On May 3, 2010, the Pentagon discloses that the nation’s gradually shrinking nuclear weapons arsenal now comprises 5,113 nuclear warheads. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which closely tracks developments in nuclear weaponry, estimates that 2,468 U.S. warheads are operationally deployed. The eight ballistic-missile submarines based at the Bangor Submarine Base in Kitsap County, about 20 air miles from downtown Seattle, each are capable of carrying 24 Trident II D5 missiles. Each missile, in turn, is currently configured to carry four independently targetable nuclear warheads, or a total of 96 per boat. The 768 warheads allocated to the vessels constitute about 31 percent of the nation’s deployed nuclear weapons.
Shift to the Pacific
As U.S. nuclear policy has evolved, the Bangor sub base has grown in importance. When the Soviet Union disintegrated after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, defense planners began to focus increasingly on the Pacific, where the main threats to U.S. security were thought to lie.
In 2010, the U.S. strategic nuclear war plan identified six potential adversaries: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and “a 9/11-type WMD [weapons of mass destruction] attack by a non-state actor in cooperation with a nuclear state” (Bulletin). Targets in China, North Korea, and parts of Russia are most easily reached from the Pacific. Geography, combined with the reality that nearly 60 percent of U.S. strategic nuclear weapons are now stationed on submarines, underscores the importance of Bangor. More than two-thirds of U.S. nuclear-missile submarine patrols now are conducted in the Pacific, compared with only about 15 percent in the 1980s.
Although 5,113 nuclear warheads represent unimaginable destructive power, they are but a fraction of the 31,255 the nation possessed in 1968. The number of active warheads has declined over the past four decades as a result of the START arms-control treaties with the Soviet Union (and now with Russia) and the perception that the risk of nuclear war among major powers has declined. Further warhead reductions are in store. The New START treaty agreed to by the U.S. and Russia in April 2010 calls for each country to reduce its deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 within seven years of ratification.
In addition to being fewer in number, contemporary nuclear weapons also have a much lower “yield,” or explosive force, than the bombs of the Cold War era. This has been made possible by the much greater accuracy of modern guidance systems coupled with advancements in the components of the bombs themselves.
Bangor’s Importance Likely to Increase
As the New START reductions take effect, Bangor’s importance to U.S. nuclear security is likely to increase. Ballistic missile submarines are considered the least vulnerable link in the nation’s strategic defense because when at sea they are extremely difficult for an enemy to detect. By comparison, land-based missiles (though they are sited in hardened silos buried beneath the plains of North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming) and heavy bombers are easier to target. Furthermore, planning has begun to replace the present Ohio-class missile subs with a newer, presumably even stealthier, class of vessels beginning in 2027.
In addition to deployed nuclear weapons at Bangor, an unknown, but probably substantial number of retired warheads is believed to be stored in an extensive system of bunkers there, awaiting eventual dismantlement at the Department of Energy’s Pantex bomb plant near Amarillo, Texas.
As homeport to a majority of the nation’s missile-sub fleet and a storage facility for retired weapons, Bangor no doubt would be high on a potential enemy’s target list. But in a nuclear war, no major city would be safe. Certainly that applies to Seattle, with its extensive aerospace manufacturing plants, port, and software industry.