Jeffrey Lewis180 NATO Nukes

I kind of figured that the Wikileaks cables would reveal a lot about so-called tactical nuclear weapons — like how many the US has in Europe or the current US estimates of the Russian stockpile.

One cable, drafted by Ivo Daalder, that details a briefing by PUSD(P) Jim Miller to NATO Permreps and Milreps on 16 July 2009 contains both, as well as other goodies.

It’s 180 NATO nuclear weapons and 3,000-5,000 Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons. Oh, and the US can go as low as 1300 warheads against current Russian (and Chinese) strategic forces.  Really, it was a great briefing.  I am glad that we all have acceess to Ivo’s notes, even if Ivo isn’t.  (It is a very well-written cable.)

The juicy bits are below the jump.

On current and projected strategic and non-strategic forces:

He then reviewed some of the first-stage negotiating numbers for warheads and delivery vehicles which have been the subject of uninformed media discussion: Strategic warhead limits proposed by the U.S. (1500) and Russia (1675), down from a current range of 1700-2200; and SDV limits of 1100 (U.S) and 500 (Russia), down from the START-mandated level of 1600. Dr. Miller expected further negotiations to narrow these ranges considerably. He added that engaging with NATO Allies on the second stage reduction talks would be at least as important as discussions on the first stage, given the importance to the Alliance of extended deterrence, nuclear sharing, and related issues. The large disparity in numbers of sub-strategic nuclear weapons — some estimates put Russian totals at 3,000-5,000 plus — will make this a difficult process.

On the disparity between NATO and Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons:

Norway asked Dr. Miller to expand on his remarks about sub-strategic nuclear weapons. In response, Dr. Miller pointed to the difficulty of bringing Russia to the bargaining table with 180 NATO sub-strategic warheads on offer against the estimated 3-5 thousand Russian warheads in that category. However, for Russia the issue was not merely European; it had to consider China as well, and tactical nuclear weapons were an attractive proposition compared with ramping up conventional forces in the current economic climate.

On requirements for deterrence.

In addition, the conclusion had been reached during the first phase that 1500-1700 warheads represented a militarily sufficient level at present, but that at or below 1300, additional risks to military sufficiency and to robustness had to be assumed. He said that future warhead reductions by the Russians would allow the U.S. to consider going lower.


  1. Muskrat (History)

    Oh, you gotta love the bureaucracy. 1500 warheads is a militarily sufficient level. Below 1300 additional risks must be assumed. So the zone from 1300 to 1500 consists of what? An amount that entails no new risks but which nonetheless does not suffice? An amount that is militarily sufficient but not emotionally sufficient, as it makes us sleep poorly at night? How about “the difference between what some wonk in the Pentagon can actually justify and what some skilled bureaucratic fighters insist on anyway”?

  2. Stephen Young (History)

    Funny, I just came across a different post of this cable, clearly translated from Chinese back into English.

    I was excited to spot the 180 # as well, but kept laughing at the translation – START = COMMENCE, Nuclear Planning Council = Nuclear Plotting Collection – hilarious!

  3. Scott Monje (History)

    You mean 2009, not 2006.

  4. Bruce Blair (History)

    According to my “math”, U.S. strategic planners have already entered into new targeting territory in which standard calculations of nuclear stability become sensitive to relatively small changes. The reductions from Moscow Treaty limit of 2,200 to the New START limit of 1,550 necessitated, for the first time in the modern nuclear era, a serious targeting shift that effectively gutted one of the traditional four categories of targets in the strategic war plan — namely, other military targets (OMT), or Russian conventional forces in other words. Although this would have been viewed as de-stabilizing during the Cold War, I believe it caused very little discomfort within the targeting community because of the declining capabilities of Russian conventional forces and the increasing capacity of U.S. conventional forces to replace U.S. nuclear forces in such missions. I estimate that of the 500 Russian conventional targets in the strategic nuclear plan around the time of the Moscow Treaty signing, only a few dozen major targets remain under the New START Treaty.

