We Visualized the US Nuclear Arsenal. It’s Not Pretty.

, physicist & co-director, Global Security | September 15, 2017, 3:04 pm EST
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International security experts often refer to the twin goals of military policy: to minimize the risk of war and to minimize the damage should war start.

Because nuclear weapons are so destructive, the goal must be to eliminate—and not just minimize—the risk of nuclear war, which will require eliminating nuclear weapons.

Until then, it is essential that nations with nuclear weapons minimize both the risk and consequences of a nuclear war.

Numbers matter.

The consequences are directly related to the numbers of weapons used—which is limited by the number of weapons a nation has. Depending on the targets, the use of even a small number of weapons can result in horrific consequences.

For example, climate scientists using the latest climate models find that if India and Pakistan each used 50 of their weapons against the other’s cities, fires would inject so much soot into the atmosphere that the global climate would be affected for a decade. The decreased sunlight and lower temperatures would result in lower agricultural productivity and could lead to the starvation of over 1 billion people. This would be in addition to the people directly killed by the weapons.

Policy-makers and military officials often refer to the US nuclear arsenal as “our deterrent,” as if it were some sort of disembodied force rather than actual weapons. A “deterrent” is obviously a good thing, whereas “nuclear weapons” are more problematic. So, let’s take a look at what this “deterrent” actually consists of.

We have a new web graphic that displays all the US nuclear weapons. It provides a step-by-step visualization of the weapons the US deploys on land-based missiles in underground silos, on submarines, and on aircraft. All of these 1,740 weapons are ready for use.

But that is not all. The graphic then adds in the weapons the US keeps in storage for potential future use.

It all comes to a whopping 4,600 nuclear weapons.

Take a look—you can find more detail about the arsenal on the final page by hovering over each dot.

Policy matters, too.

Policy is what determines the risk of nuclear war.

As the graphic notes, the US keeps its land-based missiles on hair-trigger alert. Why? To allow the option of launching all these weapons in response to warning of an incoming attack from Russia. The warning is based on data from US satellites and ground-based radars, which is processed by computers.

No problem there, right? Wrong—not surprisingly, there have been false alarms in the past. Even more troubling, it takes only some 25 minutes for a missile to travel between Russia and the US. By the time the data has been analyzed, the president has about 10 minutes to decide whether or not to launch US missiles.

Which brings us to the next issue highlighted by the graphic: the president has the sole authority to use the 1,740 deployed nuclear weapons—meaning he or she can order an attack of any kind without the input of anyone else. Unless there is reason to think the president is incapacitated (e.g., drunk), the military is obligated to follow orders and launch.

Finally, it turns out that US nuclear weapons are not just a “deterrent” to dissuade other countries from using nuclear weapons first because the US could respond in kind. US policy also allows the first use of nuclear weapons against another country.

The US could reduce the risk of nuclear war by changing these three policies—by removing its land-based missiles from hair-trigger alert and eliminating launch-on-warning options from its war plans; by requiring the involvement of other people in any decision to use nuclear weapons; and by adopting a no-first-use policy. To reduce the potential consequences of war, it would need to dramatically reduce its arsenal.

And taking these steps would still leave the US with a strong “deterrent.”

Posted in: Nuclear Weapons

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  • Ryan Alt

    You forgot to mention how many warheads in the Russian arsenal are ready for immediate launch. It’s about 1800.

    • Lisbeth Gronlund

      This feature is only about the US nuclear arsenal!
      But your point about Russian alert levels is a good one, although it has far fewer than 1,800 weapons ready for immediate launch.

      First, it is only land-based missiles that are ready for immediate launch-and are the real problem. For example, the US keeps all 400 of its silo-based weapons on high alert so they can be launched within a matter of minutes. This is because they are vulnerable to being destroyed by an incoming attack, which puts the US in a “use it or lose it” situation. That’s why our graphic states that these 400 weapons are on “hair-trigger” alert. US submarine-based weapons would take perhaps 15 minutes to launch, but they are safe from attack because their location is unknown. They are not on hair-trigger alert.

      According to a June report from the Congressional Research Service, Russia will likely deploy 600 warheads on ICBMs by Feb 2018 to meet the New START compliance deadline. Whether all of these would be on “hair-trigger” alert is unclear, but 600 would be the maximum–not 1,800.

      You are also right that Russia no longer has a no-first-use policy–but it didn’t change this recently. It changed this policy in 2000.

      It may be that Russia’s policy has included the option of using nuclear weapons early in a conflict to “deescalate,” but Russia has not made such a declaration.

      Its 2000 Military Doctrine states that it reserves the right to use nuclear weapons “in response to large-scale aggression involving conventional weapons in situations that are critical for the national security of the Russian Federation and its allies.” Around that time, a high-level Russian military leader used the term “de-escalation” in reference to limited conflicts, but that does not appear in the 2000 Military Doctrine.

      Russian nuclear policy has evolved since then, and Russia has scaled back the situations under which it would use nuclear weapons first. Both the 2010 and 2014 Military Doctrines state that Russia “reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation involving the use of conventional
      weapons when the very existence of the state is under threat.” Using nuclear weapons when “the very existence of the state is threatened” is much more restrictive than allowing their use when “vital national security interests are at stake.”