Jeffrey LewisDeterrence Under Sequestration

Secretary of Defense Panetta has sent a heartburn letter to Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham that outlines a series of cuts to the US nuclear force that may occur under sequestration.  Speaking about the totality of cuts — not just the nuclear ones — Panetta warned that sequestration would have “devastating effects.”

It is an interesting intellectual exercise to imagine “deterrence under sequestration.”  From simply the standpoint of nuclear deterrence, how bad would sequestration be?

Let’s be clear — this is not an argument either for or against sequestration.  It is possible, as Dov Zakheim argues, that sequestration may actually result in smaller cuts to the defense budget.  And, of course, Panetta’s letter lists “decisions relating to major programs” that could occur.  Could. In English, “could” does not mean “will” occur.  In some contexts, could does not even mean “likely” to occur.

I just want to ask a simple question.  Let’s take Panetta’s list as a challenging worst-case scenario for US defense planners.  Here are the major decisions that Panetta could take under sequestration.  Let’s assume he makes them all:

* Terminate Joint Strike Fighter; minimal life extensions and upgrades to existing forces ($80B);
* Terminate bomber; restart new program in mid 2020s ($18B);
* Delay next generation ballistic missile submarine; cut force to 10 subs ($7B);
* Eliminate ICBM leg of Triad ($8B).

Now, the Department of Energy surely has a similar list, but Steven Chu didn’t send a heartburn letter over to the Hill, so I am not privy to it.  Let’s assume DOE simply makes cuts that mirror this list, with the elimination of lifetime extension programs for any warheads with no means of delivery, and appropriate numerical reductions elsewhere.  What does our sequestration deterrent look like?

Strategic Forces Under Sequestration

Let’s start with a baseline — the projected US nuclear deterrent under New START.

Based on the recommendations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we plan to meet the Treaty’s limits by retaining a triad of up to 420 ICBMs, 14 submarines carrying up to 240 SLBMs, and up to 60 nuclear capable bombers.

Assuming that we apply Panetta’s decisions to this baseline, the resulting deterrent force comprises 10 ballistic missile submarines, 60 nuclear capable bombers and no intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).  As existing nuclear-capable fighter aircraft age, the US eliminates its forward-deployed “tactical” nuclear forces.

A fully uploaded sequestration deterrent could (there is that word again) comprise as many as 2,672 operationally deployed nuclear weapons.  Using the New START counting rules — which count all heavy bombers as one warhead despite an ability to carry between 8 and 20 nuclear weapons — the resulting force could total 1,596 nuclear weapons.

New START, Not  A Problem.

The first thing that immediately jumps out is that we would have no trouble staying at New START levels of 1550 warheads.  This is slightly different than the New START force, since there is no reason to eliminate SSBN tubes with a smaller force and I have assumed we load more warheads on each Trident D5 missile.

The total number of US delivery vehicles, on the other hand, would be 252/300 — far below the New START limit of 700/800. (New START has separate limits for deployed and non-deployed missiles and bombers.) Russia, too, will drift far below 700/800 delivery vehicles, though probably not much below 500.

The US was the party that sought a higher number of delivery vehicles in New START to accommodate a force structure that it now appears we cannot afford. During the New START process, I argued that “there is, or ought to be, a dictum that, in arms control, the shoe ends up on the other foot. You live to regret the concessions you achieve.”  The US got the higher delivery vehicle number, at the cost of a higher number of warheads.  If sequestration reduces the number of US delivery vehicles by 400 or so, this will be an instance of Lewis’s dictum.

Essentially, sequestration means that the Pentagon needs to move 400 warheads to sea on a slightly smaller number of SSBNs.  To put this in perspective, if the US were to agree to another round of nuclear reductions with Russia within the parameters floating around Washington, the result would look a lot like a sequestration deterrent.

I’ll be honest.  That sort of surprised me.

Sequestration Means Policy Change

A sequestration deterrent would, however, represent a sharp break from past policy in certain areas.  I suspect that discontinuity would be lost on anyone not steeped in the arcana of the subject.  To anyone else, 1550 is a significant number of nuclear weapons.  Still, I would notice the difference.

