Jeffrey LewisA Modest, Yet Welcome, Reduction

The White House has announced what it calls a “significant” reduction in the 2012 stockpile — later clarified to be 15 percent.

Although the stockpile size is classified, the announcement suggests the total size will drop from “roughly” a quarter of its size at the end of the Cold War to “less than one-quarter.”

That means — working from the handy chart (above) provided by then-General Powell — we are talking about a reduction of hundreds, not thousands, of warheads — perhaps some of the W80s resulting from the decision to retire the ACM.

To my mind, that is a modest reduction that does not alter the character the arsenal in a significant way — but it is welcome nonetheless. As I have stated before, on this blog and in the Washington Post, the goal should not be the size of the stockpile when Ike left office (19,000), but when he entered it (1,200).


The press release announces reductions it describes as “significant,” following a “major” reduction in 2004, that will result in a U.S. nuclear stockpile “less than one-quarter its size at the end of the Cold War.”

This is the third stockpile plan signed by President Bush.

Sometime after the January 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, President Bush signed NSPD 10, a nuclear weapons stockpile plan that implemented the reductions starting in Fiscal Year 2002.

In May 2004, Bush signed NSPD 34 “Fiscal Year 2004-2012 Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Plan.” That document directed “major” reductions in the stockpile to “one-half from the 2001 level – down by roughly a factor-of-four since the end of the Cold War and the lowest level since the Eisenhower Administration.”

This is presumably the third presidential directive (NSPD 50-something), directing a “significant” reduction to “less than one-quarter” the Cold War level.

Although the size of the stockpile is classified, in 1991 then Chairman of the JCS Colin Powell stated that the US had approximately 21,000 nuclear weapons in September 1990. That’s a handy benchmark.

If a “roughly” four fold reduction resulted in a stockpile projection of 5,300-5,800 warheads by 2012, then the current reduction would result in a 2012 stockpile of 4,500-5,000 warheads — a reduction of approximately 800 warheads.


I note, coincidentally, that between the last stockpile plan and the current one, the Air Force announced the retirement of the Advanced Cruise Missile and the Nuclear Weapons Council canceled the Life Extension Program for the W80.

Frankly speaking, I would have been surprised if the President had not announced a stockpile reduction, given the retirement of a significant delivery system (460 ACMs) and the cancellation of the LEP for its warhead (W80).

Of course, maybe the reduction is not related to the ACM. Either way, the Administration gets credit in my book for a modest, yet welcome, reduction.


  1. Daryl Kimball (History)

    Jeff, there are some other interesting numbers we can extrapolate from the WH announcement and from past administration statements that highlight that the recent WH announcement doesn’t amount to much.

    Earlier this year, the USG announced that the total number of U.S. deployed strategic nuclear warheads is 3,696. This is basically the same level that J.D. Crouch said it would be back in 2002 when the DoD released its NPR. See <;.

    As you accurately estimate, the current total active U.S. strategic nuclear stockpile (reserve and deployed) is now approximately around 5,200 to 5,300, which means that the WH announcement of “reductions” in the stockpile is essentially another of their stockpile accounting gimmicks. They continue to deploy the same number of warheads they planned to deploy all along, and have simply shifted a larger number of warheads from the “active” to the “inactive” reserve category. And there you have it! The Decider approves “deeper” stockpile reductions.

    If that’s the best we can do fifteen years after the end of the Cold War and seven years after the last NPR, I want a refund on my taxes.

    What is also being left unsaid is that the administration continues to resist some pretty sensible Russian proposals to replace START I (which expires at the end of 2009) with a new treaty that would reduce U.S. and Russian stockpiles to levels below the Moscow Treaty of 2002 (1700-2200 strategic deployed warheads) and put them under agreed counting and verification rules. Russia is seeking levels of 1500 each using START counting rules. At present the two sides cannot agree to basic terms on a follow on agreement. To be continued.

  2. anon (History)

    The 15% decline in the stockpile is actually the least interesting part of the announcements of the last few days. I agree with Jeffrey, that it is probably due to the retirement of the ACMs and the withdrawal of the W80 warheads. In a missive he sent out on Tuesday, John Harvey noted that the White House announcement about the stocpile numbers “was issued in coordination with NNSA’s announcement on complex transformation.” So, the more interesting analytic exercise would be to figure out the public relations strategy here. Whey did the White House feel like it needed to say “the numbers are declining even more” at the same time that it was saying “we’re revamping the complex so that we can keep these things around for ever!” Food for thought…

  3. Bruce Roth (History)

    If Daryl gets a tax refund for poor government performance, I would like the $12,000 back that my family of three has paid in taxes so far for the war in Iraq.