How Many Nuclear Weapons Does the U.S. Have? Don’t Ask Congress…

December 17, 2013
Lisbeth Gronlund
Former contributor

A fascinating 2-minute video from Global Zero features short surprise interviews with members of Congress, who are asked the simple question: How many nuclear weapons does the U.S. have? Most couldn’t answer the question and resorted to responses like “I don’t have the exact number,” “It’s classified” and “It changes every day.” The two who provided numbers responded with “300” and “more than 15,000.” According to the Global Zero press release, the organization polled more than 70 members of Congress and “99% of then did not know—even roughly speaking—how many nuclear weapons the United States has.”

(How many does the U.S. have? According to the most authoritative account, by Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris, the U.S. deploys about 2,150 nuclear weapons on aircraft, and land-based and submarine-based missiles. It has an additional estimated 2,500 weapons in reserve storage, for a total arsenal of about 4,650. On top of that, there are some 3,000 weapons awaiting dismantlement, for a grand total of roughly 7,700.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, the American public is also fairly ignorant about the size of the U. S. nuclear arsenal.

Trident missile test launch

Trident missile test launch. Photo: Official U.S. Navy Imagery

A 2004 poll asked Americans “How many nuclear weapons do you think the U.S. has in the U.S., or on submarines, that are ready to be used on short notice?” The median estimate was 200, and only 18% gave an estimate of 1,000 weapons or more. Yet at the time the United States deployed some 6,000 nuclear weapons, more than 2,000 of which were on high alert and could be launched on short notice. Thus, the answers were ten times too low. Even more interesting, the respondents wanted to reduce the arsenal further. When asked “How many nuclear weapons do you think the U.S. needs to make sure other countries are deterred from attacking it?,” the median response was 100.

In a 2007 poll, Americans were asked a similar question—they were asked to give their “best guess” of how many nuclear weapons the United States had. In this case, the median response was 1,000. At that time, the deployed and reserve weapons totaled about 10,000. The answers were again ten times too low. The respondents were then asked the same second question: “How many nuclear weapons do you think the U.S. needs to have to make sure other countries are deterred from attacking it?” The median answer was 500—which was only five percent of the actual U.S. arsenal.

While these Americans were wrong about the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, they got one thing right: the United States doesn’t need nearly as many nuclear weapons as it has.