First, and perhaps most important to me, 10 SSBNs is probably not enough to keep two SSBNs at sea in each ocean continuously, especially if the missiles are fully-loaded.  (The issue here is target coverage.  A fully loaded missile has a shorter-range, so the submarine must travel further to station.) The result would probably be a 2-1 configuration, with the other 5 or 6 boats in transit.  To a first approximation, some targets in central Russia would not be covered by a non-generated force on a day-to-day basis.

Second, eliminating the ICBM leg of the triad sacrifices promptness of response. Clark Murdock and now-USD(P) Michelle Flournoy, in the old CSIS report Revitalizing the US Nuclear Deterrent, rejected an SSBN/Bomber dyad on the basis of “extreme insufficiencies in promptness (because it includes no ICBMs) and in robustness.”  That was a jargony way of saying only ICBMs can hit targets within an hour, because it can take a while to communicate with submarines at sea.  (Side note: It may sound strange, but some people worry about survivability of an SSBN/Bomber dyad because ICBM silos are warhead sinks while submarines in port and bombers off alert are vulnerable.)

Third, extended deterrence — at least the nuclear flavor — would cease to rely on dual-capable aircraft (since any F-35s will not be nuclear capable).  Instead, as the US and its allies retire their fleets of F-16 and Tornado aircraft, U.S. policymakers must find new ways to credibly extend nuclear deterrence from the remaining central strategic forces.

These may not sound like big changes, but each is far more consequential than any decision in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.  Really.  No, really.  Stop laughing. Please.

Deterrence Under Sequestration

These are major policy decisions that, in normal circumstances, would not be taken lightly. (I am not kidding.) Speaking for myself, I would probably only freely choose to cancel the program to make nuclear-capable the F-35.  Under duress? I think I could live with a smaller SSBN force that, on a day-to-day basis, did not completely cover targets in the deepest Russian hinterland.  I could also live without the promptness provided by ICBMs, especially if Panetta finds preserves some of the investment in prompt conventional strike capabilities.

Obviously, if either capability were free, that would be awesome.  But this is a time of hard choices.  Neither capability is so valuable that I would argue such cuts should be borne by other defense programs or by domestic programs. Deterrence under sequestration is not ideal.  But I’d rather do that than, say, cut  social security or medicare benefits to senior citizens.  Those are real costs suffered by real people.  These capabilities are insurance that are nice to have.

Don’t get me wrong, sequestration is a dumb way to reduce the nuclear force. (It would have been better to negotiate these reductions with Russia, for instance.)  But it isn’t clear to me it is a particularly dangerous way to do it.


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    Could you expand on the “extreme insufficiencies in promptness (because it includes no ICBMs)” bit, please? Just how prompt does prompt have to be these days?

    I doubt that getting a ring-up message out to the SSBNs so they could stick up an antenna and get even highly detailed war orders would take very long. Or would it?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      The standard in the CSIS report was one hour, which has always seemed unnecessarily demanding to me. After all, no one complains that Operation Enduring Freedom, which took 26 days to begin, was not “prompt.”

      Anyway, here is the passage:

      “Promptness is defined as the ability of available forces to strike generic targets within approximately an hour of launch authorization. Assuming non-generated operational force structure, only ICBM warheads currently meet this requirement. Current SLBMs on high alert cannot meet this criterion, although the potential for significant upgrades in SLBM promptness may exist.” (p.37)

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > “Promptness is defined as the ability of available forces to strike generic targets within approximately an hour of launch authorization. Assuming non-generated operational force structure, only ICBM warheads currently meet this requirement. Current SLBMs on high alert cannot meet this criterion,”

      Well, that’s interesting. Assuming that ICBM and SLBM warheads have about equal flight times, say 30 minutes, that means that getting the message out to the submarines and them launching takes 30 minutes or more. If so, I’m slightly surprised. Thinking about what the sequence between launch authorization and the deed being done and how it differs between ICBMs and SLBMs might suggest how things at the front end of the process play out.

      However and such technical considerations aside, I still wonder what’s the rush, whence comes the one-hour criterion? For deterrence purposes, nuking the other guy in 90 minutes would seem to be about as good as 60 minutes.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Domino’s Pizza stopped its “30 minutes or less” guarantee and the world didn’t end. I can’t imagine this would be any different.

