This is the transcript of a talk given by Hans Kristensen at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s symposium “The Fierce Urgency of Nuclear Zero: Changing the Discourse” on October 24, 2016. The audio of this talk is available here. A link to Kristensen’s PowerPoint presentation that accompanied this talk is here. For more information about the symposium, click here.


Thanks very much for the invitation to come all the way out here. I managed to see two oceans in one day, so that’s pretty good. And I’ve been asked to talk about the state of affairs, so to speak, in the nine nuclear weapons countries, which is impossible in 15 minutes. [chuckle] So a lot of this is information overkill, of course, but the point of it is so that the slides and the information is available for you later on if you want to go online and look at it. So some of them I’ll just jump very quickly across them. But basically what I want to capture in this one is to give you an impression of three major themes, three major issues, the state of affair with the effort to reduce nuclear weapons, what has been accomplished and what does the trend look like for the next decade or so. And then look at the modernization programs that are around the world and the nuclear operations that we’re seeing changing very significantly right now, as a matter of fact.

Somebody said that today was the anniversary of the UN Charter, I think it was. And today, as we speak, is also the beginning of US Strategic Command’s Global Thunder Nuclear Strike exercise that is beginning today. The B52s are taking off, the ICBMs are exercising and the ballistic missiles submarines. So we’ll see what comes out. But this is sort of a good reminder that there are two pieces here that are competing, and right now this one will be in focus for sure for the next week or 10 days.

So I want to begin with a reminder. John very kindly reminded us of the hope, which I think is relevant and it’s also important when you look at the development of nuclear forces over the last several decades, we’ve had enormous progress compared to the arsenals that were during the Cold War. That’s of course if you’re interested in numbers. If you’re looking for this sort of final outcome, it’s a little more murky, but both in terms of overall numbers, in terms of categories of those weapon systems and what they were intended to do has changed significantly. In the United States, for example, the US has done away with all of its non-strategic nuclear weapons, except a few hundred that are for the tactical fighter aircraft. That means all army weapons, artillery, short-range missiles, all navy weapons, anti-submarine, anti-air, land attack, cruise missile, gone and destroyed. A huge development, these weapon systems used to sail around the world, rubbing up against other nuclear navies on the world oceans, sailing into countries’ ports whether they had non-nuclear policies or not, what have you.

So, that is an amazing development in my view. Where we are now, what should capture your imagination, of course, is the bottom chart there, the enormous difference in the perception between the United States and Russia. How many nuclear weapons they think they need for security, versus everyone else. There’s no country on the planet who thinks they need more than a few hundred nuclear weapons for sort of basic nuclear deterrence missions. So the rest is very much a leftover of what we saw during the Cold War, the mindsets, the strategies, the inertia from the different agencies, it’s very hard to get them out of this nuclear business, and the politicians from the states where they produce some of these systems, of course.

But if you look at just the United States and Russia, I’m going to focus on just the United States and Russia in this one, not just because they’re the biggest, but also because of the way things are developing right now, they are some of the most important, I think, trends in terms of what can influence the future of nuclear weapons globally. The most important part is that the pace of reductions has slowed down significantly, compared to two decades, one decade ago. We saw some very dramatic changes. And now it is as if the nuclear powers are not heading toward zero, they’re sort of hedging toward the indefinite future and thinking about what should their position be in the world of powers, decades from now. So that means that this development toward zero has really slowed down, and it is likely to stay very modest in the future years. The new START Treaty is the only existing treaty that has any effect on nuclear forces right now, and that treaty is so modest in terms of reductions and perhaps, more important, of the treaty is the verification regime that’s associated where the countries go on and inspect each other’s bases and what have you.

But we are in a very problematic trend here, I think, because you can see the United States is reducing its number of deployed strategic warheads, and the Russians have started to increase their strategic nuclear warheads. And so, there are no limits under the treaty until 2018, so no one is in violation of the treaty now. [chuckle] At that day, February 2018, that’s when they have to meet the limit. And we’re talking only a few hundred warheads, so this is just about adjusting what is on the forces, this will not require any significant adjustment of the nuclear posture. So this is a very modest treaty. It looks bad, but I think you should also look at this statement from the US Department of Defense from 2012, which said that, even if Russia breaks out of the new START Treaty with significantly more nuclear warheads deployed, they would not be able to have an effect on the strategic stability, the thinking that goes into strategic stability seen from the US perspective.

