Country Report: United States

Under legal obligations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United States must make continuous efforts towards nuclear disarmament, and yet, the U.S. continues to make plans to modernize their nuclear forces. BASIC monitors the nuclear policies and the nuclear reduction efforts of the United States in our Getting to Zero updates. Read the summaries below in reverse chronological order.


August 2012

The recent cost escalation of the B61 Life Extension Program (LEP) was cited as a growing concern during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. The National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) cost estimate for the B61 Life Extension Program (LEP) has doubled, now reaching a total of $8 billion. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Democrat-California) who was presiding over the hearing, disclosed that the Department of Defense’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office has produced an even higher estimate, at $10 billion. After adding the expense of a new guided tail kit, each bomb may cost upwards of $28 million each, according to an estimate by Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists. The B61 serves both strategic and tactical aircraft. About 200 of the 400 estimated B61 bombs are based in Europe as part of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said on August 1 during a House Armed Services Committee hearing that sequestration would negatively affect the research and development work for the Ohio-class submarine replacement program (SSBN-X), with the potential for eventually slowing down the overall program.

The Obama administration has reportedly completed the Presidential Nuclear Guidance, a process which includes determining the future size of the United States’ launch-ready nuclear weapons forces. The Associated Press was reporting that the process may lead to a new number for the deployed nuclear arsenal between 1,000 and 1,100 weapons. Although the guidance has been anticipated for months, the administration might wait for an official announcement until after the November presidential election.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released an unclassified report on changes in nuclear weapons targeting since 1991. The report concludes that:

“The fundamental objectives of U.S. nuclear deterrence policy have remained largely consistent since 1991, even as the threat environment and the size of the nuclear weapons stockpile have changed. The current process for developing nuclear targeting and employment guidance has remained consistent. However, the structure of the nuclear war plan, and the categories and number of targets in the plan, have changed.”

An 82-year-old nun and two other peace activists breached security at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oakridge, Tennessee on July 28. The protesters reportedly broke through three security fences and reached a storage warehouse for bomb-grade uranium. The breach has led to security reviews and the temporary shut-down of operations at the plant.

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June 2012

The Presidential Nuclear Guidance Review was in its final stages at the beginning of June. Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Gen. C. Robert Kehler, indicated during a presentation at the Council on Foreign Relations on May 30 that STRATCOM’s analysis was done, “but that the overall effort is still under review.” The entire process is to produce a new presidential “policy directive”, new war plans, a revised list of targets and other requirements for nuclear forces. The review will inform the next round of arms control negotiations and identify where cuts could be made in the U.S. nuclear arsenal in order to go to levels lower than those agreed under New START. Gen. Kehler thought the United States would be able to meet New START implementation requirements well before the deadline of February 2018. He added that assessing possible reductions beyond the treaty ceiling was still going on, but refused to provide details.

Gen. Kehler responded to a question about a Global Zero Commission’s proposal to delay the ability to fire deployed nuclear weapons by 72 hours, saying that he would not be comfortable with such a delay given the current threat environment. The Air Force general said that before allowing such a restriction on U.S. forces, he would want some way to verify that no one else could launch a surprise attack on the United States.

The Obama Administration requested nearly $7.6 billion for funding weapons activities in the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) budget for FY2013, a five percent increase from $7.2 billion in FY2012 (p. 104), but $372 million below last year’s projected request. The cost of the B61 Life Extension Program (LEP) has increased from about $4 billion to an estimated $6 billion. Included among these weapons are an estimated 180 bombs assigned to tactical nuclear forces in NATO Europe. The NNSA budget would delay by at least five years the construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility (CMRRNF) for new warhead pits at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Designs and plans for the facility have repeatedly undergone cost increases, recently reaching up to estimates of $3.7-5.9 billion.

DoD’s budget cuts are threatening the Navy’s intended objective of producing 12 SSBN(X) nuclear-weapons submarines before the projected deadline, with a delay in the start of construction of the Trident-armed boats, from 2019 to 2021. Under the FY2013 budget, the SSBN fleet would drop to ten boats for much of the 2030s, and then return to twelve by 2042 (see the chart on page 10 of this Congressional Research Service report). The first SSBN(X) is expected to hit waters by 2031; and the total lifetime cost of the new submarine fleet is estimated at $347 billion.

The House Armed Services Committee version of the annual defense authorization bill aimed to condition implementation of New START on a higher budget for nuclear weapons production facilities. Strategic Armed Forces Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) placed an amendment to the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act to this effect. President Obama has threatened to veto any bill that would “impinge on the President’s ability to implement the New START Treaty and to set U.S. nuclear weapons policy.” Other areas of dispute in the House version of the bill, which has yet to be debated in the Senate, include $100 million in funding for an East Coast missile defense site.

