An In-Depth Look at the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal and Modernization Program With Weapons Expert Hans Kristensen

I first came across the work of Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, while reporting a series for The Providence Journal on the new fleet of ballistic missile submarines due to be built by General Dynamics-Electric Boat at its Connecticut and Rhode Island shipyards. The Navy currently has 14 nuclear-armed Ohio-class submarines in service and plans to replace them with 12 Columbia-class ships. Kristensen, however, had analyzed publicly available information and found the Navy may need only eight operational subs, with an additional two in refueling, to meet the demand of its deterrence missions—a conclusion that, if acknowledged and acted upon, would mean cost savings for taxpayers and lost revenue for Electric Boat. “Of course, the Navy vehemently denies that [its submarine fleet is too large],” Kristensen later told me in an interview.

I quickly discovered Kristensen’s work—which includes the comprehensive FAS “Nuclear Notebook”—was among the most detailed and fact-based analysis on worldwide nuclear weapons arsenals available to the public. His reports are empirical and objective, to a degree that seems almost detached given the implications of the subject matter. Consider, for example, this passage from a 2017 article he co-authored with Matthew McKinzie and Theodore Postol on advancements in U.S. nuclear warheads and their potential impact on perceptions of possible nuclear scenarios:

“Because of the new kill capabilities of US submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), the United States would be able to target huge portions of its nuclear force against non-hardened targets, the destruction of which would be crucial to a ‘successful’ first strike. One such mission would likely involve the destruction of road-mobile ICBMs that had left their garrisons to hide in Russia’s vast forests in anticipation of attack. The garrisons and their support facilities would probably be destroyed quickly, and some of the dispersed road-mobile launchers would also be quickly destroyed as they were in the process of dispersing. To destroy or expose the remaining launchers, United States planners would have the nuclear forces needed to undertake truly scorched-earth tactics: Just 125 US Minuteman III warheads could set fire to some 8,000 square miles of forest area where the road-mobile missiles are most likely to be deployed. This would be the equivalent of a circular area with a diameter of 100 miles.”

I recently interviewed Kristensen by phone in hopes that he could provide readers with greater insight into the U.S. nuclear modernization program started under the Obama administration and continued under Pres. Trump, as well as developments in other nuclear-armed states, including Russia, China, and North Korea. As Kristensen sees it, we’ve entered a new type of arms race, this time based on technological supremacy rather than the sheer size of nuclear forces. We began by discussing the overall U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, nuclear strategy, and the modernization program.

Below is a transcript of our conversation. Please note this interview was conducted several weeks prior to the historic meeting between Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

NUNES: Can you begin by giving a run down of current nuclear policy and the state of the nuclear arsenal, and then the modernization plan?

KRISTENSEN: Let’s begin with the arsenal. The U.S. nuclear force structure today is centered around a triad of delivery systems: land-based, long range ballistic missiles; sea-based on submarines; and long range bombers. We also have a fourth category of weapons, which are gravity bombs for tactical fighter wings. A chunk of those are deployed over in Europe. So, that’s the core of the military nuclear arsenal. And it includes something in the order of 3,800 nuclear warheads that are available for use on those different systems. About 1,600 of them are deployed, meaning on top of the missiles or on the bases for the aircraft. So, that’s where we’ve gotten to from a long history of decades of development going through the Cold War, going to crazy high numbers and then trickling down to lower numbers.

During the Obama administration the U.S. began a very significant upgrade of its entire nuclear arsenal. Some of those elements are already well underway, which includes, of course, the B61-12 gravity bomb, and we’re moving forward with other weapons systems as well: development of a new class of ballistic missile submarines is well underway; contracts have been signed for a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile, a new ground-launched ballistic missile, and development of a new long-range stealth bomber is well underway as well. This is a very ambitious nuclear weapons program and very expensive—not in sense of the total size of the defense budget, which is very big, but it eats up something in the order of four to six percent, depending on how you count it. Over the next three decades it is estimated the total cost of maintaining that arsenal and modernizing it will come close to $1.5-trillion.

In terms of the policy that guides these weapons and their potential use, that has two elements to it. One is called deterrence. The other one is called: what happens if deterrence fails? The first part of it, deterrence, is the U.S. trying to posture its nuclear forces and plan for the potential use in such a way that potential adversaries are deterred from attacking the United States or its allies with nuclear weapons, or other weapons of mass destruction, or large scale conventional attacks. It is a very broad nuclear deterrence policy. Of course, the forces have to be credible to deter, so part of the force is focused on providing a secure retaliatory capability. So no matter what an adversary does—even a very large nuclear weapons state—it cannot hope to disarm the United States with a surprise attack. Hopefully that works in terms of deterrence, that countries don’t do something stupid.

