NBC Weapons: Say Goodbye To More Nukes

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NUCLEAR, BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL WEAPONS

April 15, 2014: Despite the end of the Cold War, and the dismantling of over 25,000 nuclear weapons, implementing the new (2010) START (the strategic nuclear disarmament treaty) agreement means both the U.S. and Russia will be retiring more nuclear weapons as well as delivery systems. The new treaty limits to 1,550 the number of nuclear warheads each nation can deploy.

Current plans are for the U.S. Air Force to remove nuclear weapons from 30 of 96 B-52 bombers and leave these 30 equipped only to handle smart bombs. Nuclear warheads will be removed from fifty of 450 ICBMs deployed in silos. The U.S. Navy will reduce its SSBN (nuclear ballistic missile carrying subs) force so that there are no more than 280 launch tubes holding nuclear warhead equipped missiles. Thus on each of the 14 Ohio class SSBNs four launch tubes will be modified so they cannot launch nuclear weapons. These will either be equipped with cruise missiles or satellite launchers. START also specifies the use of inspectors by Russia and the United States to ensure both sides abide by the terms of the treaty.

Since the 1980s, the United States has slowly also reduced its once enormous nuclear weapons stockpile in Europe and in the United States. Many of these nukes are not “strategic” so are not covered by START. It wasn’t until 2007 that the U.S. no longer stored nuclear weapons at Ramstein airbase in Germany. These bombs were intended for the use by German aircraft, in the event of a major war with, well, there didn't seem to be any suitably scary enemies available any more. But there are still over a hundred American nuclear weapons stored in Europe, all of them believed to be 1960s era B61 nuclear weapons, configured as a half-ton bomb that can be carried by most U.S., and some European, fighter-bombers. These are not covered by START because they are used locally, not for intercontinental targets.

Some 3,200 B61s were built since the design went into service in the mid-1960s, and about half of those remain available for use. Some are being refurbished, so they will good for another two decades. The basic B61 nuclear bomb weighs 318 kg (700 pounds), is 330mm in diameter and about 3.9 meters (twelve feet) long.  Those stored in Europe are not being refurbished, meaning that those withdrawn are probably approaching the end of their shelf life. Without the refurb, all these older warheads will be useless in less than a decade. Most B61 warheads were variable yield, and could be set to provide an explosion ranging from less than a kiloton, to over 300 kilotons.

During the early 1970s, the United States had over 7,000 nuclear warheads stored in Europe, most of them 8 inch (204mm) and 155mm artillery shells. This was in the belief that, if the Russians, and their Warsaw Pact allies, invaded Western Europe, they would do so using these "tactical" (a yield of under 100 kilotons) nuclear weapons. Plans were drawn up to use hundreds of these warheads in battles with the invading Russians. But eventually, it was realized that such use would destroy Western Europe, and probably lead to a full scale nuclear war that would devastate the planet. So, by the end of the Cold War in 1990, there were only about 4,000 U.S. nukes left in Europe. By the end of the 1990s, there were only about 500 left. Most of these were for the use of NATO allies. During the Cold War, European nations were to be provided with American nuclear weapons, in the event of a major war. Most of these agreements are still in effect.

 

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