A first step toward anti-nuclear advocacy is becoming aware of the current sprawling state of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his intention to deploy short-range nuclear missiles to Belarus in March, he pointed to U.S. nuclear weapons housed in five NATO nations as justification. Putin said the construction of a “special repository” for an Iskander missile complex in Belarus would not violate obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
But by accepting the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko would be reversing more than three decades free of nuclear weapons after it pledged to abandon them in 1991. Like Ukraine and Kazakhstan, Belarus gave up Soviet nuclear weapons shortly after the USSR broke apart.
In a statement, Daniel Högsta, acting executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) said, “As long as Putin has nuclear weapons, Europe cannot be safe.” He also warned that decades of “nuclear sharing” with NATO nations “helps give Putin cover,” posing a grave risk far beyond Europe.
ICAN has played a central role in advocating for the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which entered into force in 2021. Although 68 countries have ratified the treaty which prohibits all aspects of developing, possessing or threatening to use nuclear weapons, none of the nine nuclear-armed nations — Russia, the United States, China, France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea — recognizes the treaty.
According to the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project, the U.S. houses an estimated 100 B61 gravity bombs on air bases in five NATO nations (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey). Usually described as “tactical” or nonstrategic nuclear weapons, the new B61-12, which will replace older versions of the B61, has a selectable yield (energy released in a nuclear explosion) that can be adjusted from 0.3 to 50 kilotons. The atomic bombs which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki were 15 and 21 kilotons respectively.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said that describing a nuclear weapon as “tactical” may lead people to wrongly assume that such weapons are necessarily “smaller,” less destructive, and would be confined to a battlefield or limited geographic area.
That, he said, is a dangerous assumption. “If there were to be a use of nuclear weapons in a conflict involving nuclear-armed adversaries and it began as a handful of short-range nuclear detonations … there is absolutely no guarantee that that’s not going to lead to an exchange of nuclear weapons that could then lead to escalation to the strategic level involving an exchange of hundreds of intercontinental-range missiles,” Kimball told Truthout.
Considering the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe raises the question of where the United States’s other weapons are located. According to research by the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project, the United States maintains an estimated total inventory of 5,244 nuclear weapons, including reserve warheads and retired warheads awaiting dismantlement. Currently, 3,708 nuclear warheads make up the military stockpile (those weapons which could potentially be used in war).
Within the stockpile, the U.S. has 1,770 deployed nuclear warheads that make up the nuclear triad of air, land and sea-based bombs. Although some experts consider the terms “strategic” and “tactical” (or nonstrategic) in reference to nuclear weapons to be flawed or even obsolete, they continue to be used.
Under the Sea
Widely considered to be least vulnerable to attack are long-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). The United States has two Strategic Weapons Facilities, one for the Pacific beside Naval Base Kitsap in Bangor, Washington, 20 miles west of Seattle, and a second facility for the Atlantic at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia.
While the U.S. nuclear enterprise has widespread support by both Democrat and Republican members of Congress, one of the boldest shows of opposition to nuclear weapons was voiced by Michigan congresswoman Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who has expressed her support for the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Additional support for the prohibition of TPNW (also called the “ban treaty”) came from Massachusetts Rep. James McGovern and Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who introduced a resolution in 2019 calling for “the American people to work towards reducing and ultimately eliminating nuclear weapons.” Furthermore, in 2022, more than 200 U.S. mayors collectively called for the adoption of a timebound plan for the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
“This is an existential threat that demands engagement even with our worst adversaries and even with a bona fide war criminal like Vladimir Putin because our survival ultimately depends on it.”
Without dialogue and diplomatic engagement, the result, Kimball warned, could be an unconstrained three-way arms race between Russia, China and the U.S. “If we didn’t have enough problems already,” Kimball said, “it still can get worse.”
The public has a vital role in all this, Kimball said. “Over the long course of the nuclear age, concerned U.S. citizens have stood up and demanded that their leaders take action to reduce the number and the risks posed by nuclear weapons by engaging in arms control and disarmament diplomacy with our adversaries. That effort has to be renewed again.”