But, if deterrence fails for a variety of reasons, U.S. war plans include a large number of highly orchestrated and detailed strike plans against each of the adversaries, and the adversaries in the nuclear war plans are Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. Syria has probably fallen off the list, but it used to be in there. So those plans are designed to achieve a range of objectives depending on the circumstances. It could be, for example, to knock out a portion of an adversary’s delivery systems before they can be used, or take out certain war-supporting industry that an adversary relies on to achieve certain objectives. It could also be taking out command of control in certain areas to impede an adversary’s ability to use his forces. Those plans are very detailed and nuanced, and of course I talk mainly nuclear here, but a new development is that, over the last two decades, those strategic strike plans have become much more dependent on advanced conventional weapons.

The current nuclear strike plan that is maintained by U.S. Strategic Command, that plan is far more than nuclear. It is a broad, what they call “whole of government,” plan to try to inflict strategic affects on an adversary to influence his behavior. That’s not just nuclear. It also includes conventional, includes missile defense, and it includes cyber. It also includes efforts before hostilities break out at the diplomatic level or economic level. So there are a variety of means by which they try to influence what adversaries think they can get away with. So, in a nutshell, that sort of captures the force structure, the modernization program, and the policy.

NUNES: The modernization, does this cover everything, just a total overhaul of the delivery systems—submarines, aircraft, the infrastructure like the silos, the warheads themselves, too?

KRISTENSEN: Correct. The whole shebang. And the point is nuclear weapons states from time-to-time have to overhaul their weapons systems if they want them to work. So, as long as you rely on nuclear weapons, you have to some extent modernize them from time-to-time. During the Cold War we used to do that in a very dynamic fashion that involved developing new systems and fielding new systems relatively quickly, sort of after 10, 15 years, and developing entirely new ones. So significant enhancements, significant improvements. That was very much driven by the nuclear Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. After the Cold War ended the United States changed its strategy.

For example, nuclear warheads—the things that go bang—instead of fielding these new systems all the time for more and more delivery systems and capabilities, we changed that so we have completely stopped live nuclear explosive tests that we used to do in the Nevada test site to develop and to some extent certify that weapons that had been developed worked. So, we’ve completely moved away from that and instead we built what’s called a “stockpile stewardship management program” in which we use simulations with computers and material experiments and technologies to maintain the warheads we have for much, much longer. So, right now the nuclear complex is focused on a series of what’s called life extension programs of warheads, where instead of developing entirely new warheads they take existing ones, take them apart, clean them up, replace what needs to be replaced, and even replace components that just don’t work anymore or are not good enough. Then you put it back together and certify it, and then it enters the stockpile.

So that’s a very different way of doing maintenance and modernization than it used to be during the Cold War. But, of course, when it comes to the delivery system, you just cannot continue to get more years out of a delivery system. So on those systems, it’s a little different. The submarine program, of course, is an entirely new class of 12 ballistic missile submarines, very expensive, that’s supposed to sail on the first patrol in the early 2030s, but development of the reactor and the submarine design [by General Dynamics-Electric Boat] and all these things and the launch system—all those are already fully underway.

For the land-based ballistic missiles it’s a little different. We actually did a significant life-extension of the Minuteman III land-based, intercontinental ballistic missile, about a decade, a decade-and-a-half ago it started. Over a period of about eight years or so we overhauled the entire force. And people in the Air Force were joking that the only thing that was left of the missile was the shell, everything else was upgraded or new. So that’s one way of doing it. Now the Air Force wants an entirely new system, so they’re developing that right now, and that’s supposed to start fielding in the late 20s and then replace the current Minuteman III. And in that round of upgrade for that system, they will also upgrade the launch control centers and the silos. They’re not going to dig up the silos and build entirely new ones, but they’re going to upgrade the entire system.

And just to continue on that: all of this also extends into the nuclear command and control systems whether they be satellite, terminals, communication equipment, aircraft, subs, what have you—all of these things that are supposed to support a nuclear force to function and people to be able to communicate in a secure and also radioactive environment. That’s just to say that this is a very broad overhaul of the entire nuclear enterprise.

NUNES: The Pentagon says these are aging weapons systems, aging infrastructure that need to be updated. The average person obviously doesn’t have the expertise to judge the credibility of what the Pentagon claims. Sounds like you’re saying that you see it as credible for them to say these are aging, therefore they need to be modernized.