    • Aaron Tovish (History)

      The story of nuclear deterrence is a history of highly intelligent people making highly responsible decisions, and this exchange is very much in this mode. The unspoken dilemma is that all this brainpower and diligence is being applied to a construct that is inherently reckless and irresponsible. If that wasn’t clear before the recent studies on nuclear famine and nuclear winter, then it most certainly is now. Let’s direct a fraction (a healthy fraction) of all this intelligence and diligence toward overcoming the criminal negligence of perpetuating this unparalleled threat.
      “Promptness” is what makes the nuclear winter scenario possible, that half-hour gained when ICBM are gone could well be the half hour that saves humanity. When, in 1997, I organized the first-ever conference on de-alerting that brought together experts from the five nuclear-weapon states, we were told by Admiral Chiles, who had been head of Strategic Command, that promptness was necessary because the President of the United States should be the one to make the decision to retaliate, not some successor commander. Now if that ain’t the dumbest reason to endanger all of humanity, what is?

    • Red_Blue (History)

      I was also under the impression that the “promptness” communication issues were solved at least one sub generation ago and that the launch delay would not significantly differ from those of ICBMs, especially for “current SLBMs on high alert”.

      This is how public sources (Naval War College report) almost 20 years ago were discussing the promptness improvements done that far:

      “Enhanced Promptness
      The lack of promptness of the SLBM force has long been a criticism. Many experts felt this system had inadequate communications for rapid response to NCA orders. While perhaps once correct this problem has been resolved.

      Perhaps the most significant improvement to these communications capabilities is as a result of the increased range (over 6,000 miles) of the Trident II (D-5) missile.

      This combination of decreased distance from the American coastline to the submarine and the redundant transmitters also reduces the jamming threat. Additionally, the VLF and LF systems have improved sufficiently to expect transmissions to be delivered until the site is physically destroyed.
      The ELF system provides another significant operational improvement. The capability allows the SLBM force to assume onalert status and engage targets from port to patrol area and during the return trip to port. This system broadcasts a continuous signal to the submarine at depths sufficient to allow normal transit speed without having to drag an antenna near, on, or above the ocean surface. The loss of this signal would act as a “bell ringer” to alert the submarine to come near the surface and be prepared to receive messages.
      Prior to this system, submarines were required to come near the surface every eight hours or so and listen for message traffic. This limited their ability to provide a prompt response.

      Also adding to the Trident II’s survivability is the improved fire control system which will allow the submarine to launch larger salvos more quickly. Some estimate that all twenty-four missiles could be fired in less than ten minutes.”

    • John Schilling (History)

      I can imagine a credible promptness requirement for, e.g., counterforce or decapitation strikes. If we take preemptive nuclear attacks off the table, that would mean getting inside the adversary’s shoot-look-shoot cycle, so “prompt” just means “faster than the other guy”. An hour might be a reasonable benchmark for that.

      As for submarines not meeting that requirement, I think the initial ELF contact will be more than fast enough. So, next question: how long does it usually take for an SSBN to ascend from patrol depth to periscope depth (or more precisely, high-bandwidth-communication and missile launch depth). Question after that, how long does it take to load a trajectory connecting an arbitrary launch point to an arbitrary target?

      This was perhaps easier in the old days when the only decision was “Nuke Russia: Y/N?”.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > So, next question: how long does it usually take for an SSBN to ascend from patrol depth to periscope depth (or more precisely, high-bandwidth-communication and missile launch depth).

      Not very long, I suspect. Minutes to maybe 20 minutes.

      An epiphany that came to me many years ago is that submarines mostly spend their time going around within their own length of the surface. I.e., pin their stern at depth, rotate 90 degrees upward, and a fair length of the bow would be above the surface. Contrary to popular concept, they really aren’t prowling in the deep depths of the ocean. Somewhat-subsurface-marines are what they really are.

      So to get to periscope/communication/launch depth after getting the word to do should not be a major constraint — I think.

    • Red_Blue (History)

      Comments about the Mitchell Institute presentation discusses the promptness issue thus:
      “Promptness is key also to deterrence. You want the ability to launch as quickly as you can, again, to deter that adversary. ICBMs are the highest mark here, nearly always on alert, able to respond. For example, a launch under attack which could be an important contribution to deterrence.
      I don’t think there are very many submariners out here. When you talk with the submarine community they don’t like the rap that they’re not prompt. In fact submarines on station could launch very quickly, and in strategic nuclear exercises in receipt of practice emergency action messages they’ve done very well, and my submariner friends remind me of that. So you’ll see the grade that we give them. But they’re not designed to do that. They’re designed to be survivable. They’re designed to be second strike systems.”

