Big Red Button: The Past, Present, And Future Of The US Nuclear Arsenal




It was the weapon that ushered the United States into a new era, ending World War II and beginning an arms race of epic proportions between America and her allies and the Red Menace of the USSR. Its pervasiveness as both a generalized concept and as a concrete threat defined nearly 50 years of American culture – the nuclear bomb.

Between 1945 and 1992, the U.S. conducted more than 1,000 nuclear tests of all varieties – above and below ground, atmospheric, and underwater – to test various types of delivery systems, explosive yields, and weapon applications. As the number of tests grew, so grew our arsenal of effective deterrents against the Soviet Union. In 50 years, the US developed more than 70,000 warheads in over 65 varieties. By the end of the Cold War, the U.S. had spent nearly $9 trillion, adjusted for inflation. However, the U.S. completely ceased production of new nuclear weapons in 1989, meaning that even the youngest weapons in our so-called “enduring stockpile” are at least 24 to 25 years old. Nuclear development and proliferation was one of the most secretive and heated topics of the Cold War era, but now we have the ability to see the developmental history of the United States nuclear program, as well as current figures on stockpiles, delivery systems, control mechanisms, and the results of thousands of tests, and can use this information to analyze the future uses and potential replacements for the program.

Historically speaking, long before the advent of the modern nuclear weapon, H.G. Wells, in his 1914 work The World Set Free, envisioned a weapon that, when detonated, would explode continuously; he called this weapon the “atomic bomb,” predating the military use of the word by almost 30 years. Writer Cleve Cartmill predicted a bomb whose detonation was based on a nuclear chain reaction in his 1944 short story “Deadline,” prompting an investigation by the FBI due to the coincidental parallels between his work and the then-ongoing Manhattan Project. As early as 1933, physicist Leo Szilárd knew of the possibility of neutron chain reactions, but had no idea what materials could be used to initiate the process. With later work on fission from uranium, Szilárd and fellow physicist Enrico Fermi began work on the first nuclear reactor. By 1939, Szilárd and many of his fellows were concerned that Nazi Germany would develop a way to weaponize these fission reaction. A letter by Szilárd, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner, and Albert Einstein directed at President Roosevelt outlined the dangers of such a device. President Roosevelt provided light funding for the Briggs Advisory Committee on Uranium, but did not seriously begin scientific research until 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

In September 1942, the Manhattan Project was born. Spread across 30 sites within the United States and Canada, and using amalgamated research from the British equivalent program – codenamed “Tube Alloys” – the Manhattan Project was one of, if not the largest industrial undertaking the United States had ever embarked upon, costing $1.9 billion at the time ($25 billion, adjusted for inflation). For reference, the total cost of the project equaled almost 90 percent of the total cost of production for U.S. small arms in the same time period. The bombs themselves were a different story, with each bomb produced costing around $500 million. After three years, four bombs had been developed, The first was the Trinity bomb; the first functioning nuclear device ever tested, the Trinity “gadget” was detonated on July 16 at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Less than a month later, two more nuclear devices – the Little Boy and Fat Man – were detonated over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, on orders from President Harry Truman. They were the first and last nuclear weapons used in combat.

After World War II, the United States began vigorously expanding and testing its arsenal. Beginning with the Crossroads tests in 1946 and ending 1,054 tests later with the Julin tests in 1992, the U.S. tested nuclear weapons in various mediums – underwater, atmospheric, on the ground and deep below it. The U.S. used multiple testing sites, most prolifically the Nevada Test Site, where over 900 nuclear devices were detonated. Over 100 devices were detonated on or near the Marshall Islands at the Pacific Proving Grounds. The remaining few were detonated in various sites in Alaska, Colorado, and Mississippi. The tests were for a variety of purposes; for example, the Operation Greenhouse tests were designed to test the viability of boosted-fission and thermonuclear weapons, The “Mike” explosion of Operation Ivy was the first successful detonation of a hydrogen-fusion weapon, Operation Argus was the first nuclear detonation in space, and these were only a few of the detonations on the larger end of the scale. The smallest weapon developed by the U.S., the Mark-54 “Davy Crockett” warhead had a yield of only 10 to 20 tons of TNT. The largest, the “Bravo” shot of Operation Castle had a yield of 15 megatons of TNT, three times higher than its predicted yield due to an error made by the designers of the bomb at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Contrary to popular belief, not all nuclear detonations are for military purposes. In 1961, the U.S. launched Operation Plowshare, aimed at using nuclear weapons for construction purposes. Named after the Bible verse from the book of Isaiah, “…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore,” and referred to by analysts as Peaceful Nuclear Explosions, these detonations were designed for such purposes as rock blasting, the manufacture of chemical elements, large scale pit mining, and the excavation of tunnels through mountain ranges. One such proposed (though thankfully never carried out) experiment was Project Chariot – using a series of thermonuclear explosions to create an artificial harbor at Cape Thompson, Alaska. However, various proof-of-concept cratering tests were carried out at the Nevada Test Site. Among the more successful of Operation Plowshare’s experiments where those designed to liberate gas from rock layers, the production (and subsequent recovery by other methods) of radioisotopes, and the generation of steam for the purpose of hydroelectric energy. Operation Plowshare ceased in 1977.

In the midst of Plowshare’s duration in the fall of 1963, the Limited Test Ban Treaty, ratified by the U.S., the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union, prohibited all nuclear test detonations except for underground tests. Between 1964 and the full cessation of tests in 1992, all nuclear tests were conducted underground.

With the post-World War II increase in testing and the heightening tension of the Cold War came the need for an effective weapons-delivery system. The planes that carried the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs were specifically modified to carry them, as they weighted multiple tons each. During the early 50s, small-scale nukes like the Davy Crockett warhead mentioned above were designed to be compact enough to be fired from a specially-modified artillery cannon. At the same time, advances in rocket technology led to the earliest rocket-mounted nukes, and eventually to the intercontinental ballistic missile in 1958. ICBMs could be launched from submarines, as with U.S. Trident II missiles, or from individual hardened silos buried in the ground, as with Minutemen or Peacekeeper missiles. The U.S. and the Soviet Union both experimented with placing nuclear weapons in orbit, but this idea was prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. As an answer to this, both countries developed “multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles,” or MIRVs, that consisted of ballistic missiles with the ability to carry between eight and 10 nuclear warheads each. One of the most critical aspects of the U.S. nuclear delivery system are its strategic bombers. Under the jurisdiction of the Strategic Air Command, the first nuclear-capable bomber, the Convair B-36 entered service in 1949. In 1959, it was replaced by the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, one of the most versatile and longest serving bombers in the U.S. Air Force, not expected to leave service until well into the 2040s. At the height of the Cold War, nuclear-armed B-52s were in the air constantly to assure that the U.S. could never be fully disarmed by a nuclear strike. Later in the Cold War, the Rockwell B-1 Lancer was introduced, and later perfected into the B1-B, as a replacement to the B-52. However, the Strategic Air Command realized quickly that the Lancer was more suited to supplementing the B-52 rather than replacing it, acting as the supersonic component to the SAC’s air deterrence force. Further work on the B-1 led to the development of the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, the first true “stealth bomber.” With the B-52, the B-1B, and the B-2 acting at constant states of readiness, the U.S. was guaranteed to have a high measure of retaliatory capability in the event of a preemptive nuclear strike.

In regards to strike-readiness, the U.S. had a myriad of policies to make sure they were never caught off guard. As mentioned above, the Strategic Air Command kept the majority of its B-52 fleet in the air with preassigned targets in the event of a nuclear attack, with another large portion of the fleet ready to go from ground to air in under fifteen minutes. One of the primary ground-based protections was the BMEWS – the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, which could give ground forces up to 20 minutes warning to arm silos or launch bombers. Command and control centers such as NORAD in Colorado or Raven Rock in Pennsylvania controlled monitoring of these systems, as well as issuing warnings and functioning as part of the chain of command in regards to actually authorizing a nuclear strike. To ensure that the chain of command was never broken, the Strategic Air Command instituted Operation Looking Glass, a plan that involved keeping various critical figures in the chain of command aloft in airborne command centers 24 hours a day. Apart from early-warning systems, most of the U.S. deterrence system was based around the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. The MAD theory hinged around the idea that, in the event of a preemptive strike by the USSR, the U.S. would maintain its ability to strike back. To maintain this readiness, the U.S. keeps a constant patrol of submarine-based ballistic missiles that are, in effect, impossible to target, as well as a launch-on-warning policy that called for the launch of ground-based ICBMs in the event of the detection of a nuclear launch by the USSR. These three aspects – air, land, and sea based nuclear weapons – make up what is referred to as a nuclear triad. The idea of MAD essentially prevented one country from striking the other for fear of retaliation in a second strike. The operant goal was – and still is – to convince potential enemies that a first strike wasn’t worth a second strike. The second prong of the United States’ theoretical deterrence policy was that of massive retaliation – that of a disproportionate response to an attack. Under this doctrine, a single nuclear launch against the U.S. could result in the launch of a large retaliatory attack. These doctrines and policies are still being used today.

This brings us to the present status of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. As of 2009, the US possessed around 5,000 active warheads, as compared to its peak total of over 31,000 in the late 1960s. As mentioned earlier, many of the warheads in our arsenal are considerably aged, with the youngest being around 24 years old. Aging warheads present a variety of problems: the conventional explosives in the missiles could fail, the fissile material – the material responsible for the nuclear chain reaction – could chemically degrade, or the electronic components could decay. Because of this, the U.S. undertakes a program called the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program. Directed by the Department of Energy, the SSMP uses applied knowledge in physics and chemistry as well as non-nuclear explosives tests and computer simulations to ensure that the U.S. arsenal of nuclear weapons does not fail in unpredicted incidents. The Bush Administration tried various times to introduce new warheads into the fold, once in 2001 in a nuclear posture review calling for the creation of low-yield bunker-busting nuclear warheads – this attempt was stopped by protest from the National Nuclear Security Administration – and once again in 2006, when the Bush Administration proposed what was known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead which would be used to replace the oldest weapons in the nuclear arsenal; this proposed change was curtailed by the U.S. government’s obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

With respect to treaties, various agreements have been reached by the main world powers to severely limit the usage, testing, and proliferation of nuclear weapons. The Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 put and end to many types of nuclear testing and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty of 1996 ended testing completely for signatory countries. Multiple treaties have attempted with varying levels of success to limit the stockpiles of the United States and Russia, among them the SALT, SALT II, START, START II, and most recently the New START treaty in 2010, as well as various other non-binding agreements; these agreements, combined with domestic stockpile retirement and shrinkage, have vastly reduced the number of nuclear weapons the United States holds.

This leads to the final question of the future of our nuclear arsenal. There is widespread disagreement over whether complete retirement of our stockpile is a viable option. In a vacuum, it seems to be the most sensible option if other countries of the non-proliferation treaty were to completely disarm as well, however, outside of a vacuum, we have to deal with issues like nuclear terrorism. Complete disarmament does not contextually lead to the inability to create new weapons; were a rogue state acquire the means to create and detonate a nuclear weapon, they could do so without fear of potential nuclear retaliation against themselves. The idea that nuclear weapons can act sheerly as a deterrent force relates to the stability-instability paradox – a theory of international relations closely related to the mutually assured destruction theory that holds that any two nations who possess nuclear weapons will not engage in direct warfare. With nuclear weapons out of the picture for the major signatories of the non-proliferation treaty, the doorway is opened for rogue states, terrorist cells, or even non-signatory countries who possess (or are strongly assumed to possess) nuclear weapons such as Pakistan or Israel, to use nuclear weapons without the fear of nuclear massive retaliation. Thus, it seems that complete disarmament may potentially do more harm than good.

In the search for an actual useable weapons system to use instead of nuclear weapons, things get strange, and pretty downright cool. It doesn’t take any analysis or common sense to deem nuclear weapons unusable in modern combat, so the U.S. military has undertaken decades of research to come up with an array of conventional weapons that will keep our arsenal sharp. On the feasible end of the scale, the U.S. military, DARPA, and a score of private contractors are working to develop a variety of hyper-long-range missiles for target engagement, more focused munitions for non-nuclear bunker-busting weaponry, and even guided small-caliber munitions to hit targets at extreme distances. From here, things delve further into the realm of science fiction, just as awe-inspiring to us now as the idea of nuclear weapons were in the 1930s. Chemically induced, megawatt-class lasers are being test-mounted on large planes, capable of shooting down ICBMs in flight, and smaller classes of the same type of laser are being tested mounted on the sides of AC-130 gunships for fielding in combat interdiction roles. Next is the concept of the railgun. Already in the testing stages, the purpose of this weapon is to accelerate massive slugs to several times the speed of sound, and is expected to be fielded on Navy vessels as early as 2020. My personal favorite, however, is the concept of kinetic bombardment. Large, inert tungsten rods (cleverly nicknamed “rods from God,” or slightly less cleverly as “hypervelocity rod bundles”) launched from a space-based delivery system slam into the ground with all the force and none of the fuss that comes with a nuclear detonation, obliterating anything and everything near it, a concept pulled straight from the science fiction of the early 20th century and now in the proof-of-concept phase for actual development and deployment against hardened installations – wow. These concepts, along with already-fielded advanced weaponry in drone technology and ground-based counterforce technology prove that, even if nuclear weapons are only useful as a theoretical deterrent, the U.S. military has more than enough bite to back up its bark.

The United States nuclear program has had a long, storied, and sometimes irresponsible history. As the only belligerent in a military conflict to use nuclear weapons and now that the impacts of radiological damage have been established, we can only hope that countries that develop nuclear capabilities in the future will act responsibly with the knowledge gleaned by decades of research. The future of the program is, in the end, unsure. Future administrations may commit to full disarmament, or potentially rapid expansion or even the renewal of testing under new and unforeseen geopolitical circumstances. The past and present of the program, however, are fully cemented, and well worth continued analysis and study.