Tag Archives: Nuclear

Trident: An Introduction to the UK National Debate

By Alex Calvo


Ever since its conception, the UK’s sea-based deterrent Trident has prompted a measure of controversy. This includes, among others, the wider question of nuclear armament, the system’s opportunity cost (in this context, the weapons or other security and defence assets the UK stops buying or producing in order to pay for Trident) the indirect impact on the conventional defence budget, and the British “minimal” nuclear posture and doctrine. Trident has also been part of debates such as the UK’s place in the world, her relationship with the EU, and the “special relationship” with the US, while featuring strongly in the 2014 Scottish referendum. While the Conservative victory in the last election featured a “manifesto that included a commitment to build four new ballistic missile submarines … replacing the Vanguard submarines that come out of service from the early 2030s,” as stressed by British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, the debate is still likely to continue, boosted by both political and technological factors. The purpose of this four-part series is to outline the most important terms of the debate, in a language accessible to non-specialists, providing a short yet comprehensive look at the matter. An effort has been made to sum up the different views on this issue, and to present alternatives.

In the first installment in the series, we review some key concepts in nuclear strategy theory and look at the basic characteristics of the Trident system, which provides sea-based, national, and minimum deterrence. We then examine the costs involved, what is meant by “extending Trident,” and discuss the continued relevance of nuclear deterrence. This first part concludes with a look at the gap between the UK’s nuclear and conventional postures.

Preliminary Considerations

The basis of nuclear deterrence is the belief that a country equipped with nuclear weapons will not be attacked by another nuclear power because this would result in an exchange and the resulting destruction of both countries. As a result, a “balance of terror” is achieved, whereby nobody uses this kind of weapon, which nevertheless, in spite of being “unusable,” plays a key role in the national security of nuclear powers. The concept of nuclear “mutual deterrence” quickly gained currency as soon as the US nuclear monopoly was breached in 1949, with the Soviet Union’s maiden nuclear test, and became one of the defining characteristics of the Cold War. It is also known as MAD (“mutually assured destruction.”)

It is important to stress two aspects of mutual deterrence:

1. A key condition is the invulnerability of both nuclear deterrents. If there is no way country A can destroy the nuclear weapons of country B, and vice versa, then none will have an incentive to use them, since it would inevitably result in the attacker’s destruction. This would happen, no matter who attacked first, the end result being the same. Attacking first only means dying a bit later. Thus, this acts as a stabilizer at times of crisis, since there is no incentive to strike first in order not to lose one’s nuclear deterrent, there is thus no “use them or lose them” factor. This explains why, during the Cold War, the two superpowers agreed to limit work on anti-missile defences, signing the 1972 ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty. While it may seem counterintuitive, by agreeing to have their cities remain vulnerable to a nuclear strike, they considered to be favouring stability. A working missile shield may have tempted its owner into believing that a nuclear war was “winnable,” one of the reasons for continued Russian hostility in this area. This need to guarantee the invulnerability of one’s nuclear forces also explains the drive to develop sea-based deterrents in the form of submarines equipped with nuclear missiles. Since it is very difficult to detect a submarine, it is expected to survive an attack, thus removing any incentive for the enemy to strike first in the hope of destroying one’s nuclear missiles. Again, like in the case of the ballistic missile defence ban, this was considered to contribute to stability, reducing the risk of nuclear war.

2. The possession of nuclear weapons by two powers, under the above circumstances (vulnerability of their population and invulnerability of the weapons themselves) meant, according to the theory, that nuclear war would not take place. Proponents of nuclear deterrence cite the Cold War as evidence for this. However, neither the theory nor actual historical evidence excluded the possibility of conventional or asymmetrical war (in this series, we will understand “asymmetric warfare” in a broad sense of the term, including terrorism, insurgency, non-lethal use of force, and the currently very much en vogue “mixed war” or “hybrid warfare”). Indeed, the Cold War did not feature any nuclear exchange, but many conventional conflicts took place, involving proxies and sometimes one of the superpowers as well, in addition to myriad instances of terrorism and insurgency. Concerning the relationship between nuclear and conventional weapons, some countries have issued a guarantee that the former would not be used against a non-nuclear enemy, but not all have, and even where a formal guarantee exists, some observers doubt a nuclear-weapons state would renounce using them if its very existence or essential national interest was at stake.

October 2012 test off the coast of Florida, the first in three years by a British strategic nuclear submarine.

Right from the beginning it was clear that nuclear weapons would have a major impact on warfighting, and the British nuclear program and the later US Manhattan Project were fueled by fears that Nazi Germany may be more advanced in this field. Nuclear weapons were controversial even before they were first used, with some of the nuclear scientists involved making a last-minute attempt to employ a device for a “demonstration” in the hope Imperial Japan would surrender without the need for the mass destruction of civilian lives. Later years saw campaigns against nuclear weapons, often wider and including a blanket opposition to civil nuclear power, while some countries made desperate efforts to secure their own deterrent, and others signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear weapons states in exchange for some sort of guarantee by an accepted nuclear power that the latter would use, if necessary, its own nuclear weapons to defend them. This practice, known as “extended deterrence,” should not be forgotten, since it is doubtful that without it so many countries would have accepted the NPT. This division of countries into two leagues, only one of which was allowed to own nuclear weapons according to international law, was bitterly denounced by India, which branded it as “Nuclear Apartheid.” Other established nuclear powers kept insisting that “non-proliferation,” the policy of restricting the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries, was conducive to stability. One may note a certain contradiction between the concepts of deterrence and non-proliferation, whose relationship is complex. In recent years New Delhi has signed a number of agreements with the US and other countries, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, so that we can now say India is a “de facto” recognized nuclear weapons state outside the NPT.

Trident: The Basics

In a few words, Trident is a sea-based national minimum nuclear deterrent.

Sea-based because it consists of four Vanguard-class submarines equipped with nuclear missiles. As explained above, submarines are considered to be very difficult to detect and destroy, making them the ideal platform for deterrence, since an aggressor managing to destroy UK population centers could expect swift retaliation in kind. To achieve this, it is necessary to always have at least one submarine on patrol (known as CASD, “Continuous At Sea Deterrence”), with four widely considered to be the minimum number of boats needed to achieve this. Otherwise, an aggressor aware of a window of vulnerability, with no submarines on patrol, may choose to strike at that particular time. This minimum number means that it is not really possible to cut the cost of the program by reducing the number of units deployed, since below this minimum the key objective of one submarine in patrol at all times would no longer be achievable. It should also be stressed that there is no absolute guarantee that a submarine is invulnerable, since technological developments may enable an enemy to track and destroy or otherwise neutralize them. In part three of our series we will discuss cyberwarfare and submarine drones, whose potential impact on Trident has been discussed over the last few months. It is also necessary to take into account that, while four is widely considered to suffice for the purposes of nuclear deterrence, this number comes from statistical studies and past experience, but does not amount to any iron-clad guarantee in the face of possible trouble from, among others, damage, malfunction, or cyber attacks.

Infographic with details of Trident submarines and their missiles.

National, since it is owned and operated by Her Majesty’s Government, being under national command. It must be noted though, as discussed later, that the technology employed is not exclusively British, being dependent to a considerable extent on the United States. The missiles are American, the submarines and warheads British. Second, British nuclear doctrine does not exclude the possibility of employing Trident to protect NATO Allies. The UK’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review states that “The UK has long been clear that we would only consider using our nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances of self-defence, including the defence of our NATO Allies, and we remain deliberately ambiguous about precisely when, how and at what scale we would contemplate their use.”

Minimum, for a number of reasons. First, because it only features submarines, one of the legs of a possible “Nuclear Triad,” the others being land-based missiles and aircraft-dropped bombs. Second, because the number of submarines is the smallest compatible with a continued patrol capability. Third, because these submarines only carry a fraction of the missiles and warheads they are capable of delivering (8 and 40 respectively, instead of 16 and 192 originally envisaged). Fourth, because British nuclear doctrine, while not going as far as ruling out, for example, a first nuclear strike, or an attack against a non-nuclear country, seeks to considerably restrict the scenarios in which atomic weapons may be employed. This is clear for example in the section on “Five Enduring Principles” in the 2006 white paper titled The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent. The 2006 white paper states that “the UK will retain only the minimum amount of destructive power required to achieve our deterrence objectives.”