    Another much more profound, and from a planner’s perspective much more traumatic, targeting shift will need to be adopted during the next round of nuclear negotiations. Below 1,550 and certainly around 1,300 limits on strategic warheads, the planners will need to begin eliminating major portions of the Russian nuclear forces from the strategic nuclear plan. At around 1,000 deployed strategic warheads under a post- New START agreement (the penciled in objective of the Obama Nuclear Posture Review draft until it was erased during the last key meeting among the principals and the president) this nuclear target category (1,100 targets around the time of the Moscow Treaty) will have to be largely gutted.

    So the nuclear reduction process will soon begin to have transformational impact on traditional notions of stability and strategy. Preemptive and second-strike counterforce, launch on warning, and other core features of the U.S. nuclear posture and damage-expectancy requirements will have to be relegated to historical footnotes. Classic countervalue (military industrial targeting) and counterleadership will become the dominant features of U.S. nuclear policy and remain so for the duration of nuclear reductions on the path to very small arsenals and global zero.

    As far as I can tell, this ongoing and looming transformation and its fraught implications have totally escaped notice and debate.

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      Dr Blair, what about the use of conventional munitions on ICBM’s and SLBM’s to allow the targets to be covered, while keeping the nuclear munition count low? Granted there’s not a means yet to put minds at ease that a alerted delivery vehicle has a nuclear or conventional warhead on it. However, we seem to be approaching an era where counterforce strikes can be done with conventional munitions. On one side this causes me great pause, but at the same time if an inspection and verification scheme could be thought up how would the strategic community react to a world where targets could be covered but nuclear munitions reduced below the thresholds you bring up?

    • Anon (History)

      And then there is the prospect of RRW sneaked in thru the rear door as W78 W88 hybrid:

    • FSB (History)

      You say: “four categories of targets in the strategic war plan — namely, other military targets (OMT), or Russian conventional forces in other words…… I estimate that of the 500 Russian conventional targets in the strategic nuclear plan around the time of the Moscow Treaty signing, only a few dozen major targets remain under the New START Treaty.”

      If the strategic nukes have been aimed into the ocean, why are tacnukes aimed at Russia? Are some of doors in the Pentagon not working properly?

    • Scott Monje (History)

      “Below 1,550 and certainly around 1,300 limits on strategic warheads, the planners will need to begin eliminating major portions of the Russian nuclear forces from the strategic nuclear plan.”

      As the overall number of U.S. nuclear warheads is reduced–presumably in coordination with Russian reductions–wouldn’t the number of Russian nuclear targets also be reduced?

  5. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    A nuclear arsenal should be sized to prevent any gain to be had in being defeated in a conventional war. Beyond that, the ability to obliterate the civilian infrastructure of who ever you see fit. Then beyond that, you can arms race into a spiral of counterforce systems. We’re still building down to lower the counterforce arsenals. I would imagine theater and countervalue based arsenals can be quite small, and no need for hair trigger alerts for a large number of weapons. We obviously have a long way to go no matter what your definition of low enough is.

    • Anon (History)

      I think they should be sized to inspire sufficient fear in your rational adversaries such that they don’t step on your toes*.

      *where I define toes to be your critical interests at home, and overseas w/ allies.

      I agree with FSB that ~30 or maybe 20 is about right. With this number your rational adversaries know that at least about 3 nukes could be detonated on them at any time and that is enough for minimal deterrence. These nukes could all be on subs, exclusively.

    • FSB (History)

      Yes, China already does this btw — although they inflate their numbers by an order of magnitude over my prescription.

    • FSB (History)

      I meant the numbers obviously — not the subs exclusively part.

  6. Fred Miller (History)

    What you measure determines where you stand. If we count the number of nukes Russia has, then we need several thousand. If we count the number it takes to inflict unacceptable damage, it takes 311. If we count the number it takes to destroy the global economy and slash food production by seriously alter the climate, a few dozen is enough.

    But to protect the U.S. and our allies from nuclear attack, we don’t need any nuclear weapons. If we completely eliminated our arsenal, openly and verifiably, nobody would believe us anyway. All potential adversaries would assume that we had a few dozen tucked away somewhere.

