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Is Obama Right About Our Nuclear Arsenal? May 24, 2010

Posted by Michael in News.

Personally, I like having these bad boys in order to scare the shit out of everyone:

If you really piss us off, you're going to regret it.

However, Obama might be right about this.  Drastically reducing America’s nuclear arsenal might make sense, just from the perspective of saving money and dialing down the tension that these arsenals create, according to this article:

THE Pentagon has now told the public, for the first time, precisely how many nuclear weapons the United States has in its arsenal: 5,113. That is exactly 4,802 more than we need.

via Op-Ed Contributors – An Arsenal We Can All Live With – NYTimes.com.

Huh?  A reduction of over 90%?

OK, I realize we are talking about something in the NYT, but the authors are not hippy peaceniks.  They are civilian contractors for the Department of Defense, and they emphatically agree that America must maintain an intimidating nuclear deterrent.  Meaning, we have to be able to scare the shit out of anyone.

The only issue is, how many nukes are needed?

The key issue is survivability in the event that we do not deliver the first strike.  The authors point out that the technology, mega-tonnage of individual warheads, launch platforms, and technology have all changed drastically since the Cuban Missile Crisis.   We still need to be able to destroy anyone, even if we are responding to a first strike.

They say, we need 311 nukes, exactly, to destroy anyone who pisses us off.  These nukes have to be properly deployed on air, submarine, and land-based platforms, with a proper allowance for maintenance downtime.

Check it out.  I don’t know if they are right, but they sound sensible to me. And a hat tip to the NYT for publishing something thoughtful that is not obviously biased towards the lefties.


1. geoff - May 24, 2010

Normally one starts from an assessment of the threat and combines that with national security goals to arrive at the appropriate suite of arms. These gentlemen just divvied up some nukes among different delivery systems, pulling the numbers for each system out of their behinds.

I especially like the way they took their targeting data from 45 years ago (the McNamara quote).

The fact is, if you are simply trying to attack soft targets (like population and industrial centers) of a single country, 311 is probably enough. But that’s not a likely scenario, is it?

2. Michael - May 24, 2010

But that’s not a likely scenario, is it?

Yes, it is, if you are talking about a credible and massive deterrent to a first strike by Russia, China, or even North Korea, which will take them back to the Stone Age. The other 4,802 nukes are just idle inventory which costs a lot of money to maintain.

If you are talking about a first strike by us against a country like, say, Iran, we need less than ten nukes to take them back to the Stone Age.

3. geoff - May 24, 2010

Yes, it is, if you are talking about a credible and massive deterrent to a first strike.

That’s only one scenario among many. And it’s the least likely. As a former missile guy, I can assure you that none of our design requirements were based on that scenario.

4. daveintexas - May 24, 2010

I don’t think they’re all that worried about those old SM-65s. We retired those back when you were playing the clarinet.

5. Michael - May 24, 2010

Last summer, Cathy and I visited the museum at Los Alamos, by the way. It is very informative. The money being spent on maintaining and modernizing our nuclear inventory is really impressive, in the absence of any ability to test the warheads (due to treaties we have signed). The really impressive thing is the sophistication of the computer modeling they do to maintain and improve these weapons, without ever letting one go boom. They are doing maintenance and design changes, and they test them against a computer model that complies with the treaties.

It’s pretty cool, and they make all this information public for a reason. They want everyone to know what they are up to.

Because they want everyone to be scared. They know that the Russians, English, French and Chinese have no similar capability, and there is substantial doubt that half the Russian ICBMs don’t even work anymore. The Russians are lucky if they can get the silo doors open for routine satellite inspections.

6. geoff - May 24, 2010

What are design requirements were based on was the suite of scenarios where a limited attack would be detected, and we would need to strike hardened targets like silos and command bunkers. There were thousands of those sites in the USSR.

Striking population centers was not considered too likely because: 1) it would have sucked; 2) they’re not usually time-critical targets; and 3) they’re accessible by conventional weapons.

The MAD scenario was popular in the media (due to their macabre tastes), but it wasn’t seriously considered in the 80’s.

7. Michael - May 24, 2010

At Los Alamos, our computers track the degradation of the plastic insulation on individual wires in our nuclear inventory, and those wires are replaced as necessary.

