# How destructive are current U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals relative to their maximum levels?September 26, 2009 2:54 PM   Subscribe

How destructive are current U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals relative to their maximum levels?

For simplicity's sake, we can define "destructiveness" as combined gross megatonnage, unless you have a better idea. I'm also assuming that it makes sense from a political/military perspective to consider weapons stored in former Soviet Union countries as belonging to Russia's maximum arsenal but not to its current arsenal, but correct me if I'm wrong.

Bonus points if you can find a link to a widely circulated graphic from the early-80s freeze movement. It represented the world's nuclear stockpile with dots placed in a rectangular matrix. Each dot represented one Hiroshima bomb, I think. One group of 3 dots was circled to indicate all the explosions in World War II - or something like that. And above them were dots and dots and dots...
posted by Joe Beese to Law & Government (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

I think that you have to view the weapon system as a whole, including not just the destructive yield of the warheads but also the accuracy of the delivery system.

In other words, don't just consider how big of and how many bangs we can produce, but rather how many targets we can destroy if we choose to do so. That is, after all, what they're for. (And then we all pray we never need them.)

On that basis, the current US arsenal is about as destructive as it was in the 1970's, even though we have vastly fewer warheads now. The missiles which would be used to deliver the warheads if it becomes necessary are frighteningly accurate.

The "Circular Error Probability" (CEP) is the usual way of measuring that. It's the radius of a circle centered on the intended target within which there's a 50% chance of the warhead striking. The smaller it is, the more accurate the weapon. (A different way to put that is that the CEP is the median targeting error.)

The CEP for the Tomahawk Cruise Missle is claimed to be 10 meters, after a flight of up to 2500 kilometers. If anything, it's probably even better than that. In the first Gulf War, on the first night of bombing, the Iraqi air defense ministry (a single building in Baghdad) was struck by three of them which were carrying conventional warheads. And hundreds more have been used in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan since, also carrying conventional warheads. They hit what we tell them to hit; mistakes have been extremely rare. But the Tomahawk was originally designed to carry a nuke, and it still can.

It's also claimed that the Trident D5 has a 10 meter CEP. And what that means is that these days we can guarantee to hit a target with a single bomb, which in the 1960's would have would have required multiple shots to guarantee destruction. It also means the warhead doesn't have to have as great of yield.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:18 PM on September 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

This 2007 Table compares the number of warheads in the US aresenal in 2007 and (predicted) 2012, based on Bush's pledge to reduce the number. It shows a reduction from 9938 to 4891, which is a good start, I suppose.

Richard Perle has been quoted as advocating for a number "under 1,000", still a very large number capable of global devastation many times over.

As CP says, though, total destructive power is often a different thing, as newer weapons are likely to be more accurate and powerful. But in terms of overall planetary safety, the number of warheads is very meaningful, since one less warhead to account for is one less warhead to lose or have stolen.
posted by rokusan at 3:42 PM on September 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

As CP says, though, total destructive power is often a different thing, as newer weapons are likely to be more accurate and powerful.

Far more accurate, yes. But not more powerful. Back in the bad old Cold War days we (and the Soviets) kept around a bunch of multi-megaton city busters. And tested monstrously large warheads like the Czar Bomba. I believe the US made stuff up above 20 megatons while the Czar Bomba was around 100 megatons. These days the US doesn't really have anything (acknowledged) over about a megaton, and a lot of our happy sun power bombs are in the kiloton range with a bunch of sub-kiloton tactical nukes.

The total tonnage of our weapons is assuredly massively lower, even more than the reduction in warheads would indicate. But if you can drop a 3 kiloton warhead ten meters from the target, does it really matter?
posted by Justinian at 4:12 PM on September 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

The 80s illustration was from p. 792 of Metamagical Themas.
posted by Rhomboid at 4:39 PM on September 26, 2009

Googling, the US nuclear arsenal peaked in 1961 at 20491 megatons and the current deployed + active reserve US arsenal is about 2330 megatons, or about 11% of the peak. I assume that this counts variable-yield warheads at their maximum yield.

I didn't immediately find anything that seemed reliable about Soviet and Russian megatonnage, but it's reasonable to assume that their reductions have been at least as drastic as those of the US and probably moreso.

I'm also assuming that it makes sense from a political/military perspective to consider weapons stored in former Soviet Union countries as belonging to Russia's maximum arsenal but not to its current arsenal

If by this you mean something like "Ukraine's nuclear arsenal" or "Belarus's nuclear weapons," there aren't any. At least, they aren't supposed to be any; they were supposed to have been shipped back to Russia.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:29 PM on September 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Regarding the Tomahawk, the Brits decided to purchase a bunch of sub-launched versions of the Tomahawk, but they wanted to try one first, launched from one of their subs.

The target which got used was on Catalina island (?? or one of the islands in that group, which has an area on it which the Navy uses as a firing range). Specifically it was a building made of concrete blocks, with a doorway on one side. It can't have been more than about 20 feet across.

The test was a success. Monitoring cameras showed the missile striking the closed door, which was what they were trying to hit. If the door had been open, the missile would have entered the building. But that didn't matter. The thing was blown to kingdom come anyway.

Of course, CEP is a statistical measure and you can't judge it from one sample point, but it looked to me like the effective targeting error was measured in inches. But when it comes to thinks like that, or like the top speed of jets and ships, the officially acknowledged numberd are always low.

ROU_X, I find it hard to believe that the US arsenal peaked in 1961. I would have thought it was just before SALT 1 went into effect in 1972. (But maybe I'm thinking about warhead count, not combined explosive power.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:48 PM on September 26, 2009

If you go by warhead count, the peak was in 1966 (table, graph).
posted by Rhomboid at 8:48 PM on September 26, 2009

Of course, CEP is a statistical measure and you can't judge it from one sample point, but it looked to me like the effective targeting error was measured in inches.

It would be possible to deliver a missile accurate to a few inches if you don't mind making a few assumptions - but the CEP may be calculated assuming poorer conditions than were present during the test you saw.

For example, if you've got a friendly base station within a few km of the target, and you know the target location to very high accuracy, you can get good results. But if a nuclear war is going on and you're firing the missile a long way away, your compass and GPS receivers may produce less precise results, and you might only know your target's location to the precision of a satellite photo.
posted by Mike1024 at 3:53 AM on September 27, 2009

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