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February 2012

New defense strategic guidance increases emphasis on cost savings and Asia; Pentagon announces two-year delay in next generation submarines ahead of full budget roll out

President Barack Obama made a special appearance on January 5 at the Pentagon to lead off press conferences introducing the Defense Department’s new defense strategic guidance and a report that lays out “Priorities for 21st Century Defense” (“Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership”). The President, Secretary Leon Panetta, and other Defense officials timed their remarks to come several weeks ahead of the Administration’s budget roll out, which is expected to face more controversy than usual because it will require reductions in the rate of spending by $487 billion over the next 10 years. The new strategy emphasizes an ever-increasing focus on East Asia and the Pacific, and the Middle East. The President highlighted the need to cut down on “old Cold War-era systems”. The report specifically refers to sustaining a strong U.S. nuclear posture, but also points out that “it is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy” (original emphasis, p. 5).

Secretary Panetta led a follow-on press conference on January 26 after the Defense Department released details for the FY2013 budget in a white paper. Although no new cuts in the nuclear arsenal were accompanying the budget, he announced that the Navy would be delaying by two years procurement of the replacement fleet for the Ohio-class nuclear weapons submarines. Panetta said the delay would allow for easier management of the program while the Navy continued to try to reduce the cost of the new submarines, often referred to as SSBN(X).

The white paper, titled: “Defense Budget Priorities and Choices,” said the delay would not undermine the ‘partnership” with the United Kingdom, but could “create challenges in maintaining at-sea-presence requirements in the 2030s.” As part of the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act signed into law at the end of December, Congress is requiring that Strategic Command and the Navy report back by the end of June with options that would meet future security requirements while taking into account tighter budget constraints for the next generation of SSBNs.

The DOD white paper also noted that the Administration’s ongoing review of nuclear deterrence “will address the potential for maintaining our deterrent with a different nuclear force” (p. 8).

Unclassified details of latest threat assessment released
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper provided an unclassified statement on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s (IC) Worldwide Threat Assessment before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on January 31. The IC has concluded that “A mass attack by foreign terrorist groups involving a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) weapon in the United States is unlikely in the next year,” however, the community still worries about a limited attack using CBR in the United States or against interests overseas (p.2). (See the Iran and North Korea country reports below for additional highlights.)

Changes in key U.S. security posts
Ellen Tauscher is expected to make an official announcement in February that she will be stepping down from her position as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control. Although a formal confirmation for her replacement would probably not occur until after the election cycle, Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller was expected to fill the position in the interim. According to The Cable, Tauscher will work part-time to continue her role as lead negotiator on missile defense cooperation with Russia and also on the bilateral commission on strategic stability with Russia. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy announced that she will be stepping down. The President has nominated Principal Deputy James (“Jim”) Miller to serve as her replacement.

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November 2011

U.S. lawmakers have sought to offer proposals for how nuclear weapons-related programs will be treated among pending budget reductions, which currently face a deadline of November 23. Representative Ed Markey (Democrat-Massachusetts) has called for cutting $20 billion a year from nuclear weapons-related programs for the next ten years, which he has highlighted in a letter to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the “Super Committee”. Senator Tom Coburn (Republican-Oklahoma) has also called for reducing the nuclear weapons force structure, saying such cuts could save $79 billion. However, support for reductions in nuclear weapons spending is not unanimous. The House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner (Republican-Ohio) and panel member Martin Heinrich (Democrat-New Mexico), called for Obama to request again this year a funding anomaly to protect nuclear weapons-related programs from pending government cuts.

The United States continued its strategic guidance review in order to plan for the military’s potential use of nuclear weapons. The review process with the military is set to conclude by the end of this year, and may identify where cuts could be made in order to go to levels lower than those agreed under New START, and could also help to inform where budget savings might be made. The entire process will go into next year, and will include the production of a new presidential “policy directive”, new war plans, a revised list of targets and other requirements for nuclear forces.

Shortly before ending his term as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen was asked by BASIC Program Director Anne Penketh what his personal views were on possibly eliminating one leg of the nuclear triad. He responded:

“At some point in time, that triad becomes very, very expensive, you know, obviously, the smaller your nuclear arsenal is. And it’s – so at some point in time, in the future, certainly I think a decision will have to be made in terms of whether we keep the triad or drop it down to a dyad. I didn’t see us near that in this recent – over the last couple of years, with respect to the New START. But I spent enough time to know, at some point, that is going to be the case.”

