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United States

Overview

Last Updated: July, 2017

The United States possesses a substantial nuclear weapons arsenal and associated delivery systems, and is one of the five nuclear weapon states recognized by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The United States is a party to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) as well as the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and does not have offensive biological and chemical programs.

Nuclear

The United States used nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, making it the only country ever to use nuclear weapons during a conflict. At its peak, in 1967, the American arsenal contained 31,255 nuclear warheads. [1] As of the latest U.S. government disclosures (April 2015), the arsenal consisted of 4,717 nuclear warheads, although there were “several thousand” additional warheads that had been retired but not yet dismantled. [2] The United States has historically deployed tactical nuclear weapons in several European NATO countries as part of its commitment to extended deterrence. In 2010 there were approximately 200 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. [3]

In addition to the NPT, the United States is a party to several treaties related to the reduction and control of nuclear weapons. The U.S.-Russian New START Treaty (Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty) — which received the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate for ratification in December 2010 and entered into force on 7 February 2011 — requires both countries to reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles. [4] According to the most recent New START data exchange (1 April 2015), the United States deploys 1,411 strategic warheads on 673 delivery systems. [5] The actual number of operational U.S. warheads is likely higher since the treaty counts one strategic bomber as one warhead even though, for example, the B-2 bomber can carry up to 16 warheads. [6] A 2017 estimate published by Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris put the actual number of deployed U.S. warheads at 1,740. [7] Washington is also a member of export control organizations aimed at limiting the proliferation of sensitive nuclear technologies, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the Zangger Committee (ZAC).

After conducting a total of 1,054 nuclear tests since 1945, the United States has maintained a unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests since 1992. [8] The United States signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996, but in October 1999, the U.S. Senate voted against giving its advice and consent to ratification of the treaty. [9]

President Barack Obama laid out his administration's approach to nuclear weapons in the 21st century in his "Prague Speech" of 5 April 2009 pledging the United States to the long-term goal of zero nuclear weapons. [10] The Obama administration's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review elevated the importance of nonproliferation and eventual nuclear disarmament in U.S. nuclear policy, and affirmed that the United States would not use or threaten the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states parties to the NPT in good standing. [11] However, the Obama administration also committed to an expensive program of nuclear modernization which analysts estimate could cost around one trillion dollars over a 30-year period. [12]

Nuclear security was a priority issue for the Obama administration. In April 2010, the United States hosted over 40 nations at the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, where leaders endorsed the goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. [13] The Washington Summit was followed by three additional summits: Seoul, South Korea in March 2012, The Hague, the Netherlands in March 2014, and Washington D.C. for a final summit in March 2016. [14]

President Donald Trump's statements on nuclear weapons have frequently been controversial, sometimes contradicting the stances taken by previous administrations of both parties. As a candidate, Trump seemed to contradict longstanding U.S. nonproliferation policy by suggesting that it would not be "such a bad thing" if allies such as Japan were to acquire their own nuclear weapons. [15] As President-elect, Trump elicited confusion when he tweeted "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes." [16] As of June 2017, however, Trump's ambiguous rhetoric has not translated into a clear shift in nuclear policy from previous administrations. President Trump ordered the Secretary of Defense to conduct a new Nuclear Posture Review, which was initiated in April 2017 and remains ongoing. [17]

The United States led a boycott of the 2017 United Nations General Assembly negotiations toward a treaty banning nuclear weapons. All other nuclear weapons possessing states, as well as most NATO countries, have joined the boycott. [18]

The United States possesses 99 nuclear power reactors, including 65 Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR) and 34 Boiling Water Reactors (BWR), producing over 100,000 MWe of energy or approximately 20% of the country's electric power needs. [19] However, all of these reactors were built decades ago, and the prospects for their replacement as they age out of the fleet are dim. In February 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) awarded Southern Company a license to build two new reactors at the Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant, which were projected to become operational in 2017 and 2018, respectively. [20] This was the first new reactor license to be granted in the United States in three decades. However, in March 2017, Westinghouse Electric Company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, putting completion of the Vogtle project it was responsible for—which was already behind schedule and significantly over budget—in even further jeopardy. [21]