      I’m not sure what to make of that. While the ELF system was phased out, I would have to assume the same capability is now provided with the network of fixed VLF sites and VLF antenna carrying aircraft (E6B aircraft with the VERDIN system) and that it would provide some prompt launch capability to the subs in transit between ports and patrol areas. Perhaps not under 30 minutes (assuming 30 minute flight time), but certainly not 8 hours!

      Perhaps there is some confusion in what CSIS means with “SLBMs on high alert”. When they are discussing “non-generated operational force structure”, perhaps they include the transiting subs and their lauch delay, not only the subs on patrol/station, which would be more relevant as “on high alert”.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      We can ask, of course, but my sense is that the “non-generated” force refers to only ICBMs and submarines on station — the bombers off alert and submarines in transit must be “generated” (ie placed on alert or have arrived on station) to join the fray.

      I should add that an hour seems like a somewhat arbitrary time-frame. I would be surprised, for example, to learn that an hour is derived from any meaningful operational concept. My guess is that it is more than a minute and less than a day.

  2. Kingston (History)

    Nice post. I agree that sequestration is neither inevitable nor desirable.

    But it’s also important to reiterate that Panetta is being pretty daft here. As others have noted, the systems identified as candidates for cuts just so happen to be among the highest priority programs within each service. They also happen to have some pretty strong political backing in Congress. HASC did the same thing in its analysis of the impact of sequestration earlier this year. There are any number of ways Panetta could have chosen to come up with the $8 billion in savings he attributes to acing the ICBM leg of the triad. But those other ways probably don’t have the backing of a bipartisan constituency like the ICBM caucus.

    That said, let’s assume, as you do, that sequestration occurs and Panetta actually makes the cuts he outlines in his heartburn letter. It’s an interesting thought experiment and, as you point out, we could probably implement many of these “worst-case” cuts without losing very much sleep at night.

    First, as you point out, retiring four SSBNs and buying two fewer SSBN(X)s, chopping the ICBM leg, and delaying the next generation bomber would still allow the U.S. to deploy more than the New START limit of 1,550 deployed warheads. That’s still a pretty impressive force. And it wouldn’t necessarily be unilateral disarmament, since the Russians are headed to a lower number of warheads and delivery systems as well.

    Second, you note that with fewer subs the U.S. would not be able to maintain enough subs/warheads on station at a given time to meet existing requirements. But this raises the question: does the existing (Cold War-era, largely counterforce-based) requirement make sense? Apart from carrying out a first strike against Russia, launching on warning of a Russian first strike, or launching in the immediate aftermath of a Russian first strike, why do we need 4-5 subs on station at any given time? What deterrence value do 5 subs on station add that couldn’t be met by 2 or 3 (fully loaded) subs on station, with the capability to bring additional (fully loaded) subs to bear within a matter of hours or days? And if the preferred outcome is to negotiate further reductions with the Russians, we’ll need to alter current requirements in any event.

    What I’m getting at is that a requirement for fewer SSBN(X)s could save us billions without compromising our security. Moreover, I wonder if an unintended positive benefit of deterrence under sequestration would be to provide Russia with fewer reasons to move forward with a new ICBM?

    Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask whether you could live without a modified B-83 under sequestration 😉

  3. mike (History)

    I read the Panetta brief two nights back and was pretty taken aback by the whole thing. First I really can’t see dumping the ICBM leg in favor of keeping the bomber option. But beyond that, lets call things as they are – the guy running DoD goes crying to the senior war hawk of the other party and his deputy dog because his new agency may lose some funding. There is no need to run around screaming the sky is falling when your budget has increased more than 100% in the past decade and we are talking about cuts to the rate of increase in spending over a decade. I suspect if they checked under the seat cushions of every DoD owned couch they would turn up a good portion of the short fall.

    While I understand the spin put on it here, I think the larger issue should be the failure of *anyone* in Washington to just say no to more spending on anything.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Sure, we all know the heartburn letter is about politics. At least on the issue of nuclear deterrence, however, the case of heartburn is mild. That’s interesting.

  4. Peter Hayes, Nautilus Institute (History)

    sequestration sequestration? carbon sequestration? Just what kind of sequestration are you folks talking about?…oh, inside-the-beltway talk.

