Hillary Clinton’s revelation this month of what was once considered to be the most precious secret, the number of nuclear weapons in the US arsenal, went practically unnoticed—but is significant for several reasons. The number, 5,113 weapons, does not include the 4,600 or so weapons that the US keeps in reserve. This number marks a dramatic decline of 84% from the maximum size of the arsenal, which stood at a frightening 31,255 nuclear weapons at the end of 1967. And yet, today’s number of 5,113 is nearly five times more than the total estimated number of weapons held by China, France, the UK, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Only the Russian Federation is reported to have more weapons than the US, although Moscow has never revealed exactly how many weapons it possesses.
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight
Interestingly, these numbers are shockingly close to the latest estimate by US scholars Tom Cochran and Bill Arkin of 5,100 weapons. This estimate is based on unclassified information and reveals that, beyond a point, it is really not possible to keep these weapon numbers a secret, especially in a democracy.
What the numbers do not directly reveal is that every US president since Richard Nixon (1969-74) has been terrified by the single integrated operational plan, or SIOP, briefing they received on how this arsenal would be used because it sombrely disclosed that any use of these weapons would effectively result in the destruction of the entire planet several times over. Even a suicidal mass-murderer would baulk at such a stark prospect.
Almost as a corollary to the realization that any use of nuclear weapons is likely to unleash Armageddon is the revelation that every president since Nixon has more or less supported the steady decline in the number of US nuclear weapons. Indeed, even when presidents were contemplating the prospects of limited nuclear war and approving the development of new weapons, the overall numbers maintained their downward trend.
The beginning of the process of reducing the size of the US nuclear arsenal also corresponded with the US signing of the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, or NPT, on 1 July 1968. Although cynics might brush this off as a mere coincidence, it is possible that having joined the treaty, Washington was aware of its normative obligations and, at the very least, did not increase the size of its nuclear arsenal.
Predictably, the biggest fall in US numbers came after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although the rate of the decline varied considerably, the maximum number of warheads dismantled in a single year was 1,393 in 1995. Between 1994 and 2009 the US department of energy dismantled 8,748 warheads at an average rate of about 582 warheads per year. At this rate it would take the US between eight and nine years to dismantle the 5,113 active nuclear weapons and between seven and eight years to dismantle the 4,600 weapons held in reserve. However, it is unlikely that this pace of disarmament will continue or that the US will become a non-nuclear weapon state in the next 20 years. Indeed, it will probably take longer to dismantle the last 1,000 US weapons than it did the last 10,000.
The primary reason is that as the US nuclear arsenal continues to decline, it will, at some point, match up with the numbers of the other nuclear weapon states, particularly China, France and the UK, and also bump up against the growing Indian, Israeli and Pakistani nuclear arsenals. At that stage, it is highly unlikely that the US will continue to reduce its nuclear weapons unless the other nuclear weapon states also start reducing their nuclear weapons.
For now, Washington should be commended for disclosing these once highly classified numbers and setting an example for the other nuclear weapon states; they would do well to emulate this effort at transparency.
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