Dismantle Bombs, Not Treaties

Dismantle Bombs, Not Treaties

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Anne Pellegrino

Research Associate

Jamie Withorne

Research Associate

In October 2012, David Johnson, a former nuclear weapons specialist at the U.S. Pantex Plant, witnessed the dismantlement of the last B53 nuclear bomb—at one point the most destructive weapon in the U.S. arsenal. Johnson, who had worked to develop the weapon, described the moment as “[coming] full circle” saying, “I consider myself privileged to work on [the bomb] and then help retire it.” [1] The Clinton Administration retired the B53 in 1997, but dismantling the last B53 took fifteen years.

During the 1990s, the U.S. typically dismantled more than 1,000 nuclear weapons per year. But in recent decades, dismantlement rates have fallen. In January 2017, then-Vice President Joe Biden announced that there were still 2,800 nuclear weapons awaiting dismantlement—a backlog that, at current rates, would take until 2026 to clear. [2] Dismantlement rates have fallen, in part, because resources have shifted to maintenance and more comprehensive life-extension programs for existing warheads.

For example, while the Obama Administration had planned to retire several hundred B83 warheads in the 2020s – adding to the dismantlement queue – the Trump Administration, in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, reversed this decision and announced that the United States would sustain the B83 past its previously planned retirement date. [3]

You too can #DismantleBombsNotTreaties by taking a picture of yourself taking apart the below 3D bomb in augmented reality. Share your image on Twitter with @NTI_WMD using #DismantleBombsNotTreaties. Read how to access the augmented reality from your mobile device or watch the instructional video.

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review reversed plans to retire the B83 gravity bomb. View the annotated assembled and disassembled B83 gravity bomb graphics.

Arms Control Ancestry

During the Cold War, in 1967, the U.S. nuclear arsenal peaked at 31,255 warheads and bombs while the Soviet arsenal peaked at 40,159 nuclear warheads and bombs in 1986. [4] These stockpiles started coming down as the United States and the Soviet Union began negotiating a series of arms control treaties – first, limitations aimed at capping the number of deployed nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and then agreements aimed at reducing them.

These treaties included the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (1987), the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), and the 2011 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which is set to expire in 2021. Along with voluntary measures such as the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, these treaties have led to a large number of excess non-deployed nuclear warheads that Russia and the United States have chosen to dismantle.

According to declassified data, between 1994 and 2017 alone, the United States dismantled almost 11,000 nuclear weapons. [5] Additionally, under the Megatons to Megawatts program, which was implemented from 1993 to 2013, the United States purchased weapons-grade fissile material from Russia and converted it into fuel for civil nuclear power plants across the United States. Over the lifespan of Megatons to Megawatts, approximately 500 tons of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) were removed from Soviet-era warheads and recycled into 14,000 tons of reactor fuel—ensuring that they could never be used for weapons. [6] The United States and Russia today possess a fraction of their Cold War nuclear arsenals and fissile material. Today, Russia has approximately 4,490 warheads, while the United States has approximately 3,800. [7]

A Crumbling Arms Control Legacy

However, continued progress on nuclear arms limitation and reduction is at risk. On 2 August 2019, the United States officially withdrew from the INF Treaty, in response to Russia’s violations of that Treaty. The INF Treaty was a Cold War-era agreement between the United States and Russia that eliminated land-based nuclear-capable ballistic and cruise missiles with a 500-5,500km range. [8] With the INF Treaty gone, New START is the only remaining agreement limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. It will expire in February 2021, unless the United States and Russia agree to extend it for another five years. Formal discussions on extension have yet to begin. Additionally, due to complications from the Coronavirus pandemic, important discussions on the status of global arms control treaties, such as the 2020 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), have been postponed. [9] Similar delays could push New START extension discussions even closer to the treaty’s 2021 expiration date.

If New START is not extended, there would be no legally binding restraints on U.S. and Russian nuclear forces. In that scenario, each side might be impelled to grow, rather than reduce, its nuclear arsenals.

A Step in the Right Direction

There is a safer course. The United States and Russia could end the uncertainty over the fate of New START and extend the treaty for an additional five years before it expires in 2021. [10] If the United States and Russia let New START expire in 2021, it will mark the first time since 1972 without legally binding limits on the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world. Those limits are backed with extensive verification measures that build confidence, predictability, and stability.

By the end of the Cold War, both countries had come to understand that arms control provided limits, verification, and security mechanisms necessary for a safer world. That remains as true today as it was then. Extending New START is a crucial step to maintain strategic stability and a necessary foundation for additional steps to further constrain nuclear competition. The United States and Russia must sustain their efforts to reduce nuclear arms and dismantle excess nuclear weapons. Like David Johnson, they too, can come full circle.