Trident can thus be seen as a compromise solution between, on the one hand, the perceived need for a nuclear deterrent, and on the other the wish to minimize its scope. This does not mean that it results from a simplistic calculation, since many other factors may have influenced the choice including inter-service considerations and relations with the US, just to mention two, and to be discussed later.

How Much Does Trident Cost?

Given that a key aspect of the debate is financial, it is necessary to bear in mind how much money we are talking about, both concerning the existing Trident system, and the possible replacement of its submarines. In 2012 the Secretary of State for Defence replied to two parliamentary questions covering these issues, saying that “As stated in the White Paper, The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent (Cm 6994) published in December 2006, we expect that once the new successor nuclear deterrent submarine comes into service, the in-service costs of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, which will include Atomic Weapons Establishment’s costs, will be similar to today (around 5% to 6% of the defence budget)” and, concerning the estimate for “the cost of design and build for a replacement continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent system” that “current forecast costs, including planned Submarine Enterprise Performance Programme efficiency measures, indicate that we remain within the 2006 White Paper estimates of £11 billion to £14 billion (at 2006-07 prices) for the Successor platform costs (assuming a four boat fleet).”

With regard to the cost of the new submarines, the then coalition government officially confirmed in 2011 the 2006 estimate by the previous Labour administration. In present-day pounds, it would be “£20 billion to £25 billion at out-turn” according to then Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox, who added “Between now and main gate [in 2016] we expect to spend about 15% of the total value of the programme. That is entirely consistent with defence procurement guidance. The cost of long lead items is expected to amount to about £500 million.” As is generally the case with defence procurement, it may be difficult to provide accurate cost estimates given possible overruns, unexpected contingencies, and evolving technological and doctrinal changes. The long life span makes any calculation even more difficult, with London-based think-tank RUSI noting that “estimating total costs for a programme which will last beyond 2050 is a highly speculative exercise.” What seems clear is that the sums involved are substantive, yet within the means of the UK. Thus, although cost may be used by detractors of the program or of nuclear deterrence in general, what matters the most from a defence policy perspective is first whether a more economic alternative may be found to provide the UK with an equivalent nuclear deterrent, and second the opportunity cost of Trident for conventional defence. Both will be covered later in our four-part series.

We should also note that in assessing the cost of alternatives to Trident, the schedule to replace the existing submarines must be taken into account. This means that some alternatives that may seem cheaper are no longer so when the time to develop them is taken into account. The Trident Alternatives Review admits that “The costs of delivering an alternative system could theoretically have been cheaper than procuring a like-for-like renewal of Trident” but adds “were it not for timing and the fact that the UK deterrent infrastructure is finely tuned to support a submarine-based Trident system. In particular, the time it would take to develop a new warhead (itself a costly and high risk exercise) is judged to be longer than the current Vanguard-class submarines can safely be operated.” Also relevant is the fact that, as noted by think-tank BASIC, “Replacement of the submarines is already underway in several respects,”

What do we mean by “extending” Trident?

We should briefly note that the decision to be taken by the current parliament does not, strictly speaking, directly involve the Trident missiles or their warheads but the Vanguard class submarines carrying them. As noted by an observer, “The same Trident 2 D5 missiles currently in service will continue to be used at least out to 2042, so it is most definitely not a matter of replacing Trident. The warheads are also good out to 2032 at least, as they are subject to a life extension programme which brings them to MK4A standard” but “The four Vanguard submarines, on the other hand, can no longer be life extended safely and effectively. Their useful life has already been stretched and the first of the class is now due to soldier on until 2028, but it is assessed that extending further is not desirable.”

Nuclear Deterrence: Still Needed?

The first question to answer when considering the future of Trident is whether the concept of nuclear deterrence is still current or has become obsolete. A second question is whether a country needs to be a nuclear weapons state in order to be a top diplomatic power. Third, we have the relationship between nuclear and non-nuclear defence, and more precisely whether nuclear weapons are necessary to wage conventional or asymmetric war.

As discussed later, an affirmative answer to these questions does not automatically mean we should support Trident, since other nuclear alternatives exist, but should we answer them in the negative then it would be logical to defend Trident’s end.

Nuclear-themed pin-up. Ever since its invention, the bomb has had a contradictory place in popular culture, as a harbinger of both Armageddon and supreme power.

With regard to the first question, as long as other powers sport their own nuclear forces, and even more so if tensions or significant conflicts persist with some such powers, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it is indeed necessary for the UK to retain her own nuclear deterrent. Terminating it would mean that the country may become the victim of nuclear blackmail. It is true that the UK may seek to rely on extended deterrence (also known as the “nuclear umbrella”) by the United States, but this would mean outsourcing national security, with the corresponding loss of power and influence on the one hand, and the risk that American authorities may not be ready (or may be perceived by a potential aggressor as not being ready) to risk American lives to preserve British ones. Some observers in Japan, which relies on US extended deterrence, have often posed the question whether America would be willing to “trade LA for Tokyo,” and as noted by a Congressional Research Service paper “Since the threat of nuclear attack developed during the Cold War, Japan has been included under the U.S. ‘nuclear umbrella,’ although some ambiguity exists about whether the United States is committed to respond with nuclear weapons in the event of a nuclear attack on Japan.” A similar question could be asked with regard to London, Manchester, or Birmingham.

Furthermore, it should be noted from a financial and industrial perspective that relying on extended deterrence may also directly or indirectly lead to the UK shouldering part of the cost of providing that protection, without the industrial benefits from having a national system. This may be another consideration against the nuclear umbrella as opposed to an independent deterrent.

It must be noted, though, that some observers doubt the value of a nuclear deterrent, and furthermore point at recent history as evidence that money should best be spent elsewhere. For example, writing for RUSI, Hugh Beach argues that “It cannot be shown that by virtue of its UK nuclear arsenal, Britain has been able to take any action vis-à-vis another country that it could not otherwise have undertaken, nor prevented action by any other country that it could not otherwise have prevented. British nuclear weapons did not deter Argentina from attempting to annex the Falkland Islands in 1982,” a line of thought that he extends to other nuclear powers.

The Gap between the UK’s Nuclear and Conventional Posture

In connection with the above, we should mention that, as noted by RUSI’s Malcolm Chalmers, British conventional and nuclear defence policy may be seen as out of step. The former is based on the assumption that no state conflict involving the homeland is foreseeable, whereas the latter is posited on the opposite assumption. Chalmers wrote “Discussion of options for conventional capability in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) is based on the assumption that the UK homeland does not face a significant threat of attack by other states. Nor, it is assumed, could one emerge without an extended period of strategic warning. While the UK plans to maintain and improve capabilities for a range of national tasks, including strategic intelligence, counter-terrorism, counter-cyber, and defence of dependent territories, these tasks do not include defence of the UK against military attack by other states. The main focus of conventional force planning, accordingly, is now on the appropriate size and shape of the UK’s contribution to collective capabilities for intervention and stabilisation in other parts of the world. By contrast, the commitment to maintain a nuclear-armed missile submarine on patrol at all times (i.e., CASD) has remained largely unchanged since the 1960s, when a surprise attack on Western Europe by the Soviet Union was a central driver for UK force planning.” Although this different posture is clearly in place and can be observed in the respective doctrinal documents, we should be careful before reaching any rushed conclusions. We should also be careful before imagining that the solution to the Trident debate is to put nuclear policy in line with conventional doctrine and forego or downgrade the British deterrent. Possibly because it is conventional doctrine that needs an in-depth review in a more realistic direction. Second, because there may not be, as discussed later, a gulf between conventional and non-conventional defence, but rather a continuous spectrum. In other words, any cuts in nuclear capabilities or credibility may have a negative impact on conventional deterrence and the ability to wage conventional, unconventional, and hybrid war.

