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How Much Was Enough? Official Estimates of Nuclear Weapons Requirements, 1957-1995

The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project was completed in August 1998 and resulted in the book Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 edited by Stephen I. Schwartz. These project pages should be considered historical.


Note: U.S. and Soviet/Russian warhead totals exclude an estimated 39,958 and 35,000 non-strategic weapons, respectively. U.S. megatonnage figures are actual totals released by the Department of Energy and do not distinguish between strategic and non-strategic weapons. Burke refers to Adm. Arleigh Burke, former chief of naval operations, who stated in 1957 that a fleet of 45 Polaris submarines (with 29 always deployed) was enough to ensure deterrence and destroy the Soviet Union. Although Burke believed that only 232 warheads were required to destroy the Soviet Union (these could be carried on fewer than 15 Polaris submarines [16 missiles per submarine/1 warhead per missile]), a larger fleet was deemed necessary to ensure the required number would survive a Soviet attack. Taylor refers to Gen. Maxwell Taylor, who in 1960 asserted that “a few hundred” missiles were sufficient to deter the Soviet Union (for this calculation, “a few hundred” is assumed to mean 300 warheads). McNamara refers to former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s 1964 calculation that 400 “equivalent megatons” (megatons weighted to take into account varying blast effects from weapons of different yields) were enough to achieve Mutual Assured Destruction and, thus, deterrence (one EMT is roughly equivalent to a one megaton warhead). Carter refers to President Jimmy Carter’s 1977 query to the Defense Department about reducing U.S. and Soviet strategic nuclear delivery vehicles to between 200-250 each, which equates to a maximum of 2,000 warheads for the U.S. Brown refers to former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, who argued in 1990 that a U.S. arsenal of 1,000 warheads would constitute “a very stable deterrent.” Reed refers to Thomas C. Reed, a former Secretary of the Air Force (1976-1977) and NSC staffer who co-authored a report for the Strategic Command on “The Role of Nuclear Weapons in the New World Order,” which, among other things, called for reducing the U.S. strategic arsenal to about 5,000 weapons (plus or minus 20 percent). NSC refers to a 1995 proposal by the National Security Council (later rejected by the Joint Chiefs of Staff) to reduce the strategic stockpile to 2,500 weapons.

Copyright © 1998 The Brookings Institution

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