Nearly half a century after the five declared nuclear-weapon states in 1968 pledged under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament,” all of the world’s nuclear-weapon states are busy modernizing their arsenals and continue to reaffirm the importance of such weapons.
A new article published in the May issue of Arms Control Today finds that the world’s nine nuclear-armed states (the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, North Korea, Pakistan and Israel) still possess more than 10,000 nuclear warheads combined. According to the article, the trend has riled a growing number of signatories to the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which obligates states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.
“Although the numerical nuclear arms race between East and West is over, a dynamic technological nuclear arms race is in full swing and may increase over the next decade,” writes Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of America Scientists and author of the article.
The NPT states parties will meet in April 2015 for the once-every-five-years treaty review conference. Of the five nuclear nations that have signed the NPT, the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom, “none of them appears willing to eliminate its nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future,”
“Perpetual nuclear modernization appears to undercut the promises made 45 years ago by the NPT nuclear-weapons states,” Kristensen says. “Despite the financial constraints…these states appear committed to spending hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade on modernizing their nuclear forces,” he notes.
In December, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the United States plans to spend at least $355 billion to maintain and rebuild its nuclear arsenal over the next decade. A major part of this cost is the plan to rebuild all three legs of the existing nuclear ‘triad’ and their associated warheads, including 12 new ballistic missile submarines, up to 100 new long-range bombers, and possibly new land-based ballistic missiles and a new long-range standoff cruise missile. According to available information, it appears that the nuclear enterprise will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 30 years.
Leading nuclear weapons experts from national organizations say that this U.S. spending plan is excessive, and that the United States can save tens of billions of dollars by reducing the number of new missiles and bombers it plans to buy and still maintain nuclear warhead levels established by the 2010 New START treaty with Russia.
“Limits on future defense spending will force budget trade-offs among various Pentagon programs,” said Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of ACA. The defense budget still needs to be cut by $115 billion from 2016-2019 to meet sequester targets, or about $29 billion per year on average.
“We believe the current nuclear spending plan is unsustainable and will deplete resources from higher priorities,” Kimball said. “The Obama administration should review its nuclear force modernization plans and make adjustments to right-size and in some cases forego unnecessary programs and save taxpayer dollars,” he said.
Nuclear weapons analysts say the United States can maintain planned warhead levels with fewer delivery vehicles. New START allows both sides to field up to 1,550 warheads on 700 long-range delivery vehicles. But the United States could also meet the warhead limit by fielding only about 600 delivery vehicles, saving tens of billions of dollars.
For example, the Navy plans to deploy about 1,000 warheads at sea under New START. “But the United States does not need 12 new submarines to field 1,000 warheads; eight submarines would be enough,” said ACA Research Director Tom Z. Collina. “By reducing the fleet of submarines to eight, the United States would save $16 billion over the next decade, according to CBO,” he said.
The Air Force wants to develop a new nuclear-armed cruise missile, “but it is not clear why it needs both a penetrating bomber and a standoff missile to meet the deterrence requirements of the United States and our allies,” said Kingston Reif, Director of Nonproliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “Moreover, standoff capability already exists with sea-based and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles,” a news release by the Arms Control Association quoted him as saying.
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is also pursuing an overly ambitious and costly strategy for warhead refurbishment. The current plan, dubbed “3+2”, envisions spending $60 billion to refurbish the arsenal and to use nuclear components that have not previously been tested together, raising reliability concerns.
“The NNSA should instead pursue a simpler refurbishment strategy, avoid risky schemes, and retire warhead types where possible,” said Lisbeth Gronlund, Co-Director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“Common sense reductions in excess nuclear weapons spending by nuclear-armed states could provide much need support for U.S. nonproliferation efforts at the next NPT review conference,” the ACA release quoted Kimball as saying.
“Cuts in the size-not just the cost-of U.S. and Russian stockpiles are also in order. Last year, President Obama and the Pentagon announced that the U.S. could cut the size of the deployed strategic stockpile by up to one-third. Both sides should work in parallel to reduce force levels below the New START limits,” Kimball said.
“Such an initiative would also allow both sides to reduce the extraordinary costs of force maintenance and modernization and could help induce other nuclear-armed states to exercise greater restraint,” he said.
Kristensen writes in the article that France is in the final phase of a comprehensive modernization of its nuclear forces intended to extend the arsenal into the 2050s. “Most significant is the deployment during 2010-2018 of the new M-51 SLBM on the Triumphant-class submarines. The new missile has greater range, payload capacity, and accuracy than its predecessor, the M-45. Starting in 2015, the current TN75 warhead will be replaced with the new TNO (Tête Nucléaire Océanique) warhead,” he notes. France currently has a stockpile of roughly 300 warheads.
He points out that of all the nuclear-weapon states, the UK is the country that has progressed furthest toward potential nuclear abolition. “Its current stockpile of approximately 225 weapons is scheduled to decline to about 180 by the mid-2020s.” After the UK’s elimination of its air- and sea-based tactical nuclear weapons in the 1990s, there has been a lively debate about whether the country any longer needs nuclear weapons. For now, however, the government appears determined to replace the current class of four Vanguard-class nuclear-armed submarines with a new class of three to four submarines in the mid-2020s.