In our second part, we shall first examine the impact of nuclear weapons on a country’s hard and soft power, and then proceed to discuss “Hybrid warfare” under a nuclear umbrella. While this term has become a buzzword, it is often examined without taking into account its non-conventional dimension, thus failing to capture its complexity. We shall also cover Trident’s opportunity cost and, as some opponents argue, whether it may constitute an obstacle for British conventional rearmament. This second installment concludes with a look at the connection between Trident and, on the one hand, the “special relationship” between London and Washington, and, on the other, the UK’s place within the European Union, the subject of a referendum on 23 June.

Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University, Japan, focuses on security and defense policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his papers can be found here. Previous work on British nuclear policy includes A. Calvo and O. Olsen, “Defending the Falklands: A role for nuclear weapons?” Strife Blog, 29 July 2014, available here.

Declassified: US Nuclear Weapons At Sea

This piece was originally published by the Federation of American Scientists.  It is republished here with the author’s permission.  Read it in its original form here.

By Hans M. Kristensen

ASROC nuclear test.
ASROC nuclear test.

Remember during the Cold War when US Navy warships and attack submarines sailed the World’s oceans bristling with nuclear weapons and routinely violated non-nuclear countries’ bans against nuclear weapons on their territories in peacetime?

The weapons were onboard ballistic missile submarines, attack submarines, aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, frigates and supply ships. The weapons were brought along on naval exercises, spy missions, freedom of navigation demonstrations and port visits.

Sometimes the vessels they were on collided, ran aground, caught fire, or sank.

Not many remember today. But now the Pentagon has declassified how many nuclear weapons they actually deployed in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean. In our latest FAS Nuclear Notebook published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists we review this unique new set of declassified Cold War nuclear history. 

The Numbers

The declassified documents show that the United States during much of the 1970s and the 1980s deployed about a quarter of its entire nuclear weapons stockpile at sea. The all-time high was in 1975 when 6,191 weapons were afloat, but even in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were 5,716 weapons at sea. That’s more nuclear weapons than the size of the entire US nuclear stockpile today.

The declassified data provides detailed breakdowns for weapons in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean for the 30-year period between 1961 and 1991. Prior to 1961 only totals are provided. Except for three years (1962, 1965 and 1966), most weapons were always deployed in the Atlantic, a reflection of the focus on defending NATO against the Soviet Union. When adding the weapons in the Mediterranean, the Euro-centric nature of the US nuclear posture during the Cold War becomes even more striking. The number of weapons deployed in the Pacific peaked much later, in 1987, at 2,085 weapons.

Click to view full size

The declassified numbers end in 1991 with the offloading of non-strategic naval nuclear weapons from US Navy vessels. After that only strategic missile submarines (SSBNs) have continued to deploy with nuclear weapons on board. Those numbers are still secret.

In the table above we have incorporated our estimates for the number of nuclear warhead deployed on US ballistic missile submarines since 1991. Those estimates show that afloat weapons increased during the 1990s as more Ohio-class SSBNs entered the fleet.

Because the total stockpile decreased significantly in the early 1990s, the percentage of it that was deployed at sea grew until it reached an all-time high of nearly 33 percent in 2000. Retirement of four SSBNs, changes to strategic war plans, and the effect of arms control agreements have since reduced the number of nuclear weapons deployed at sea to just over 1,000 in 2015. That corresponds to nearly 22 percent of the stockpile deployed at sea.

The just over 1,000 afloat warheads today may be less than during the Cold War, but it is roughly equivalent to the nuclear weapons stockpiles of Britain, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea combined.

Mediterranean Mystery

The declassification documents do not explain how the numbers are broken down. The “Atlantic,” “Pacific,” and “Mediterranean” regions are not the only areas where the U.S. Navy sent nuclear-armed warships. Afloat weapons in the Indian and Arctic oceans, for example, are not listed even though nuclear-armed warships sailed in both oceans. Similarly, the declassified documents show the number of afloat weapons in the Mediterranean suddenly dropping to zero in 1987, even though the U.S. Navy continued so deploy nuclear-armed vessels into the Mediterranean Sea.

During the naval deployments in support of Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in early 1991, for example, the aircraft carrier USS America (CV-66) deployed with its nuclear weapons division (W Division) and B61 nuclear strike bombs and B57 nuclear depth bombs. The W Division was still onboard when America deployed to Northern Europe and the Mediterranean in 1992 but had been disbanded by the time it deployed to the Mediterranean in 1993.

B61 and B57 nuclear weapons are displayed on board the USS America (CV-66) during its deployment to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The nuclear division was also onboard in 1992 but gone in 1993.
B61 and B57 nuclear weapons are displayed on board the USS America (CV-66) during its deployment to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The nuclear division was also onboard in 1992 but gone in 1993.

As ships offloaded their weapons, the on-board nuclear divisions gradually were disbanded in anticipation of the upcoming de-nuclearization of the surface fleet. One of the last carriers to deploy with a W Division was the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), which upon its return to the United States from a Mediterranean deployment in 1992-1993 ceremoniously photographed the W crew with the sign: “USS John F. Kennedy, CV 67, last W-Division, 17 Feb. 93.” The following year, the Clinton administration publicly announced that all carriers and surface ships would be denuclearized.

The last nuclear weapons division on the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) is disbanded in February 1993. The following year the entire surface fleet was denuclearized.

Since nuclear weapons clearly deployed to the Mediterranean Sea after the declassified documents showing zero afloat nuclear weapons in the area, perhaps the three categories “Atlantic,” “Pacific,” and “Mediterranean” refer to overall military organization: “Atlantic” might be weapons under the command of the Atlantic Fleet (LANTFLT); “Pacific” might refer to the Pacific Fleet (PACFLT); and “Mediterranean” might refer to the Sixth Fleet. Yet I’m not convinced that organization is the whole story; the Atlantic numbers didn’t suddenly increase when the Mediterranean numbers dropped to zero.

The declassified afloat numbers end in 1991. After that year the only nuclear weapons deployed at sea have been strategic weapons onboard ballistic missile submarines. Most of those deploy in the Atlantic and Pacific but have occasionally deployed into the Mediterranean even after the declassified documents list zero afloat weapons in that region, and even after the surface fleet was denuclearized.

In 1999, for example, the ballistic missile submarine USS Louisiana (SSBN-743) conducted a port visit to Souda Bay on Crete with it load of 24 Trident missiles and an estimated 192 warheads. The ship’s Command History states that the port visit, which took place December 12-16, 1999, occurred during the “Alert Strategic Deterrent Patrol in support of national tasking” that included a “Mediterranean Sea Patrol.”

Risks of Nuclear Accidents


Deploying nuclear weapons on ships and submarines created unique risks of accidents and incidents. Because warships sometimes collide, catch fire, or even sink, it was only a matter of time before the nuclear weapons they carried were threatened, damaged, or lost. This really happened.

During night air exercises on November 22, 1975, for example, the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) and cruiser USS Belknap (CG-26) collided in rough seas 112 kilometers (70 miles) east of Sicily. The carrier’s flight deck cuts into the superstructure of the Belknap setting off fires on the cruiser, which burned out of control for two-and-one-half hours. The commander of Carrier Striking Force for the U.S. Sixth Fleet on board the Kennedy issues a Broken Arrow alert to higher commands stating there was a “high probability that nuclear weapons (W45 Terrier missile warheads) on the Belknap were involved in fire and explosions.” Eventually the fire was stopped only a few meters from Belknap’s nuclear weapons magazine.

The fire-damaged USS Belknap (CG-26) after colliding with USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) new Sicily in 1975. The fire stopped a few meters from the nuclear warhead magazine.