The United States has had a policy against reprocessing spent nuclear fuel since the 1970s, when the Carter Administration first imposed a moratorium, primarily in response to the proliferation concerns associated with reprocessing. The George W. Bush Administration revisited the reprocessing debate beginning with the February 2006 announcement of its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), whose next generation technologies were intended to utilize reprocessing. [22] However, the Obama administration cancelled key components of GNEP, and reorganized the program into the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC). [23]

Biological

In 1941, U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson commissioned a study by the National Academy of Sciences on the threat posed by biological weapons. The study concluded that the United States should move forward with an offensive and defensive biological weapons program, and President Franklin Roosevelt verbally approved the program in May 1942. [24] Beginning in 1943 and ending in 1969, the United States weaponized a variety of pathogens and toxins for use against humans and plants. Weaponized anti-human agents included Bacillus anthracis (anthrax), Francisella tularensis (tularemia), Coxiella burnetii (Q fever), Brucella suis (Brucellosis or Malta fever), Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus (VEE), Clostridium botulinum (Botulinum Toxin), and staphylococcus aureus (staphylococcal enterotoxin B or SEB). [25] Weaponized anti-plant agents included wheat rust, rye blast, and other bacterial pathogens, toxins, and fungal plant pathogens designed to destroy food crops or defoliate trees. [26] In addition, military scientists conducted research on Rift valley fever, plague, Chikungunya, cholera, dengue fever, human glanders, and shigellosis (dysentery). [27]

On 25 November 1969, President Nixon renounced biological weapons and unilaterally placed restrictions on further production. [28] Then on 10 April 1972 Nixon signed the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention (BTWC), followed by the deposit of ratification on 10 April 1975. [29] Between May 1971 and February 1973, the United States destroyed its entire BW stockpile (including over 40,000 liters of anti-personnel biological warfare agents and 5,000 kilograms of anti-agricultural agents) at the Pine Bluff Arsenal, Rocky Mountain Arsenal, and Fort Detrick. [30] The United States has played a key role in furthering global norms against the proliferation of biological weapons by creating the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). In December 2009, the Obama Administration released its National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats, which seeks to strike a balance between countering current threats and preventing the misuse of science. [31]

Chemical

In response to German chemical attacks during World War I, the United States established the Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) in 1918. During the war, the CWS manufactured, stockpiled, and used chemical weapons, primarily mustard and phosgene gases. [32] Other early agents included chlorine and chloropicrin. Chemical weapons (CW) development and production expanded rapidly during World War II, with production of new chemicals including cyanogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide, and lewisite. However, President Franklin Roosevelt declared a no-first-use policy and did not use CW during WWII. [33]

After WWII, the renamed Chemical Corps concentrated on research and development of weaponized sarin and V-series nerve agents (VX), with eventual weaponization of artillery, rockets, and other delivery systems. [34] In 1969, Public Law 19-121 restricted testing, transport, storage and disposal of CW. [35] Also in 1969, President Nixon signed an executive order halting further production of unitary chemical weapons. These two events, combined with several environmental incidents and growing international criticism over chemicals used in Vietnam (such as Agent Orange and tear gas), resulted in a substantial reduction of CW programs. [36] In 1975, the United States ratified the Geneva Protocol, with the reservation that the treaty not apply to defoliants and riot control agents such as those used in Vietnam and Laos.