    Meanwhile, the savings we’d realize by eliminating our nuclear weapons and the infrastructure that goes with them (tens or hindreds of billions, depending on how you do the accounting)would allow us to greatly reduce oil imports and CO2 production, or shrink the debt, or pay for an invasion of Iran, if that’s your idea of national security.

    • Anon (History)

      Far from eliminating nukes we are going to make new ones e.g. the RRW sneaked in thru the rear door as W78 W88 hybrid:

    • George William Herbert (History)

      The characteristics of the Joint Warhead sound like a W78 repackage, not a RRW per se.

      I’m not privy to the designs, of course.

      I am curious why one wouldn’t standardize on the IHE W87, but not being privy to the designs, I can only speculate that there could be lower margins or Fogbank or some other hard-to-verify component in those that makes one want to not make more of them.

    • John Schilling (History)

      “A few dozen nuclear weapons tucked away somewhere”, would not deter all potential adversaries.

      A few dozen warheads deployed openly would probably not do this; there are too many ways an adversary could reasonably hope to reduce this to a few (<<10) effectively delivered warheads, and too many cases where losing a few cities and a few million people would be a rational price for an adversary to pay for victory over the United States. And then there are the irrational adversaries; irrational is not the same as undeterrable, but it does impact force structure decisions.

      More to the point, that's openly-deployed warheads. Warheads that one hopes an enemy assumes we have hidden somewhere, are even less effective as a deterrent. A rational enemy will correctly note that weapons which are "tucked away somewhere" will be less likely to be deployed effectively than weapons which are properly integrated into the national C3I structure, and thus that his own hypothetical preemptive-counterforce plans will be more likely to reduce the retaliatory strike to an acceptable level. Irrational enemies will make the same calculation, and compound it with either wishful thinking about the secret nukes not really existing at all, or paranoid thinking about their being secret on account of being prepared for use in a preemptive strike which he needs to pre-preempt right now. Or perhaps both…

      I believe the number of nuclear weapons required for robust, effective deterrence is a few hundred, not a few dozen. But I believe even more strongly that the weapons to be used for deterrence ought to be deployed openly, with their numbers, basing, and delivery systems known to everyone concerned and open to inspection to the extent feasible. Neither secret weapons, nor imaginary ones, are an effective deterrent.

    • FSB (History)

      anyone who really seriously wants to nuclear bomb the US to gain victory over the US will not use ICBMs whose return address is known. (At least no longer post Cold War)

      They will deliver them via truck or boat or other sneaky ways without leaving concrete traces of the origin.

      Thus, the US can go blue in the face with nukes, even thousands of them, but it will not deter the hardcore enemies (whoever these are) — they will deliver the weapons using a method that will allow them to so without fear of retaliation. (And certainly missile defense ain’t going to do a bit of good here.)

      The MAD doctrine and ICBM-heavy talk (ie. where you knew who attacked you), applied to the cold war but no longer.

      Without attribution, you have no deterrence.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      You’re conflating uses of nuclear weapons.

      Nation-states use them, by and large, as weapons of deterrence. John is correctly stating the deterrence issues.

      Individual actors would presumably use them for other purposes – as weapons, not deterrence chits.

      That we cannot deter individual actors who might become nuclear capable with a deterrent force – or shoot them down with a NMD system – doesn’t mean those aren’t factors for deterrence systems.

      It’s a common conceit to bring up the individual actor / terrorist nuke threat to try and discredit deterrence-based systems and aspects of the equation. It’s a logical fallacy to do that, though.

      Even if Osama bin Laden were to nuke New York City tomorrow, we’d still have to consider deterrence and defense relative to NK, Iran, China, and Russia. Even existence proof of the individual actor threat wouldn’t change those aspects.

    • FSB (History)

      In fact, if anyone (NK, Iran, Russia, China) really wanted to destroy US cities they would do so without the use of ICBMs.

      That they possess ICBM, or aspire to, means that they are interested also in deterring us and others of their enemies.

      Thus we can agree on minimal deterrence as far as ICBMs are concerned. No counterforce / survivability arguments pertain to sizing an ICBM force.