The Kennedy also carried nuclear weapons, approximately 100 gravity bombs for delivery by aircraft. The carrier caught fire but luckily it was relatively quickly contained. Another carrier, the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), had been less fortunate six years earlier when operating 112 kilometers (70 miles) southwest of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A rocket on a F-4 Phantom aircraft exploded puncturing fuel tanks and starting violent fires that caused other rockets and bombs to explode. The explosions were so violent that they tore holes in the carrier’s solid steel deck and engulfed the entire back of the ship. The captain later said: “If the fire had spread to the hangar deck [below], we could have very easily lost the ship.” The Enterprise probably carried about 100 nuclear bombs and was powered by eight nuclear reactors.

The nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered USS Enterprise (CVN-65) burns off Hawaii on January 14, 1969. The carrier could have been lost, the captain said.

Dozens of nuclear weapons were lost at sea over the decades because they were on ships, submarines, or aircraft that were lost. On December 5, 1965, for example, while underway from operations off Vietnam to Yokosuka in Japan, an A-4E aircraft loaded with one B43 nuclear weapon rolled overboard from the Number 2 Elevator. The aircraft sank with the pilot and the bomb in 2,700 fathoms (4,940 meters) of water. The bomb has never been recovered. The Department of Defense reported the accident took place “more than 500 miles [805 kilometers] from land” when it revealed the accident in 1981. But Navy documents showed the accident occurred about 80 miles (129 kilometers) east of the Japanese Ryukyu Island chain, approximately 250 miles (402 kilometers) south of Kyushu Island, Japan, and about 200 miles (322 kilometers) east of Okinawa. Japan’s public policy and law prohibit nuclear weapons. (For a video if B43 aircraft carrier handling and A-4 loading, see this video.)

An A-4 Skyhawk with a B43 nuclear bomb under its belly rises on an elevator from the hangar deck to the flight deck on the USS Independence (CV-62) in an undated US Navy photo. In December 1965, a B43 attached to an A-4 rolled off the elevator on the USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) while the carrier was on its way to Yokosuka in Japan.

Three years later, on May 27, 1968, the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Scorpion (SSN-589) suffered an accident and sank with all 99 men on board in the Atlantic Ocean approximately 644 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of the Azores. The Department of Defense in 1981 mentioned a nuclear weapons accident occurred in the Atlantic in the spring of 1968 but continues to classify the details. It is thought that two nuclear ASTOR torpedoes were on board the Scorpion when it sank.

The USS Scorpion (SSN-589) photographed in the Mediterranean Sea in April 1968, one month before it sank in the Atlantic Ocean. The Navy later located and photographed the wreck (inserts).

Risks of Nuclear Incidents

Another kind of risk was that nuclear weapons on board US warships could become involved in offensive maneuvers near Soviet warships that also carried nuclear weapons. Sometimes those nuclear-armed vessels collided – sometimes deliberately. Other times they were trapped in stressful situation. The presence of nuclear weapons could significantly increase the stakes and symbolism of the incidents and escalate a crisis.

Some of the most dramatic incidents happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 where crisis-stressed personnel on Soviet nuclear-armed submarines readied nuclear weapons for actual use as they were being hunted by US naval forces, many of which were also nuclear-armed. At the time there were approximately 750 U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in the Atlantic Ocean.

Less serious but nonetheless potentially dangerous incidents continued throughout the Cold War. In May 1974 the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Pintado (SSN-672) collided almost head-on with a Soviet Yankee I-class ballistic missile submarine while cruising 200 feet (60 meters) below the surface in the approaches to the Petropavlovsk naval base on the Kamchatka Peninsula. The collision smashed much Pintado’s bow sonar, jammed shut a starboard side torpedo hatch, and damaged the diving plane. The Pintado, which probably carried 4-6 nuclear SUBROC missiles, sailed to Guam for seven weeks of repairs. The Soviet submarine, which probably carried its complement of 16 SS-N-6 ballistic missiles with 32 nuclear warheads, surfaced immediately and presumably limped back to port.


On August 22, 1976, for example, US anti-submarine forces in the Atlantic and Mediterranean had been tracking a Soviet nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed Echo II-class attack submarine for ten days. The Soviet sub partially surfaced alongside the US frigate USS Voge (FF-1047), then turned right and ran into the frigate. The collision tore off part the Voge’s propeller and punctured the hull. The Voge is thought to have carried nuclear ASROC anti-submarine rockets. At the time there were around 430 U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in the Mediterranean Sea. The Soviet submarine suffered serious damage to its sail and some to its front hull section. (For a US account of the incident, see here; a Russian account is here.)

Even toward the very end of the Cold War in the late-1980s, nuclear-capable warships continued to get involved in serious incidents at sea. During a Freedom of Navigation exercise in the Black Sea on February 12, 1988, the cruiser USS Yorktown (CG-48) and destroyer USS Caron (DD-970) were bumped by a Soviet Krivak-class frigate and a Mirka-class frigate, respectively. Both U.S. ships were equipped to carry the nuclear-capable ASROC missile and the Caron had completed a series of nuclear certification inspections prior to its departure from the United States. Yet the W44 warhead for the ASROC was in the process of being phased out and it is possible that the vessels did not carry nuclear warheads during the incident. The declassified data shows that the number of U.S. nuclear weapons in the Mediterranean dropped to zero in 1987. The Soviet Krivak frigate, however, probably carried nuclear anti-submarine weapons at the time of the collision.

The nuclear-capable USS Caron (DD-970) and USS Yorktown (CG-48) are bumped by Soviet frigates during Freedom of Navigation operations inside Soviet territorial waters on February 12, 1988. For a video of the Caron collision, see here, and the Yorktown collision, see here.

Nuclear Diplomacy Headaches

In addition to the risks created by accidents and incidents, nuclear-armed warships were a constant diplomatic headache during the Cold War. Many U.S. allies and other countries did not allow nuclear weapons on their territory in peacetime but the United States insisted that it would neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons anywhere. So good-will port visits by nuclear-armed warships instead turned into diplomatic nightmares as protesters battled what they considered blatant violations of the nuclear ban.

The port visit protests were endless, happening in countries all over the world. The national governments were forced to walk a fine line between their official public anti-nuclear policies and the secret political arrangements that allowed the weapons in anyway.

Public sentiments were particularly strong in Japan because it was the target of two nuclear weapon attacks in 1945. Japanese law banned the presence of nuclear weapons on its territory and required consultation prior to introduction, but the governments secretly accepted nuclear weapons in Japanese ports.

During the 1970s and early-1980s, opposition to nuclear ship visits grew in New Zealand and in 1984 culminating in the David Lange government banning visits by nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed vessels. The Reagan administration reacted angrily by ending defense cooperation with New Zealand under the ANZUS alliance. Only much later, during the Obama administration, have defense relations been restored.

The nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed attack submarine USS Haddo (SSN-604) is barraged by protestors during a port visit to Oakland in New Zealand in 1979.

The treatment of New Zealand was partially intended to deter other more important allies in Europe from adopting similar anti-nuclear legislation. But not surprisingly, the efforts backfired and instead increased opposition. In Denmark the growing evidence that nuclear weapons were actually being brought into Danish harbors despite its clear prohibition soon created political pressure to tighten up the ban. In 1988, this came to a head when a majority in the parliament adopted a resolution requiring the government to inform visiting warships of Denmark’s ban. The procedure did not require the captain to reveal whether his ship carried nuclear weapons, but the conservative government called an election and asked the United States to express its concern.

The crew of the nuclear-armed destroyer USS Conyngham (DDG-17) uses high-pressure hoses to wash anti-nuclear protestors off its anchor chain during a standoff in Aalborg, Denmark, in 1988.

Across the Danish Straits in Sweden, the growing evidence that non-nuclear policies were violated in 1990 resulted in the government party deciding to begin to reinforce Sweden’s nuclear ban. The policy would essentially have created a New Zealand situation in Europe, a political situation that was a direct threat to the US Navy sailing its nuclear warships anyway it wanted.

