When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his intention to deploy short-range nuclear missiles to Belarus in March, he pointed to U.S. nuclear weapons housed in five NATO nations as justification. Putin said the construction of a “special repository” for an Iskander missile complex in Belarus would not violate obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
But by accepting the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko would be reversing more than three decades free of nuclear weapons after it pledged to abandon them in 1991. Like Ukraine and Kazakhstan, Belarus gave up Soviet nuclear weapons shortly after the USSR broke apart.
In a statement, Daniel Högsta, acting executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) said, “As long as Putin has nuclear weapons, Europe cannot be safe.” He also warned that decades of “nuclear sharing” with NATO nations “helps give Putin cover,” posing a grave risk far beyond Europe.
ICAN has played a central role in advocating for the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which entered into force in 2021. Although 68 countries have ratified the treaty which prohibits all aspects of developing, possessing or threatening to use nuclear weapons, none of the nine nuclear-armed nations — Russia, the United States, China, France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea — recognizes the treaty.
According to the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project, the U.S. houses an estimated 100 B61 gravity bombs on air bases in five NATO nations (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey). Usually described as “tactical” or nonstrategic nuclear weapons, the new B61-12, which will replace older versions of the B61, has a selectable yield (energy released in a nuclear explosion) that can be adjusted from 0.3 to 50 kilotons. The atomic bombs which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki were 15 and 21 kilotons respectively.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said that describing a nuclear weapon as “tactical” may lead people to wrongly assume that such weapons are necessarily “smaller,” less destructive, and would be confined to a battlefield or limited geographic area.
That, he said, is a dangerous assumption. “If there were to be a use of nuclear weapons in a conflict involving nuclear-armed adversaries and it began as a handful of short-range nuclear detonations … there is absolutely no guarantee that that’s not going to lead to an exchange of nuclear weapons that could then lead to escalation to the strategic level involving an exchange of hundreds of intercontinental-range missiles,” Kimball told Truthout.
The B61 gravity bombs deployed by the U.S. in Europe, Kimball says, are not so much a military asset as a political one intended to demonstrate U.S. commitment to NATO’s defense. Politically, for the U.S. to use nuclear weapons deployed in a NATO nation would be more complicated than acting alone. In a crisis, the U.S. could choose to send B-2 stealth bombers from Whiteman Airforce Base in Missouri armed with B61 or B83 bombs and still reach a target in a matter of hours.
Considering the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe raises the question of where the United States’s other weapons are located. According to research by the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project, the United States maintains an estimated total inventory of 5,244 nuclear weapons, including reserve warheads and retired warheads awaiting dismantlement. Currently, 3,708 nuclear warheads make up the military stockpile (those weapons which could potentially be used in war).
Within the stockpile, the U.S. has 1,770 deployed nuclear warheads that make up the nuclear triad of air, land and sea-based bombs. Although some experts consider the terms “strategic” and “tactical” (or nonstrategic) in reference to nuclear weapons to be flawed or even obsolete, they continue to be used.
Matt Korda, a senior research associate and project manager with the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said that in thinking of “tactical” or nonstrategic nuclear weapons, context is important. “At the end of the day, I would say most people agree that any nuclear weapon, no matter how small, has a strategic effect in a way that it completely changes the reality of warfare,” Korda told Truthout.
Under the Sea
Widely considered to be least vulnerable to attack are long-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). The United States has two Strategic Weapons Facilities, one for the Pacific beside Naval Base Kitsap in Bangor, Washington, 20 miles west of Seattle, and a second facility for the Atlantic at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia.
Within the U.S. submarine force, the U.S. has 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines armed with 20 missiles. While several may be out of operation for maintenance at any given time, the others are out patrolling, with an estimated four to five submarines on “hard alert,” ready to launch on short notice. Meanwhile, the new Columbia-class of submarines, meant to replace the Ohio-class, is being developed at a cost of $139 billion and is expected to enter service beginning in the late 2030s.
The U.S. has just over 1,900 nuclear warheads assigned to the SLBM force. These warheads include the 90-kiloton W76-1 and the 455 kiloton W88 which have between 6 and 30 times the yield of the “Little Boy” bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
A third, more recent warhead developed during the Trump administration is the 8-kiloton W76-2 which, despite being called “low yield,” is still half as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. By modifying an existing warhead, it was completed in several years — a relatively short amount of time to develop a new type of nuclear weapon. Compared to a so-called low-yield nuclear weapon, the unintentional ammonium nitrate explosion at the port of Beirut in 2020 was estimated to have been the equivalent of between 0.7 and 1.4 kilotons.