Do you think any other country can do that?

Nah. Me neither.

8. geoff - May 24, 2010

The problem with no nuclear testing is not the nukes – it’s the nuclear effects testing. Way back when, one of my jobs was to interface with the Defense Nuclear Agency on underground nuclear tests. We would put materials into the tunnel and see how they were affected by the tests. There were a lot of attempts to develop simulation methods that would replace the nuclear exposure, but in my day, none were satisfactory.

Hopefully they’ve done better since.

9. Michael - May 24, 2010

There were thousands of those sites in the USSR.

Indeed so, way back when. But Russia is demographically imploding. They are not really a threat to us; their decline has already been cooked in the books. They are struggling to remain relevant.

Their main threat is not us — it’s rapidly growing Muslim minorities within their boundaries, and on their fringe.

Have you heard about the war in Chechnya?

This is a part of Russia that is controlled by drug gangs.

Kinda like parts of Mexico.

10. Vmaximus - May 24, 2010

I do too.

11. geoff - May 24, 2010

The problem with no nuclear testing is not the nukes

I should say that it’s not a problem with new nukes. Understanding aging and conducting aging surveillance are obviously still big problems. It’s a little disconcerting that the models we’re relying on today don’t have any data for corroboration. Oh well.

12. geoff - May 24, 2010

They are not really a threat to us; their decline has already been cooked in the books.

Could be, in which case a decent workup of our nuclear force structure based on current-day assessments of the threat would be appropriate. But that’s not the basis of the “311 nukes” claim of the authors.

13. TGSG - May 24, 2010

Their main threat is not us

Is the possibility of a rogue general officer (or two or…) in the Russian services a threat to us?

I’m thinkin out loud here….

major threats..

1) China
2) Russia
3) Mid east
4) Threat to Nato allies from who or whatever

take the number above and multiply by 4… just in case, 311= 1244 rounded to 1500 minimum. That’s a starting point that makes me feel safer in a crazy crazy world getting crazier by the month.

14. Michael - May 25, 2010

It’s a little disconcerting that the models we’re relying on today don’t have any data for corroboration.

They do have data, lots of it — but they just test parts. The yield is just arithmetic, and we know what the yield will do.

You should go to Los Alamos. The computer model for a nuke has billions of lines of code, and can project 3D imaging so engineers can stand in a room and look at its guts from inside and watch how it works. They are not just maintaining nukes, they are designing improvements to the inventory. It’s really impressive. The computer modeling at Los Alamos essentially is an end run around the test ban treaties. They are pretty open about this. We don’t trigger nukes because we don’t have to. The computers do it for us.

I was sorta shocked that they make this capability public, because it seemed like top secret information. Then I realized — the whole point of doing this is to make sure everyone understands that our nuclear arsenal is in better shape than theirs, and is more advanced. So they advertise this.

15. Russ from Winterset - May 25, 2010

I wasn’t a nuclear engineering student for very long (one semester, before I switched to Civil), but I do remember one important thing about all things nuclear:

If you don’t have a backup, you’re screwed.

If you only have one backup, the primary system will eventually go down and you’ll be screwed.

If you have two backups and you lose the primary system, you’ll only be one breakdown away from being screwed.

The lesson? Multiple redundancy is your friend.
The lesson? Multiple redundancy is your friend.
The lesson? Multiple redundancy is your friend.

See what I mean?

16. Russ from Winterset - May 25, 2010

If the number 311 is a true reflection of what we need to preserve the peace, then let’s consider all the other factors.

Let’s consider that up to half of our arsenal might be “in the shop” at any one time receiving repair & replacement of vital components. In an era of aging nuclear packages, this isn’t unreasonable.

Let’s consider that our arsenal contains big strategic “crowd pleasers” and smaller tactical nukes that are designed for specific hardened targets. Let’s figure that our arsenal is split 50-50 between small & large, and consider that half of the warheads will be inappropriate for any desired function if, God forbid, we need them.