Russia, Kristensen writes, is in the middle of a significant nuclear modernization that marks its attempt to transition from Soviet-era nuclear force structure to something more modern, leaner, and cheaper to maintain. “Despite continued financial constraints, the regime of Vladimir Putin has prioritized maintenance and modernization of nuclear forces as symbols of national prestige and, to some extent, compensation for inferior conventional forces,” he notes. The Russian stockpile is estimated at roughly 4,300 warheads, of which approximately 2,000 are for nonstrategic weapons, with another 3,500 retired warheads awaiting dismantlement.
He writes that despite the modernization, the Russian ICBM force already has declined to approximately 300 missiles and is expected to drop further to roughly 250 missiles over the next decade. “In order to keep some level of parity with the larger U.S. arsenal, Russia is deploying more warheads on each of its missiles.”
Russia’s overall defense budget has increased. Over the next 10 years, the plan is to spend 19 trillion rubles ($542 billion) on defense. That is less than the annual U.S. defense budget. Of that amount, strategic nuclear forces are thought to account for about 10 percent, or $54 billion in total over 10 years. It is unclear, writes Kristensen, what categories are included, but it appears to be roughly 20 percent of the $30 billion the United States is estimated to spend on its nuclear triad per year.
Kristensen says Chinese nuclear forces are in the latter phase of a two-decade-long upgrade that includes deployment of new land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear delivery vehicles.
“This effort is occurring in parallel with a broader modernization of China’s general military forces. Unlike the other nuclear members of the NPT, China is increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal, which is currently estimated to be around 250 warheads.”
Although China does not seem to plan a significant increase in the size of its nuclear forces, it is changing the composition of that force and putting more emphasis on mobile systems.
About Pakistan’s nuclear program, Kristensen writes that Islamabad is spending a considerable amount on modernizing its nuclear forces. “New systems under development include the Shaheen II medium-range ballistic missile, Ra’ad air-launched cruise missile, Babur ground-launched cruise missile, and Nasr short-range rocket. Infrastructure upgrades include construction of the third and fourth plutonium-production reactors and upgrades of uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities,” he writes. Pakistan’s current arsenal is estimated at around 120 weapons.
At the same time, the Shaheen II missile has been under development for a long time, but might only now become operational, an indication of possible technical difficulties developing the road-mobile, solid-fueled, medium-range ballistic missile. Likewise, although India has embarked on an SSBN program, there is so far no indication that Pakistan is following the example. This is somewhat surprising given the normal tit-for-tat patterns in Pakistani-Indian nuclear competition. Whether this reflects financial constrains is unclear, and it remains to be seen if the Babur cruise missile eventually will be deployed also in a sea-based version.
“Development of the nuclear-capable Nasr short-range missile launcher, whose range is estimated to be 60 kilometers, signals a significant and worrisome tactical addition to Pakistan’s nuclear strategy because the weapon is intended for use before a strategic nuclear exchange,” he notes.
About India’s nuclear modernization, he observes that it is entering a new and “complex” phase. After the initial introduction of the Prithvi and Agni missiles, India is developing several long-range Agni systems on new launchers. The first SSBN has been launched and is expected to begin sea trials later this year as the first of a class of perhaps three to five boats with a new SLBM. Construction of a new plutonium-production reactor is expected to start soon along with fast breeder reactors, which can produce more plutonium than they consume, as well as upgrades to reprocessing facilities. India’s current stockpile is estimated at around 110 warheads.
“Unlike Pakistan’s nuclear posture, which is directed against only India, India’s nuclear posture is directed against Pakistan and China,” he notes. As a result, most of India’s current missile development efforts are geared toward developing long-range missiles that can reach all of China. “There is a prominent internal debate about the need to deploy canistered launchers—a system in which the missile is carried inside a climate-controlled canister—and equip ballistic missiles with the capability to carry multiple warheads. It remains to be seen what, if any of this, the government will approve.”
About Israel, he writes that it has a relatively small and steady nuclear arsenal. The nuclear stockpile is thought to include around 80 nuclear warheads for delivery by aircraft and ballistic missiles. Nonetheless, there are rumors about modernization.
“One rumor concerns an upgrade of the land-based ballistic missile force from the current Jericho II to a longer-range Jericho III missile based on the Shavit space launch vehicle.”
About North Korea, he writes that because its nuclear arsenal is still in its infancy, most efforts to develop a deliverable nuclear weapons capability can essentially be considered modernizations. “Potential nuclear-capable delivery systems include the Scud C and Nodong short-range missiles, the Musudan medium-range missile, and the Hwasong-13 (KH-08) and Taepo Dong long-range missiles. The KH-08 and Musudan have yet to be test-flown; the Taepo Dong has been successfully flown only as a space launch vehicle. After three nuclear explosive tests, there is no authoritative public information that North Korea has yet test-flown a re-entry vehicle intended to deliver a nuclear warhead.”
The full article, “Nuclear Weapons Modernization: A Threat to the NPT?,” is available online.