These diplomatic battles over naval nuclear weapons were so significant that many US officials gradually began to wonder if nuclear weapons at sea were creating more trouble than good.

After The Big Nuke Offload

Finally, on September 27, 1991, President George H.W. Bush announced during a prime-time televised address that the United States would unilaterally offload all non-strategic nuclear weapons from its naval forces, bring all those weapons home, and destroy many of them. Warships would immediately stop loading nuclear weapons when sailing on overseas deployments and deployed vessels would offload their weapons as they rotated back to the United States. The offload was completed in mid-1992.

Two years later, the Clinton administration’s 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, decided that all surface ships would lose the capability to launch nuclear weapons. Only selected attack submarines would retain the capability to fire the nuclear Tomahawk land-attack sea-launched cruise missile (TLAM/N), but the weapons would be stored on land. Sixteen years later, in 2010, the Obama administration decided to retire the TLAM/N as well, ending decades of nuclear weapons deployments on ships, attack submarines, and on land-based naval air bases.

After the summer of 1992, only strategic submarines armed with long-range ballistic missiles have carried U.S. nuclear weapons at sea, a practice that is planned to continue through at least through the 2080s. These strategic submarines (SSBNs) have also been involved in accidents and incidents, risks that will continue as long as nuclear weapons are deployed at sea. Because secrecy is so much tighter for SSBN operations than for general naval forces, most accidents and incidents involving SSBNs probably escape public scrutiny. But a few reports, mainly collisions and groundings, have reached the public over the years.

USS Von Steuben (SSBN-632) after collision with tanker Sealady.

During a strategic deterrent patrol on August 9, 1968, the USS Von Steuben (SSBN-632) was struck by a submerged tow cable while operating submerged about 40 miles (64 kilometers) off the southern coast of Spain. As it surfaces, the submarine collides with the tanker Sealady, suffering damage to the superstructure and main deck (see image right). The submarine carried 16 Polaris A3 ballistic missiles with 48 nuclear warheads.

Two years later, on November 29, 1970, a fire breaks out onboard the nuclear submarine tender USS Canopus (AS-34) at the Holy Loch submarine base in Scotland. Two nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (USS Francis Scott Key (SSBN-657) and USS James K. Polk (SSBN-645)) were moored alongside Canapus. The Francis Scott Key cast off, but the Polk remained alongside. The fire burns out of control for four hours killing three men. The submarine tender carried nuclear missiles and warheads and the two submarines combined carried 32 Polaris A3 ballistic missiles with a total of 96 nuclear warheads.

Four years later, in November 1974, after having departed from its base at Holy Loch in Scotland, the ballistic missile submarine USS James Madison (SSBN-627) collides with a Soviet submarine in the North Sea. The collision left a nine-foot scrape in the Madison, which apparently dove onto the Soviet submarine, thought to have been a Victor-class nuclear-powered attack submarine. The Madison carried 16 Poseidon (C3) ballistic missiles with 160 nuclear warheads. The Soviet submarines probably carried nuclear rockets and torpedoes. Madison crew members called the incident The Victor Crash. Two days after the collision, the Madison enters dry dock at Holy Loch for a week of inspection and repairs.

The missile submarine USS James Madison (SSBN-627) in dry dock in Scotland in 1974 only days after it collided with a Soviet Victor-class nuclear-powered attack submarine in the North Sea.

After nuclear weapons were offloaded from surface ships and attack submarines in 1991-1992, nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines have continued to run aground or bump into other vessels from time to time.

On September 24, 1993, for example, after conducting a medical evacuation for a suck crew member, the ballistic missile submarine USS Maryland (SSBN-738) ran aground at Port Canaveral, Florida. The submarine was on a strategic deterrent patrol with 24 missiles onboard carrying an estimated 192 warheads. The Maryland eventually pulled free and continued the patrol two days later.

On March 19, 1998, while operating on the surface 125 miles (200 kilometers) off Long Island, New York, the ballistic missile submarine USS Kentucky (SSBN-737) was struck by the attack submarine USS San Juan (SSN-751). The Kentucky suffered damaged to its rudder and San Juan’s forward ballast tank was ruptured. In a typical display of silly secrecy, the Navy refused to say whether the Kentucky carried nuclear weapons. But it did; the Kentucky was in the middle of its 21st strategic deterrent patrol and carried its complement of 24 Trident II missiles with an estimated 192 nuclear warheads.

In 1998, the USS Kentucky (SSBN-737) carrying nearly 200 nuclear warheads collided with an attack submarine less than 230 miles (378 kilometers) from New York City.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The Obama administration has made an important contribution to nuclear policy by declassifying the documents with official numbers of US nuclear weapons deployed at sea during the Cold War. This adds an important chapter to the growing pool of declassified information about the history of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The new declassified information helps us better understand the extent to which nuclear weapons were involved in day-to-day operations around the world. Every day, nuclear-armed warships of the US and Soviet navies were rubbing up against each other on the high seas in gong-ho displays of national determination. Some saw it as necessary for nuclear deterrence; others as dangerous nuclear brinkmanship. Many of those who were on the ships submarines still get goosebumps when they talk about it and wonder how we survived the Cold War. The tactical naval nuclear weapons were considered more acceptable to use early in a conflict because there would be few civilian casualties. But any use would probably quickly have escalated into large-scale nuclear war and the end of the world as we know it.

The declassified information, when correlated with the many accidents and incidents that nuclear-armed ships and submarines were involved in over the years, also helps us remember a key lesson about nuclear weapons: when they are operationally deployed they will sooner or later be involved in accidents and incidents.

This is not just a Cold War lesson: thousands of nuclear weapons are still operationally deployed on ballistic missile submarines, on land-based ballistic missiles, and on bomber bases. And not just in the United States but also in Britain, France, and Russia. Some of those deployed weapons will have accidents in the future. (See here for the most recent)

Moreover, growing tensions with Russia and China now make some ask if the United States needs to increase the role of its nuclear weapons and once again equip aircraft carriers with the capability to deliver nuclear bombs and once again develop and deploy nuclear land-attack sea-launched cruise missiles on attack submarines.

Doing so would be to roll back the clock and ignore the lessons of the Cold War and likely make the current tensions worse than they already are.

Instead, the United States should seek to work with Russia – even though it is challenging right now – to reduce deployed nuclear weapons and jointly try to persuade smaller nuclear-armed countries such as China, India, and Pakistan from increasing the operational readiness of their nuclear forces. That ought to be one thing Russia and the United States could actually agree on.

Background information:

Hans M. Kristensen is the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists where he provides the public with analysis and background information about the status of nuclear forces and the role of nuclear weapons.

The research for this publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation, and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

Chinese Thinking on Nuclear Weapons

This article was originally posted by Arms Control Today. It is republished here with the author’s permission.  Read it in its original form here.

By Li Bin

Chinese nuclear experts began to join international nuclear dialogues in the late 1970s when China launched its policy of reform and openness. Their communications with U.S. nuclear experts are sometimes difficult and inefficient, in part because of differences in the ways that Americans and Chinese think about nuclear weapons.

One aspect of this divergence is terminology. Some international efforts have been undertaken to develop a common language among nuclear experts from different countries by compiling multi-language nuclear glossaries.1 These glossaries are a useful first step to smoothen international communication on nuclear issues, but they are not enough to eliminate misunderstandings caused by divergent beliefs and analytical paradigms.

This article summarizes the findings of a project by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Chinese nuclear thinking.2 The project aims to promote an effective and efficient dialogue between Chinese and U.S. nuclear experts by developing each side’s understandings of the other side’s thinking on nuclear weapons.


Several important security concepts have very different meanings in China and the United States. The differences are rooted in philosophical, historical, and cultural contexts and cannot be clarified simply by translating one side’s words into the language of other.

The word “security” itself is difficult to translate in Chinese. In English, security generally is about avoiding damage caused by intended human attacks while “safety” is about avoiding damage caused by accidents or natural disasters. In Chinese, the word “anquan” refers to the avoidance of damage from any cause and thus encompasses the meanings of “security” and “safety” in English.