Let’s consider that we should figure that half of our capability could possibly malfunction and/or be knocked out in the event of a nuclear exchange. And let’s not forget that our nuclear capability has to be spread planet-wide. If you need to deliver a nuke to North Korea, it probably isn’t doing you much good sitting in a sub parked off Iceland. So let’s figure another 50-50 split between “useable” and “unuseable” nukes.

This gives you a multiplier of 8 times (2x2x2), which would result in an arsenal size of about 2,400 warheads: and then figure in the “problem I don’t know about yet”, or “Murphy rule” factor, and you get about 4,800 warheads, which is damn near what we have in stock.

17. geoff - May 25, 2010

We don’t trigger nukes because we don’t have to. The computers do it for us.

Well, there are detractors who do not have complete confidence in the computer models. Certainly what Los Alamos (and Sandia and LLNL) has done is impressive, but there’s nothing like an actual systems test to find systems problems.

Doing a little background reading, I came upon this page, which discusses the status of our nuclear forces and the “New Triad” resulting from the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review. Note that the reductions in nuclear warheads to the 1700-2200 range are supposed to have been coordinated with improved capabilities in other areas of the New Triad. This was supposed to offset the effects of reduction in our inventory.

One the key legs of the New Triad? Missile defense.

Oops. Can we haz nukes back?

18. Sky Net Computer System - May 25, 2010

We got it under control.

19. xbradtc - May 25, 2010

The other 4,802 nukes are just idle inventory which costs a lot of money to maintain

Nukes are cheap. The expensive part is the command and control and support systems. And that is going to be in place whether we have three hundred warheads, or 30,000. So trimming the inventory isn’t gonna save much money.

As for faith in computer modeling- look at all the wonderful models for AGW. Yeah, I’d like to see some empirical data to backstop the models.

And here’s a dirty little secret- fewer warheads actually make nuclear war MORE likely. At some point, your adversary may decide they can survive your strike. Especially in an age of missile defense. And with that, the temptation to actually fight a nuclear war goes up.

20. How many nukes are enough? | Bring the heat, Bring the Stupid - May 25, 2010

[…] Innocent Bystanders has a good discussion going about this. What do you think? […]

21. TXMarko - May 25, 2010

I’m with geoff and xbradtc on this one.

Scattered thoughts:

The 311 number sounds like what Iran will have in a few years, not something that a fading Superpower just begging to be tested should have on hand.

Russia will continue to remain relevant until they have zero nukes. How many do they have now? I’m not sure even they know the answer to that. But most of the hardware they have is serviceable (they still flight test dummy warheads to the Kamchatka Peninsula to this day) and they are quite accurate. And mobile. Topol-M, for example.

I fully expect Pakistan/India to be the first nuke exchange. Once they start, all bets are off, and it is best to have too many than to be caught short.

22. Tushar - May 26, 2010

>>major threats..
>>1) China
>>2) Russia
>>3) Mid east
>>4) Threat to Nato allies from who or whatever


you are forgetting the brown menace emanating from India. They will terrorize you with bad pronunciations on a Tech support call, and bombard you with half-price slushies.

There is no effective deterrent.

23. Tushar - May 26, 2010


I am not worried about Indian and Pakistani forces exchanging nuclear gunfire. Their brass is mature enough to understand the implications. It is the Pakistani Officers with sympathies for the terrorists who won’t mind pushing a button on their behalf that I am worried about.

In either case, Pakistani nukes are technologically not much different from Fat Boy and Little Man. Too big and unwieldy to smuggle across, and beyond the capabilities of the terrorists to launch using a bomber or missile.

24. compos mentis - May 26, 2010

Didn’t you guys read the Left Behind series? The antichrist takes power and gets rid of all but 10% of the nukes. He uses the remaining nukes to help hold power. Before you know it, we’ll be required to get branded, tattooed, or wear a computer chip under our skin before we can purchase anything.

Time to stock up on casserole ingredients.

25. KingShamus - May 27, 2010

Zombie Curtis LeMay saw this thread and drawled, “Buuuut I wanna see the cinders dance, errrrrrrrrrggggghhh brrrrraaaaaaiiiiiinnnnnnsssss.”

