“As you can see demonstrated in this chart … nuclear delivery system development over the last eight years shows numerous advances by Russia, China and North Korea versus the near absence of such activity by the United States, with competitors and adversaries developing 34 new systems as compared to only one for the U.S. — the F-35 aircraft.”
— Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, in remarks to the House Armed Services Committee, Feb. 6, 2018

A former colleague suggested that a chart published in the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) might be worthy of a fact check, saying it reminded him of exaggerations concerning Soviet military power during the Reagan administration. Ordinarily, a chart buried in a government report might not merit a fact check, but clearly it’s important to the administration. As shown in the quote above, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis even cited it in testimony before Congress.

The chart purports to show that Russia, China and North Korea have raced ahead of the United States in developing new nuclear systems since the last NPR was released in 2010. Ironically, the chart already had caused controversy because it initially suggested that Taiwan was part of China, an embarrassing error that led the Defense Department to pull the document and fix the image of China.

But that’s really a minor flub compared with the inconsistent and misleading way the chart compares the United States with its nuclear adversaries. Let’s take a look.

The Facts

The chart appears on Page 8 in a section that argues that since 2010, when President Barack Obama pressed to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in strategic policy, rivals have moved ahead. “While the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, others, including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction,” the NPR says. Referencing the chart, the NPR says it “illustrates the marked difference between U.S. efforts to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons and the contrary actions of others over the past decade.”

The chart is hard to read and has little detail, so it appears mainly intended to serve a propaganda purpose — at one glance, one would get the impression that the United States has stood still while the other nations have raced ahead. Mattis even claimed that adversaries had developed 34 “new systems” compared with just one for the United States.

Here are the problems with the chart, according to nuclear weapons experts.

Time period

Picking the date of the last NPR, 2010, as a starting point appears reasonable on its face. But it’s actually rather arbitrary when talking about weapons systems that take years to develop. Under the standard of this chart, someone who bought their house in 2009 would be “far behind” someone who bought a house in 2011. But of course not everyone buys a house at the same time, just as countries develop nuclear weapons at different times.

“The United States last fielded entirely new systems in the 1990s and early 2000s, which is why you don’t see entirely new systems being introduced now,” said Hans M. Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists. “The Russian nuclear modernization program picked up in the 2000s after the economic collapse in the early-1990s and is currently about 60 percent done.”

Missing U.S. systems under development

The chart offers a distinction between “green” systems that are “developmental” and “blue” systems that are fielded.

The United States has several systems now under development that are not listed, such the B-21 Raider bomber; the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine; a new cruise missile, LRSO (Long Range Stand Off weapon); and a new intercontinental ballistic missile, called GBSD (Ground Based Strategic Deterrent).

“These systems are not yet fielded, but neither are the green systems that you see in the table,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Yet these U.S. “developmental” programs are not insubstantial, worth nearly $400 billion in acquisition costs.

  • The B-21 will produce at least 100 new dual-capable, stealthy, long-range bombers. The program has also begun engineering development, and the estimated acquisition cost is well over $100 billion.
  • The Columbia class ballistic missile submarine will replace the existing fleet of 14 Ohio-class SSBNs with 12 new submarines. The program has begun engineering development, and the estimated acquisition cost is about $130 billion.
  • The LRSO program will produce over 1,000 missile bodies to replace the existing nuclear air-launched cruise missile. The program is still early in development and has an estimated acquisition cost of about $11 billion.
  • The Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, which will produce more than 600 new ICBMs to replace the existing Minuteman III. The program is still early in development and has an estimated acquisition cost of between $85 billion and $140 billion.

“Other nuclear-armed states are upgrading their arsenals and have tested, produced and deployed more brand-new systems than the United States since 2010,” said Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, who provided the data on these programs. “But it’s disingenuous to claim that the United States has sat on its hands and that it is falling behind.”

U.S. modifications of existing systems not counted

Some of the Russian systems listed are not new but rather modifications of existing systems (SS-27 and SS-19). Likewise, the Chinese SSC-10 Mod 1/2 (DF-31/A) were fielded before 2010 (2006-2007) after more than a decade in development.

But at the same time, U.S. modifications of existing missiles are missing, even if the result is an all-but-new weapon. The Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, for instance, recently got a life extension. Here is how that effort was described by the Air Force in 2012:

Five decades later, these missiles are still in place, providing safe, secure and effective strategic nuclear deterrence.
Since it first deployed, a number of state-of-the-art improvements and modernization programs have helped the Minuteman system continue its deterrence mission with improved reliability that supports the missile’s remarkable 99 percent alert rate. Air Force Global Strike Command continues to modernize the weapon system through a series of extensive Minuteman III Life Extension Programs.
Nearly the entire missile has been refurbished, including the flight controls and propellant in all three stages, the guidance system and the Propulsion System Rocket Engine.
“We are checking and balancing everything, but they are basically new missiles except for the shell,” Mr. Michael Knipp, ICBM Program Analyst, said. “Over the last decade we’ve done more than $7 billion worth of upgrades to 450 missiles.”