The transcript from the session from September is available online at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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July 2011

The U.S. Defense Department is conducting a review of the prospects for arms reductions beyond the caps set by New START. The evaluation assesses U.S. deterrence requirements, and could potentially advocate changes in targeting requirements and force posture. It is unclear whether further reductions will necessitate any radical change in nuclear strategy. The initial results of this nuclear guidance review will most likely be delivered to President Obama by this fall.

The future of the 12 SSBN(X) submarines slated to replace the current fleet of Ohio Class ballistic missile submarines is facing scrutiny because of the program’s potential to overwhelm the Navy’s budget. Construction of the first new sub is currently estimated to cost around $7 billion, and every subsequent submarine would cost about $5 billion if current plans are met. While Congress recently approved a Defense Appropriations Bill that includes $1.3 billion for the new sub, U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, the outgoing vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on July 14 suggested to the Defense Writers Association that deterrence in general should be addressed in the context of future security threats to help make decisions about the nuclear triad. Cartwright also acknowledged that he and others are looking beyond the additional $400 billion in cost savings President Obama has asked the Pentagon to find, indicating that they are open to examining a number of options across programs. This has led some to speculate whether this could open up consideration of possible savings to be made by reducing the size of the submarine missile and adapting existing Virginia-class designs.

Another program facing an uncertain future is the B61 Life Extension Program (LEP), still under design. The current cost estimate for completion of the LEP by 2022 is about $4 billion. The new variant of the B61 bomb (mod 12) is to be coupled with a nuclear version of the F-35 jet. This program in itself has seen a series of cost overruns, the most recent putting production estimates at $771 million and a further $1 trillion for operating and supporting the plane over its lifetime. Senators have questioned the feasibility of continuing support for the F-35, with Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) describing the program as “a train wreck.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives on July 15 approved legislation cutting nearly $1 billion in funding for the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration’s weapons and nonproliferation programs. These will face cuts of $498 million and $428 million, respectively. The Senate is not expected to take up its version until after the August recess.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced the United States conducted subcritical nuclear tests at a Nevada underground test site in December 2010 and in February of this year.

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May 2011

The United States is undergoing a re-evaluation of its nuclear force levels and targeting. President Obama’s National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon, wrote in the Financial Times on April 17 that the evaluation will develop new options for more reductions in deployed strategic, and also “non-deployed and tactical nuclear weapons,” and prepare the United States for further arms control negotiations with Russia. In an interview with Arms Control Today, White House coordinator for arms control and WMD terrorism, Gary Samore, said of the review, “It’s likely to take quite a bit of time because we’ve reached the level in our forces where further reductions will raise questions about whether we retain the triad or whether we go to a system that only is a dyad. Those are important considerations. Reductions below the level that we have now are going to require some more fundamental questions about force structure.”

When asked during a Pentagon news briefing on May 18 whether he still would consider eliminating one leg of the nuclear triad within the context of budget pressures, Defense Secretary Robert Gates responded, “If the political leadership of this country decides that it must reduce the investment in defense by hundreds of billions of dollars, then I don’t think we can afford to have anything that’s off the table.”

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) admonished the Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to incorporate long-term risk planning into the Life Extension Programs (LEP) for nuclear warheads, or they could incur serious schedule and cost problems.The GAO focused its report on how the United States will be hard-pressed to meet its current B-61 LEP goals. The full B-61 LEP is to combine four existing B-61 variants into one that would ultimately be assigned to both U.S. strategic aircraft and the tactical nuclear-capable aircraft in Europe for NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements.

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March 2011

Threat assessments

In early March, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper identified the major threats facing the United States, judging China as the most serious state threat, particularly for its nuclear arsenal. Russia was placed second, primarily on the grounds that the United States recently signed New START with Russia, whereas it has no comparable treaties with China. His remarks ran counter to general White House messaging that emphasizes North Korea and Iran. Clapper holds that those countries do not have the capabilities to seriously threaten the United States. The FBI has suggested that the chance of a WMD-strike on the United States was 100% “at some point” and would most likely be carried out by a terrorist organization, a lone actor or a criminal group.

Next generation of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines

The next class of nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) might feature 16 missile tubes. The current Ohio-class submarines have 24, although under New START four missile tubes on each submarine will be “inactivated,” allowing for 20 missiles per boat. The decision to opt for 16 tubes prompted questioning by some members of the House Armed Services Committee, who worried that the drop from 20-tubes might weaken the U.S. nuclear deterrent. The new head of the Strategic Forces Command, Gen. Robert Kehler, has said that 16 tubes should be sufficient to meet any possible future threats.
Nuclear guidance

President Barack Obama last year ordered a review of key nuclear guidance on force structure and deployment, and it has recently been revealed that the Department of Defense has started the work with the intention of completing it later this year. This has prompted 41 Republican Senators, some of whom voted for ratification of New START with the Russians, to sign a letter initiated by Sen. Jon Kyl, urging the President to consult with Congress before making any significant changes to the guidance.