The Reagan administration reexamined the CW issue in the 1980s and began production of binary sarin artillery shells in 1987. However, the use of CW in the Iraq-Iran war soured public opinion towards CW. Then in 1989, chemical companies, fearing a public relations disaster, refused to provide the first Bush administration with necessary CW related chemicals. On 1 June 1990, Presidents Bush and Gorbachev signed the Bilateral Destruction Agreement (BDA), halting all production of new U.S. and Soviet CW. [37] In April 1997 the United States ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and committed to destroying all chemical stockpiles by 2007. [38]

By 2013, Washington had destroyed 28,000 metric tons of chemical-warfare agents (or roughly 90% of its declared stockpile). [39] The CWC required that all parties destroy their stockpiles by 2007, with the possibility of a five year extension to 2012. The United States, Russia, and Libya requested and received the extension until 29 April 2012. However, none were able to meet this deadline. The CWC states that if parties are unable to meet the deadline they should complete destruction in the "shortest time possible." [40] Of the nine U.S. disposal facilities, seven have completed disposal of their stockpiles and have been closed. The Pueblo, CO facility commenced destruction operations in December 2012 and has continued ongoing construction projects. The Pueblo facility is set to complete disposal of its chemical agents by 2019. [41] A final facility in Blue Grass, Kentucky will begin operations in 2020, and is set to eliminate its stockpiles by 2023. [42]

The United States also participates in CW nonproliferation through the Australia Group (AG), an export control mechanism.

Missile

The United States produces highly sophisticated liquid- and solid-fueled ballistic missiles as well as cruise missiles. According to a 2017 estimate, Washington deploys 400 LGM-30G Minuteman III nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) at bases in Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming. The Navy deploys 248 UGM-133A Trident II D-5 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) on 14 Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). The Air Force deploys 16 B-2A bombers that can carry up to 16 nuclear bombs and 44 B-52H Stratofortress bombers that can each carry up to 20 AGM-86B nuclear tipped air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) each. [43]

Following the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), the United States eliminated its entire stockpile of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM). [44] Pursuant to the restrictions of the INF, the United States does not possess ballistic or cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. In the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the United States decided to retire the Navy's nuclear-tipped Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missiles (TLAM-N). [45]

The United States devotes considerable budgetary resources to missile defense systems, including those designed to intercept incoming missiles at the boost, midcourse, and terminal phases. Most proposed systems are hit-to-kill interceptors and many are in the early stages of research and development. The "most mature" short-range system is the PAC-3 Patriot system (MIM-104F). [46] Use of PAC-3 systems in the 2003 Iraq war produced mixed results; while it successfully intercepted the nine "most threatening" ballistic missiles, it failed to detect several low-flying Iraqi cruise missiles and ultralight aircraft, and friendly fire on coalition aircraft resulted in the deaths of three soldiers. [47] The Army has activated six batteries of the land-based terminal-phase Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, including one deployed to South Korea to counter the North Korean missile threat. [48] The Navy operates 33 ships equipped with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system, which has been deployed to Europe and sold to Japan. [49] Finally, the Air Force has deployed 36 Ground Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptors in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. [50]

On 22 June 2014, the United States successfully conducted a test of its homeland Ground-based Missile Defense System. [51] This marked the first successful use of a "second-generation kinetic kill vehicle," mounted on a Ground Based Interceptor (GBI) against an intermediate-range missile target. [52] The effectiveness of the new Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, dubbed the "CE-2," bolstered the popularity of the Defense Department's $1 billion plan to station 14 more GBI missiles in Fort Greely, Alaska by 2017. [53] On 30 May 2017, the GMD system conducted its first successful test against an ICBM-class target. [54]

The Obama administration's February 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Review reversed the Bush Administration's plans for an antiballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe, instead adopting a four-phase, adaptive approach focused on new technologies and the threat from short- and medium-ranged missiles to U.S. and allied forces. [55] In May 2016, the U.S. activated the "AEGIS ashore" system in Deveslu, Romania, over fierce Russian objections. [56] The Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act potentially expanded the scope of the U.S. missile defense mission. The bill omitted the word "limited" from the previously stated goal of protecting U.S. territory from a "limited" missile attack. [57]

The United States is a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), whose goal is to restrict the proliferation of unmanned delivery systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction. Washington also subscribes to the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCOC), designed to supplement and bolster the MTCR.

