Jeffrey LewisGrading the NPR: Transparency

As I have already argued, I believe the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review is a significant achievement — in a way that critics and some surprising advocates don’t quite grasp yet. Because everyone is focusing on the details — this caveat, that compromise — the broader shift in how we talk about the role of nuclear weapons is going unremarked.

With that ritual disclaimer, I am planning a series of posts on the details. After all, this is Arms Control Wonk. I am ending each post with an arbitrary grade, since I’ve been doing a little of that lately for real. It is a conceit, I admit; but a harmless one, I would argue.


Following President Obama’s commitment to the most open and transparent Administration in history, the Nuclear Posture Review process was largely just that — open and transparent. I can’t recall all the meetings I attended with senior government officials, including those infamous DOD round tables. (No, the tables were not round. One was, in fact, an odd V-shape.)

As a result, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review is, as expected, an entirely unclassified document. That is a major accomplishment — the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review was really just a set of slides and the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review leaked in the worst possible way. (The sanitized version in the 2002 ADR drew little or no comment.)

So, kudos to the Obama Administration for writing an entirely unclassified Nuclear Posture Review. Whether there is a classified appendix or classified follow-on studies doesn’t really matter, the document stands alone as an unclassified statement. As Cheryl Rofer noted, “It is a message that this administration thinks that accountability is important and intends to stand by its words.” That’s a good thing.

So, the Obama Administration was heading toward an A+ for transparency — until the last minute.

Admiral Dennis Blair — the presumably soon to be former Director of National Intelligence — succeeded in killing a very sensible proposal to declassify aggregate stockpile numbers on the grounds that nuclear aspirants might learn something. This is a long-standing Arms Control Wonk pet rock. There is no reason this information should remain classified.

The argument, however, was the would-be nuclear nations might divide the amount of plutonium by the size of the stockpile and discover that, shock!, the IAEA significant quantity of plutonium (8 kilograms) is too high.

No kidding.

That 4 kilograms of plutonium is enough to make a nuclear weapon is an unclassified fact. For some strange reason, the average mass of plutonium per warhead for the stockpile as a whole remains classified.

So, as a result, when then-Secretary of Energy Sam Bodman in 2007 announced that he was declaring excess another 9 metric tons of plutonium (from the 46.8 metric tons
declared in the mid-1990s), the Administration divided by 8 to claim it was enough for more than 1,100 nuclear weapons. It was a lot more than that. (The Administration had cut the size of the stockpile in half, though not all the material was declared excess).

This is an odd sort of secrecy. We already know that the START negotiations put the United States on a glide path to 11,100 warheads about the same time that the United States declared a corresponding plutonium stockpile of 46.8 metric tons (excluding weapons to be dismantled). In other words, about 4.2 kilograms per warhead.

Now, my guess is that nuclear scientists in North Korea are probably going to want to do their own calculation. Oh, wait, the North Koreans already claimed their first nuclear test used 2 kilograms of plutonium. Hmmm, what information are we protecting again?

I understand the intelligence community is now doing a red-team analysis to see what harm might come of declassifying the stockpile number.

I think Denny Blair, should chillax. I gather virtually everyone else, including Tom D’Agostino, were in fact committed to declassifying basic data about the stockpile.

In any event, the stockpile data does not need to be in the NPR document — it could easily be done in subsequent release prior to, say, May. Yes, May would be good.

Final Grade: Incomplete

Update | 3:46 pm James Acton notes that the State Department just released a fact sheet in which they divide by 4, not 8:

– By updating the 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), each country will proceed to complete and operate facilities that will dispose of at least 34 metric tons of this plutonium by using it as fuel in civil power reactors to produce electricity.

– Combined, this represents enough material for approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons.

34,000 × 2 ÷ 17,000 = 4. Of course, that 4 kilograms is enough for a bomb is unclassified. Whether we do or not, shhh!


  1. Bill (History)


    Would not at least some of weapons in the stockpile also utilize HEU, thus complicating the calculus?


  2. yousaf

    indeed it is good that the NPR is open and transparent but it is also vague, misleading and in its infatuation with missile defense (allegedly as a “deterrent”?), deeply flawed.