KRISTENSEN: Well, nuclear weapons are always aging. Military systems are always aging. From the moment you’ve built them they age. So, it’s never a surprise that at some point you have to upgrade them, life extend them, or replace them with an entirely new one. The questions is: How often do you need to do that, and how broad does the upgrade need to be? Can you do with less of them? Or structure them differently? So these are all important questions. And, of course, when the military goes to Congress and argues it needs money for modernization programs, they will have to convince Congress that the ones that are there don’t work anymore, or won’t work much longer, and how many they need.

So, quite often you hear very simplistic language coming from the Pentagon that sort of portrays the nuclear forces as almost falling apart. That language is useful to lobby Congress but also exaggerated in terms of when you want to get money for your modernization programs. Unfortunately, that tends to color the debate also. Over the last 10 years, we’ve had quite a debate over the issue of: How much do we need to modernize, and can we trim the force further to save money but also to trim excess capabilities that are strictly speaking not needed? Those debates are hard to get to, because the debate, unfortunately, quite often goes like: Should we modernize or not? Can we afford it or not? Should we have nuclear weapons or not?

These very simplistic black and white choice questions, which are completely inadequate to answer what we really need to talk about, which is what should the structure appropriately be, and how much of it do we need, and how much do we want to spend on nuclear systems compared to all the other military systems we also want to upgrade in the same time period. So these debates can be very difficult to have. That’s nothing new, but they tend to be far too simplistic in my view.

NUNES: Some people would argue if it’s at the time right now where they’re aging and we need to build new systems, is that a good time to talk about reducing our nuclear arsenal? Are you saying that’s a simplistic argument?

KRISTENSEN: No. We have always had debates about how much is needed and for what, but right now we’re in a phase where the international situation is tense, and relations with the Russians and Chinese are not going well, and so that makes the debate about nuclear requirements a little more simplistic in my view. People come out and say, “Well, we need to be strong, and we’re in a ‘great power competition’ again, therefore this is not the time to talk about reduction.” Unfortunately, I think that’s exactly the time to engage this country about putting limits on where we’re heading, because otherwise—remember we used to end up in a Cold War competition with the Soviet Union that took many, many decades to stop. So we have to be really careful that this “great power competition” that everyone’s so happily talking about these days is not spinning out of control. This is a very important time to rethink ways we can use arms control to limit the threat against the United States and its allies.

NUNES: If you were the person making the decisions, what would you think would be a good policy?

KRISTENSEN: We should definitely build on the existing systems—or the existing agreements we have, and the absolute lowest hanging fruit on that tree is to extend the so-called New START treaty that we have with Russia. It expires in 2021, and the U.S. and Russia must and should at least extend that treaty for another five years. But, in addition to that, it seems that both countries have real interests in trying to limit, somehow manage, jointly their nuclear modernization programs just because it’s really expensive for both countries. And frankly, if you have too much of it, it sucks out resources from other national security priorities that you also want to do in the same period, and neither country seems to be overly rich and capable of carrying these costs.

There are so many things we want to spend money on. So it seems that both countries have an interest in trying to limit their nuclear forces to make things a little more sane. But it’s a broader national security debate, of course, because it’s not just about nuclear weapons, but it’s also about how the United States with NATO, and Russia on the other side, are doing these days. And it’s pretty tough; it’s hard to get anywhere; it’s hard to have constructive conversations. There’s too much bickering and hostility and suspicion. In a way that’s not new. It’s new in the post-Cold War era, but that was the way it was during the Cold War as well. We need people in our system who are professionals, who know how to work these issues, engage the other sides, and have a long-term strategy of how to move things in a better direction. That takes a lot of time, a lot of expertise, and a lot of funding as well.

NUNES: Some people would hear about the modernization and think: How is the U.S.—or other countries that are modernizing too—how are they staying compliant with obligations under treaties intended to reduce nuclear weapons? How could they be modernizing and not breaching those treaties?

KRISTENSEN: When you’re modernizing, you’re not necessarily building up. You’re not necessarily increasing the numbers. Modernizing can also be you just make the forces you have better or even pretty much the same, so they can live for another life period so to speak. There are many ways of modernizing. During the Cold War it was very much symbolized by an arms race, as we baptized it. That really came down to, at least initially, the building of nuclear forces in terms of sheer numbers, and we really went crazy. Today, we still have something that resembles an arms race, but it’s not an arms race in numbers when it comes to nuclear weapons. The two sides, Russia and the United States, are not trying to compete about having the most. The U.S. military, for its part, is actually not interested in mimicking what the Russian nuclear arsenal is.

