Alert status and comparison of US and Soviet strategic arsenals in 1990.

A B-1B Lancer deployed from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., prepares for a mission at Andersen AFB, Guam, Nov. 16, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Gerald R. Willis)

Previous posts listed the strategic nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in 1990.

This discussion will compare the total inventories and then calculate my wild guesses for weapons on daily alert.

Full disclosure: Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, I was a tiny little cog in the ICBM forces listed below.

Here is a comparison of total inventory for each country:

 US  launcher  total warhead  total mt  total Equiv mt
 total land based       1,000         2,450       1,119       1,375
 total sea based          908         5,612          457       1,026
 total bomber based          363         9,242       5,876       6,474
 total of above       2,271       17,304       7,452       8,875
 Soviet  launcher  total warhead  total mt  total Equiv mt
 total land based       1,451         6,657       3,528       4,316
 total sea based          959         2,743          955       1,259
 total bomber based          175           790          445          535
 total of above       2,585       10,190       4,928       6,109

Lots of comparisons are obvious.

The bulk of the deliverable firepower (73%) in the US arsenal is from manned bombers. Only a fraction of those are on daily alert. Most will take a day or several days to generate to alert status. Essentially all of the ICBMs are on daily alert. Well, maybe 98% or 99%, but you see the point.

Most of the Soviet firepower was in ICBMs. They had a far smaller bomber force than the U.S.  The loads on Soviet bombers were an even smaller portion of their firepower. When fully generated, American bombers had slightly more firepower than the full Soviet arsenal.

Second Lt. ___ ___, the 321st Missile Squadron deputy missile combat crew commander, and 1st Lt. ___ ___, the 321st MS missile combat crew commander, simulate key turns of the Minuteman III weapon system during a Simulated Electronic Launch-Minuteman test inside the launch control center at a missile alert facility in the 90th Missile Wing’s missile complex, Neb., April 11, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Christopher Ruano)

American daily alert status

Back in 1990, the SSBNs had two crews. Before leaving station, each SSBN would have a replacement in the area. When a sub returned to port, the alternate crew came aboard, refitted, resupplied, maintained, and went on patrol when the other sub neared end of its patrol. Thus half were on alert at any one time.

So I will assume daily alert status at:

  • 99% – ICBMs
  • 50% – SSBNs
  • 17% – Bombers, assuming out of thin air that 2 bombers per squadron were on alert

Stringing together all my assumptions gives the following nuclear assets on alert daily:

 launcher  total warhead  total mt  total Equiv mt
 US alert rate
 ICBM 99% 99% 99% 99%
 SSBN (subs) 50% 50% 50% 50%
 bombers (2 of 12) 17% 17% 17% 17%
 On alert:
 ICBMs          990         2,426       1,107       1,361
 SLBMs          454         2,806          228          513
 bombers           62         1,571          999       1,101
 daily alert       1,506         6,803       2,335       2,975

Thus, 46% of the daily availability was from ICBMs and 37% from bombers.

Rocket models by Robert Sullivan is in the public domain (CC0 1.0). Models are US LIM-491A Spartan (ABM interceptor with 5 mt warhead), USSR ABM-1 Galosh (ABM interceptor with 2 mt or 3 mt warhead), US Minuteman III, and USSR SS-9.

Soviet daily alert status

During the depths of the Cold War the Evil Empire had most of its nuclear inventory concentrated in land based missiles. Even at full generation, on 21% was from subs and a mere 9% from manned bombers.

In terms of daily alert, article says 1 out of 6 subs would be on patrol. I will assume 2 bombers per squadron of 12 were on daily alert.

Based on my wild guesses and calculations, the daily alert availability would be:

 launcher  total warhead  total mt  total Equiv mt
 Soviet alert rate
 ICBM 98% 98% 98% 98%
 SSBN (subs) 17% 17% 17% 17%
 bombers (2 of 12) 17% 17% 17% 17%
 On alert:
 ICBMs       1,422         6,524       3,457       4,229
 SLBMs          163           466          162          214
 bombers           30           134           76           91
daily alert       1,615         7,124       3,695       4,534

That gives an even higher concentration on ICBMs, with only 5% of firepower from SSBNs and 2% from bombers.

As you can see, in terms of daily alert, the Soviets had more platforms, more warheads, more megatons, and more equivalent megatons available than did the U.S.A.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *