By Dr. Nazir hussain & Adnan Bukhari

Dec 08, 2014

us nuclearIn September 2014, the Obama Administration unveiled a plan to invest billions of dollars over the next five years in defence spending programme to modernize the U.S. nuclear warheads. Chinese rise, North Korean nuclear weapon status and the Russian resurgence, particularly after the Ukrainian episode, can be considered the drivers for this move. However, this development runs contrary to the commitment of President Obama of ‘a world free of nuclear weapons’ which he made in 2009. Therefore, this article endeavours to analyze the U.S. plan to upgrade its nuclear arsenal and its impact on the global non-proliferation efforts.

Modernizing the U.S. nuclear warheads

The Obama administration, in the first term, promised to spend $84 billion to upgrade its aging nuclear weapons over the next decade, an increase of $14 billion in $70 billion modernization budget. The New York Times reported that the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Obama administrations plans to revitalize nuclear warheads would cost $355 billion over the next decade. These costs have more chances to grow as strategic warheads developed in the last century would need modernization in the years to come. This money would be invested for eight major plants and laboratories, employing more than 40,000 people. Moreover, there are plans for building new missile submarines, more than 100 new bombers and 400 land-based missiles between 2024 and 2029. The proposed plans would cost about $900 billion to $1.1 trillion in the next three decades.

The process of modernization in the nuclear programme started from February 2014. It was aimed at internal and external review of the entire Defence Department, nuclear expertise which would include, inter alia, upgrading Air Force helicopter fleet and improving the morale of the force by investing in personnel and training. For this purpose, the U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command established a Force Improvement Programme that allocated $161 million to ICBM force support in FY 14 and has identified $150 million in FY 2015 for equipment, facilities and personnel. The Air Force would add nearly 1,000 (military and civilian) billets for Global Strike Command. The Navy would hire 2,450 civilian shipyards and 100 personnel for Strategic Weapons Facility and TRIDENT Training Facility to improve sustainability and training of the ballistic missile submarine force. The U.S. would also replace ICBM security force helicopter fleet of UH-1s in this modernization programme.

The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review: acclaimed goals and contradictions

The U.S. nuclear policy, strategy, capabilities and force posture are contained in its policy document; Nuclear Posture Review, which is a legislatively-mandated review for the next five to ten years. Currently, the US nuclear doctrine is codified in its Nuclear Posture Review 2010.

The document states that prevention of nuclear terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation remain the top policy agendas for the U.S. However, the administration, in its proposed 2015 budget, chose to cut nuclear non-proliferation programmes in the Energy Department by $399 million, while increasing spending on nuclear weapons by $534 million, according to an analysis by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

President Barak Obama had convinced the Republicans on new START Treaty with Russia, which was aimed at reduction in deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 down from 2,200 by 2018. Though the U.S. supports that reduction in the number of nuclear weapons would contribute to the U.S. obligation of Article VI of disarmament, yet it would also maintain a credible nuclear deterrence and reinforce regional security architecture with missile defences for the security of its non-nuclear allies.

The policy document also states that the U.S. would modernize its aging nuclear programme and invest in human capital so that it could reduce the numbers of warheads and accelerate dismantlement of retired warheads. This statement in itself is contradictory because at one place, it calls for dismantling retired warheads and, on the other hand, calls for modernizing its aging programme. It is perplexing to understand that the NPR stated that the U.S. would reduce the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy but, at the same time, called for maintaining strategic deterrence and stability at reduced nuclear force levels and sustaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal through modernization of its strategic nuclear warheads deployed on ICBM, SLBM and Strategic Bombers.

Therefore, the U.S. would like to sustain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal. In this regard, the NPR recommended full funding of the LEP (Life Extension Programme) for the W-76 submarine-based warhead and the LEP study and follow-on activities for the B-61 bomb; and initiating a study of LEP options for the W-78 ICBM warhead, including the possibility of using the resulting warhead also on SLBMs. All of these types of warhead are thermo nuclear weapons. The LEP is aimed at repairing /replacing components of nuclear weapons to ensure the ability to meet military requirements, thereby providing them extension for being in stockpiles.

Changing nuclear order

In the wake of the changing nuclear order, the world is facing multiple complex challenges in the non-proliferation regime. It would be pertinent to look at these challenges in view of Pentagon’s quest for modernizing nuclear aging programme and the U.S. position in dealing with these issues. These issues range from finalizing a nuclear deal with Iran, dealing with North Korean case, nuclear arms race in South Asia and the U.S. pressure on Pakistan for negotiating FMCT.

It is strange to assume that the U.S. is increasing its budget for nuclear enterprise which is aimed at revitalizing its old nuclear weapons and, on the other hand, bringing Iran on board for a nuclear deal. The U.S. diplomacy of double standards marks negative precedents.

North Korea emerged as a nuclear weapon state, having capability of inter-continental ballistic missile, which creates a threatening environment not only for the U.S. but for the region and international peace and security. That depends on how the U.S. diplomacy would deal with this challenge.

The South Asian quagmire of nuclear arms race is another source of concern. The Indo-U.S. strategic partnership, particularly in the nuclear realm, has necessitated Pakistan to compete in the Indian-imposed nuclear arms race. The Indo-U.S. nexus has put Pakistan in a perpetual dilemma of maintaining strategic balance in the region. The U.S. insistence on Pakistan for negotiating the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty does not hold water in view of the U.S. nuclear modernization programme. The U.S. has lost the moral position to ask Pakistan for an FMCT amid its own nuclear weapons modernization programme.


In the wake of Obama’s goal of Global Zero, envisioned in 2009 and winning the support of Republicans on new START Treaty with Russia (which was aimed at reduction in deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 down from 2,200 by 2018), the U.S. plan of modernizing its aging nuclear weapons programme with a cost of about $900 billion to $1.1 trillion in the next three decades is a dichotomy between national security and global peace. These plans, estimates and figures are in open contrast to the U.S. professed goals and its realist actions. The plan in fact acclaims Obama’s statement that the goal of disarmament might not be possible in his lifetime. It may weaken the U.S. position to talk with Iran, dealing with North Korea and asking Pakistan for FMCT. Above all, revitalization of U.S. nuclear programme would make Obama’s goal of global zero a distant reality.

Send this to a friend