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DoD Releases Nuclear Stockpile Figures

But the numbers might be misleading.

10:25 AM, May 4, 2010 • By JOHN NOONAN
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Yesterday, the Obama administration released the DoD's official nuclear stockpile figures. For decades, the size and shape of America's atomic arsenal have been deliberately kept secret, and for good reason. There's always been a calculated sense of ambiguity around our nuclear forces and our deterrence strategies, with the logic being that an enemy --if left to speculate about how, when, where, and if we'd use our nukes-- would err on the side of caution and keep his fangs tucked.

DoD Releases Nuclear Stockpile Figures

Releasing the stockpile tally, which comes in at slightly over 5k warheads, doesn't really endanger national security. But it does provide ample fodder to nuclear disarmament types, most of whom haven't breathed through their noses since yesterday afternoon's announcement. Joe Cirincione, head of the Ploughshares Fund, swiftly took to Twitter with a rather dubious claim: "Good News: US lifts nuclear secrecy. Bad News: We have 5,113 hydrogen bombs ready to use. 1 destroys a city."

When I challenged him on this, Cirincione -- likely unaware that I spent five years in the Air Force as a Minuteman III launch officer -- replied: "Of the 5113 weapons, about half are ready to use in minutes; about half could be used in hours, days, or for some, weeks."

Let's explore that claim. Half of those bombs are in an inactive state, either waiting to be destroyed or cannibalized to support the operational stockpile. Many of the components on our nuclear weapons haven't been built for two decades, which means that three of the four categories of nuclear warheads are dedicated to supporting the operational force.

And then there's the logistical and planning issues of the "ready to use" argument. Every launcher in our inventory would have to be alerted and fully armed with warheads, all 14 subs would have to be flushed out to launch boxes (we keep around 3-4 on alert), and all of our bombers would have to be fully swapped from conventional support roles, nuclear certified, and armed with a full complement of cruise missiles. Targeteers at U.S. Strategic Command would have to build an entire library of warplans to find aimpoints for the bombs, most of which haven't been operationally certified in years. Disposal plants and storage facilities would have to be emptied in the largest exodus of nuclear weapons in history, but not before thousands of warheads would need to be fitted with parts that no longer exist. Submarine and ground launched missiles would require new targeting data, additional fuel, and extra warheads. Thousands of pages of reference documents and target listings would have to be crafted, and all nuclear crews would have to be fully trained on the new procedures. And, if that string of miracles were to occur, we'd still come up short on launchers to actually deliver the bombs. That we have 5k nuclear warheads ready to be used, even in months, isn't just unlikely -- it's impossible. 

After the Cold War ended, the stockpile was kept classified for precisely this reason: politics. Transparency in this sense is not a threat to national security, but the ensuing disarmament fever -- fueled by an ill-informed anti-nuke movement -- certainly could. Our nuclear inventory consists of 5k --soon to be 4600-- bombs for good reason. It keeps the deployed operational force of approximately 800 warheads ticking. So Obama may have declassified the stockpile to build some extra political muscle for his various disarmament initiatives, but instead the president ended up making a superb case for nuclear modernization. 

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