There are some new developments, but by and large it’s not at all the dynamic we had during the Cold War. But it is a very, very dynamic, competitive environment, and there’s a technological arms race underway, no doubt about it—getting the best capabilities, beat the others in terms of what you can do with your forces. So that one is in full swing, but of all the nuclear weapons states it is only the United States and Russia that ever made arms control agreements to reduce their forces. All the other seven nuclear weapons states on the planet have never made any agreements to reduce their forces. And the reason I think is just history, because the United States and the Soviet Union were the two major drivers of the arms race. Even today you can still see that in terms of those two countries have more than 10 times more nuclear weapons than any other nuclear weapons state on the planet.

NUNES: They’ve got a lot to reduce.

KRISTENSEN: They have a lot to reduce, and they’re really sort of tied up in their own bilateral nuclear stand off, if you will, even today, by the sheer numbers. A lot of other countries, they say, “Fine. We would like to talk about reductions at some point. But you two really have to reduce a lot more down to our levels before it is reasonable for us to get engaged with you.” That argument has been used quite a lot, and that’s a popular argument in the Chinese government. They’re certainly making that argument all the time. So a lot of people have suspected that after we got the new START treaty we would have one more treaty between the United States and Russia that would go even lower, and after that treaty we would have to bring in the next tier of nuclear weapons states: countries that have a few hundred nuclear weapons, which includes France, and China, to some extent also Britain. But that’s a little down the road, and so for those reasons that really hasn’t gotten off to a start yet, and it seems harder to imagine that it will given the international climate right now.

NUNES: Do you think the modernizations going on not just the U.S., but in Russia and China, are making the world safer or less safe?

KRISTENSEN: They’re absolutely making the world less safe, and the reason is that they’re a reflection of a recommitment to the role of nuclear weapons and, in fact, also to increasing the salience and the role that they play in national security. So that is a very bad development that is going in the wrong direction of where we should be heading. And there are all these reasons I mentioned for that. But that is definitely something that creates more pathways to potential nuclear weapons use. And that’s really what we want to avoid ever to get to. We want to reduce the pathways that could lead to a country—or a crisis evolving into a situation where a country decides to use nuclear weapons.

So that’s an unfortunate and very dangerous, potentially dangerous, development that’s underway right now not just in trouble spots around the world normally identified—for example, between India and Pakistan; there’s a very dynamic development there—but also increasingly so in the relationship between the United States on one side and Russia on the other side. There are also important developments in the relations between the United States and China, what role nuclear weapons play out in that region. And there is an effort on all sides to come up with excuses to increase the role and the salience and the scenarios and types of nuclear weapons systems. Definitely going in the wrong direction.

NUNES: Do you see one side as being more responsible in driving those trends?

KRISTENSEN: That is a tough question. There’s a lot of baggage and history to why we are in this situation and why each nuclear weapons state has the perspective on the potential role of nuclear weapons that it has. The United States has one way of looking at things [based on] its history in interactions with the other countries, but so do the other nuclear weapons states. So it’s very hard to say this nuclear weapons state is responsible or worse than the others. If you had to pick one, obviously most people are beating up on North Korea these days, because it’s such a crazy and insane regime, and things have been developing so fast, they seem reckless, and all that. But, even in North Korea, the leadership has what they consider legitimate reasons for why they say they need nuclear weapons. I’m saying this, because all countries have what is for them legitimate national interests. [NOTE: This interview was conducted late last month prior to the historic meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.]

Having said that, there’s a big difference in how the different countries rattle their nuclear sword from time to time, and we have seen a real upswing in the way that’s been happening from the [North] Koreans for a while. And the Trump administration has issued nuclear threats much more explicitly than previous administrations. Now things are calming down a bit. We’ve seen a real upswing over the last decade in terms of how Russia is signaling with its nuclear forces, language about its nuclear forces. And we’re also seeing a lot more dynamic developments in the Chinese nuclear force development. It hasn’t quite resulted in China them being more assertive with their weapons, which is a good thing, of course. They seem so far to be a little more relaxed with nuclear weapons than others are—not so of course on conventional military forces.

This is where things get much more complex, because the roles that countries choose for their nuclear weapons, that role is very closely tied to how they perceive not just the situation with nuclear weapons but also conventional threats against them. Russia, for example, has been relying much more on nuclear weapons partly because it views its conventional forces to be far less capable than those of the United States, and to some extent NATO as a whole, and therefore they need to use the nuclear weapons to compensate against that inferiority. China is rapidly building up its conventional forces in a very broad modernization program, which is beginning to influence the way that countries in that region view overall security. Part of that security dilemma is: what potential role could nuclear weapons play?