The assumption in the English-speaking world is that security and safety issues are distinguishable. In China the assumption is that security and safety issues are sometimes tangled with each other and should be addressed in an integrated way. This Chinese thinking is based on a holistic philosophy and is now called the “comprehensive security concept” or “comprehensive security theory.”

At its first meeting, in April 2014, the Chinese Council of State Security, which is analogous to the U.S. National Security Council, announced 11 important security issues that it would address, most of which are nonmilitary issues.4 According to China’s comprehensive security theory, military and nonmilitary security issues are at the same level of importance and should be managed synergistically.

In the trade-off between the military power and the safety of nuclear weapons, the comprehensive security theory allows China to optimize its nuclear weapon systems in a more comprehensive framework. This can explain why China chooses to keep its nuclear weapons at a low level of alert. A higher level might strengthen the deterrent power of Chinese nuclear forces, but it also increases the risk of accidental launch and other safety problems. A “purely military viewpoint” that optimizes a weapons system only with regard to its military effects has long been criticized as unwise by the leaders of the People’s Liberation Army.

China also has a very different understanding of the concept of nuclear deterrence.5 For a long time, Chinese and U.S. nuclear experts have had communication problems in their exchanges about the concept. The Americans generally believe that nuclear deterrence is a defensive posture while the Chinese criticize the offensive nature of nuclear deterrence.

According to the U.S. understanding, both deterrence and compellence are considered coercion. Nuclear deterrence is to force an adversary to give up an action by threatening to use nuclear weapons while nuclear compellence is to force the adversary to take an action.6 The belief of the U.S. strategic community is that nuclear deterrence and compellence are distinguishable. If a coercive action is intended to change the status quo, it is compellence; otherwise, it is deterrence. The definition works well when it describes a coercive behavior in an isolated, large international conflict. For example, in this school of thought, if a country relies on the existence of its nuclear weapons to prevent a nuclear attack from its rival, it is an example of nuclear deterrence. On the other hand, if a country uses the influence of its nuclear weapons to occupy a large piece of its rival’s territory, that is nuclear coercion.

Many international conflicts, however, are small, and many large conflicts begin as small ones. In many small conflicts, it is very difficult to determine which country changed the status quo first. If a country wants to exploit its nuclear weapons in a small conflict or in an escalation of a small conflict into a larger one, it would be very difficult to distinguish compellence from deterrence. A country could launch a conventional attack against its adversary and use its possession of nuclear weapons to dissuade a conventional counterattack. In this case, nuclear weapons seem to play a deterrent role if one looks at only the second step in conflict. Yet, one could argue that nuclear weapons play a compellent role in the context of the whole process. The Chinese believe that nuclear deterrence and compellence are not distinguishable if the influence of nuclear weapons is applied to small conflicts or the escalation of such conflicts.

The Chinese translation of “deterrence” is “weishe,” but “weishe” actually means “coercion” in Chinese. This is not a translation error. It comes from the Chinese philosophy of holism. The Chinese worry about the compellent effects that are naturally associated with some policies that are labeled as “nuclear deterrence.” A nuclear policy reserving the possibility of using nuclear weapons in response to conventional conflicts could encourage and support conventional aggression aiming to change the status quo. Such a policy actually represents nuclear compellence rather than deterrence. If nuclear weapons were used only in retaliation for nuclear attacks, the compellent roles of these weapons would be significantly reduced. This is why the Chinese government criticizes “nuclear deterrence based on first use of nuclear weapons.”

An arms race could be driven by concerns about a weakening of national security or influence in one side or in both sides of a pair of adversaries. If each of two rivals wants more nuclear weapons to better protect itself against attacks from the other side, this is an arms race due to the security dilemma. If each side wants more nuclear weapons to support its bid for leadership in the world, this is an arms race for hegemony. When Americans talk about an arms race, it is usually about the security dilemma; when the Chinese talk about an arms race, it is always about global hegemony. In Chinese eyes, the nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War was driven mainly by the two countries’ ambitions for global hegemony.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and U.S. President Barack Obama participate in an arrival ceremony for Xi at the White House on September 25. (Photo credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and U.S. President Barack Obama participate in an arrival ceremony for Xi at the White House on September 25. (Photo credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

When China explains its self-constraint with regard to the growth of its nuclear weapons stockpile, it always pledges that it will not engage in an arms race with other countries. By that, China means that it will not seek to amass a large nuclear arsenal for the purpose of global hegemony.

Yet, if China sees the development of new strategic capabilities in other countries undermining its nuclear retaliatory capability, it certainly will consider the option of deploying more nuclear weapons. For example, one option for China to respond to growing U.S. missile defense capabilities is to develop more offensive missiles. If such a quantitative missile competition took place between China and the United States, it would be an arms race due to a security dilemma. The Chinese commitment rules out a strategy of nuclear growth for global hegemony, but it does not exclude a strategy of nuclear growth to respond to a security dilemma.

The two types of arms races mentioned above are different in their natures. An arms race for global hegemony always includes quantitative competitions. A country that has the goal of global hegemony cannot accept a larger strategic nuclear arsenal in any other country. In contrast, an arms race due to the security dilemma does not have to include quantitative competition. A small and survivable nuclear force is enough for the purpose of security.

This is why China feels comfortable with the small size of its nuclear arsenal. Its responses to new strategic capabilities in other countries do not have to involve an increase in the size of the arsenal if available countermeasures are smart and cheap. Chinese nuclear experts worry about new strategic capabilities in the United States, including missile defense and the ability to deliver precision conventional strikes, but the choices of countermeasures are still open. One option for China is a moderate increase in the number of its offensive missiles to compensate for the loss of its nuclear retaliatory capability, but Beijing has pledged not to pursue quantitative nuclear parity with United States for the purpose of hegemony.


In the United States, security analysis follows a basic paradigm, which is to identify and assess the threat to U.S. national security. A national security threat is usually an outside enemy that could hurt the United States; the threat is measured by the capability and intention of the enemy. If an enemy has a strong capability and an intention to hurt United States, it is regarded as a significant threat. Advocates of a change in security policy usually need to establish that an outside enemy has the capability and intention to hurt the United States.

The security paradigm measuring the capability and intention of an enemy is straightforward and transparent, so it is popular in the United States and is widely accepted by scholars in other countries, including some Chinese scholars and students. The paradigm is believed to be the only basis for security analysis. Very few people notice that there is a different indigenous Chinese security paradigm.8

The indigenous Chinese security paradigm emphasizes national security challenges instead of national security threats. A national security challenge is a dangerous situation in which China is vulnerable. Because of the influences of the U.S. security paradigm, Chinese security documents always use the phrase “national security challenges and threats.” In national defense “white papers” issued by the Chinese government in recent years, almost all cases of “national security challenges and threats” are situations rather than enemies. For example, one security challenge identified by a 2008 paper is the situation of technical lagging, in which “China is faced with the superiority of the developed countries” in economic, science and technology, and military affairs.

In the U.S. security paradigm, national security threats are usually outside the United States. In the Chinese security paradigm, the origins and effects of national security challenges could be inside China. For example, the situation of technical lagging may be caused by quick development of a particular technology in foreign countries and slow progress in China. In the U.S. security paradigm, security threats are mostly military threats while in the Chinese security paradigm, security challenges include military and nonmilitary factors.

Although some Chinese scholars and students have begun to use the U.S. security paradigm in academic research, the Chinese paradigm still dominates security policy research. Some Chinese nuclear policies and views cannot be explained by the U.S. security paradigm. For example, Chinese security experts expressed their concerns over the U.S. project on an earth-penetrating nuclear warhead during the George W. Bush administration. The small project would have brought very little new capability to the United States, and its declared purpose was to attack deeply buried targets in proliferator countries. Under the U.S. security paradigm, the Chinese should not have been worried about the project.

