In May of 2010, the Obama administration lifted the veil of secrecy over America’s stockpile of nuclear weapons dating back to the Manhattan project, replacing the educated guesses and conjecture of experts with a real number of warheads: 5,113. The revelation confirmed the suspicions of many experts, and showed the U.S. was maintaining far fewer nuclear weapons than it had been at its peak in 1967, when the total tally was over 31,000.
That practice of disclosing the total number of nuclear weapons in America’s stockpile continued last year, with the Trump administration acknowledging that Uncle Sam now kept only 3,822, showing a reduction of 196 warheads over the year prior. As far as anyone knew, this level of transparency, which had become commonplace since 2009, would continue unabated – that is, until a scientific group requested a 2018 total from the Department of Energy (DOE).
“After careful consideration…it was determined that the requested information cannot be declassified at this time,” the agency wrote in an April 5 letter. The DOE offered no further explanation as to why American’s nuclear count has been reclassified, other than the decision had been made by the Formerly Restricted Data Declassification Working Group, which consists of officials from both the departments of Defense and Energy.
Some question the value in keeping the total tally a secret, with nuclear proliferation groups among the most critical of this recent shift.
“The decision walks back nearly a decade of U.S. nuclear weapons transparency policy – in fact, longer if including stockpile transparency initiatives in the late 1990s,” according to Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. He goes on to point out that with America’s stockpiles hidden behind a veil of secrecy, the U.S. has lost its footing when demanding transparency from other nuclear nations regarding their own weapons programs.
“With this decision,” he added, “the Trump administration surrenders any pressure on other nuclear-armed states to be more transparent about the size of their nuclear weapon stockpiles. This is curious since the Trump administration had repeatedly complained about secrecy in the Russian and Chinese arsenals. Instead, it now appears to endorse their secrecy.”
Others contend, however, the nations that already possess nuclear weapons or are actively pursuing their development are largely already in one of two camps: nations with strong ties with the U.S. and no concerns about transparency, or diplomatic opponents that likely would not provide accurate information anyway. Russia and China have both invested heavily in the development of new nuclear ICBM platforms in recent years, with North Korea seemingly close to having a capable platform of its own. It seems unlikely, supporters of this shift contend, that any of these nations would be motivated toward honesty through America’s transparency.