New York Times: Trump’s Nuclear Arsenal

October 26, 2017
In The News

The United States nuclear arsenal consists of 4,000 warheads, plus more than 2,000 warheads awaiting dismantlement. This number came into focus recently after a report that President Trump said in July that he wanted a huge increase in the country’s nuclear capability.

So, are 4,000 nuclear warheads enough?

In fact, that is far more than the country could ever need. The nuclear stockpile is so large, and its payload so enormous, researchers determined that the United States could kill large parts of the populations of more than a dozen countries using less than half its arsenal.

While the United States has reduced its nuclear stockpile from the peak of 31,255 warheads in 1967, there are still far too many. Even more troubling, Mr. Trump can unilaterally order a nuclear strike at any time. Senator Bob Corker, a Republican, has called the president’s threats toward other countries reckless, saying they could set the nation “on the path to World War III.”

Every effort must be made to avoid the use of nuclear weapons. Reducing the nuclear stockpile is one important step. But legislators can go even further by requiring the president to seek a declaration of war from Congress before launching a first nuclear strike, as Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Ted Lieu of California, both Democrats, have proposed.

Below, the U.S. nuclear arsenal – and the devastation

it could inflict under the president’s sole discretion

The U.S. could decimate Libya with 10 warheads

The U.S. could decimate Syria with 11 warheads

The U.S. could decimate Iraq with 24 warheads

The U.S. could decimate North Korea with 32 warheads

The U.S. could decimate Iran with 90 warheads

The U.S. could decimate Russia with 147 warheads

The U.S. could decimate China with 789 warheads

 ... and 2,897 warheads would remain.

America’s nuclear stockpile expanded under the grim rationale of “mutually assured destruction,” the Cold War-era strategy aimed at deterring countries from using nuclear weapons because they would be annihilated in a counterattack.

Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara defined the strategy as the ability to kill one-quarter of a country’s population in a nuclear attack. The Natural Resources Defense Council used this measure to calculate the nuclear yield required to “decimate” several countries, providing a sense of the payload unleashed in such an attack.

Guaranteeing “mutually assured destruction” would require launching dozens, if not hundreds, of warheads on a target’s densest population centers. The N.R.D.C. calculated such an attack on China would kill 320 million people by targeting 368 population centers around the country – a scenario of such vast carnage, it can scarcely be imagined. Of course, just a single nuclear warhead dropped nearly anywhere on the planet would have devastating consequences.

The group also measured the effects of a similar attack on the United States. In such a scenario, major American population centers, including New York and Los Angeles, would be targeted. The N.R.D.C. estimated it would take 124 warheads, each with a yield of 475 kilotons, to kill one-quarter of the United States population.

Declining Stockpiles

The United States and Russia have always been the biggest nuclear powers by far. They have dismantled tens of thousands of warheads since 1986, when their combined inventory peaked around 70,000. Even so, the combined total still stands around 8,300 warheads and more than 5,000 awaiting dismantlement. The other countries with nuclear weapons – France, China, Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea – altogether have a small fraction of that amount, about 1,100.

In 2013, President Barack Obama proposed that the United States and Russia reduce their deployed nuclear warheads – ones that are available for immediate use – to 1,000 each, one-third fewer than the current target of 1,550 deployed warheads set under their 2010 nuclear arms control treaty. But Moscow balked at negotiations. Other experts have argued that the United States could do with still fewer.