[1] “‘Last of the Big Dogs’ B53 Nuclear Bomb Dismantled at Pantex,” Pantexan (Winter 2012), pp. 4-5.
[2] Hans M. Kristensen, “Obama Administration Announces Unilateral Nuclear Weapon Cuts,” Federation of American Scientists, 11 January 2017,
[3] Stephen Young, “The Trump Administration’s Dangerous New Nuclear Policy,” Union of Concerned Scientists, 12 January 2018,
[4] Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “Nuclear Notebook: Nuclear Arsenals of the World,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,
[5] See here for data declassified by the Obama Administration: The Trump Administration has not disclosed stockpile and dismantlement numbers for 2018.
[6] “Megatons to Megawatts,” Centrus Energy,
[7] “New START Treaty,” U.S. Department of State,
[8] James J. Cameron, “The U.S. officially withdrew from the INF Treaty. Here’s what you need to know,” The Washington Post, 3 August 2019,
[9] Daryl Kimball, “NPT Review Conference Postponed,” Arms Control Association, April 2020,
[10] Shervin Taheran, “New START Extension Debated,” Arms Control Association, April 2019,

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Dismantlement: Taking apart a weapon, facility, or other item so that it is no longer functional.
The positioning of military forces – conventional and/or nuclear – in conjunction with military planning.
Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty
A treaty between the United States and the former Soviet Union, signed on 8 December 1987, which entered into force on 1 June 1988. It aimed to eliminate and ban all ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of between 300 and 3,400 miles (500 to 5,500 kilometers). The treaty required the United States and the Soviet Union to conduct inspections at each other's sites during the elimination of treaty-limited items (TLI). By May 1991, all intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles, launchers, related support equipment, and support structures were eliminated. For additional information, see the INF Treaty.
Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I, II, & III)
Refers to negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russian Federation, held between 1982 and 1993 to limit and reduce the numbers of strategic offensive nuclear weapons in each country’s nuclear arsenal. The talks culminated in the 1991 START I Treaty, which entered into force in December 1994, and the 1993 START II Treaty. Although START II was ratified by the two countries, it never entered into force. In 1997, U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin discussed the possibility of a START III treaty to make further weapons reductions, but negotiations resulted in a stalemate. Following the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2002, Russia declared START II void. START I expired on 5 December 2009, and was followed by the New START treaty. See entries for New START and the Trilateral Statement. For additional information, see the entries for START I, START II, and New START
Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNI)
PNI: A series of initiatives announced in 1991 by U.S. President George H. W. Bush and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, declaring that their two countries would reduce tactical nuclear weapons arsenals and associated delivery systems.
Megatons to Megawatts program
Megatons to Megawatts program: See entry for HEU deal.
Weapons-grade material
Weapons-grade material: Refers to the nuclear materials that are most suitable for the manufacture of nuclear weapons, e.g., uranium (U) enriched to 90 percent U-235 or plutonium (Pu) that is primarily composed of Pu-239 and contains less than 7% Pu-240. Crude nuclear weapons (i.e., improvised nuclear devices), could be fabricated from lower-grade materials.
Fissile material
Fissile material: A type of fissionable material capable of sustaining a chain reaction by undergoing fission upon the absorption of low-energy (or thermal) neutrons. Uranium-235, Plutonium-239, and Uranium-233 are the most prominently discussed fissile materials for peaceful and nuclear weapons purposes.
Nuclear power plant
Nuclear power plant: A facility that generates electricity using a nuclear reactor as its heat source to provide steam to a turbine generator.
Highly enriched uranium (HEU)
Highly enriched uranium (HEU): Refers to uranium with a concentration of more than 20% of the isotope U-235. Achieved via the process of enrichment. See entry for enriched uranium.
Ballistic missile
A delivery vehicle powered by a liquid or solid fueled rocket that primarily travels in a ballistic (free-fall) trajectory.  The flight of a ballistic missile includes three phases: 1) boost phase, where the rocket generates thrust to launch the missile into flight; 2) midcourse phase, where the missile coasts in an arc under the influence of gravity; and 3) terminal phase, in which the missile descends towards its target.  Ballistic missiles can be characterized by three key parameters - range, payload, and Circular Error Probable (CEP), or targeting precision.  Ballistic missiles are primarily intended for use against ground targets.
Cruise missile
An unmanned self-propelled guided vehicle that sustains flight through aerodynamic lift for most of its flight path. There are subsonic and supersonic cruise missiles currently deployed in conventional and nuclear arsenals, while conventional hypersonic cruise missiles are currently in development. These can be launched from the air, submarines, or the ground. Although they carry smaller payloads, travel at slower speeds, and cover lesser ranges than ballistic missiles, cruise missiles can be programmed to travel along customized flight paths and to evade missile defense systems.
Arms control
Arms control: Measures, typically bilateral or multilateral, taken to control or reduce weapon systems or armed forces. Such limitations or reductions are typically taken to increase stability between countries, reducing the likelihood or intensity of an arms race. They might affect the size, type, configuration, production, or performance characteristics of a weapon system, or the size, organization, equipment, deployment, or employment of armed forces. Arms control measures typically include monitoring and verification provisions, and may also include provisions to increase transparency between the parties. Also see entry for Confidence and Security Building Measures, Transparency Measures.
Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)
The NPT: Signed in 1968, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is the most widely adhered-to international security agreement. The “three pillars” of the NPT are nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Article VI of the NPT commits states possessing nuclear weapons to negotiate in good faith toward halting the arms race and the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. The Treaty stipulates that non-nuclear-weapon states will not seek to acquire nuclear weapons, and will accept International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards on their nuclear activities, while nuclear weapon states commit not to transfer nuclear weapons to other states. All states have a right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and should assist one another in its development. The NPT provides for conferences of member states to review treaty implementation at five-year intervals. Initially of a 25-year duration, the NPT was extended indefinitely in 1995. For additional information, see the NPT.


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