Scott talks to Hans Kristensen about the state of the world’s nuclear weapons arsenals. Immediately after the Cold War, says Kristensen, the U.S. and Russia drastically reduced their nuclear stockpiles, making the world significantly safer. Since then, however, this trend toward disarmament has begun to slow and even to reverse. At the same time, more countries have developed their own nuclear weapons programs. Scott thinks this has more to do with the financial incentives of the military-industrial complex than it does with the possibility for real global hostilities—but that doesn’t make the situation any less dangerous.
Discussed on the show:
- “SIPRI Yearbook 2020” (SIPRI)
- “Nuclear weapon modernization continues but the outlook for arms control is bleak” (SIPRI)
Hans M. Kristensen is an Associate Senior Fellow with the SIPRI Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-proliferation Programme and Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Follow him on Twitter @nukestrat.
This episode of the Scott Horton Show is sponsored by: NoDev NoOps NoIT, by Hussein Badakhchani; The War State, by Mike Swanson; WallStreetWindow.com; Tom Woods’ Liberty Classroom; ExpandDesigns.com/Scott; Listen and Think Audio; TheBumperSticker.com; and LibertyStickers.com.
The following is an automatically generated transcript.
For Pacifica radio June 28 2020. I’m Scott Horton. This is anti war radio.
All right, y’all welcome it’s Scott Horton Show. I am the director of the Libertarian Institute editorial director of antiwar.com, author of the book Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan. And I’ve recorded more than 5000 interviews going back to 2003, all of which are available at ScottHorton.org. You can also sign up to the podcast feed. The full archive is also available at youtube.com/ScottHortonShow. All right, you guys introducing Hans Kristensen from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. And he is also at the Federation of American Scientists as well and SIPRI that’s sipri.org. have just put out their latest study the sipper yearbook 2020. And part of that, of course, focuses on nuclear weapons, and they have a story here at sipri.org nuclear weapon modernization continues, but the outlook for arms control is bleak. Welcome to show Hans. How are you, sir?
Hans Kristensen 1:25
Thanks for having me.
Scott Horton 1:26
Very happy to have you here. So I’m sorry, I didn’t get a chance to read the whole PDF file and everything here. It’s been a very busy time. But I did read the introductory article here. And there’s so many important points brought up here. But I guess if we could just start with reminding the audience which all countries are armed with nuclear weapons, and approximately how many of them etc, like that, if you could?
Hans Kristensen 1:51
Yeah, so they’re about they’re now nine countries today that have nuclear weapons. And that’s the United States and Russia, France, Britain, China. India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. And all together, they possess something in the order of 13,400 nuclear warheads. Most of those are in what you can sort of call military stockpiles that are ready to use on relatively short notice. But there’s also a chunk of them some something in the order of 1800 to 2000 that are on high alert, they’re ready to fire within just minutes.
Scott Horton 2:28
And then, and those are mostly America and Russia’s,
Hans Kristensen 2:32
the alert weapons are American, Russian, French and British. Yes.
Scott Horton 2:38
And then, is there a ratio handy about how many of these are vision bombs versus thermonuclear h bombs.
Hans Kristensen 2:46
Almost all of them are thermal nuclear weapons to stage, thermonuclear weapons. Those are the more advanced weapons that countries like the United States, and Russia and France and Britain and China have have developed over the years, newer countries that have only conducted relatively few nuclear tests don’t yet have that capability India, Pakistan and Israel and also North Korea, although North Korea has demonstrated in their last test that they can produce something thermonuclear something that it that can produce a very high yield, but it’s a little unclear with it that is to stage device or, you know, some other technology.
Scott Horton 3:29
And are most of those still measured in the kilotons are there up into the megaton range?
