Why President Obama revealed how many weapons are in the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

Why President Obama revealed how many weapons are in the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

Why President Obama revealed how many weapons are in the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

Military analysis.
May 7 2010 3:54 PM

Full Disclosure

Why President Obama revealed how many weapons are in the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

Fat Man nuclear device.
"Fat Man" nuclear device model

In an underreported bit of news this week, the Obama administration revealed how many weapons are in the U.S. nuclear stockpile. The number, which until now has been classified, turns out to be 5,113.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist. His latest book, 1959: The Year Everything Changed, is now out in paperback. His 1983 book on the nuclear strategists,The Wizards of Armageddon, is still in print.He can be reached at war_stories@hotmail.com.

Two reasonable reactions to this disclosure might be: Why was this number classified in the first place? And why the hell do we need 5,113 nuclear warheads?

It's a good bet that President Barack Obama meant to prompt precisely these responses.

There were three reasons for declassifying the stockpile numbers.

First, Obama does seem to have a genuine interest in lifting the cloak off government secrets that have no rationale for remaining secrets. And, especially since the Cold War ended 20 years ago, there is no good reason for keeping this information secret.

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Second, Obama hopes to prompt reciprocation from other nuclear-armed countries, especially Russia; for how can Washington and Moscow negotiate further reductions in nuclear arms if it's still a big secret how many arms each side has? (None of the other eight nuclear powers has publicized this sort of data; one, Israel, which is thought to have about 200 nuclear weapons, has a policy of not publicly acknowledging that it has any.)

Third, Obama hopes (perhaps with excessive optimism) that the move will help keep non-nuclear countries from building nuclear weapons themselves.

It is no coincidence, in any case, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the disclosure—and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates released the numbers—at the start of the United Nations' conference to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Some active nuclear wannabes justify their aspirations by arguing that the big powers, especially the United States, aren't living up to their obligations under the NPT—so why should they? More to the point, some neutral countries are reluctant to criticize the wannabes because they believe the charge of superpower hypocrisy.

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The NPT's key clause here is Article 6, which requires countries possessing nuclear weapons "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament."

The language is deliberately vague ("to pursue negotiations," not necessarily to negotiate; "measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race," not necessarily measures to stop the arms race). Still, by releasing the stockpile numbers, Obama means to show that the United States, by any reasonable standard, has been fulfilling its obligations.

He has released not just the current numbers but the numbers, year by year, dating back to 1962. (The numbers for 1949-61 were declassified, after much internal debate, in 1994.) And it turns out that in 1967, the year when the NPT was signed, the United States had 31,255 nuclear warheads. (This was the all-time high.) In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, we still had 22,217. Over the next four years, as the Cold War's demise sank in, the number was cut in half, to 11,511. For the next 10 years, this number stayed pretty much unchanged. Then, starting in 2004, the cuts resumed, winding down to the current 5,113.

In other words, Obama can tell the world: Don't brandish Article 6 as an excuse to build nuclear bombs or to tolerate those who do; the United States has been slashing its arsenal—by 84 percent since the NPT was signed, by 75 percent since the Cold War's end.

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Two things need to be said about this point. First, in a sense, the argument is a bit lame. Bush said the same thing back in 2002, when we still had 10,457 warheads; and, literally speaking, he was nearly as right as Obama is. Compared with the levels of the mid-'60s or even the late '80s, 10,457 warheads represented a dramatic cut. But that was also a hell of a lot of nukes—more than anyone could imagine any realistic use for—just as 5,113 nukes are more than anyone can imagine any use for now.

Which leads to the second point: What has been going on all these decades? How, why, in the name of what strategic goal, did we ever come to stockpile more than 31,000 nuclear bombs?

A few things are worth pointing out. First, for nearly all those years, until very recently, the vast majority of those weapons were not in the "strategic" arsenal—the warheads perched on top of the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles or the nuclear bombs to be dropped from the B-52 and B-1 bombers. No, most of them were "tactical" nukes, deployed in Europe and Asia as part of U.S. Army artillery divisions or loaded in the bomb bays of fighter-attack planes poised on the runways of overseas U.S. Air Force bases and on the decks of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers.

Much of the decline in the stockpile numbers over the years reflects the drastic cutback in tactical nuclear weapons worldwide, as U.S. war plans came to rely less on nukes and more on conventional defenses.

