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Trump's Nuke Numbers Spotlight U.S. Warhead Dip
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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is not known for sticking to the script or facts, but he did get one fact right during last night’s debate when he said Russia possesses 1,800 nuclear warheads compared to America’s dwindling arsenal, with the U.S. unilaterally reducing its number of deployed nuclear warheads to 88% of the allowable number under its treaty with Moscow.

A tally released by the State Department on Oct. 1 shows that Russia has 1,796 deployed nuclear warheads carried by 508 strategic bombers, missiles and submarines compared to America’s 1,367 warheads armed on 681 platforms, a disparity of 429 warheads by the counting rules of the so-called New START treaty between Washington and Moscow. That is number of warheads each side has ready to launch tonight if the most terrible of all conflicts were to break out – a nuclear war between superpowers.

Under the terms of the treaty agreed in 2010, both sides must limit their nuclear arsenals to 700 deployed nuclear launchers and a total of 1,550 warheads by February 2018, with another 100 inactive launchers permissible as a residual capability. Since the first count by the State Department in June 2011, America has winnowed down its number of active warheads by 24% from 1,800 to 1,367 while Russia’s number has increased by 17%.

The two sides briefly reached parity in Sept. 2014, but data shows Moscow’s inventory rising ever since, with Washington dipping below the allowable New START level for the first time in Sept. 2015. It has continued to decrease as the Navy has eliminated nuclear-capable launch tubes from its Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines and as the Air Force narrows the number of warheads per Minuteman III ICBM to just one each.

Although the U.S. is still about one decade away from fielding its Columbia-class replacement for the Ohio and introducing its first new intercontinental ballistic missile in 40 years, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, Russia has been busy introducing Borei-class boomers and silo-based and road-mobile RS-24 Yars missiles with multiple independently targetable reentry-vehicles (MIRVs). Its latest missile variant, the RS-26 Yars-M, was due to be activated this year, and meanwhile Moscow is developing the heavy-class, liquid-fielded RS-28 Sarmat ICBM capable of carrying 10 or more warheads each for fielding at the turn of the decade. America's Minuteman III ICBM, by comparison, is numerous but outdated, having entered service in 1970 with no replacement expected until the mid-2020s.

Both sides are developing next generation bombers, namely the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider and Tupolev PAK DA, with fielding expected around 2025. Russia also plans to re-start production of the supersonic Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack as an interim measure. A counting misnomer that benefits both sides means that each bomber counts as one nuclear warhead, even though America’s nuclear-capable Northrop B-2 and Boeing B-52 and Russia’s Tupolev Tu-95 and Tu-160 are capable of carrying multiple air-launched cruise missiles and dozens of freefall bombs. 

Both sides still possess enough weapons each to deter the other and do irreparable harm to the planet if ever used. But Trump's comment highlights the significant disparity between the nuclear counts of the U.S. and Russia, and the U.S. government could have reason to worry if the warhead gap widens leading up to the New START deadline. Hans Kristensen of the Federation of Nuclear Scientists writes that Russia’s numbers “are probably a temporary anomaly” caused by delivery of additional Borei-class SSBNs, with the third such vessel joining the operational fleet in September. He notes the warhead disparity is greater now than at any time since New START began in 2011, but it is likely a temporary rise ahead of the retirement of older systems over the next few years. “Russian compliance with the treaty by 2018 is not in doubt, and both countries continue to reduce their deployed and non-deployed strategic launchers,” Kristensen notes.

It is not just the quantity that counts, but also reliability and capability. “Russia is new in terms of nuclear,” Trump remarked during the second presidential debate with Democratic rival Hillary Clinton on Oct. 9. “We are old, we’re tired, we’re exhausted in terms of nuclear.”

Long-time nuclear policy analyst Peter Huessy backs an across-the-board modernization of America’s nuclear triad, as sought by retiring U.S. Strategic Command chief Admiral Cecil Haney. “Failure to modernize our conventional and nuclear deterrent in a timely manner has been correctly characterized as the procurement holiday we undertook at the end of the Cold War,” Huessy says. “This impacts our nuclear triad in particular. The current nuclear modernization investment of just 4% of an already significantly reduced defense budget over the past decade remains critical and it needs to be increased proportionate to the deterrent requirements of our nuclear strategy.”

None of these warhead numbers include both sides' considerable inventory of non-strategic tactical nuclear weapons and those marked for dismantlement. They also do not reflect the true number of nuclear warheads each nation is capable of deploying should the treaty ever be scrapped or violated. Relations between Washington and Russia have deteriorated markedly since New START was endorsed, and the U.S. is now filing complaints against Russia’s apparent violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, which halted the use of ground-launched nuclear cruise missiles with a range greater than 270 nm (500 km).

If the if the balloon goes up, the Pentagon could quickly arm its Minuteman IIIs with more than one warhead, despite them carrying just one today. Russia’s rockets all carry multiple warheads, which could be an issue in 2018 when it must reduce its numbers. The U.S. decommissioned its last 10-warhead Peacekeeper missile in 2005 and is working its way down to 400 on-alert Minuteman IIIs along with 54 spare silos with missiles removed. By 2018, the Defense Department’s says its New START-compliant inventory will include 400 deployed ICBMs plus 54, 240 submarine-launched missiles and 60 heavy bombers plus six extra in non-deployed standby.

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