So, it very much varies from country to country, but all of them have what they consider legitimate national security interests that justify the role of nuclear weapons.

NUNES: I’ve thought that, if the U.S. is the international leader, maybe the expectation on the U.S. should be greater in terms of leading the way on reducing nuclear weapons. Is that unrealistic?

KRISTENSEN: Well, the U.S. has tried that. During the Obama administration there was a much stronger emphasis to appeal to nuclear weapons states to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. But those efforts bumped up against other things that were going in the military and security relationship between the United States and Russia, and the United States and China. The role of nuclear weapons and the opportunities to reduce nuclear dangers is very much tied also to what is going on in general military operations.

So, it’s hard to imagine, for example, the United States modernizing its conventional forces with the objective of having superiority over all other countries [then] going to these other countries and saying, “Hey, guys. Shouldn’t we try to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and the numbers?” The other countries will say, “Well, that’s easy for you to say, because you have much more advanced conventional forces. We don’t see you reducing that pressure against us.” Nuclear can bump up against conventional in these situations all the time.

NUNES: You published an article last year on new fuze technology in U.S. nuclear warheads. Reading the article, it seemed you were making the argument—and correct me if I’m wrong—that this technology is being portrayed [by the U.S.] as just an update, whereas it seemed like it was actually potentially changing U.S. strategy with its nuclear warheads.

KRISTENSEN: Well, the upgrade is an example of how what appears to be a simple or relatively modest technological upgrade of a nuclear weapons system can have a potentially significant strategic effect. I don’t think it’s the intention on the part of the United States necessarily. But what we argue in the article is that, if you are an adversary, and you look at these developments, and you look at this development on top of a number other significant developments that are happening, then you can—if you are a paranoid adversary—very quickly come to the conclusion that this adds up as the United States planning or moving towards a situation where it could potentially conduct preemptive first strikes in order to not necessarily decapitate an entire country’s nuclear [force] but certainly have a significant strategic impact in ways that we haven’t been able to do so far.

So, that’s just to say: it is in the eye of the beholder. I don’t personally think that the U.S. is particularly interested in nuclear surprise first strike attacks. However, as part of the military strategy that I described earlier, if deterrence fails, in those situations you would want in your planning the ability to hold at risk a wide range of targets with fewer weapons. It used to be during the Cold War that we had a lot more weapons and could assign them to niche target categories. But, as we’ve moved toward deeper reductions, the military is faced with nuclear weapons strategy or policy requiring them to plan in a way that forces them to use the remaining nuclear weapons, simplistically speaking, against a wider range of scenarios. So each weapons system has to be more flexible to cover more scenarios and more ground.

So that’s, if you will, an unintentional effect of reducing nuclear weapons without at the same time reducing the role that nuclear weapons are asked to play.

NUNES: Can you explain the significance of the fuze technology?

KRISTENSEN: The idea is that on the Navy Trident submarines we have, for many years, had two different nuclear warheads. One was the very high-powered warhead, W88, has a maximum yield up to 455 kiloton, which is an enormous blast. [NOTE: By comparison, the “Little Boy” atom bomb released 15 kilotons of energy when dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in August, 1945.] That weapon was developed to be able to use the submarine missiles to hold at risk what’s called the full range of targets. So even very, very hardened targets [deeply buried targets] you could get to with that accuracy and yield. And, again, there’s this drive that “for deterrence to be credible we need to be able to hold at risk the full range of targets.” That kind of language traps you. You have to develop systems that can hold at risk all these different types of targets. The second warhead that was on that system was a less efficient weapon; still a significant yield of 100 kiloton. That’s the W76 warhead and was mainly used for aerial targeting or softer targets [more vulnerable targets].

So what they were trying to do is change the fuzing, the sensing equipment, on that W76 warhead so that it could be used to attack a broader range of targets, including hard targets. The way they did that was, instead of having three fixed settings for what height of burst the warhead would detonate at, they developed a fuze system that enable the height of detonation to be set sort of anywhere along that path to maximize the kill probability against the target. And so, by combining that with the way that the warhead is targeted on the facility—you might even have to overfly it a little—you increase the efficiency. You increase the ability that a given number of warheads will achieve destruction of a target. Pretty significant achievement. It’s a pretty significant increase by a factor of three that these warheads are able to hold at risk targets that were previously hard to get to.