Hans Kristensen 3:34
No mega ton weapons, so sort of becoming more and more rare. Those were things that people built early on. Now it’s it’s in the hundreds of kilotons or or even 10s of kilotons. So if you look at it depends on the mission of course also, if countries have more hits that are intended for blowing up deeply buried underground facilities, or knocking out hardened ICBMs or commands structures and that type of stuff, then they tend to be higher yield, because they have to, you know, do more damage. But if you’re looking at weapons that are needed for sort of more warfighting scenarios, you know, against shallower targets or troop formations or basis or something like that, then you can do the job with, you know, just, you know, 10 a few 10s of kiloton.
Scott Horton 4:21
And then now, did I hear you right, that you said India does not have h bombs?
Hans Kristensen 4:26
That’s correct, although there have been claims in India that they did that they do. And also one of the devices that was tested back in 1998, apparently, was an attempt to make a thermonuclear design, but it fizzled. And so we do not, we don’t anticipate that they have a two stage thermonuclear device to deploy it in their arsenal.
Scott Horton 4:47
Okay, because I had read and actually talked to an expert to I think, I guess about that one of the real problems with the nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan was that Pakistan really only had these much smaller yield tactical battlefield type nuclear weapons that they would use against the armored column or something like that. But that the Indians had focused on building higher yield strategic nuclear weapons for killing cities with and this kind of thing. And that because their armor was so desperately matched as well, that if the Indians launched a conventional attack, the Pakistanis might have to use low yield nukes to defend themselves. And then the Indians would have no choice but to retaliate with genocidal weapons of destruction, because that’s essentially all they have something like that. But so I wonder about how you conceive of that whole scenario there.
Hans Kristensen 5:41
Well, the scenario bar is a little about different aspects of the reality. It’s too simplistic though. The point is that both countries have developed a medium range ballistic missiles with you know, more hits in several 10s of kilotons that can hit each other of cities. But what’s unique about Pakistan is that in addition to that, they have also developed a weapons that are more tactical, and appear to be intended for use against like you mentioned, Indian conventional forces massing inside Pakistan territory. So that’s a unique feature of the Pakistani arsenal. And that, of course leads to a lot of concern about, you know, how they’re going to do that, or are they going to delegate launch authority to the to the local units, so they could use them early if necessary? How is that gonna play out so there are differences between the Arsenal’s but there also are a lot of similarities.
Scott Horton 6:42
So um, I guess the numbers of Chinese nukes are happily surprisingly low here in the triple digits.
Hans Kristensen 6:52
There compared to the US and Russia, of course, they’re very low. That’s enough
Scott Horton 6:55
to kill us all. I mean, but yeah,
Hans Kristensen 6:57
ya know, the Chinese have had a different approach to their deterrence posture for many decades. They basically didn’t buy into the using of nuclear weapons in sort of warfighting scenarios. They thought if they had, you know, a few, a few hundred 100 200, whatever in, in, you know, in in the posture where they were, when they could retaliate, they could not be knocked out, so they would always be available to retaliate. That should be enough, they thought for nuclear deterrence. What we’re seeing now, of course, is that China is increasing its arsenal. We have bumped up the number this year to 320 warheads that we estimates are in this that we estimate are in their stockpile. And it’s increasing, but it has been increasing for for a long time, just sort of slowly. Now, we’ll have to see if they’re going to, you know, increase faster. But whatever they’re doing, they’re not sprinting to parody. It’s not like whatever you hear about the Chinese nuclear arsenal, it’s not like they’re trying to catch Up to the Russians and the Americans, they still have a fundamentally different perspective on the role of their nuclar weapons.
Scott Horton 8:06
Yeah. Hey, it’s important to note that historically speaking at the height of the Cold War, there were 10s of thousands with 40,000, approximately on the American and Soviet Union side each. And so we’ve made a lot of progress since then, right?