26. Jerry in Detroit - May 29, 2010

Nuclear weapons are fine but the threshold for using them are so high and the effects are so grave. For instance, India & Pakistan fought a number of wars until both sides developed nuclear weapons. Now, the cost of war is too high; peace or at least the absence of war must be maintained.

Three things have served to erode Pax Nuclear. First, the development of effective anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems. A limited strike can no longer be expected to disable the opposing side. Second, autonomous aircraft allow the delivery of the third; precision guided munitions. PGM has reached the point where one airplane can drop one bomb with a high expectation of destroying the target. Nuclear weapons are not really necessary when a limited decapitation strategy soon depletes the group that wishes to wage war.

So what I am saying is that nuclear disarmament is a sign of an impending war. There may be a few nuclear bombs launched but the overwhelming battle will be conventional.

27. geoff - May 29, 2010

PGM has reached the point where one airplane can drop one bomb with a high expectation of destroying the target.

PGM can’t defeat hardened targets, and aircraft do not have the response time required for a real-time counterattack. If you’re serious about defense, you don’t give up the triad. I think it’s true, though, that Russia and China were more than a little freaked out by the effectiveness of our conventional forces. They realized that their capabilities were 20 years behind, meaning that they would get hammered in any conflict where our C^3I was intact.

Of course they then immediately began working on ways to corrupt our C^3I, and on modernizing their own forces.

28. Michael - May 29, 2010

OK, Brainiac, I’ll be the one humble enough to ask. What is C^3I?

I figure, command, control, communications, and intelligence.

But I’m just guessing.

29. geoff - May 29, 2010

You got it.

30. Dave in Texas - May 29, 2010

Man, I haven’t used that expression in 20 years.

I think they added a C Geoff. Not sure what it is.

31. Russ from Winterset - May 29, 2010

You know what they say:

“I before 3, except after C”

32. Dave in Texas - May 29, 2010

ah.. the 4th C is computers now.

Defense technology passes me up.

33. geoff - May 30, 2010

Defense technology passes me up.

Yeah, I guess I do remember them adding a “C” after I got out. Vaguely. And that particular “C” is exactly where the Chinese have been spending quite a bit of time on countermeasures.

34. sf - May 31, 2010

“Drastically reducing America’s nuclear arsenal might make sense, just from the perspective of saving money and dialing down the tension that these arsenals create, according to [the NYT].”

Wow, that is some weapons-grade propaganda there.

So the Times thinks the cost of maintaining a supposedly-unneeded 4,800 nuclear weapons is “high”, eh? Compared to, what… the cost of a couple of U.S. cities getting hit with nukes?

Got a news flash for anyone who supports the authors of this article: Defense is expensive. But it is *far* more expensive to cut back defense to the point that some dumb-ass dictator decides it’s worthwhile to nuke NY harbor because he thinks we’re all bark and no bite.

Look, this NYT thing is pure Obama propaganda–gives Barry a hook to gut U.S. strategic defense. This is absolutely classic.

Yes, it costs bucks to maintain enough nukes to constitute a “don’t-even-think-about-it” deterrent. If the pinheads at the Times want to argue that *there is no longer any nuclear threat from any nation in the world* I’ll certainly listen to their argument. But they can’t make that point successfully. So they argue that we don’t need all that capability.

Next step: If NY is nuked, they’ll argue that we can’t retaliate in kind because we have so few nuclear weapons !

35. Michael - May 31, 2010

Yes, it costs bucks to maintain enough nukes to constitute a “don’t-even-think-about-it” deterrent.

SF, you should try reading the article before you criticize it. The authors do not dispute this point. They do not want to soften our nuclear deterrent. They merely opine on how many nukes are required, and on what kind of platforms, after allowing for maintenance downtime.

I suppose the exact number needed is endlessly debatable, but I suspect that few defense experts would deny that we are hoarding an inventory of nukes that is a multiple of what we could conceivably use to bomb any number of enemies back to the Stone Age, given current technology.

An even dicier issue is the actual effect of missile defense systems. Sure, they would be great as a counter to the threat of a rogue nuclear state like North Korea, Iran, or potentially Pakistan. But the Russians and Chinese are understandably nervous about the potentially destabilizing effect of these systems on the deterrent value of nuclear arsenals.

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