With this development, which didn’t cost very much compared to developing an entirely new weapon, we now have a situation where all of the warheads on the Trident submarines have hard target kill capability. That is a new development. That is a significant development. For the war planners, their rationale is: “Well, we’re moving to a force with fewer missiles, fewer warheads. But we have to be able to hold at risk a broad spectrum of targets, so each weapon has to be able to be more flexible and capable.” So that’s the kind of thinking that goes into this.

This idea of increasing the effectiveness of each remaining weapons system is really a core objective of the modernization program that’s underway now. The Trident warheads I told you about is one example of it. The B61-12 bomb is another example of it where you don’t have an entirely new warhead, but you [make updates] so that it can attack its targets much more accurately. That enables the war fighters to design strike missions against targets that previously required a higher yield to destroy, but that can now destroy with lower yield because of the increased accuracy. Whereas earlier with the older systems you had to attack it with a higher yield and have more radioactive fallout. It’d be a dirtier attack. We’re probably also going to see something like this with the upgrade on the warheads for the land-based ICBMS [Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles].

As far as I can see, this is a very broad effort of transitioning to a system where each remaining weapons system is much more efficient than the one they replaced.

NUNES: Obviously everything you’ve described would be perceived as threatening by an adversary. I could see how they might think that’s a sign that this is a country that’s prepared to fight and win a nuclear war. But you’re saying that you don’t see the U.S. ambitions as being first strike or an offensive capacity?

KRISTENSEN: The U.S. has what’s called a counterforce strategy. It’s sort of preemptively offensive. It’s not offensive in the way that it’s designed for a U.S. president to wake up one day and say, “Let’s take them out.” But it’s very much designed for that, if deterrence fails and the shooting war starts, in that range of scenarios that can happen then, we want to make sure that the weapons we have are capable systems that can be used effectively to win the war. So that includes hitting ICBM silos before an advisory has a chance to launch the missile in it, get to other elements of its nuclear systems before they can be activated. There is an inherent drive to achieve those kinds of objectives. But that’s not all.

There are certain elements of the targeting strategy that are about “depleting the adversary’s forces.” But there are also some that are focused on making it harder for the adversary to do what he otherwise would want to do. There’s a very elaborate range of options and objectives in the war plans. But the bottom-line is you want to impress upon an adversary that it is best for him to stop, and if he doesn’t, we will turn up the heat gradually. So it’s in that strategy where we have chosen here to focus very much on counterforce where we essentially use nukes to go after nukes. It’s broader than that, but that sort of captures it.

NUNES: Why do you think that the changes are not a sign that the U.S. is trying to develop a first strike? What makes you say that, the history of its policy?

KRISTENSEN: It doesn’t seem to me that the United States has any imperial interests of going out and slaughtering a nation before they can do anything. I think nuclear weapons in the U.S. strategy are much more an instrument of national policy in trying to influence an adversary. But, as I mentioned, within that objective there can be scenarios where, when a military engagement campaign is going on, there might be scenarios in which you want to be able to take something out first before it can be used first. Damage limitation was very central to Cold War nuclear planning, that you could hit something before it could be used against you. That relaxed a bit after the end of the Cold War, but I think there is an increased emphasis on that again now.

To me it was striking that even during the Obama administration that sought to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, when they finally came out with their nuclear weapons use guidance to the military, what they call the Nuclear Employment Policy, that document was very hefty, very strong on reaffirming that the strategy was based on a strong counterforce posture. No apparent attempt to relax it. There were other elements where they were trying to reduce the role, but I think that those elements are more in the periphery; those are smaller types of scenarios.

NUNES: When Donald Trump says things like “fire and fury,” you’re saying what he’s saying is pretty distinct from what the Pentagon war planners have planned.

KRISTENSEN: Yes. The current climate that Trump is part of is one where big words and bombastic statements are more overt, more simplistic, a little more gung-ho. But, ironically, I think that language is more a phenomenon of the political world that he represents than it is something that represents the views of the U.S. military when it comes to nuclear weapons. Having said that, they just published the Nuclear Posture Review, which is the first nuclear review of the Trump administration, in which they have elements in there that seem to rattle the nuclear sword more, even calling for development of new types of nuclear weapons for certain missions. But, on the whole, in terms of its mission, I think the bulk of it falls close to what the Obama administration had. So I don’t think there is, at this stage, a requirement for them to come out with an entirely new employment strategy. I think what they propose can fit within the flexibility of the Nuclear Employment Strategy of what the Obama administration had. It remains to be seen where they’re going to go. But so far Trump has had less effect on the nuclear arsenal and the nuclear strategy than people generally think.