Hans Kristensen 8:22
That’s correct. Yep. At the peak in the mid 1970s, and mid 1980s, I was 70,000 nuclear weapons. And on both the Russian and American side, 10,000 of those were on high alert, ready to go in, you know, within a few minutes, and just totally crazy circumstances. And so of course, when the Cold War ended, they started slicing a lot of the that excess capacity out, and so we saw a huge drop there in the early 1990s. And also a little later on, but what we’re now beginning to see is that the two sides are starting No slowing down significantly and even even to some extent reversing that trend, and looking to maintain significant Arsenal’s for the indefinite future. And so, you know, all sides are sort of increasing the value they say that they attribute to nuclear weapons. They’re increasing the role of the nuclear weapons and the way they talk about what functions they should serve. So this is a very troublesome development.
Scott Horton 9:26
And I’m sorry, what did you say the number was at the height? I thought it was much higher
Hans Kristensen 9:31
Scott Horton 9:32
Oh, 70. I’m sorry. I thought you said 17. And I thought, well, I was way off. Yeah, no, that’s more like what I thought it was 70,000 nukes.
Hans Kristensen 9:41
Yeah, it was crazy. I mean, you can imagine. You can just imagine spending a couple of hours on on Google Earth and trying to put 70,000 x’s on the map, right? What are we gonna do with all that stuff
Scott Horton 9:54
So there’s an anecdote about dick cheney back in 1989 when he was first Secretary of Defense being shown, I guess on a computer screen is simulation of what it would look like when where they just nuke Moscow hundreds of times over and Dick Cheney finally says that’s enough turn this off and and wanted it redone because it was just completely insane. And of course, he’s notoriously the greatest American
Hans Kristensen 10:24
Hawk alive. Right. Yeah. This is ironic that you can find some of those realizations in what what some characters like cheney did. And he said one of his officials, Frank Miller out to two Strategic Air Command as it was called or stratcom. As of now it’s known and they went through the entire targeting list, there is a very, very important anecdote or reading of that episode in in the memoirs of one of the first of the first stratcom commander. So that was just they discovered not surprisingly that There was an enormous overkill because the nuclear planners had been allowed to essentially do this by themselves with very little oversight. And so things have changed since then is also in the oversight. But even that, even though we were we’ve moved beyond some of that stuff. The nuclear planning today is still, you know, surprisingly similar to what it was during the Cold War.
Scott Horton 11:43
Yeah, Daniel Ellsberg has talked about how, you know, a lot of it is just bureaucratic politics where it’s not fair that the Air Force gets to blow up this city where the Navy wants a crack at it, too. Okay. Okay, Navy, you guys can also hit it with missiles. And so it’s just kind of like an episode of some sitcom some bureaucratic politics.
Hans Kristensen 11:46
You know, there’s an element of sort of institutional competition and turf wars and all this stuff. That’s part of it that dynamic. And mind you early on, the army also had a dream that they wanted exactly, one Hundred Thousand nuclear weapons just the army. I mean, it was those are crazy days.
Scott Horton 12:06
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Hans Kristensen 14:15
Yeah, so that’s that’s a long history. They think about how you come up with a number for the Israelis, because there’s so little factual information about it. The way it happened back in the 80s, when Vanunu and others came out with the estimates of the Chinese Arsenal was that people looked at how their reactor had operated and calculated for from that how many units if you will, of plutonium they could have produced over the years and then they translated that into the number of potential weapons they might have. That’s how you got to those high numbers. the intelligence community, the US intelligence community, looked at it a little differently. They said that yes, even though that production might have happened, they haven’t turned all of that plutonium into warheads, and so their number has been much lower. Over the years, and so we’ve we’ve gone with that ladder number and said, you know, those are the weapons that we think they have actually assembled, although they keep them partially unassembled on the normal circumstances, and but that they have other, you know, they have more plutonium in stock that they could produce if they needed to. So that’s how these differences emerge about the numbers.
Scott Horton 15:24
And that includes second strike missiles deployed on submarines. And do you know how many?
