Monday, July 6, 2009


The agreement announced today to limit US and Russian nuclear weapons, to replace the soon-to-expire 1991 START treaty between the US and USSR (initiated by Reagan halfway through his first term and signed almost a decade later by GHW Bush just months before the Soviet Union collapsed), but in a way that actually extends and further limits nuclear weapons from what was allowed the most recent treaty (negotiated in 2002 by GW Bush and V Putin) with improved verification.

The limitation on actual warheads, although only a minor change from the limits in place for the last decade, is significant as a way of building confidence and restarting agreements such as the one that will allow us to finally use Russian airspace to get to Afghanistan. It also continues the process of reducing the most dangerous Russian nuclear weapons: the "non-strategic" weapons that would be most likely to fall into the hands of (or be sold to) terrorists. Continuing to turn these into fuel-grade uranium that is then burning in US power plants is a win for everyone in the world.

The graph that accompanied the article captured nicely some characteristics of the nuclear stockpiles of the two nations that deserves further discussion.

I include a small version of the figure here for purposes of discussion.

Click image to go to the full-size figure from the BBC article linked above.

First, look at 1960. Is there any clearer picture of just how big of an advantage the US had in strategic weapons during the Cuban Missle Crisis, or any doubt as to why Gen. LeMay did all he could to provoke Russian actions that would allow him to unload those 20,000 weapons on Russia? Did the Russians get the message?

Well, look at what followed, from 1970 to 1985. It took some time to ramp up production (they "only" made about 5000 warheads in each 5-year period from 1960 to 1970), but they made 10,000 additional warheads every five years after 1970. They had no intention of being caught in a similar situation. The SALT treaties negotiated by Nixon and Ford only limited launchers, not the MIRV systems or the number of warheads that could be built. It was arms "limitation" in name only.

I can't even imagine what it cost the USSR to build 2000 nuclear weapons EVERY year. I knew each side had produced hundreds of metric tons of pure U-235 and Pu-239 (that's right, tons, when only tens of kg are needed for a weapon) but I had forgotten what a head start we had with the production facilities built during WW II and expanded afterward. If you remember all the arguments about dealing with the waste from those production facilities and how they were shut down for cleanup in the 1970s, this picture shows you why we could do that. We had 30,000 nuclear weapons in 1965, so we could reuse and recycle them as we refined our stockpile to a slightly smaller number of smaller and more effective weapons in the 1970s. We didn't need to make any more weapons-grade materials. The Soviets did, and they bore that expense every year for 15 years as shown in this graph. We did too, but we spent that sort of money in the 1950s and then shifted our resources to technology rather than tons of weapons-grade material.

As obvious as that might seem to you reading this, I think the origin and CONSTANT RATE of the Soviet weapons buildup in the events of October 1962 has been lost in the construction of the myth that Reagan's "Star Wars" ABM plans made the Soviet Union spend itself into bankruptcy, or (on the liberal side) that the Soviets would simply respond by making more bombs. Both are nonsense, because they were - and had been for a decade - building them anyway in continued response Khrushchev's humiliation when he underestimated the guts of the new young President who had backed out of supporting the Bay of Pigs invasion just a year earlier.

The Wiki article on MIRV includes a great picture (towards the bottom of the page) showing the reentry tracks of 8 dummy warheads heading for Kwajalein. It isn't the best version showing what we can do. Somewhere I saw a picture of a MIRV counter-force attack where you could see the converging tracks of pairs of warheads, with each pair heading toward separate targets (presumably missile silos) and with the warheads in each pair originating from a different missile. They launched two missiles, each one separately targeting the same group of targets. It might have been in the nuclear weapons museum in ABQ. We really got our money's worth from the navigation systems built into those missiles.

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