Sources:
[1] Hans M. Kristensen and Robert Norris, "Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945-2009," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 65, No. 4, 2009, www.thebulletin.org.
[2] U.S. Department of Defense, "Fact Sheet: Transparency in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Stockpile," 27 April 2014, https://2009-2017.state.gov.
[3] Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, " U.S. Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe, 2011," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 67, no.1, January/February 2011, pp. 64-73, www.thebulletin.org.
[4] Office of the Press Secretary, "Key Facts about the New START Treaty," 26 March 2010, www.whitehouse.gov; Peter Baker, "Senate Passes Arms Control Treaty with Russia, 71-26," New York Times, 22 December 2010, www.nytimes.com; "New START Enters into Force," Global Security Newswire, 7 February 2011, www.globalsecuritynewswire.org.
[5] U.S. Department of State, "New START Treaty Aggregate Numbers of Strategic Offensive Arms," Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, 1 April 2017, www.state.gov.
[6] Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, "US nuclear forces, 2014," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 70, No. 1 (January 2014), p. 91.
[7] Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, "US nuclear forces, 2017," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 73, No. 1 (January 2017), p. 48-57.
[8] U.S. Department of Energy Nevada Operations Office, "United States Nuclear Tests: July 1945 through September 1992," DOE/NV—209-REV 15, December 2000, www.nv.doe.gov; U.S. Congress, "Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act, 1993," 102nd Congress H.R. 5373, 2 October 1992, http://thomas.loc.gov.
[9] "Country Profiles: United States of America," Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, www.ctbto.org.
[10] The White House: Office of the Press Secretary, "Remarks by President Barack Obama," Hradcany Square: Prague, Czech Republic, 5 April 2009, www.whitehouse.gov.
[11] Department of Defense, "Nuclear Posture Review Report," April 2010, www.defense.gov.
[12] Jon B. Wolfsthal, Jeffrey Lewis, Marc Quint, “The Trillion Dollar Nuclear Triad,” James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey CA, January 2014, www.nonproliferation.org.
[13] The White House: Office of the Press Secretary, "Communiqué of the Washington Nuclear Security Summit," 13 April 2010, www.obamawhitehouse.archives.gov.
[14] The White House: Office of the Press Secretary, "Nuclear Security Summit 2016 Communique," 1 April 2016, www.obamawhitehouse.archives.gov.
[15] The New York Times, "Transcript: Donald Trump Expounds on His Foreign Policy Views," 26 March 2016, www.nytimes.com.
[16] Donald J. Trump, Twitter post, 22 December 2016, 8:50 am, twitter.com/realdonaldtrump.
[17] DOD Press Operations, "DOD Announces Commencement of Nuclear Posture Review," 17 April 2017, Release No. NR-138-17, www.defense.gov.
[18] Al Jazeera, "US Leads Boycott of UN Talks on Nuclear Weapons Ban," 27 March 2017, www.aljazeera.com.
[19] U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), "Combined License Applications for New Reactors," 18 May 2015, www.nrc.gov.
[20] Miguel Llanos, "U.S. licenses first nuclear reactors since 1978," MSNBC News, 9 February 2012, http://usnews.msnbc.msn.com; Rob Pavey, "NRC oversight ensures safety at Vogtle, chairwoman says," Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, GA), 7 June 2013, http://chronicle.augusta.com.
[21] Diane Cardwell and Jonathan Soble, "Westinghouse Files for Bankruptcy, in Blow to Nuclear Power," New York Times, 29 March 2017, www.nytimes.com; Gavin Bade, "Southern to take over Vogtle construction from bankrupt Westinghouse," Utility Dive, 15 May 2017, www.utilitydive.com.
[22] Edwin Lyman and Frank N. von Hippel, "Reprocessing Revisited: The International Dimensions of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership," Arms Control Today 38, no. 3, 1 April 2008, pp. 6-14.
[23] International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation, www.ifnec.org.
[24] Jeanne Guillemin, Biological Weapons (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), pp. 59-60.
[25] Eric Croddy, Chemical and Biological Warfare: A Comprehensive Survey for the Concerned Citizen (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2002), p. 31.
[26] Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Second ed. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 212.