Hans Kristensen 15:31
That’s that’s a big uncertainty right now, there was a consistent piston rumor that Israel has put some cruise missiles or develop more hits for some cruise missiles on it. So conventional attack submarines. So we we’re cautiously including that in our estimate this year. And I’m just saying this because because there’s so little information about exactly what the Israeli Arsenal includes. There’s also a lot of room for speculation and rumors and And even hype. And so one has to be a little careful not to get sort of swept up in that in that kind of excitement and get to all sorts of capabilities. And and you mentioned people saying that there was thermonuclear capability? Well, some people believe that we tend not to think that the Israelis have developed a functioning to state thermal nuclear capability, we do believe they have a boosted a single stage design. But doing that requires the development of more technology, it’s more complex to do and you have to look at what is what is Israel’s intention with its arsenal? What function does it have to serve? The reason people develop thermonuclear weapons was because their targeting strategies required them to blow up things with great explosive power? At first that had to do with accuracy, you just couldn’t hit precisely enough. So you develop large scale thermonuclear weapons, so you could compensate for that. In accuracy, but Israel is not in that situation. They have relatively accurate missiles. And so their calculation, it seems to me at least would have to be a little different. They probably don’t need these super high yeld boards.
Scott Horton 17:14
I don’t agree with it. I don’t think anybody does. But I understand what you mean. So now let’s talk about North Korea a little bit here. As you said, they tested a nuke that was possibly boosted, but nobody really knows exactly for sure. Right.
Hans Kristensen 17:48
Yeah, the US intelligence community seem to say that the the last test that was about what was it 150 Some say 200 kiloton. There’s uncertainty about the specific range because different agencies that monitored have put out different estimates, but it was big, it was significant it was in a yield that you would have to either have a very large very significantly boosted single stage weapon or some form of thermal nuclear design. We’ve heard that characterization from US officials saying that there was some thermal nuclear event involved in this. But whether that means this is a two stage thermal nuclear warhead of the kind of warheads that that do United States and Russia developed over the years, that’s a little more uncertain. But it was set as a different nuclear yield that was produced by that weapon.
Scott Horton 18:44
Right. So supposedly, their missiles can reach DC now, I guess they reached a high enough orbit that they say could have reached DC, if that’s how it had been targeted. One of those tests, maybe two of those tests, but then they also say that even if they do have h bombs, they haven’t been able to successfully miniaturize them to the point they’d be able to marry them to one of these rockets and deliver one to DC. So we have a little bit of breathing room there. But everybody, all kinds of politicians from both parties say that that’s the red line. We can never allow them to have h bombs or I guess atom bombs and the means to deliver them specially not to our capital city. Hey, the West Coast man, maybe but not DC. But then. So I wonder if you think like on the timeline of their development, we know when they started making nukes right after they withdrew from the treaty in oh three and all of that. And and so on the timeline of their progress. Are you worried that they might be able to miniaturize their nukes and marry them to their missiles sometime within the next few years? Or what do you think about that?
Hans Kristensen 20:40
Yeah, our s our, you know, our sense of the where they are, is that they’ve developed ballistic missiles that can reach the US, but it’s a little mirror a little less clear. Whether they have a war functioning warhead for those missiles that can reach the United States. And this is a distinction that’s normally lost in the public discussion about the threat from North Korea. it’s more likely that they have warheads that they’ve developed. Left initially for their shorter range ballistic missile and the medium range systems that they have. So basis in the region, US allies in the region was most certainly be be be at risk. But like you mentioned, they made a lot of progress very quickly. And they seem to unsent intent on continuing that we’ve just heard some very strong statement from the North Koreans about continuing refining and improving their nuclear arsenal. And, and that’s one thing we’ve learned from the North Korean, you can you can pretty much stretch target what they say on this issue. If they say they’ll do it, that that means something real, so they’re not done and we’re likely to see more things coming in the future.