The Chinese security paradigm can well explain Beijing’s concern. A robust nuclear taboo against nuclear weapons use is favorable to China’s no-first-use policy and China’s security. Any development of this kind of tactical nuclear weapon would weaken the nuclear taboo and therefore increase the risk of nuclear weapons use.

As mentioned above, technical lagging is a dangerous situation and is regarded by the Chinese as a national security challenge. Many Chinese strategic and nuclear projects aim merely to master new defense technologies but not necessarily deploy them. A typical example is the Chinese effort on the neutron bomb. The purpose of the effort was to understand the technology. China decided not to deploy the neutron bomb because it is contrary to China’s no-first-use policy.

Another example is China’s response to U.S. national missile defense activities. The Chinese have two concerns in this area. The first concern is that the U.S. missile defenses may weaken China’s nuclear retaliatory capability. Because the concern can be well explained by the Chinese and U.S. security paradigms, it is easy for Chinese and U.S. security experts to have bilateral discussions on it. The second Chinese concern is that U.S. missile defense development may lead to great scientific and technical breakthroughs in the United States and that it would enlarge the technical gap between the United States and China. According to the Chinese security paradigm, possible technical lagging in China would be a security challenge and should be avoided. The 863 Program, launched in China in 1986, was to address the concern. Unfortunately, the second concern cannot be explained by the U.S. security paradigm and has been ignored by all U.S.-Chinese nuclear dialogues.

In a broader area of national policy-making, the Chinese and U.S. ways of calculating national interests also are different. In the United States, it is very unusual to suggest that security interests should be sacrificed for economic interests. In China, economic and security interests are at the same level in the calculation of national interests, although some analyses may value one or the other highly. In Chinese debates on issues related to security and the economy, it is normal that security arguments yield to economic arguments. The economy-centered calculation on one hand encourages Chinese decision-makers to constrain China’s nuclear weapons development and, on the other hand, makes China cautious about nonproliferation sanctions, as illustrated by its attitude toward export controls in the 1980s and in the first half of the 1990s.


General Fang Fenghui (left), chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, introduces General Martin Dempsey (center), chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Chinese military officials in Beijing on April 20, 2013. (Photo credit: D. Myles Cullen/Defense Department)
General Fang Fenghui (left), chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, introduces General Martin Dempsey (center), chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Chinese military officials in Beijing on April 20, 2013. (Photo credit: D. Myles Cullen/Defense Department)

The Chinese have some approaches in nuclear policy that are different from those of the United States. The most noticeable approach is to keep the roles of nuclear and conventional weapons separate. The Chinese do not believe that nuclear weapons are usable and can help China in conventional wars. China always wants to avoid the influence of nuclear weapons on conventional weapons issues. It has a bilateral no-first-use agreement with Russia and never tries to use the influence of its nuclear weapons in its relations with India. The Chinese feel it is unreasonable to claim that Beijing would become more aggressive at the conventional level if its nuclear retaliatory capability became more credible. The approach of keeping the roles of nuclear and conventional weapons separate also allows China to maintain a small nuclear arsenal because it does not need a large nuclear arsenal for damage limitation in a first nuclear strike or reassuring allies as the United States does.

Many Chinese use the term “strategic stability” in a general way. They understand the term to refer to political trust and respect between countries. This is why the terms “strategic stability” and “strategic reassurance” are always associated with each other in U.S.-Chinese nuclear dialogues. In recent years, some Chinese experts, especially technical experts, have begun to use the Western definition of the term. Now the discussions between Chinese and U.S. security experts on the issue of strategic stability are sometimes on two different tracks. One track emphasizes the big picture of overall U.S.-Chinese relations while the other track pays attention to strategic force structures and related details. Some efforts are needed to make sure that the two tracks are not separated too widely.

The Chinese have an indigenous idea of strategic stability although they might not use that term. In China, there is a widespread belief that technical lagging would invite attacks. The belief accurately expresses the Chinese calculation in this area: deployed and non-deployed technologies are important in maintaining strategic stability. In the U.S. calculation of strategic stability, only technologies that a country is deploying or planning to deploy are considered. The logic is that only deployed systems ready to be launched contribute to the cost-benefit calculations for launching an attack in a crisis. The Chinese idea is that other countries would consider it a window of opportunity to attack their country if it does not have some important military technologies.

This is based on the painful experience that China first had when it was invaded by Western powers in 1839 during the First Opium War. If China has state-of-the-art military technologies available, it can move them into deployment when necessary. Chinese security experts always worry that U.S. military projects will lead to great scientific and technical breakthroughs in the United States, and U.S. security experts always worry that Chinese military projects will become deployed systems. These worries may cause overreactions by each country. Future U.S.-Chinese dialogues could consider including discussions on the Chinese indigenous approach to the calculation of strategic stability so that each country can better understand the intentions of the other.

China has had its preferred approach in nuclear disarmament since it acquired nuclear weapons. The approach includes two elements: The ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament is the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons in the world, and the best way to reduce the role of nuclear weapons is by constraining the use of nuclear weapons.

The nuclear-weapon states have had more in common with regard to the first element since President Barack Obama’s proposal for moving to a nuclear-weapon-free world, but they still differ on the route of nuclear disarmament. In recent years, China has been expending less of its diplomatic capital to press positions with which the other nuclear-weapon states do not agree and generally has become more realistic and cooperative on nuclear disarmament issues. For example, it took the lead in compiling the nuclear glossary and has joined discussions on the verification of deep nuclear reductions by the nuclear-weapon states.

Some aspects of Chinese nuclear policy have undergone significant changes in recent years. The most obvious changes are in transparency and nonproliferation.

In the area of nuclear transparency, the traditional Chinese views are that transparency with regard to intention is more important than transparency with regard to capability and that China’s small nuclear force needs to be protected by a higher level of secrecy. In recent years, China has begun to exhibit more nuclear transparency as Chinese society has become more and more open. Some nuclear information is presented in official documents or at public events, such as parades in which military systems are displayed. Some information is leaked to social media, a practice that the government now tolerates more than it has in the past. A system for regular publication of nuclear information has yet to be built in China.

China’s views on and approaches to nuclear nonproliferation also have undergone major changes in recent years. Before the reform in China, the Chinese felt embarrassed to criticize nuclear weapon programs in proliferator countries such as India because they saw that it was discriminatory to criticize other countries when China had a nuclear weapons program. After China launched the policy of reform in 1978, the Chinese viewed national economic interests as a whole as more important than national security interests. That is a main reason why China was very reluctant to join international sanctions and export control efforts against proliferation. Over the past two decades, the Chinese have come to take a more balanced view on economic and security interests, and China has become more active in nuclear nonproliferation. China now considers nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism to be serious challenges to its national security and is willing to invest in the efforts against these challenges.

The Chinese have their special understandings on some important nuclear terms and have a special paradigm in analyzing nuclear issues. In international dialogues on nuclear arms control, it is necessary to explain the logic and background of the Chinese nuclear thinking. Otherwise, communication among international nuclear experts would be difficult.

International society should pay attention to the special Chinese understandings on nuclear weapons. Experts from other countries should make greater efforts to explore Chinese security paradigms, nuclear terminology, and approaches to nuclear policy. Future international nuclear dialogues involving Chinese experts could include special sessions to address the differences between Chinese and U.S. nuclear thinking. These efforts could help clear suspicions between Chinese and U.S. nuclear experts in the strategic nuclear arena and thus avoid overreactions by both countries.

Li Bin is a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. 


1.  For international efforts by governmental organizations on glossaries, see P5 Working Group on the Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms, “P5 Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms,” China Atomic Energy Press, 2015. For international efforts by nongovernmental organizations, see Committee on the U.S.-Chinese Glossary of Nuclear Security Terms, English-Chinese, Chinese-English, Nuclear Security Glossary (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2008).

2.  The products of the project will be a book in Chinese and a book in English.  

3.  Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces,” April 16, 2013, http://www.china.org.cn/government/whitepaper/node_7181425.htm.