So the US is not very interested anymore in exact parity. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about what you can do with the forces you have. And Obama, of course, came in with a lot of promise or expectations, hope about reductions and fundamental change. He had a phrase that was, “To put an end to Cold War thinking.” That was the key in the Prague speech. And that is probably the one thing they certainly have not done, because if you look at how… The blue line is the fluctuation in the US stockpile. How many weapons have entered the stockpile? How many have left the stockpile over the years? So you can see the activity in and out of the stockpile here.

And so what you should note, of course, is the enormous build up in this area. Eisenhower added over 11,000, I think it’s even higher, I think it’s 17,000 weapons to the stockpile. It’s mad. And then it slowed down and there were even some that were removed, but it was zig-zagging here until the end of the Cold War, when we saw these enormous reductions here, and later, the Bush administration. But Obama has been very modest, very little effect. He has taken about 700 nuclear weapons out of the stockpile. And that’s, of course, a lot, it’s more than most nuclear weapons states in the world, but out of this arsenal of 5,000, it’s much more modest. And so he has actually come out being the president that has reduced the US nuclear stockpile the least of any post-Cold War president.

Now, we hear again and again that the United States has not been doing anything on its nuclear weapons, that we’ve had a “procurement holiday,” as they call it. And people used to argue that so that they can make the case, that now we need some money to modernize. But this of course ignores completely the modernizations that have happened for the last two decades. These may not have been entirely new weapons systems that came in. We have changed the way we go about things in the United States, so we instead spend more energy on extending the life of the existing systems, extending the life of existing nuclear warheads, etcetera. But we’ve had some significant ones in that period. The ballistic missile submarine fleet came in, the Trident II missile was introduced also out in the Pacific Fleet. We’ve had an entire upgrade of the Minuteman III force, the B-2 bombers came in in that period as well. Numerous different warheads were introduced, life extension programs, command and control, and now, we have B61-12, the next guy, the nuclear bomb that is being worked on. So this has been quite a busy holiday. [chuckle]

But that’s just to say, the United States doesn’t go about its nuclear modernization in the same way that Russia or China go about their nuclear modernizations, nor do the cycles happen at the same time. So it’s completely off the mark to look out the window and say, “They’re modernizing, we’re not. So therefore, we must be behind.” Our modernization came in the 1980s and early 90s. The Russians’ came in in the late 1990s and in the 2000s, so they’re in the middle of their modernization cycle. And then it’ll go like that. It doesn’t happen at the same time. But it’s very important to not begin to spin modernization programs any which way you want it. But the Russian modernization program is across the board. They’re in the middle of it, mainly phasing out Soviet-era systems and replacing them with new ones. So we see ICBMs coming in, mobiles, as well as silos, we see new submarines, we see them working on first an extension of the production line for the black jet bomber, but they’re also working on a new bomber. We see a broad range of modernizations effort in the non-strategic as well, non-strategic forces like the Iskander, for example, that gets a lot of headlines right now, but also attack submarines like the Yasen-class with land attack cruise missile capability.

For the United States, the same story. Across-the-board modernization that includes both ICBM subs, bombers as well as tactical weapon systems and the infrastructure, the factories to produce these things. And over the next decade, they are thinking in the order of $340 billion to be spent on this enterprise and we’ve heard, of course, $3 trillion, no, $1 trillion for the next 30 years, I think that’s the word. And there’s also some of that modernization that has effects for NATO, and this has to do with the B61 bomb that is deployed in Europe, part of the arsenal, integrated onto US bombers over there but also allied bombers. Yes, the United States provides nuclear weapons to allies’ bombers so that in a case of war, they would deliver our nuclear weapons, very controversial arrangement. There’s a whole story to that. We can go back to that later, whatever.

But right now, it’s the B61-12 that is the focus of this effort. This will come, take all the gravity bombs that are currently in the US arsenal and build those capabilities into one weapons system. Right now, they have numerous versions of the B61, as well as a very high yield B83 bomb. The effects, the military effects of those capabilities will be concentrated into one weapons system, that’s the B61-12. The new about this is that it has a tail kit that guides it to its target so it can hit it more accurately. Thereby, they can use a warhead with a much lower maximum yield to get the same effects that today require hundreds of kilotons in yield. So that’s a way of making a nuclear weapon much more efficient. But of course, that also means that you suddenly have all the weapons systems, so to speak, everywhere, instead of in certain bases or only for certain types of aircraft, now it’s gonna be available across the force.