    It is misleading in that it says that there will be no new nuclear warheads. This is not true in the normal English understanding of those words — any warhead ‘based upon’ anything that had been tested before could be developed. e.g. The WR1 would be OK as it is ‘based upon’ the SKUA-9 device tested a few times in the 1970s. This could be problematic going forward.

    Part of the reason that the lab directors OK’ed it is that it would allow the development of new nukes.

    So much for “It is a message that this administration thinks that accountability is important and intends to stand by its words.”

    There is also a lot of talk of bolstering missile defense in the NPR, as if that is going to provide some “deterrence”. I think this is a fundamental misconception. Missile defense will be wasteful, ineffective and destabilizing.

    I have no idea what the folks writing the NPR meant by saying missile defense will “deter”. The same problem exists, of course, throughout the BMD Review document. MD does not deter: it encourages the target states to expand their stockpile, delivery systems, and motivates them to find other delivery methods.

    It also instills a false sense of security which may lead to dangerous miscalculations

    As long as there is a credible threat of one nuclear tipped missile penetrating the defense, MD will not — or should not — alter our strategic calculations w/r/t Iran and NK.

    Josh Rogin at FP also commented on the infatuation with unproven missile defense in the NPR.

    Quite a contrast from Mr. Obama’s earlier promises.

    So it retains the triad, the hair-trigger alert, allows new warheads and bolsters destabilizing, expensive and ineffective missile defenses.

    It also actively targets with nuclear weapons Iran and NK, thus justifying their programs.

    Interesting that the chief of the Air Force’s Strategic Plans and Policy Division is bolder than almost anyone in the USG, writing that the United States could address military utility concerns with only 311 nuclear weapons in its nuclear force structure while maintaining a stable deterrence.

    So, kudos to the Admin. for openly publishing the NPR; now how about telling the taxpaying public what it really means.

    Grade: C- for obtuse and misleading use of language

    PS: Hans has a good write-up of some of the flaws….

  3. James Acton (History)

    Apparently, the White House didn’t get the message.

    Quote from the just-released <a href=“”>fact sheet on the Pu disposition protocol</a>:

    …each country will proceed to complete and operate facilities that will dispose of at least 34 metric tons of this plutonium by using it as fuel in civil power reactors to produce electricity.

    Combined, this represents enough material for approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons.

    You can do the division.

  4. shaheen

    I don’t get it. Assuming one accepts Blair’s reported logic, how would the proverbial nuclear aspirant know that he knows the total amount of W-grade Pu produced by the US since 1945 AND the total number of weapons the US has dismantled since 1945? Also, is Blair’s argument still valid if one had considered the number of operational/reserve warheads, not the total stockpile? I must be missing something or be dumb.

  5. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    I suspect you are not dumb. But it may be that they are worried one could use time series data as warheads come in and out of the stockpile to make approximations of the amount of plutonium in various designs. That seems like a complicated and unreliable method relative to, say, picking up a copy of Swords of Armageddon.

  6. George William Herbert (History)

    Almost amusing path:

    Swords of Armageddon ->
    Nuclear Weapons FAQ ->
    Wikipedia ->
    Intellipedia unclassified site ->
    Internal CIA blow-up over TS/RD Sigma 6 data appearing in unclassified side of Intellipedia


  7. MarkoB (History)

    Your focus on the capacious conception of nuclear security is appropriate, as is your comments on the relative transparency of the 2010 NPR. However, I think we might need more time to make a firm overall judgement on this. The Bush NPR was pretty horrid in terms of transparency, although it had one very, very important feature. What Team Bush said they were going to do they did, lock stock and barrel. If this NPR document turns out to be largely a campaign document built around various nuclear security summits, with the administration going in another direction thereafter then this NPR won’t be transparent, it will prove to be highly misleading. There is precedent for this. In 1990s the Clinton admin reaffirmed the US NSA, then did what it wanted too anyway in PDD60. Time will tell.


    I like your comments a lot, I mean a lot! I think you should set up a blog too. You hit the money with the SKUA9 Pu pit. The WR1 thereby was to use a recycled pit. The Obama policy is consistent with the planned early phases of RRW.

  8. yousaf

    Thanks MarkoB — I see that this admin is apparently also making noises about possibly testing in the future. This is a step backwards from the Bush era.

