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The American Nuclear Arsenal

The American Nuclear Arsenal

US B-61 Nuclear bombs on a bomb rack, raised from their storage site for mounting on an aircraft. SOURCE: United States Department of Defense (SSGT Phil Schmitten) - DefenseLINK Multimedia Gallery, asset DFST8712392.

The information in the chart below (and some of the numbers cited in the text) comes from a report compiled in late 2013. Some of the numbers have since changed, slightly, but the information about delivery systems and other information remains accurate.  If you would like to contribute to this compilation, please see our projects page.

The chart below shows an estimate of the current American stockpile in detail. Dates for upgrades are those previously carried out or those planned as part of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) 3+2 modernization plan, or by the Defense Department.  The numbers on the chart are estimates produced from multiple, conflicting sources. Overall, the United States stockpile consists of approximately 2,150 deployed warheads, with another 2,650 in reserve, for a total of 4,650 (Kristensen and Norris 2013). In addition, there are another 3,000 or so warheads awaiting dismantlement.

The above chart draws from multiple sources including Kristensen and Norris 2013, NNSA 2013, O’Rourke 2013, SIPRI 2013, Woolf 2013, the Missile Threat website of the George C. Marshall and Claremont Institutes (www.missilethreat.com) and the nuclear information project at the Federation of Atomic Scientists (www.fas.org). Data was frequently conflicted or inconsistent and required interpretation. Therefore, these estimates are the authors own, and it remains a work in progress. If you have input, please see our projects page to contribute.

The current U.S. modernization plan, in addition to revitalizing the nuclear weapons research, development, and production infrastructure, envisions replacing the existing arsenal with three ballistic missile warheads and two air delivered systems (NNSA 2014). This would essentially maintain the present arsenal shown below. The NNSA is the division of the Department of Energy that builds and maintains American nuclear warheads for the Department of Defense (DoD). Launch vehicles and platforms are the purview of the DoD.   

On the launch vehicle and delivery system front, the Air Force and Navy are both pursuing modernization programs that seek to replace or upgrade existing systems. Minuteman III missiles have undergone consistent improvements since their initial fielding, and current plans seek to upgrade all existing ICBMs planned for retention under New START by 2020. The Ohio Class submarines of the U.S. Navy will also require replacement between 2027 and 2040. Current plans call for a new boat, currently in the design phase to replace them (O’Rourke 2013).

The B-52 continues its 60-plus years of service, and continues to undergo upgrades. It is currently the only aircraft in the inventory able to carry nuclear cruise missiles. The B-2 bombers designated for the nuclear mission are not capable of carrying cruise missiles, only B-61s, a capability they share with F-16s and planned F-35s in the tactical role. There are no current plans for replacing either the B-52 or the B-2 in the nuclear role.

The Air Force is working with the NNSA on a B61 Life Extension Program (LEP) that consolidates and improves the B61 air dropped nuclear bomb. This program is controversial, and has several hurdles to overcome, political and technical. If the current plan supported it would effectively eliminate tactical nuclear weapons from U.S. arsenals (SOURCE?). Likewise, there are plans to modernize other warheads as part of the 3+2 concept, though that remains a moving target. Due to sequester and Congressional opposition to some of the modernization programs, which come with a steep price tag, NNSA has deferred some of the modernization programs to future budget years (NNSA 2013). Even with full funding, the majority of the stockpile will not complete modernization until after New START sunsets.

The United States has reduced or eliminated most of its non-strategic weapons. The only remaining deployed non-strategic weapons are the ninety or so B61-3 and B61-4 warheads deployed in Europe and Turkey. Portions of this deployed stockpile are for NATO allied use, though they remain in U.S. control. Several non-nuclear NATO allies maintain Dual Capable Aircraft (DCA) that can carry these B61 bombs. Most important of these is Turkey, where the U.S. deploys almost a third of these nuclear weapons.

The role of nuclear weapons within NATO remains a divisive and contentious issue within the alliance. The recent Lisbon conference in 2012 was unable to resolve the differences, despite a push by several nations, led by Germany, to remove those weapons from their territory. Problematic for the alliance is the role of the Turkey. The B61s at Injilik help contain Turkish nuclear ambitions and might play a role in deterring a nuclear Iran. 

The United States, like Russia, never declared the extent of its non-strategic stockpile, but agreements between President George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev in 1991 unilaterally and significantly reduced non-strategic weapons in Europe (Nichols, et al. 2012). The United States has effectively abandoned the tactical role for nuclear weapons, both physically and doctrinally. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) enunciates a view that places nuclear weapons solely in a deterrence role, and limits that deterrence. The Russian view is significantly different. These divergent views of non-strategic weapons represent a reversal of Cold War doctrines, when NATO and the United States perceived their own conventional force weakness and sought to implement tactical nuclear weapons as a check on the Soviet Union.


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Russian National Security Strategy and Nuclear Weapons

Russian National Security Strategy and Nuclear Weapons

New START and the myths of Strategic Arms Control

New START and the myths of Strategic Arms Control