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February 2011

The Obama Administration released its FY 2012 budget request on February 14. The nuclear weapons-related budget under the Energy Department includes increases in funding for facilities and warhead life extension programs, but decreases in funding for non-proliferation (compared to FY2011 request) which could weaken the President’s goal to secure all “loose” nuclear material by 2014. Experts also were noting how the reliance on continuing resolutions (meant to fill in for the absence of a congressionally-approved budget for FY 2011) have harmed nuclear security-related funds.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the semi-autonomous agency that overseas the Energy Department’s nuclear security and weapons-related activities, would receive  a $1.2 billion increase over FY 2010 levels for “weapons activities.” The increase results in a total of $7.6 billion for these activities, out of an overall budget request of $11.8 billion for the NNSA.

The Defense Department FY 2012 budget related to nuclear weapons delivery vehicles included $1.07 billion for developing the follow-on nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) to replace the Ohio-class fleet.  It also allocated funds for building a new generation of long-range bombers that could be manned or unmanned, and carry conventional or nuclear warheads, but left out figures for developing a new generation of inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

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December 2010

As part of the political bargaining that took place for building Senate support around New START, the Obama Administration agreed to additional funding for the nuclear weapons complex. Senator Jon Kyl (Republican-Arizona) managed to convince the Administration in November to add an additional $4.1 billion beyond previous commitments of an additional $80 billion over 10 years. (Those figures do not include amounts for delivery vehicles.) Near the end of the Senate debate over the treaty, Senator Kyl proposed an amendment to the resolution on ratification to hasten funding for the complex. The amendment passed by voice vote, but the Senator still voted against ratification.

Correspondence from 2009 released by Wikileaks via The Guardian has revealed that a U.S. official based in Caracas said that he did not have serious concerns about the Venezuelan nuclear program. “Although rumors that Venezuela is providing Iran with Venezuelan-produced uranium may help burnish the government’s revolutionary credentials, there seems to be little basis in reality to the claims,” said a cable from John Caulfield, deputy chief of mission. A Venezuelan nuclear scientist told him that the Venezuelan nuclear project was insufficiently supported by the government and was just “political theater.”

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November 2010

The Obama Administration was hoping for the U.S. Senate to ratify the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) now that the U.S. mid-term elections are over. If the treaty is not brought to the floor before the end of the year, then prospects for the treaty dim in a Senate where more members will be reluctant to hand the President a foreign policy achievement, and votes in favor of the treaty will be more difficult to muster.

Fifty inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) went offline on October 23 at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, a story which was first reported by The Atlantic. A faulty underground computer cable connection is thought to have possibly caused the disruption in communication between launch control and the missiles. Air Force personnel contend that they retained the ability to launch the missiles and monitor their security during that period. However, Senator John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, claimed that “The recent failure reinforces the need for the United States to maintain 450 ICBMs to ensure a strong nuclear defense. If new START had been in place on Sunday, we would have immediately been below an acceptable level to deter threats from our enemies.” A source within the government who requested anonymity, said that 50 ICBMs going offline for 45 minutes would not significantly affect the U.S. nuclear deterrent: “Even if we go down to START levels, we’re talking about 1,550 deployed weapons. And nothing in START prevents us from upgrading that part of the nuclear deterrent – something DoD [Department of Defense] has already said they plan to do.” According to Bruce Blair, former ICBM missileer and now leader of Global Zero, the incident should instead raise more concerns about the potential for the unauthorized launch of nuclear weapons. He calls for the United States, and Russia, to relax the alert status of their missiles to help reduce these dangers.

The Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have formally criticized the United States for performing a subcritical nuclear test in Nevada, which occurred on September 15. The test involved bombarding plutonium just short of the point that would trigger a nuclear explosion, and thus was not a breach of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the United States has signed and followed, but not ratified. It was the United States’ first subcritical test since August 2006. Nagasaki governor Hodo Nakamura criticized the test as “deeply deplorable” as he had hoped that the Obama Administration would take a leading stance in trying to reduce nuclear weapons globally. Mayor Akira of Hiroshima also wrote to President Obama, saying that the test “runs counter to the spirit of the CTBT, which you are working to ratify.”

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