NUNES: The Nuclear Posture Review added more scenarios in which the U.S. can use a nuclear retaliation, right? Didn’t it add cyber attacks?

KRISTENSEN: It was a little ambivalent on cyber. Cyber was in the last draft that was leaked. It got a lot of heat as a result. So when the final report was released that language had been cleaned up. But, in the same section where it talks about what’s called declaratory policy, where it used to describe cyber explicitly, cyber had disappeared. Instead there was a sentence that included the statement “but not limited to.” So, of course, officials are insisting “oh, no; cyber’s not in there.” Other people are saying, “Well, anything can be in there.” There’s a fair amount of debate. I think what’s the most important development of the Nuclear Posture Review is that it does appear to broaden the range of scenarios that nuclear weapons can play against what are called non-nuclear strategic attacks. Whereas the Obama administration was trying to roll back the role of nuclear weapons against those scenarios, the Trump administration’s posture breaks with that attempt and embraces a strong role for nuclear weapons against such scenarios.

We’ll see what comes out of it, but the most important example of an increased role is they’re explicitly requesting two types of nuclear weapons that are intended to entertain scenarios along those lines. For example: a low-yield version of the W76 warhead on the Trident missile. They want to have a low-yield version so they can use it in a different way than we currently use strategic missiles. They describe there and have described elsewhere that what they’re specifically thinking about is a role where Russia might be tempted to use low-yield nuclear weapons—sort of a battlefield scenario. And then by developing this low-yield Trident warhead, the United States could impress upon the Russians that that is a bad idea, and the Russians will say, “Aha. Right.” So it comes down to: Do you believe that scenario, or what is it?

The United States has lots of low-yield nuclear weapons in its stockpile, by my count in the order of 1,000 of them, but just not that particular type. The nuclear guys who advocate that have tried to paint a picture that “Oh, those older weapons are not very credible, but if we get this one, then we will avoid any misperception on the part of the Russians that they could get away with using a low-yield nuclear weapon.” A lot of us think that is very dubious. They are not offering support for that argument. But that’s what they’re trying to do.

NUNES: I think some people might hear that and read it to mean that the two countries are preparing for the possibility of a limited nuclear exchange. Is that the wrong conclusion to draw?

KRISTENSEN: No. If there’s one thing that shines through all of this latest development it is that both Russia and the United States now seem to be spending a whole lot more time on entertaining those types of limited scenarios. They’re not quite at the battlefield nuclear level from the Cold War, where we all had tactical nuclear weapons and [considered] the [scenario where] armies would fire their artillery against the other army units on the other side—this type of battlefield scenario. But we’re talking about a limited scenario in a region in which one side decides that things are going bad for them, and therefore they have to escalate to a use of a small number of nuclear weapons. And so, in that scenario, which is a key element of what the Pentagon is saying the Russians are up to, we would then come in and use these new types of weapons that we say are now needed for that in an engagement that is quite clearly a more limited scenario, perhaps semi-battlefield in that they would use a low-yield weapon against a base; we would use a low-yield weapon against a base, or something to that effect.

So there’s a real danger here that, once the two sides get more hooked on these types of limited, low scenarios, they draw up plans for them and start posturing their forces and adjusting their language in ways that actually make it more likely that nuclear weapons could be brought to use in such a scenario. This is a really dangerous first rung on the escalation ladder, because this is how it starts: countries start coming up with justifications for why they need something that they can use, something that’s better than what we had before, against limited scenarios, just a little, just to stop things. I think what everyone will tell you who has been involved in this business over the years, or most people, is that is a big, big uncertainty. Once you start using nuclear weapons, all bets are off. It is very unlikely that either side can hope to control escalation in such scenarios. The fact that both sides seem more willing to entertain such scenarios, nonetheless, is a really worrisome development, in my view.

NUNES: Right, because, even if it’s low-yield, [if you use it] you’ve opened up Pandora’s Box.

KRISTENSEN: Absolutely so. I earlier mentioned that each nuclear weapons state has a long history and long grievances for why they do what they do. On the part of the Russians, they resort to more reliance on low-yield, tactical nuclear weapons use, because they can’t stand up to our conventional capabilities. Once you start to talk to Russians about this: oh boy, they have a long list of complaints about what justifies their steps. And this adds up to concern over here with some people in our camp that the Russians are getting more comfortable with potentially using tactical, low-yield nuclear weapons, therefore we need some too so that we can counter their ideas.