    No time for my own blog unfortunately (day job & all…), but am writing up a piece on the NPR and BMDR’s missile defense “deterrent” fallacy for the Bulletin — hopefully, it will be out in a week or so.

    In the meantime, many of criticisms leveled against the Bush NPR is valid for this one also.

    “…the failure to take into account the reactions of other states is the classic “fallacy of the last move.”

    This has caused the Bush administration to miss key opportunities and, in some cases, to take actions that are likely to increase threats to the security of the United States over the long run.

    _At present, the only major threat to the security of United States—certainly the only thing that threatens the very survival of our society—is the Russian nuclear arsenal. Yet we continue to deploy U.S. nuclear forces in ways that magnify this threat. We keep a large fraction of our
    forces on high alert and target them against Russia’s nuclear forces. The ability of the United States to preemptively destroy Russia’s forces is higher than it has been since the 1960s. Russia knows this. Although Russian military planners think a U.S. attack is highly unlikely, they do not ignore the possibility. Indeed, they continuously guard against the possibility of preemptive attack by maintaining a large number of ICBMs, and reportedly even submarines in port, on alert, ready to launch on warning of an attack. Thus, our daily survival relies on the integrity of Russian attack warning systems, command and control systems, and the integrity of the chain of command. The danger of this posture was revealed in 1994 when the launch of a harmless Norwegian sounding rocket triggered a Russian nuclear alert._

    _This is a crazy situation. Russia maintains a huge, alert, and lethal force because the United States maintains a huge, alert, and lethal force. No other potential threat could justify such a posture by either country, now or for the foreseeable future. Neither country believes that an attack by the other is plausible, aside from the fact that the other maintains a huge, alert, and
    lethal force. The security of both countries would be improved through reductions in alert status and other steps to reduce the counterforce capability of remaining deployed forces._

    The fallacy of the last move is also evident in the administration’s push for a national missile defense (NMD) system. If other countries do not react to the deployment of U.S. NMD, then the system might improve U.S. security. But other countries will react, likely in ways that will result in a net decrease in our security.

    Deployment of a U.S. NMD system will increase pressure on Russia to be able to launch its nuclear forces on warning of an attack, to ensure that a retaliatory strike could penetrate the defense. Today, in the absence of NMD, Russia might rely in peacetime on the one or two subs it has a sea, or the dozen or so mobile missiles on patrol. But if the U.S. deploys an NMD system with a hundred or more interceptors, that would not suffice.

    _Deployment of a U.S. NMD system would almost certainly cause China to field a larger ICBM force than it otherwise would—perhaps much larger. Today, China relies on a dozen or so
    ICBMs, which are reportedly unarmed and unfueled. The force is being modernized, but at a very slow pace. Based on statements by Bush administration officials, China has good reason to
    believe that a US NMD will be oriented against China. For example, shortly before becoming deputy national security adviser, Stephen Hadley argued that “the United States should have no
    need to deploy an NMD system against China. But if China continues to insist that it is free to use force against Taiwan, continues to deploy more ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan and the
    United States, and continues to threaten to use those missiles against both, then the United States may simply have no choice.”4_

    _The demonstrated readiness of the Bush administration to use force and reluctance of the US to accept any limits on unilateral action will also influence Russian and Chinese nuclear
    planning, in ways that are unlikely to benefit the United States. But the greatest deficiency in the Bush nuclear posture, and the most glaring example of the “fallacy of last move,” is the broadening of U.S. nuclear threats to other potential adversaries, who are not armed with nuclear weapons, in situations ranging from deterring or responding to chemical and biological attacks…”_

  9. Peter J. Brown (History)


    As you seek to emphasize that, “the Nuclear Posture Review process was largely just that — open and transparent…” perhaps not everyone agrees with you. China, in particular, might think otherwise as I point out in my Asia Times commentary, “US-India deal clouds nuclear summit” (April 13,2010)

    see –

    I wrote —

    “China has taken the opportunity to send a strong signal both to India and the US via its critique of the NPR which China’s views as misrepresenting and deliberately distorting China’s nuclear intentions at time when the US’s strategy involves surrounding China with nations that have rapidly evolving nuclear capabilities of their own.

