Jeffrey LewisIs 720 the new 700?

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in a Wall Street Journal oped, has announced the force structure for the New START treaty:

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.

Delivery Vehicle Type Deployed Total Loading Warheads
Minuteman III ICBM 420 420 × 1 420
Trident II SLBM 240 280 × 4-5 1070
B-2 Heavy Bomber 16 19 × 1 16
B-52 Heavy Bomber 44 76 × 1 44
Total 720 795 n/a 1550

Source: Author’s wild guess.

I am really quite baffled by this. Last I checked 420, 240, and 60 summed to, er, 720. The treaty limit for deployed delivery vehicles is 700. I don’t get it.

Holding aside that question, for a moment, the distribution suggests a few things:

✗ The United States is going to eliminate 30 Minuteman III ICBM silos. That, to me, looks like the Obama Administration is going to spread the pain around (fewer missiles per squadron) rather than try to eliminate a full squadron.

✗ The United States is going to reduce the number of launch tubes on each ballistic missile submarine to 20, down from 24, per the conversion protocol. (12 deployed SSBNs times 20 tubes equals 240. 2 submarines would in overhaul at any one time.)

✗ The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review — as well as some US officials with whom I spoke — indicated that the United States would convert additional B-52s. I don’t see it in these numbers, since the United States has only 44 combat coded B-52s. (In conversations, officials have used “test” and “training” codes in a way that would suggest neither count.)

It is, of course, possible that I don’t understand some counting rule, perhaps related to bombers. It is also possible that subsequent decisions about additional reductions must be made, although I would have phrased that sentence “we plan to move toward meeting the Treaty’s limits …” They have seven years to figure it out, I suppose.


  1. anon (History)

    On the ICBMs… He says up to 420 ICBMs. That number could include some nondeployed ICBM launchers. So you could, for instance, have 30 ICBM launchers that are empty and eliminated (which could mean anything since we don’t have to destroy the launchers) and another 20 (or more) that are empty at any one time, perhaps for maintenance and servicing of the missiles. These nondeployed launchers don’t have to be the same ones at all times.

    On the bombers, even though only 44 B-52s are combat coded for nukes, all 76 (or 94, depending on how you count) count as nuke-capable under START, due to the weapons-carrying capability. Looks like the bomber conversions under new START will hit those that still count as nuclear-capable even though they are not combat-coded. So, now all nuclear capable bombers will be combat coded.

  2. FSB

    Not that I “heart” nukes or anything, but my reading: Gates clearly says “up to” like 3 times — i.e. less than or equal to.

    No inconsistency unless all the “up to” ‘s are “up to” ‘ed simultaneously, which is not a good assumption.

    700 <= 720.

    Gates is good to go.

  3. anon

    Why baffled? The words say “up to.” This implies an upper limit for each of the three legs. I expect that it will be easy to meet the limit of 700 within these “up to’s.”

  4. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Anon, on bombers, I am not sure that is right. Which is not the same as saying I disagree. I am just not sure.

    The 44 are combat-coded or in the primary mission aircraft inventory (PMAI), period. The others are coded as “test” assets (PDAI, clearly non-deployed under New START) and “training” assets (PTAI, which I was led to believe would count as non-deployed under New START.)

    Given the basing restrictions, unless the parties agreed otherwise, I would think converting B-52Hs would require eliminating the nuclear mission at either Barksdale or Minot.

    So, working from those (possibly dubious assumptions), I concluded that the 240 (20 × 12) and 60 referred to deployed delivery vehicles.

    I suppose that means that the 420 ICBMs could imply a readiness rate of 93 percent at the ICBM fields. But then we would have a total of 720.

    Or, maybe they will go down to 420 silos, with a 95 percent readiness rate, that would mean the US would on any given day be in compliance with the treaty. But that would make an apples-to-oranges comparison with the SSBN number (240 tubes seems to refer to the number of tubes on the 12 deployed SSBNS, with 2 in overhaul.)

    I guess what I am saying is that either additional reductions must be announced to remove the last 20 delivery vehicles, or there is something subtle in the calculation that I am missing.

  5. Gelfant

    The basic question(s) not answered by any of this are: (1) which systems are current types that will be eliminated? (2) Which will be converted? (3) Which will move in and out of deployed and non-deployed status (subs in overhaul, etc.)? (4) How many PGS missiles will we have and when?—They would count if they are an IC or SL.

  6. Peter J. Brown (History)

    I guess I am tossing a wild card on the table here. The emphasis on SSBNs is a logical one. Keep in mind, however, that it was a Russian news account last month that started the ball rolling in this instance.

    See — “US satellites shadow China’s submarines” (May 13, 2010) at —

  7. Scott Monje (History)

    The three “up to“s could simply mean they haven’t finalized the numbers yet, or haven’t decided that they want to be precise about what they’ve decided.

  8. Bookkeeper (History)

    If “up to” is supposed to give us a bit of wiggle room, how does such an ambiguity jive with providing more transparency and predictability?

  9. bobbymike (History)

    This does not leave any room for Conventional Prompt Global Strike that will be counted against totals I thought.

    I am curious, Gen. Kehler indicated late last year that 900 launchers was the “minimum” needed for deterrence and now the US can live with 700?

    After the 2010 election I don’t think we will get ratification anyways

  10. Pavel (History)

    My guess is that he meant 720 total launchers (deployed and non-deployed). This is less than 800 allowed by the treaty. Some of these will have missiles removed.

  11. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    Then the number would be 760, since there are another 40 SLBM tubes in overhaul.