    For outside-the-beltway bandit types, especially those outside of the United States, who want to know what kind of sequestration Jeffrey and friends are talking about, when the rest of the world is focused on climate change and carbon sequestration, see:

    Unless you are inside-beltway American, none of the post makes sense unless you know this arcane code word of congressional budget warfare.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      We’ve never aspired to a general readership.

  5. Mark Lincoln (History)

    A ‘crisis’ created out of nothing for political purposes by the people who were the authors of doubling the national debt in 8 short years.

    At what point does politics stop being a ideological blood sport and become a threat to the security and existence of the USA?

  6. John (History)

    For the not-so-politically wonky could you pls summarize what the imminent collapse of the supercommittee talks means for ICBMs and missile defense and other major nuclear-related issues? WaPo ran a story saying the supercommittee will declare defeat tomorrow. So what does this mean? Can I celebrate yet? Or will they weasel out of automatic cuts?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      That’s outside my lane. I only know that Panetta claims the list of automatic cuts “may” include the measures that outlined in the post.

      Of course, most of us think Panetta is simply trying to mobilize political opposition by targeting programs with strong Congressional support — read between the lines and he is threatening to reduce forces at a naval base in Georgia (King’s Bay), as well as at ICBM bases/facilities in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Utah. That’s at least 10 US Senators who might be affected.

      Senate ICBM Caucus anyone?

    • Kingston (History)

      Right on cue, here’s a proposed “ICBM caucus” amendment to the FY 2012 NDAA, which the Senate will resume debate on upon their return from Thanksgiving:

      SA 1307. Mr. BARRASSO (for himself, Mr. ENZI, Mr. Conrad, Mr. BAUCUS, and Mr. TESTER) submitted an amendment intended to be proposed by him to the bill S. 1867, to authorize appropriations for fiscal year 2012 for military activities of the Department of Defense, for military construction, and for defense activities of the Department of Energy, to prescribe military personnel strengths for such fiscal year, and for other purposes; which was ordered to lie on the table; as follows:

      At the end of subtitle H of title X, add the following:


      Notwithstanding any other provision of law and consistent with the treaty obligations of the United States, the Secretary of Defense shall–

      (1) retain all of the 450 intercontinental ballistic missile launch facilities currently supporting deployed strategic nuclear delivery vehicles within the limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed strategic launchers;

      (2) maintain a minimum of 420 intercontinental ballistic missiles on alert or operationally deployed status;

      (3) preserve all 450 existing intercontinental ballistic missile silos in operational or warm status; and

      (4) distribute any reductions in the intercontinental ballistic missile force equally among the three operational inter-continental ballistic missile bases.

  7. Ara Barsamian (History)

    Don’t scrap ICBM’s to save a measly 8 Billions; scrap the useless JSFighter program. Solid fueled ICBM’s and quick reaction time are essential for an uncertain world in “buying” you time. We are not talking about Russia as much as hedging against others, e.g. China. In addition, we can make “quick changes” from nuclear to conventional…you never know what’s going to happen in Pakistan or North Korea, maybe Iran (although with a 5000 year history, they are highly likely to be open to “serious” dialogue).

    As far as DOE, yes, terminate all the nonsensical build-up based on a Plutonium-weapons ecosystem; switching to a highly enriched Uranium alternatives (see ex-Sandia Peurifoy)does away with Pu-based LEPs and new facilities worth 20 to 30 billions over the next 3 decades…not to speak of lawsuits by contaminated, exposed workers…

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Ara Barsamian writes:

      As far as DOE, yes, terminate all the nonsensical build-up based on a Plutonium-weapons ecosystem; switching to a highly enriched Uranium alternatives (see ex-Sandia Peurifoy)does away with Pu-based LEPs and new facilities worth 20 to 30 billions over the next 3 decades…not to speak of lawsuits by contaminated, exposed workers…

      Could you list the off-the-shelf IHE, compact all-HEU primary designs the US currently has available for use in a future all-HEU nuclear force?

      I’ve been told there were some research devices, but nothing that would meet current safety criteria. Which means, going to an untested design, or busting the comprehensive test ban treaty to validate the new generation of devices.

      Neither of those is particularly attractive to me, personally.

      What we perhaps should have done in the 1980s-90s and what we can do from here, with what we have now, are two very different things.