It’s really fantastic, because you somehow have to assume that somewhere in the Russian ranks of strategists they have concluded that they can get away with using a low-yield nuclear weapon in a limited scenario, because the United States would be deterred from using one of our weapons if it has too high a yield. The collateral damage would be too much, therefore we wouldn’t do it, and we would therefore lose the war. This is a fantastic line of argument, in my view. I think the Russians are fully aware of the capabilities that the United States has, and they’re not under the illusion that the U.S. would be self-deterred. This is part of their war game strategy just like we have our war game strategy.

I think both sides need to just take a deep breath, talk to each other, and turn down the heat. We’re in that phase where the political climate has left a lot of maneuvering space for people who are interested in developing these weapons and scenarios. They look over to us: we have a group of people here who are now looking to the White House and the new language and the new vibrations that are coming out of the White House, and they see a leadership that seems to be more positively inclined toward proposals to get some nukes, stand up to the Russians, this type of stuff. And in Russia, they have their system and everything we do, everything anyone else does, feeds right into their playbook and their justification for why they need another system.

Look at President Putin’s speech a few months ago. His kind of state of the union speech in which he chose, apparently without too many in the Kremlin or military apparatus knowing about it, to do this kind of nuclear showcase speech in which he profiled four different nuclear weapons systems—an extraordinary thing. Can you imagine our president going to The Hill and showcasing U.S. nuclear weapons and how they can fly around the world and knock out this or that? It’s just inconceivable. That style is completely unique to the current Russian regime.

That is just an unbelievable development, but it shows that that’s the way they think about it. That’s the way that they need to be tough, and all of those systems had to do with one thing: how to overcome the U.S. ballistic missile defense system. That was the motivator, whether it was maneuvering reentry vehicle on a Russian ICBM, an air-launched ballistic missile from a jet that could knock out ballistic missile defense ships and what have you, or a long —intercontinental range—nuclear loaded torpedo that can go in and blow up a harbor, or a nuclear powered air launch cruise missile that can fly to the other side of the planet and hit something. Those are all grounded in one theme, which is: ”The Americans are doing ballistic missile defense systems. Sooner or later they’re going to design it to nullify the Russian nuclear deterrent, therefore we need systems that can sneak through these missile defense systems.” That’s the dynamic.

NUNES: People like Daniel Ellsberg and William Perry, the former defense secretary, have said that we’re as close to nuclear war now as any point in the Cold War, and perhaps it’s even more dangerous because people don’t think about this the way they used to; they’re not as serious about it. Do you agree with that?

KRISTENSEN: Yes, I agree that there is a significant risk now, and it is increasing. I have a harder time judging whether it is as or more than it was during the Cold War. My gut feeling is that it is not as dire as it was during the Cold War. I’m saying that, because I grew up during the Cold War. I remember vividly how tense it was. That was close. But the point is correct that for certain scenarios—and this comes back to what we talked about: the unfortunate willingness to think in limited nuclear scenarios, that there is a tendency to begin these types of scenarios that would break the taboo of nuclear weapons use. That’s not the intention of it, but it could lead to it. The increased willingness of entertaining such use is because of an assumption that it would not involve escalation to total nuclear war. If that mindset is allowed to evolve, I think we could see scenarios and planning that will increase the likelihood of nuclear weapons use, and that is a really big problem.

NUNES: William Perry has used the expression “sleepwalking into nuclear war” and that would be more the risk today.

KRISTENSEN: The pathway to nuclear use is not just via nuclear pathways. What people tend to forget is there is a pre-phase, and that is a crisis that goes hot and becomes conventional where we start shooting at each other. As part of that escalation of the conventional phase, we get into a position—we could take a scenario in Europe or the Baltic area, or wherever; that’s a popular scenario these days—where the Russians would invade the Baltic states. NATO would come and push them back. They would not be able to hold back our conventional forces. Sooner or later they would lose, and in that phase, in that transition, they would potentially decide “We can’t hold this back; we need to use nuclear escalation to impress upon the United States and NATO: Stop. No more.”

And that is where it starts. If they start doing that, of course, all bets are off, because we would have to respond in one way or another, and you know where that’s going to end. Even conventional we need to be very careful about, not get too gung ho or brave in accepting our ability to turn up the conventional heat. That can also escalate and have pathways into nuclear use potentials. So this is a broad strategic thinking, a broader challenge in the way we approach deterrence and security requirements in the way we interact with the Russians.

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