China, very quickly, they’re in the middle of a modernization, shifting to more mobile systems, more capable ICBMs, including now beginning to put multiple warheads on their ICBMs. They’re building new bombers that may have nuclear cruise missile capability. It’s not quite clear. A ballistic submarine fleet and some ground launch cruise missiles that are being identified as possibly nuclear. France, a similar situation. They’re in the middle of a modernization of their force. They’ve just finished introducing this cruise missile on their bombers. They have a new version of their ballistic missile submarines that’s been introduced into the navy. And they’re putting new kinds of warheads on them.

Britain has just decided to go ahead with replacement of its ballistic missile submarine fleet. So we will see that. They’re using a modified version of the American W86 warhead on their system. Of course, if you ask the Brits it’s not true, they say it’s their own system, but it is a version of it that is similar to it but with some modifications. They are using the US re-entry body, the new re-entry body that the US has just flushed into its fleet that has a special fuse on it that enables this warhead to significantly increase the kill capability of hard targets. So this is happening both in the British fleet, but also in the US fleet.

Pakistan: Full speed ahead. Short range, medium range, cruise missiles, infrastructure, plutonium production facilities, reactors coming in, air launch, ground launch, cruise missiles, a very dynamic program, including very short range system. This one has a range of only 60 kilometers. Specifically designed to be used before strategic nuclear weapons are used. So this is an opening front in the Pakistani-India relationship that is very worrisome, and designed specifically to be used against Indian conventional forces invading Pakistan.

India: Looking more toward China, but certainly keeping its eye on Pakistan, but developing a longer range system that will be able to cover all of China. It’ll begin to deploy them in canisters on the road, instead of these sort of open transport modes, so they’ll be much more resilient and flexible and can be used actually also quicker in a quicker respond. Their first ballistic missile submarine has just been handed over to the navy and we will see that beginning to go at some point over the next couple of years, out on actual patrols with nuclear weapons. They also have various other systems, but that’s sort of the focus of their nuclear posture development.

Israel: The same situation, with land-based ballistic missiles and bombers with gravity bombs. There might be a nuclear cruise missile capability on their submarines. There have been lot of rumors about it. It’s a little foggy still, but that’s the sort of the overall trend here. The most important part then is this combination, as well as a longer range version of the Jericho ballistic missile. We hear numbers of Israeli arsenals, 200, 300, some people even say 400 nuclear weapons. I think they’re vastly exaggerated. I think the Israeli arsenal is probably closer to sort of 80 to 100 warheads, or something like that. They don’t have a war fighting type of nuclear arsenals. I don’t really think what they would do with all those weapons.

And of course, North Korea: Full speed ahead. You name it, they’ll come up with some system some way or another. They’re working on a submarine, land-based mobile ICBMs, fixed ICBMs, they’re trying to get that in. There have been rumors of some cruise missile capability, but there are many rumors about North Korea. And right now, despite five underground nuclear tests, it’s still not entirely clear that they have managed to weaponize these weapons so that they can be delivered with a ballistic missile. We still need to see more of those kind of tests where they’re testing vehicles that are actually intended to deliver the warhead. So there is a process there, but they’re certainly on their way, no doubt about it.

And finally, operations. We’ve seen some significant changes over the last four, five years, in the way that Russia and the United States are operating their nuclear forces. Part of the picture is that these nuclear forces are dual capable. So, sometimes, they may be intended as conventional operations, but they also send a nuclear message. And we’ve seen that again and again, when information, for example, about the Iskander system going to Kaliningrad, is being really highlighted in the news media and the public reactions, as a nuclear system going in. But the primary mission, of course, is conventional. But it has nuclear capability, we believe. We’ve seen some significant operations in the Baltic and North Sea area, including apparently, a simulated nuclear strike in 2013 against Sweden, with Backfire bombers.