    “It is publicly known that the US once had hundreds of nuclear warheads aimed at China. Even today, it has numerous naval vessels deployed carrying nuclear weapons that can be retrained on China swiftly,” said an editorial in China’s Global Times newspaper in early April. “In Asia, China is surrounded by countries that have signed nuclear pacts with the US. It is the US, not China, that should provide more transparency regarding its nuclear intentions.”

  10. Chris Jones (History)


    Perry and Schlesinger’s op-ed in Politico also criticized the NPR for not disclosing “additional information about the size and composition of the U.S. nuclear stockpile”:

  11. yousaf

    thank you for forwarding Perry and Schlesinger’s OpEd. I have immense respect for Bill Perry but have to differ with him when he says:

    “The report suggested deploying proven missile defenses against threats such as North Korea and Iran but emphasized, as the NPR does, that these defenses should not be so big as to encourage Russia to add warheads to counter them, which would only undermine efforts to reduce nuclear weapons.”

    Firstly, as the articles I linked to above suggest, even a limited missile defense “shield” against Iran and NK would not make any strategic difference and could well be dangerous if it instills a false sense of confidence in our leaders w/r/t its efficacy. (I will leave aside for now the fact that no missile defenses, including SM3, have been “proven” under realistic conditions, including salvos and countermeasures, and with the attack timing and trajectory being a surprise.)

    As long as there is a credible threat of just one nuclear tipped missile penetrating the defense, MD will not — or should not — alter our strategic calculations w/r/t Iran and NK. Strategically it will earn us nothing.

    On the other hand, if we can get beyond the fallacy of the last move, and acknowledge that there is a feedback loop between adversaries, then it is simple to see that in response to any such shield the military leadership in those countries will argue to increase their stockpiles.

    In fact, the Perry/Schlesinger report admits that exactly this is liable to happen by saying “…these defenses should not be so big as to encourage Russia to add warheads to counter them…” What applies to Russia, applies to China, NK and Iran — if they feel that MD are liable to intercept some fraction of their warheads, they are likely to increase their stockpiles.

    Even if it was a sensible thing to do — which it is not — I think there is no optimal size for the missile defense shield Perry and Schlesinger would like to see, since even the small existing ones have elicited strenuous disapproval from Russia and China. This from the BMDR:

    ‘[b]oth Russia and China have repeatedly expressed concerns that U.S. missile defenses adversely affect their own strategic capabilities and interests.

    i.e. there is no “just right” sized MD that would work against Iran and NK but would not anger China and Russia. China and Russia are unhappy even w/ the current fledgling system. And China and Russia have not necessarily been irrational about this in the past.

    Mobile ship-based MD would, presumably, be an even larger issue for China and Russia.

    Lastly, just a plug about my own recent piece in Politico regarding the imminent resurgence of RRW — although, of course, it will be called something else, something we can all get behind — like W78-prime.

  12. Allen Thomson (History)

    > Would not at least some of weapons in the stockpile also utilize HEU, thus complicating the calculus?

    I would have to dig for the references, but I believe there are credible assertions that a) all current US nuclear weapons are two-stage devices, b) the primaries are boosted plutonium implosion bombs and c) significant quantities of HEU are used in at least some weapons, but only in the secondaries.

    Having said that, there has been on occasion agitation for going to uranium primaries to circumvent worries about plutonium metallurgy. But I don’t think that ever went anywhere.

  13. George William Herbert (History)

    Concur with Allen’s comments.

    I was one of those who, from a technical perspective, support HEU primaries, in that a large chunk of the aging concerns go away permanently if you do that.

    But – no modern, IHE, intrinsic safeguards weapon seems to have been designed with a HEU core, so building one would more or less require a test to ensure we didn’t f’ something up. Which is not going to happen in the world we see ahead of us.

    Perhaps we can buy Pakistan’s test data…

  14. wonk^2

    “The argument, however, was the would-be nuclear nations might divide the amount of plutonium by the size of the stockpile and discover that, shock!, the IAEA significant quantity of plutonium (8 kilograms) is too high.”

    To be considered a wonk it is necessary to not compare apples and oranges. The IAEA number for a significant quantity is an estimate of the amount of material needed as a starting point to be able to fabricate a single nuclear explosive device. A “significant quantity” takes into account fabrication losses, etc. It is not an estimate of how much ends up in the eventual device. Please get the facts straight.