
radioactive material by detonating a conventional explosive such as
dynamite. In the case of the Russian drone, a big amount of deadly
radioactive material would be dispersed by a nuclear bomb.
The bomb would be heavily “salted” with radioactive cobalt, which
emits deadly gamma rays for years. The explosion and wind would
spread the cobalt for hundreds of miles, making much of the U.S.
East Coast uninhabitable.
A documentary shown on Russian state TV said the drone is meant to
create “areas of wide radioactive contamination that would be
unsuitable for military, economic, or other activity for long
periods of time.”
Reif of the Arms Control Association says that even if the concept
is only on the drawing board, the device represents “really
outlandish thinking” by the Russian government. “It makes no sense
strategically,” he said, “and reflects a really egregiously twisted
conception about what’s necessary for nuclear deterrence.”
(Reported by Scot Paltrow; edited by Michael Williams)
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