    • Ara Barsamian (History)

      George WH, etc.

      This issue was reviewed in ACW by Jeffrey in Aug 18, 2005.Nevertheless, below are pertinent paragraphs from Bob’s memo.

      I would appreciate, however, if you can do some of the research yourself. If somebody has hang-ups about “old” technology tested successfully in the 50’s and 60’s, too bad; we are talking about science and not voodoo. In any case, most designs worked the first time around, so the issue of “proven” is an excuse. We are not debating the Bible or the Talmud…Numbers talk.

      Bob Peurifoy – Partial Comments (2005)
      ex-SANDIA VP (NW)

      (Additional comments in ACW OF 18 AUGUST 2005 )


      My Observations

      Uranium 235 has a half-life of 700 million years. Plutonium 239 has a half-life of 24 thousand years.
      During normal machining operations, uranium is not pyrophoric. Plutonium is. The radiological hazard of uranium 235 is less than that of plutonium 239.
      For hydrotests, the surrogate for uranium 235 is uranium 238.
      The weapon community frequently uses ambiguous terminology, e.g., physics package, device, warhead, bomb, weapon, weapon system. The central issue is
      availability of plutonium pits, not higher levels of assembly.

      The Technical Feasibility of Uranium 235 Pits

      From a Google search I find:

      Operation Teapot
      1955 – Nevada Proving Ground

      This series of fourteen shots proof tested a broad variety of fission devices with low to moderate yields. As a group these devices combined several innovations – some previously tested, some introduced during this test series – to create a new pattern of fission device that would dominate the design of all later weapons. These devices used new compact, efficient, light weight spherical implosion systems; beryllium tampers; hollow cores; deuterium-tritium boosting; and the use of neutron pulse tubes as initiators to create light, compact, efficient, and reliable fission explosive systems.

      Test: Hornet
      Date: 12 March 1955
      Location: Nevada Test Site (NTS), Area 3a
      Yield: 4 kt

      This was a LASL test of the boosted version of the XW-30 air defense warhead. It was a sealed-pit D-T gas boosted design. The maximum expected yield was 10 kt. The nuclear system weighed 460 lb.

      Operation Plumbbob
      1957 Nevada Test Site

      Operation Plumbbob was conducted at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) from May through
      October of 1957. it was the sixth test series at NTS and consisted of 29 tests… This
      series addressed several objectives, including tactical weapon proof tests, safety tests, and component and mockup testing for thermonuclear systems to be detonated in Hardtack I,
      among other things.
      Test: Stokes
      Date: 7 August 1957
      Location: NTS, Area 7b
      Yield: 19 kt

      Test of the LASL XW-30 multi-purpose warhead; used in TADM (tactical atomic demolition munition), and Talos SAM (surface-air-missile) warhead. All oralloy (highly enriched uranium) DT gas-boosted system. Predicted yield 10-20 kt. Device diameter 22 inches. Nuclear system weight 317 lb.

      According to Google, BOA was the name given to the uranium pit W30 used in TADM
      and Talos SAM applications, stockpiled from 1959 to 1979. Yields ranged from 0.3 kt to
      5 kt. BOA was also the primary used in the thermonuclear warhead stockpiled as the
      W52 for the Sergeant SSM stockpiled from 1962 to 1977. Two yields are noted, 60 kt and 200 kt.


      A possible stockpile configuration starting in 2012

      SLBM Force

      The SLBM force now loads both MK4 and MK5 RBs. I propose that at steady state,
      1,150 MK5/W88s will be deployed on 12 Trident submarines (288 missiles, each loaded with 4 RBs). Two additional Trident submarines will be undergoing major overhaul, and
      I assume they will not be loaded.

      W88 plutonium 239 pit production will restart in 2008 at 20 per year at Los Alamos
      PF4/TA55. No changes to the W88 primary need be planned.

      As the MK5/W88 stockpile grows, MK4/W76s will be retired. Production of W88s will completely support the SLBM force of 1,150 MK5 RBs by 2045.

      From 2045 on, a steady state W88 plutonium pit production rate of 20 per year will begin to build spares. Until 2047, W76s (60 years after their last production year) will provide spares.