We also have other naval nuclear weapons. Russia has a much broader nuclear weapons arsenal, in terms of types, both for the navy, the air defense system, the air force and the ground forces. And they seem to be holding on to that capability. On the US side, we have seen new deployments of nuclear-capable fighter squadrons to both the Baltic states, to Poland, and even to Sweden, a place where we did not see those type of deployments 10 years ago. We see now, a periodic forward deployments of long-range nuclear bombers to Europe, to operate for several weeks from a base, and flying around and do exercises deep, deep into the Baltic Sea, and over-flying the Baltic states, just a few tens of miles from the Russian border. We are beginning to see now, again, ballistic missile submarines conducting port visits in Europe, to signal that Europe is backed by the American ballistic missile submarine strike force.

So a very significant development. And very recently, just the last couple of years, we’ve seen some completely new developments in the bomber force operations. It started in 2015, with this one that was called Polar Growl, an exercise that sent four nuclear-capable bombers on missions up over the North Pole. They went all the way to their launch point for the cruise missiles, as well as into the North Sea, and these are just hypothetical strike patterns for each bomber, carrying 20 air launch, long-range cruise missiles. 80 cruise missiles is a significant force just for eight bombers. This year we saw a repetition of this, looking a little different, but the same central theme. A couple of bombers flying up over the North Pole, going just along the Russian coast, outside that territory, of course, and this one, going over the North Sea, and all the way into the Baltic Sea, and doing exercises up, along and down the coast of the Baltic states.

And in the Pacific, we saw the B2 bombers going up, going down toward the Kamchatka Peninsula, which is where the Russian Pacific submarine fleet is based. STRATCOM said they have not done this type of an exercise since 1987. So, we’re now back… European Command has forged what they call a new link with STRATCOM, for assurance and deterrence missions. And that is a description from a chapter in their posture statement that deals with the nuclear forces, so this is nuclear messaging. And so this raises the question. What’s the plan? Does anybody know about the next step? I can’t imagine next year’s exercise, will probably have to be a little bigger and do something a little extra, because otherwise, we’re slacking. We’re messaging here, right? So, this is a worrisome step, where we’re beginning to take, and the Russians are beginning to take the step further up the escalation ladder. Yes.

[Were those planes carrying nuclear weapons at the time?]

No. The planes are not carrying nuclear weapons. In fact, US bombers do not carry nuclear weapons anywhere. They are loading nuclear capable systems, but without the warheads for exercises. But we’ve seen in 2007, obviously, that mistakes can happen. That was when six cruise missiles were flown across the United States, because the security system broke down. But on these exercises, no. But what we’re beginning to see is that these are nuclear-capable bombers that are going to missions. We’re also beginning to see conventional long-range strike bombers going on these missions. And when they’re doing these exercises, they’re loading onto the bomber force both nuclear and conventional long-strike cruise missiles. So this is an integration of conventional nuclear, in the strategic mission in support of both Europe and Asia. Yes?

[In Russian exercises, do we know whether they refrain from using nuclear weapons? From flying their nuclear weapons with their bombers?]

Know, is a strong word. I would say, we suspect that they don’t. Even in the Russian military, it’s just a lot of trouble if you have an accident. And why do it if you don’t have to. But they do simulate it. Absolutely. They simulate both the loading process and all the procedures when they fly, and the launch procedures, etcetera, etcetera.

[But we can’t tell?]

Exactly. We can’t tell if that plane really has something on board, unless we have some really good intelligence. So, that’s sort of, everybody’s doing it and everybody’s doing more of it and this is the concern right now.

[Since we don’t know if the Russian planes, for example, are carrying nuclear weapons, doesn’t it make it more dangerous in a period of crisis?]

Exactly, and there was a debate a few years ago about whether the United States should add conventional warheads to its submarines’ ballistic fleet. And there was a heavy opposition in the US Congress against it, specifically to try to keep a red line between nuclear and conventional. You would have had conventional and nuclear on the same submarine, and so they said, “Nah, let’s not do that.” [chuckle] But on the bombers, that’s part of the standard posture. You can have conventional. You can have JASSM cruise missiles. You can have air launch cruise missiles. Now they’re building, working on building a new long-range nuclear cruise missile, it’s called the LRSO, so far. That’s going to come into the force in the mid, late 20s. That’s going to replace the ALCM. This is part of this overall repetition of the current nuclear posture through the modernization.