Scott Horton 21:00
Okay, so now let’s talk about this modernization. And part of this, I think, is just a welfare program for the nuclear arms industry. From it was part of the negotiations in the Senate to get the start. The new start passed under Obama was okay, you Get a trillion dollars, it’s now almost two, it’ll probably be four by the time they’re done. And so I don’t know how much of this is just make work. I know that they came out they’ve already deployed the new lower yield cruise missiles. But you know, what else do we need to know about the so called modernization here other than just the special interest aspect, but what about the actual change in the nuclear forces?
Hans Kristensen 21:27
Yeah, so um, the the, the bulk of the US Modernization Program is a complete replacement of the entire arsenal. So everything that was built in this were developed and built from the 80s and 90s, is now coming up for renewal. And the commitment that has been made is that all elements of what’s known as the triad, the sea based the land base, ballistic missiles, and the long range bombers, all of that will be replaced and also the shorter range fighter jets. will also be upgraded and replaced. And so, in addition to this comes nuclear production facilities, expanded plutonium pit production facilities that are being planned. We see a modernization of the nuclear command and control system that’s supposed to support and manage these nuclear forces. So it’s a very, very broad and comprehensive modernization plan. And like you said, it’s going to cost a lot of money. Now, the question is, does it change anything fundamentally compared to what we had before. And so that’s the way you have to look under the hood and sort of see what kind of capabilities are being built into these new systems. Because of course, when they built a new ICBM, it’s not just a copycat cat of the the old one, they put advanced capabilities on it and would like to improve its effectiveness. Likewise, when they upgrade the nuclear gravity bond, for example, the B 61. That is used both by speakers gt bombers, but also by Tactical Fighter wings get the United States and also in Europe, when they upgrade that they don’t just, you know, repaint and dusted off the one that’s there. No, they improve it. So they add a guy to tailgate so he can hit its target more accurately. So even though the numbers may not go up, and even though you don’t may not have fundamentally new nuclear weapons, you you take the chance to, and the opportunity to improve the capabilities of the weapons they can have inthe future.
Scott Horton 23:32
All right, so what do you make of all the new hypersonics ours and the other guys?
Hans Kristensen 23:38
Well, so that’s the next chapter in the arms race, of course, everybody is on that bandwagon. They were trying to get on it. And so at first here, the focus of that is conventional, but they’re also nuclear elements of it. The Russians have rushed into deployment a few missiles that have a hypersonic glide vehicle with a nuclear war. ahead, we’re seeing them working on other types of hypersonic weapons that have nuclear capability. But they tend to be dual capable, if nuclear is involved at all, we’re seeing the Chinese working on similar systems. They’ve even deployed already a, what appears to be a glide vehicle of some sort, for its rocket force. There’s some uncertainty about whether it’s nuclear, but hey, they’re certainly working on that. And the United States is, you know, obviously pointing to them saying, well, they’re doing it, so we need to do it. So there’s sort of a real crash program on the way to try to develop these capabilities. So we’re probably going to see some kind of hyper glide, or hypersonic capability for long range bombers, as well as for submarines and some surface ships. So this is really happening. Now. How much does that change? Does it make the world more dangerous? It certainly does in I think the regional scenario or where you were the timelines and the reaction time To these weapon systems will be much shorter. And so that will put all sides on their toes and be nervous, more nervous about what’s going on etc, etc. At the strategic level, I think it has less impact compared to the type of forces that are out there already now. So I think it’s more in the region you see this dynamic?
Scott Horton 25:18
Yeah, seems like the reaction time thing is everything right? If we have half an hour to decide if we’re really being nuked to death, then that’s already not very much time. If we have five minutes, then essentially, they’re almost guaranteed to choose believing the threat and reacting to it, to err on the safe side kill us.
Hans Kristensen 26:05
All right, exactly. It’s the worst of scenarios because you know, all sides inevitably get into this corner themselves, they paint themselves into this corner of worst case scenario, always have to assume and plan for the worst etc, etc. So, you know, stability becomes much more brittle. In that scenario, and it bothers me, it’s really, I’m really confused why? Why military powers want to go down that route? And because it decreases their security and that other LS. Yeah.
