On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department under President Joe Biden publicly disclosed the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in a reversal from the policy under President Donald Trump to keep the true size of the U.S. arsenal a secret.
In a press release, the State Department revealed as of 2020, the U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads consisted of 3,750 warheads.
“The United States is releasing newly declassified information on the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile to update the information previously released in September 2017,” the State Department press release states. “Increasing the transparency of states’ nuclear stockpiles is important to nonproliferation and disarmament efforts, including commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and efforts to address all types of nuclear weapons, including deployed and non-deployed, and strategic and non-strategic.”
The last time the U.S. government released its nuclear stockpile number was in March 2018, when it revealed it had 3,822 warheads as of September 2017. Following that disclosure, Trump made the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal a secret and denied a request by the Federation of American Scientists to declassify the number, the Associated Press reported.
The Associated Press reported the nuclear stockpile numbers for 2019 and 2018 were also revealed. The U.S. had 3,805 nuclear warheads in 2018 and 3,785 in 2019.
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) welcomed the policy change brought under Biden. On Tuesday, Hans Kristensen, the director of the FAS’s Nuclear Information Project wrote, “We commend the Biden administration for reversing the Trump administration’s shortsighted and counterproductive nuclear secrecy and restore transparency to the US nuclear weapons stockpile. This decision is a heavy lifting at a time when so-called Great Power Competition is overtaking defense and arms control analysis.”
Military leaders have increasingly raised the potential for conflicts with nuclear-armed “near-peer” adversaries like Russia and China in recent years. Last year, a Department of Defense report said China is on track to double the size of its nuclear arsenal, then estimated at about 200 nuclear warheads, within the next decade.
China has also been resistant to join any arms control treaties with the U.S.
The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the U.S. and Russia also expired in 2019 and the or U.S. withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty amid claims Russia had been violating the agreement which allowed mutual surveillance between nuclear-armed countries.
“Hardliners will no doubt criticize the Biden administration’s decision to disclose the stockpile and dismantlement data,” Kristensen predicted. “They will argue that past nuclear transparency has not given the United States any leverage, that nuclear-armed states previously have not followed the example, and it that makes the United States look naive – even irresponsible – in view of Russia and China’s nuclear secrecy and build-up. On the contrary: without transparency the United States has no case. Past transparency has given the United States leverage to defend its record and promote its policies in international fora, dismiss rumors and exaggerations about its nuclear arsenal, and publicly and privately challenge other nuclear-armed states’ secrecy and promote nuclear transparency. And since the disclosure does not reveal any critical national security information, there is no reason to classify the stockpile and dismantlement data.”
Kristensen also characterized the reductions in the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal since 2017 as “modest.”
Between 2017 and 2020, the U.S. reduced its arsenal of nuclear warheads by about 1.9 percent. The current size of the nuclear arsenal is down about 63 percent from when the U.S. had just over 10,000 nuclear warheads in 2003.
The current size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is an approximately 88 percent reduction from its Cold War peak of 31,255 warheads in 1967. The U.S. has continued to decrease its nuclear arsenal in the years since.