Defense and security
As of September 2020, the US had 3,750 nuclear warheads, active and inactive. That’s 88% lower than the nation’s peak of 31,255 nuclear warheads in 1967.
Nuclear weapons are among the most devastating modern arms available. Ever since their creation, the threat of a nuclear war has loomed worldwide. From the first and only nuclear bombs dropped in 1945 to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 to the current fears over the war in Ukraine, the US is a central figure in the nuclear weapon discussion.
The US also has about 2,000 "retired" nuclear warheads scheduled for dismantling. The nation reduced its nuclear weapon inventory after the end of the Cold War with the then-USSR in 1989, dismantling 11,683 warheads between 1994 and 2020.
Nuclear missiles and strategic nuclear bombers are distributed across at least eight states — precise locations are classified. The weapons and equipment necessary to launch nuclear strikes are spread across land, air, and sea to deliver a rapid response at any time, per the US Nuclear Triad.
The US nuclear triad is America’s three-pronged approach to nuclear deterrence:
(1) land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs),
(2) submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and
(3) nuclear-capable strategic bombers.
This creates a diversified and resilient nuclear capability that is difficult for adversaries to neutralize.
ICBMs are kept in three air force bases — F.E. Warren, Malmstrom, and Minot. The US also stockpiles gravity nuclear weapons that can be used in nuclear-capable aircraft at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
When they’re not at sea, America’s 14 nuclear submarines are stationed at Naval Base Kitsap in Washington State and King’s Bay Naval Base in Georgia. This fleet currently carries 54% of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. On average, submarines spend 77 days at sea, followed by 35 days in port for maintenance.
Finally, the US has 66 nuclear-capable bombers — 46 B-52H Stratofortress and 20 B-2A Spirit aircraft — are held at Barksdale and Whiteman Air Force Bases in Louisiana and Missouri.
America’s nuclear weapons infrastructure is managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration , which is charged with the safety, security, and effectiveness of the US nuclear weapons stockpile. Their responsibilities include producing nuclear and nonnuclear components, research and testing, warhead assembly and disassembly, and support operations.
According to the US, eight countries possess and have tested nuclear weapons, the US (in 1945), Russia (1949), Great Britain (1952), France (1960), China (1964), India (1974), Pakistan (1998), and North Korea (2006).
Outside of combat, the US and other countries have detonated thousands of nuclear weapons during weapons testing. The US conducted 1,054 atomic tests from 1945 to 1992, at which point it stopped nuclear testing completely.
The US remains the only nation to deploy nuclear weapons in a conflict, dropping two nuclear bombs on Japan in 1945, during World War II.
The US is a signatory to several treaties designed to limit nuclear testing. The 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty banned participating countries from explosive atomic weapon tests in the atmosphere, outer space, or underwater, and the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty banned underground nuclear weapon tests of more than 150 kilotons of explosive force.
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed a moratorium on underground testing of US nuclear weapons into law.
The US helped negotiate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty of 1996, a global ban on all nuclear testing, but the Senate rejected the treaty in 1999 and has not ratified it, along with Egypt, Iran, China, and Israel. Another three of the required signatories– India, North Korea, and Pakistan – have not signed it and continue to test nuclear weapons.
The president has sole authority over the use of nuclear weapons. If the president is incapacitated, nuclear authority follows the presidential line of succession.
Congress requires each presidential administration to conduct a Nuclear Posture Review establishing US nuclear policy, strategy, capabilities, and force posture for the next five to 10 years. The first version of the review was completed in 1994. As of the Obama administration’s 2010 review, unclassified versions of the review are also made available.
The most recent review was released in October 2022. A press release from the Defense Department confirmed a commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons and stated that the US “would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests” of the US or its allies and partners.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was created to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons through non-proliferation, disarmament, and peaceful use of atomic energy. It came into force in 1970. Today, there are 191 participating nations. India, Pakistan, and North Korea are the only nations known to have nuclear weapons that do not participate (North Korea signed initially but withdrew in 2003).
Most treaty members have no nuclear arsenal; they agree to reviews by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure that nuclear material isn’t used for weapons or exported to other countries. Among the eight known nuclear powers, disarmament is done primarily through treaties. The US and Russia decreased their nuclear weapon inventories through the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
The nuclear energy provision of the NPT guarantees the output of nuclear energy, science, and technology is accessible to all and managed with cooperation and transparency. The IAEA supports this provision by examining nuclear energy facilities worldwide, ensuring they align with global nuclear security frameworks.
A few nations developed nuclear weapons but later dismantled them. South Africa eliminated all its nuclear weapons in 1990 and joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear nation. Three nations formerly part of the Soviet Union dismantled their nuclear weapons after achieving independence: Kazakhstan in 1995 and Belarus and Ukraine in 1996.
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