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In the 1990s, the United States sharply cut its active nuclear arsenal as a result of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. However, this had little short-term effect on the stockpile numbers, as the "nuclear stockpile," by definition, includes weapons that are actively deployed and weapons kept in storage. The Clinton administration kept many of its dismantled weapons in storage as a hedge against Russian cheating or a revival of the arms race; those weapons were still counted as part of the stockpile.

That's another reason Obama declassified the stockpile numbers. The next round of U.S.-Russian arms-reduction talks will deal with tactical nukes and with warheads in storage. Before these weapons can be cut, they must be counted. This week's disclosure amounts to a pre-emptive strike in transparency.

The larger point, though: Did we ever really need so many weapons? By any sane standard, the answer must be no. Inside the Strategic Air Command, which supervised the nuclear war plans (and would have executed them, if doomsday had ever erupted), was a branch called the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, which "laid down" each weapon on a specific Soviet (or Chinese or Eastern European) target. All of these plans, over the decades, were bloated. Everything of any economic or military value was targeted, whether or not it really needed to be; and each target would have been pummeled with way more weapons, and way more megatons, than were really needed to destroy it.

SAC, which itself was a branch of the Air Force, was allowed to get away with this—the creation of more and more "requirements" to justify more and more Air Force nuclear weapons—in part because the enterprise was kept so secret.

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Initially, the rationale for secrecy was justified. The atom bomb, then the hydrogen bomb, were the crown jewels of the U.S. military in the dawn of the Cold War. To keep them safe, a special compartmentalized security clearance was created for those who needed to know. A top-secret clearance wasn't enough; you needed a "Q" clearance to know about the bomb. And for information about nuclear targeting, the clearances were higher and more compartmentalized still.

Again, all this was reasonable enough—but the logic was extended too far, even to include the sheer size of the nuclear stockpile. It was argued that if our enemies knew how many bombs we had, they could infer much about U.S. war plans, deployments, bomb designs, and other information that could compromise our security. The logic was loose, but few challenged it.

At the end of the Cold War, this began to change. In 1990, the Department of Energy—which controls, funds, builds, and maintains nuclear warheads—began a review of its secrecy policies. In 1992, toward the end of George H.W. Bush's presidency, the Department of Energy proposed declassifying nuclear-stockpile data. The Defense Department opposed the move.

In 1994, two years into the Clinton administration, Energy raised the issue again. This time the Pentagon lowered its resistance a little. It agreed to release historical stockpile numbers, but not for those years when the United States had any weapons that still existed in the U.S. stockpile. Otherwise, "sensitive information" might be divulged about "the pace and scope" of our "stockpile modernization" and our "negotiation positions" in arms-control talks. This is why Clinton's disclosure covered only the years before 1962.

As late as 2000, when the Department of Energy tried one last time to expand declassification, the Pentagon, especially its intelligence branches, continued to take the same position. It wasn't a major debate in the scheme of things amid all the other controversies going on at the end of the Clinton presidency, so the advocates of openness let it drop.

That's where things stood until this week. To the extent that nuclear weapons still play a role in national security and international politics, such matters as the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile are now very nearly irrelevant.

Does it matter, really, whether we have 5,000 warheads or 1,000? Would we be able to destroy any fewer targets that we really might need to destroy in any conceivable war? If not (or, for that matter either way), does it make any difference whether anyone knows how many warheads we actually have?

As far back as the mid-1980s, William Arkin, Robert S. Norris, and Thomas Cochran—security scholars who worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council—came up with (in retrospect) remarkably accurate estimates of the stockpile's size by piecing together scattered bits of data from unclassified documents. They published their findings in a 1984 book that drew a lot of heat from the security establishment. (They followed it up a few years later with a similar book about the Soviet arsenal.) In the years since, Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists and John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org have followed the trails on a host of national-security issues.

One motive of these scholar-sleuths has been to demystify the shroud of the nuclear priesthood—to show that its secrets aren't really so secret and that the rationale for the secrecy is a myth: divulging those secrets doesn't harm national security in the slightest.

But disclosure was just the first step. As Arkin put it in a phone conversation this week, the whole discussion of nuclear weapons in those days—in the military, the Congress, and the media—focused relentlessly on numbers. "Our idea was that once you put the real numbers out there," Arkin said, "you could get beyond that to a discussion of the real issue, which is: What are these weapons for? How many do you really need, and why?"

That's what Barack Obama seems to be aiming for, as well. The nuclear age, as we've known it, is over. The nuclear weapons are still around. Let's talk about them prosaically. That's the only way to begin to get them as far out of our lives as possible.

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