      ICBM Force

      As now planned, the MK21/W87 will be used as a singlet on MM III. Five hundred will be deployed. Design and development work will be started in 2007 for a replacement for the MK21/W87. The replacement warhead will use a uranium 235 pit and will be modeled on the technologies developed to support the uranium 235 pit W30 and W52 warheads stockpiled during the 1960s and 1970s.

      The Air Force will have to fund the design, development, flight testing, and production costs of new RVs. RV weight and base diameter should not be a problem. MM III is said to be able to throw about 2,500 pounds of payload. The base diameter of the 3rd stage is said to be 4 feet.

      Bomber Force

      The remaining (550) operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads permitted by the Moscow Treaty will be allocated by DoD between bombs and cruise missile warheads. BOA (W30) technology uranium 235 pit primaries will be used.
      I assume that 100 nuclear-capable aircraft will remain in the Air Force inventory. Therefore, the average load will be 5.5 weapons per aircraft, assuming one sortie per aircraft.

      The Air Force will need to fund for new aircraft bomb racks and for compatibility testing.
      A redesign of the ALCM may be necessary.

      Uranium Pit Production

      Y12 will be tasked to fabricate the uranium pits; Y12 has had over 50 years of experience in the fabrication of uranium parts. As the half-life of uranium 235 is 700 million years, long-term steady-state production of uranium pits would appear to be unnecessary.

      For a stockpile of 2,200 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads, the
      ICBM/bomb/cruise missile strategic nuclear warhead inventory will total 1,050 uranium
      235 pit weapons.

      To allow time for R & D and preparation for production of uranium pits, I assume that pit deliveries from Y-12 to Pantex will start in 2020. The build rate will be 40 pits per year.

      At a 40 uranium pit-per-year rate, the ICBM and bomber forces can be completely converted to uranium pit warheads by 2046, and spare warheads will begin to accumulate at 40 per year. Using a 60-year plutonium pit life estimate, B61s, W80s, B83s, and W87s can provide spares for the ICBM and bomber forces through 2048.
      FYI, the maligned B53 had an all HEU pit yielding 81kt with boosting and external neutron generators. The Comp B/Cyclotol had a bit of wax, which kinda bothered you…not plasticizer.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Ara –

      Every HEU weapon you’ve listed predates IHE and has a roughly 20-plus inch diameter. None of them are compact enough for any modern US ICBM / SLBM reentry vehicles.

      Mathematics and modeling indicate that a most-modern-design-concept device could be a lot smaller than that – a two-point indirect implosion boosted fission system fitting within a Mark-5 or Mk.21 RV, a two-point direct implosion system potentially small enough to make a two-stage weapon in a Mark-5 / Mk.21. That I know of, no weaponized design using HEU and those constraints exists.

      I have nothing against the HEU Mk.53 primary, other than it being non-insensitive CAST (cough) Comp-B explosives, 20-odd inches in diameter…

      Again. I have nothing against HEU. What you are asserting regarding the state of the art of HEU weapons designs on the shelf is not sensible for the current situation. If we were to restart full on development (including testing) I’d encourage an all-HEU weapon for the reasons you put forwards, though I suspect both all-HEU and Pu weapons would find their way into a process as the size advantages of Pu are nearly overwhelming for any two-stage compact design. But I am highly skeptical of the idea of using a grossly obsolete HEU design that won’t even fit in any current delivery vehicles. I’m also highly skeptical of the idea of an untested design.

      We can test an all-HEU design with DU and flash-X-ray systems and get really high confidence, but not perfect confidence. One can tell the pit compression using such, but I don’t know that one can with high surety guarantee the boost gas remains ignitable under the actual core conditions without a test fire. I don’t know that the flash X-ray systems are good enough for that (though, I haven’t worked with them, and am not a pro at this, so who knows… perhaps I’m just wrong).

  8. John (History)

    thank you — so it seems despite the supercommittee budget deadlock, ICBM and other defense programs may be sustained through the sequestration-that-never-was-really-meant-to-be ?

  9. Ralph (History)

    Why can’t we just accept that deterrence worked, the Cold War is over, and our nuclear weapon needs in this day & age are minimal. Propose even deeper force cuts to the Russians. Scrap the next-gen boomer & bomber. SLEP some existing boomers. I repeat, deterrence worked. Everyone in the world has internalized the danger of a nuclear exchange and from a geopolitical standpoint it’s a vanishingly small probability. It’s the economy, stupid. Let’s move on.

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