4.  Xinhua, “Xi Jinping: Adhere to the Comprehensive National Security Theory and Go Toward the Direction of National Security With Chinese Characteristics,” April 15, 2014, http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2014-04/15/c_1110253910.htm (in Chinese).

5.  For more on this issue, see Li Bin, “The Difference in the Chinese and American Understandings About ‘Nuclear Deterrence,’” World Economics and Politics, No. 2 (2014), pp. 1-18 (in Chinese with English abstract).

6.  Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), pp. 70-71.

7.  Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, “China: Arms Control and Disarmament,” November 1995, http://news.xinhuanet.com/zhengfu/2002-11/18/content_633187.htm.

8.  For more details on Chinese security paradigms, see Li Bin, “China and Global Nuclear Arms Control and Disarmament,” in The War That Must Never Be Fought: Dilemmas of Nuclear Deterrence, ed. George P. Shultz and James E. Goodby (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2015).

9.  Information Office of the State Council of
China, “China’s National Defense in 2008,” January 2009, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/2008DefenseWhitePaper_Jan2009.pdf.

10.  Hu Siyuan, “Nuclear Shadow Moving Around: U.S. Research on Nuclear Penetration Warhead,” March 25, 2004, http://www.china.com.cn/xxsb/txt/2004-04/15/content_5545602.htm (in Chinese).

11.  Office of Project 863, “Introduction to Project 863,” n.d., http://www.863.gov.cn/1/1/index.htm (in Chinese).

An Arctic Nuclear Weapon-​Free Zone: Can there be Cooperation Under the Counterforce Dilemma?

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The following piece is by Conference of Defense Associations Institute guest contributor Nancy Jane Teeple and can be found in its original form here.  It is republished with their permission.

The promise of stability-​enhancing and confidence-​building measures under the New START agreement is waning. Obama’s Prague Agenda and New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) signed between the United States and Russian Federation in Prague on 8 April 2010, hoped to see reductions in nuclear stockpiles and delivery systems by 2018 – an agreement made at a time of significantly reduced tensions between the former nuclear competitors. The renewal of tensions between the West and a revanchist Russia under President Putin, particularly apparent in the Ukraine crisis, threatens the longevity of arms control.

The possible results of this trend are worrisome. We could see the deterioration of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and any prospects for global disarmament enshrined in the Nuclear Non-​Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and promoted by groups like Ploughshares and the Nuclear Security Project. These conditions have implications for proposals for an Arctic nuclear weapon-​free zone (NWFZ) promoted by notable individuals from foundations such as the Canadian Pugwash Group, Gordon Foundation, and Science for Peace.

The fear of nuclear weapon use for the most part declined since the end of the Cold War. The reduction of tensions between the East and West encouraged bilateral arms control negotiations not seen since détente in the 1970s. The emergence of movements promoting a world without nuclear weapons reinforced notions that the nuclear era was over, and that remaining stockpiles had to be destroyed to prevent potential accidents. Not surprisingly, nuclear weapons are considered by many to be a relic of the Cold War.

However, following the rise of Putin, the emergence of asymmetric threats, and new near-​peer competitors such as China, the Bush administration withdrew from the Anti-​Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and pursued rapid modernization of the US nuclear triad in order to counter the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from rogue nations and terrorists. These actions reinvigorated the security dilemma between the US, on one side, and China and Russia, on the other, with the latter two viewing the development of offensive nuclear weapons systems as threatening – in so far as the development of counterforce capabilities geared towards targeting another state’s nuclear arsenal can be seen as both a challenge to their second-​strike capabilities and a repudiation of mutually assured deterrence. A new arms race ensued. Both China and Russia are modernizing their own nuclear arsenals, and Russia has ignited a new Cold War over the North with the renewal of long-​range

A Russian Tu-45 bomber seen during an interception in 2011. (Source: Crown Copyright, via IHS Jane's 360)
A Russian Tu-45 bomber seen during an interception in 2011. (Source: Crown Copyright, via IHS Jane’s 360)

bomber patrols near the airspace of NATO member Arctic states.

Geopolitically, the Arctic may become a region of military confrontation, particularly with the rapid militarization by the Arctic-​5 states (Canada, Norway, Denmark, Russia, and the United States), especially Russia, in enhancing their Arctic capabilities to defend economic interests in the region. In addition, although the United States, Russian, and NATO articulate an interest in reducing their nuclear arsenals and missions, they also reaffirm reliance on a credible deterrent capability so long as nuclear weapons are in the world.

This is the context within which global players must consider the feasibility of an Arctic NWFZ. Is such an initiative in the national interests of the United States and Russia? Would such a régime provide the stability needed for further cooperation on arms control and disarmament? What sort of role could smaller but influential states, such as Canada, play in encouraging bilateral negotiations to consider reducing nuclear forces in the Arctic? These are the questions that must guide any Arctic NWFZ initiative. Options must also be considered that involve compromises and concessions in order to minimize possible defections. What sort of agreement could find receptivity in both the United States and Russia?

An Arctic NWFZ must be tailored to the unique geographical and geopolitical character of the region and boundary options may not start out as comprehensive zones. Inclusion and exclusion zones involving the seabed, subsea, surface, and airspace must be considered. It might be prudent to explore provisions from existing NWFZs and other regional treaties banning nuclear weapons, such as the Antarctic Treaty, Seabed Treaty, and Outer Space Treaty. Limited geographical zones have been proposed, such as the Northwest Passage, which would open up opportunities either for resolution of the disputed status of the strait, or provide options for joint Canada-​US monitoring and enforcement.

Another option involves establishing an exclusion zone in

Source: US Geological Survey
Source: US Geological Survey

the Canadian Basin, located north of the Beaufort Sea. If Canada’s claim to the seabed that extends into the Basin is recognized by the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, Ottawa may be able to promote a NWFZ through administering its sovereign rights to protect the sea life by prohibiting nuclear-​carrying vessels that pose a threat to the environment.

In establishing an Arctic NWFZ régime that would be receptive to the US and Russia, a potential option has been proposed by experts at Pugwash. This would be a treaty to prevent nuclear weapons in the entire region above the Arctic Circle. In order to be strategically feasible, this option would have to be adapted to the counterforce postures of the US and Russia by allowing the continuation of nuclear deterrence operations, as well as the replacement of nuclear warheads with conventional alternatives.

The modernization of the US nuclear triad is already being adapted for conventional counterforce options on both ballistic missile and air delivery systems. Russia is also developing a hypersonic conventional delivery system – an answer to the US Conventional Prompt Global Strike program. Like the United States, Russia’s air and sea-​based deterrents can be outfitted with conventional warheads. This option acknowledges the reality that Russia’s Northern Fleet, which includes its ballistic missile submarines, is based mainly above the Arctic Circle. Russia would not likely be receptive to any arrangement that would restrict its sea-​based deterrent, placing it at a strategic disadvantage to the United States.

These options may have been possible before the spring of 2014. However, under current conditions getting the US and Russia to the negotiating table to consider new arms control agreements does not seem feasible. Relations between the US/​NATO and Russia can be characterized by Russia’s mistrust of NATO in Eastern Europe, accusations on both sides of violating the INF Treaty, Russia’s perception of the threat posed by US offensive counterforce weapons, Russia’s growing declaratory reliance on nuclear weapons, and the growing military and economic competition in the Arctic pitting Russia against the other Arctic states. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in early 2014, followed by military interventions in Ukraine’s eastern provinces of Donesk and Lukhansk, has intensified conditions of mutual mistrust, threat, and uncertainty.

Such conditions tend to militate against the potential for an Arctic NWFZ and must be mitigated before the nuclear powers are likely to consider cooperation. Unfortunately, a new détente is very unlikely in the foreseeable future.

This article originally featured at the CDA Institute and can be found in its original form here.

Nancy Jane Teeple is a Doctoral Candidate in Political Science at Simon Fraser University. Her areas of study include nuclear strategy, arms control, Arctic security, and intelligence. (Featured image courtesy of Russian Defence Policy blog.)