Indeed, in April 2017, Gen. John Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told Congress: “The thing about a deterrent capability is it does not matter how old it is. It just matters whether it works. … The stuff that we have today will work.”

So if the chart counts the life-extended Chinese missiles, then it presumably should count the life-extended Minuteman, too. Similarly, the Navy started deploying a life-extended version of the Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile that includes an entirely new guidance system.

“Russia generally builds delivery systems (and warheads) that don’t last as long as their U.S. counterparts,” Reif said. “The U.S. military has upgraded and refurbished nearly all of its existing strategic and tactical delivery systems and the warheads they carry to last well beyond their originally planned service life. These modernized forces are more capable than the originals. And now the United States is in the early stages of replacing most of its existing systems with new systems.”

Interestingly, the Russian SS-27 has been equipped with multiple reentry vehicles in apparent violation of the START treaty. “The Russians claimed it was a ‘new’ missile to avoid admitting the violation, but the U.S. largely used the designation Mod 2 to indicate otherwise,” Lewis said. “The Trump administration has now retroactively assessed the Russians as being in compliance to make a PR point. Russia announced that deployment of the Yars would start in December 2009 after the START treaty expired.”

Meanwhile, SS-19 Mod-X-4 is the old SS-19, which was first deployed in 1974 — the fourth modification of the missile. The chart also includes North Korean SCUD systems that were deployed in the 1990s.

The one U.S. program listed is the F-35 aircraft, but the versions of the aircraft that will provide nuclear capability won’t be available until the early 2020s, under current plans.

All nations depicted as equal

The chart offers no context for the size of the nuclear arsenals, thus putting North Korea on the same scale as Russia or the United States. Russia and the United States have about 4,000 warheads each in their arsenals, China has about 270, and North Korea about 15, according to FAS. But a glance at the Pentagon chart would suggest that North Korea has a capability greater than China’s.

Kristensen created a “corrected” chart that would address many of the shortcomings identified by experts.

Tom Crosson, a Pentagon spokesman, defended the chart, saying it was meant to reflect a statement made by the National Intelligence Council in 2012: “Nuclear ambitions in the U.S. and Russia over the last 20 years have evolved in opposite directions. Reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy is a U.S. objective, while Russia is pursuing new concepts and capabilities for expanding the role of nuclear weapons in its security strategy.” (The sentence is plucked from Page 72 of a discussion of terrorism in a 141-page Global Trends 2030 report that mostly focused on the impact of economic and demographic trends, including extensive examination of the impact of climate change in fostering civil conflict.)

“This illustration demonstrates the validity of the point presented in the NPR that there has been significant change in the nuclear postures of Russia, China, and North Korea over the past ten years, and since the 2010 NPR, but not in the U.S. nuclear posture,” Crosson said in an email. “The only U.S. system that fits this graphic is the F-35, as is illustrated in the graphic.”

He said that adding life-extension programs would be “comparing apples and oranges” because the United States does not know the details of life-extension programs in other countries. “The same is true for future programs, including the proposed U.S. replacement program,” he added. “We simply do not know the full scope and scale of the other countries’ future nuclear development and deployment programs over coming decades, while we do know our own proposed replacement systems in some detail. Consequently, there could be little confidence in such a comparison.”

Update: In the congressional testimony, Mattis suggested that his predecessor, Ashton Carter, agreed with the message in the chart. After this fact check was published, we received this statement from Carter:

“I stated when I was Secretary of Defense and continue to maintain that it is essential to recapitalize the nuclear Triad, because it is the bedrock of deterrence. During the past 25 years, the United States has made no major new investments in its nuclear forces, yet other countries have conducted vigorous buildups. This history does not support the contention that U.S. investments fuel the nuclear programs of others. My views are reflected in the latest Nuclear Posture Review.”

The Pinocchio Test

The Pentagon’s explanation for the metrics in the chart is rather tortured, as it suggests it makes more sense to include modernization efforts of rivals because the United States has few details, while ignoring U.S. modernization efforts that the government has previously extolled as virtually new weapons.

The chart clearly was ginned up to cast the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the worst possible light. By dint of its timeline and its exclusion of U.S. life extensions and future systems, the chart offers a highly misleading picture of the U.S. strategic position, suggesting the United States has allowed its delivery systems to atrophy. The chart should be replaced with a more accurate representation of the facts — and officials such as Mattis should not cite it in congressional testimony to claim a 34-to-1 advantage for adversaries over the United States. From such flimsy statistics bad policies may be born.

Three Pinocchios

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Three Pinocchios
“As you can see demonstrated in this chart … nuclear delivery system development over the last eight years shows numerous advances by Russia, China and North Korea versus the near absence of such activity by the United States, with competitors and adversaries developing 34 new systems as compared to only one for the U.S. — the F-35 aircraft.”
in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee
Tuesday, February 6, 2018