Scott Horton 26:16
Well, you know, I’m a bit of an extremist on this topic. But I wonder how far you go with me on the idea that Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, as much as they did to negotiate away our nuclear weapons stocks back then, that bill clinton right then could have picked up where they left off and negotiated an end to the entire global nuclear arms race and complete disarmament at that point, with the threat of the Soviet Union and world communism over that they could have just called the whole thing off. They didn’t have to be this way at all. We could have, I don’t know 10 nukes each, just to make sure nobody fights and then that’s it. But instead, it was just sort of like we’re talking about with this new start deal. that hey, we get to build a whole new Nuclear Weapons factory that’d be expensive. And the whole thing becomes a self licking ice cream cone. Even though we’re not talking about m 16. We’re talking about h bomb, you know?
Hans Kristensen 27:19
Yeah, I mean, you know, this business has a lot of sort of self serving dynamic in it an element of that. Absolutely. There were huge opportunity missed after the Cold War ended. We’re like you say, we could have fundamentally changed the role of nuclear weapons play and reduced Arsenal’s around the world didn’t happen for a variety of reasons and mistakes were made on all sides about this. And here we are. Now we’re seeing an invigoration of the role of nuclear weapons and an increase of them people countries are rattling the nucleus sort of each other again in a very old overt way. So things are definitely going back, but I can’t help them. I can’t help sort of remarkable so that one, one curious fact about the way that nuclear reductions happened. I looked at this closely. And it’s really interesting to see that the periods where most cuts or the biggest cuts happened, all were during the republican presidents. And it’s big. And there’s a dynamic between the White House and the Congress about why that is.
Scott Horton 28:27
So only Nixon can go to China, that kind of thing.
Hans Kristensen 28:30
Right? Right. Right. And democrats can have to be tough and all that kind of stuff and can’t be seen to be weak and so forth. But I just want to mention one other thing. I think on the on the issue here of nuclear weapons, I think it’s important to think about the problem of the issue of nuclear weapons not just as nuclear weapons in isolation because the role they play, and the reasons for why countries have them also have a lot to do with how they perceive the threat from conventional capabilities. So countries We’ll use nuclear weapons to some extent to compensate against what they think are inferior conventional forces. So there is a much more complex dynamic going on in terms of what shapes the direction that nuclear forces take, and what countries think they can do to reduce their role. So one of the things we’re seeing right now, that is in the context of a non proliferation in the context of the nuclear non proliferation treaty, the nuclear powers in that the P fives as they call, that’s the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China. They they’ve sort of found that, you know, a common theme where they’re trying to say to the other non nuclear weapon states, which is the predominant numbers of countries in that treaty, that Wait a minute, guys, it’s not just about us. It’s not just about nuclear, you also have to work to create the security conditions in the world so that it is possible to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons. So they’re trying to, you know, pass Quite a pass some of the responsibility on to other countries as well.
Scott Horton 30:04
Yeah. All right. I’m sorry, I could do this all day, but I gotta go. But thank you so much for your time, Hans. It’s really been great.
Hans Kristensen 30:10
Great. Thanks for having me.
Scott Horton 30:10
Alright you guys that is Hans M. Christensen. He is Associate Senior Fellow with Zypries nuclear disarmament arms control and non proliferation program and director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists, and check out Tsipras new 2020 year book on global arms and especially on nukes. firstname.lastname@example.org Alright, y’all, and that has been anti war radio for this morning. Again, I’m your host, Scott Horton from anti war.com and author of the book fool’s errand time to end the war in Afghanistan. Check out my full interview archive more than 5000 of them now going back to 2003 at Scott Horton, org, and youtube.com slash Scott Horton show on here every Sunday morning from 830 to nine kpfk 90.7 FM in that way, see you.
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