The U.S.’s Nuclear Sponge
The third leg of the nuclear triad is its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which are housed in fortified underground silos in five states (Montana, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and North Dakota). The ICBM force is made up of aging Minuteman III missiles which are slated to be replaced with a new $96 billion system called Sentinel (formerly called Ground Based Strategic Deterrent).
Plagued by scheduling delays and cost overruns, there is growing public support for phasing out ICBMs. Despite this, the bipartisan congressional ICBM Coalition’s support is all but unshakable. But the idea of creating what has been called a “nuclear sponge” (referring to the idea that ICBM silos would attract enemy missiles and, like a sponge, soak up an incoming attack), raises serious questions about why rural communities only began receiving greater government support for improved communications and transportation infrastructure after they started hosting nuclear weapons. “I think it’s important to interrogate that and ask why the needs of the missiles have so often come before the needs of the people who actually live there,” Korda said.
In addition to the SLBM, ICBMs and bombers, Korda and his colleague Hans M. Kristensen have documented additional nuclear warheads (many awaiting dismantlement) at a storage complex in New Mexico and, Korda noted, California has “very important nuclear weapons infrastructure” which could potentially host a small number of nuclear weapons for design purposes.
Finally, there is the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, which describes itself as “the nation’s primary assembly, disassembly, retrofit, and life-extension center for nuclear weapons.” The dismantlement of retired nuclear warheads is ongoing but, Korda said, the pace has slowed in recent years.
According to the Pantex website, “the last new nuclear weapon was completed in 1991. Since then, Pantex has safely dismantled thousands of weapons retired from the stockpile by the military and placed the resulting plutonium pits in interim storage.”
This statement, taken literally, Korda said, is factual, but lacks important context and nuance. For example, over the last three decades Pantex has executed several modifications, alterations and new variants of existing nuclear weapons as well as “life-extension programs,” which refurbish existing warheads, effectively extending the life of the weapon. Furthermore, the W93, an entirely new nuclear warhead, is currently in the design stage with deployment to start in the mid-2030s. Those warheads will be assembled at Pantex.
Additionally, the new guided B61-12 gravity bombs which will replace older versions could be transferred from the point of assembly at Pantex to six NATO bases by C-17A Globemaster III aircraft this year.
Fewer Weapons, Fewer Constraints
During the Cold War, the U.S. had far more nuclear weapons deployed in many more locations including Alaska, Hawaii, and over a dozen countries around the world.
And while Kimball said greater consolidation is generally better than having many more sites hosting nuclear weapons, saying, “the presence of nuclear weapons in specific locations does not by itself communicate how widespread geographically the risk is that they pose, because if nuclear weapons are used in a conflict involving Russia or China,” [or anywhere else] the global effects would be catastrophic.
In recent years, arms control treaties such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Open Skies Treaty and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“Iran Nuclear Deal”) have been abandoned by the U.S., Russia, or both. The last remaining nuclear arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), was extended for five years just two days before it expired in 2021 but in February, Russia announced it was suspending participation, leaving the last U.S.-Russia arms control treaty hanging by a thread.
With the end of inspections, data exchanges, and much-needed communication between Washington and Moscow, as well as Beijing, Kimball worries mistrust can lead to the assumption of worst-case scenarios. He says there is a great need for increased public awareness and engagement on nuclear issues.
While the U.S. nuclear enterprise has widespread support by both Democrat and Republican members of Congress, one of the boldest shows of opposition to nuclear weapons was voiced by Michigan congresswoman Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who has expressed her support for the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Additional support for the prohibition of TPNW (also called the “ban treaty”) came from Massachusetts Rep. James McGovern and Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who introduced a resolution in 2019 calling for “the American people to work towards reducing and ultimately eliminating nuclear weapons.” Furthermore, in 2022, more than 200 U.S. mayors collectively called for the adoption of a timebound plan for the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
“This is an existential threat that demands engagement even with our worst adversaries and even with a bona fide war criminal like Vladimir Putin because our survival ultimately depends on it.”
Without dialogue and diplomatic engagement, the result, Kimball warned, could be an unconstrained three-way arms race between Russia, China and the U.S. “If we didn’t have enough problems already,” Kimball said, “it still can get worse.”
The public has a vital role in all this, Kimball said. “Over the long course of the nuclear age, concerned U.S. citizens have stood up and demanded that their leaders take action to reduce the number and the risks posed by nuclear weapons by engaging in arms control and disarmament diplomacy with our adversaries. That effort has to be renewed again.”
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