[27] Jeanne Guillemin, Biological Weapons (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 106; Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Second ed. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 211.
[28] Jeanne Guillemin, Biological Weapons (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 125.
[29] Jeanne Guillemin, Biological Weapons (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 127.
[30] Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Second ed. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), pp. 60, 212.
[31] Merle David Kellerhals Jr., "United States Introduces New Biological Weapons Security Strategy," America.gov, 9 December 2009.
[32] Jonathon B. Tucker, War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda (New York: Anchor Books, 2007), p. 19.
[33] Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Second ed. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 213.
[34] Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Second ed. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 213.
[35] Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Second ed. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 213.
[36] Jonathon B. Tucker, War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda (New York: Anchor Books, 2007), pp. 223-224.
[37] Jonathon B. Tucker, War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda (New York: Anchor Books, 2007), pp. 245-295.
[38] "Status of Participation in the Chemical Weapons Convention as at 21 May 2009," OPCW Technical Secretariat, S/768/2009, 27 May 2009, www.opcw.org.
[39] "Director-General Visits USA for High-Level Meetings, Addresses Closing Ceremony of Chemical Materials Agency," Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, 21 May 2012, retrieved from www.opcw.org.
[40] Danier Horner, "Accord Reached on CWC’s 2012 Deadline," Arms Control Association, armscontrol.org.
[41] Frequently Asked Questions, Program Executive Office, Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, www.peoacwa.army.mil.
[42] "Blue Grass Management Provides Schedule Update," Program Executive Office, Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, 14 March 2017, www.peoacwa.army.mil.
[43] Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, "US nuclear forces, 2017," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 73, No. 1 (January 2017), www.thebulletin.org.
[44] Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Second ed. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), pp. 85-87.
[45] U.S. Department of Defense, "Nuclear Posture Review Report," April 2010, www.defense.gov.
[46] Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Second ed. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), pp. 97.
[47] Dennis M. Gormley, "Missile Defense Myopia: Lessons from the Iraq War," Survival 45, no. 4, Winter 2003-2004, pp. 61-86.
[48] "Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)," U.S. Missile Defense Agency, www.mda.mil.
[49] "Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense," U.S. Missile Defense Agency, www.mda.mil.
[50] "Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD)," U.S. Missile Defense Agency, www.mda.mil.
[51] Rachel Oswald, "U.S. Ends Losing Streak with Successful Missile Intercept Test," Global Security Newswire, 23 June 2014, www.nti.org.
[52] Rachel Oswald, "U.S. Ends Losing Streak with Successful Missile Intercept Test," Global Security Newswire, 23 June 2014 www.nti.org.
[53] Rachel Oswald, "U.S. Ends Losing Streak with Successful Missile Intercept Test," Global Security Newswire, 23 June 2014 www.nti.org.
[54] Paul McLeary, "Pentagon Shoots Down Mockup of ICBM, but Concerns Linger," Foreign Policy, 30 May 2017, www.foreignpolicy.com.
[55] U.S. Department of Defense, "Ballistic Missile Defense Review," February 2010, www.defense.gov; "U.S. scraps final phase of European missile shield," BBC News, 16 March 2013, www.bbc.co.uk.
[56] Andrew E. Kramer, "Russia Calls New U.S. Missile Defense System a 'Direct Threat,'" New York Times, 12 May 2016, www.nytimes.com.
[57] Lynn M. Williams, Pat Towell, "Fact Sheet: Selected Highlights of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 4909, S. 2943)," Congressional Research Service, 19 December 2016, www.fas.org.

Get the Facts on United States
  • Deploys approximately 200 nuclear weapons in five NATO countries
  • Dismantled over 13,000 nuclear warheads since 1988
  • Still in the process of destroying its chemical weapons stockpile

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2017.