Nuclear Glossary

A glossary of common nuclear terms and acronyms.

ABM Treaty or ABMT – Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty – a 1972 treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union on the limitation of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems used in defending areas against ballistic missile-delivered nuclear weapons. Under the terms of the treaty, each party was limited to two ABM complexes, each of which was to be limited to 100 anti-ballistic missiles. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in 1997 the United States and four former Soviet republics agreed to succeed to the treaty. In June 2002 the United States withdrew from the treaty, leading to its termination.

ALCM – Air Launched Cruise Missile (also called LSRO)

Read Dr. Perry’s case against the new nuclear cruise missile→

BMD – Ballistic Missile Defense

CTBT – Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

Fat Man – The code name for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Aug 9, 1945. The name referred to the size and shape of the weapon. It was a plutonium bomb, of the same design tested in the first nuclear explosion, Trinity, on July 16, 1945.

IAEA – International Atomic Energy Agency – an international organization dedicated to promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy and technology and to prevent its use for military purposes. 

ICBM – Intercontinental Ballistic Missile

INF Treaty – Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed in 1987, required the United States and the Soviet Union to eliminate and permanently forswear all of their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The treaty marked the first time the superpowers had agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals, eliminate an entire category of nuclear weapons, and utilize extensive on-site inspections for verification. As a result of the INF Treaty, the United States and the Soviet Union destroyed a total of 2,692 short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missiles by the treaty’s implementation deadline of June 1, 1991. Neither Washington nor Moscow now deploys such systems.  Read More

JASSM – Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile

JCPOA – Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action – The JCPOA is more commonly known as the Iran Deal, an international agreement limiting and monitoring Iran’s uranium enrichment to prevent nuclear weapons development.

LRSO – Long Range Standoff Weapon (also called ALCM)

Little Boy – The code name for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Aug 6, 1945. The bomb was a gun-type fission weapon using highly enriched uranium as the fuel. The Hiroshima bomb exploded with a force of 15 kilotons of TNT; only a small percentage of the uranium actually underwent fission.

MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction

MIRV – Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) is a ballistic missile payload containing several warheads, each capable of being aimed to hit one of a group of targets. By contrast a unitary warhead is a single warhead on a single missile. An intermediate case is the multiple reentry vehicle (MRV) missile which carries several warheads which are dispersed but not individually aimed. Only the United States, Russia, France, and China are known to have developed MIRVed missiles. MIRVed land-based ICBMs were considered destabilizing because they tended to put a premium on striking first. 

NATO – North American Treaty Organization 

NSNW – Non- Strategic Nuclear Weapons (see tactical nuclear weapons)

SLBM – Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile 

SSBM – Ballistic Missile Submarine (colloquially, “boomer”) 

START (I & II) – Strategic Arms Reduction Talks

Strategic nuclear weapons – nuclear weapons that can be employed to directly strike an opponent’s country, and in particular their nuclear weapons. Strategic nuclear weapons are the basis of nuclear deterrence (sometimes called Mutually Assured Destruction). The theory of nuclear deterrence holds that if a country possesses a nuclear arsenal that can survive a first strike, and then be used to retaliate, this will effectively inhibit the enemy from attempting such a strike. Thus the mission of strategic nuclear weapons is to prevent the use of nuclear weapons and therefore a nuclear war. The key feature of strategic nuclear weapons is not their design or the size of the warhead, but how they are based and what are their delivery systems. 

Tactical Nuclear Weapons – (as opposed to Strategic nuclear weapons) – Tactical nuclear weapons (or Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons) are weapons designed to be used in fighting wars. While they often have warheads with smaller yields, this is not a requirement of tactical nuclear weapons; the distinction is entirely based on the mission of the weapons, not the design. The United States has backed away from the use of such weapons, fearing that their use would cross the nuclear threshold and could easily lead to rapid escalation. Other countries, notably Russia and Pakistan, have expressly declared that their military strategies rely on the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

TLAM – Tomahawk Land Attack Missile – a long range, subsonic cruise missile that can carry either a nuclear or conventional payload, used for land attack warfare, launched from U. S. Navy surface ships and submarines.

Triad – The United States strategic nuclear weapons force consists of three separate components: ground-based ICBMs; sea-based SLBMs; and air-based gravity bombs and cruise missiles. Proponents of the Triad argue that this diversity decreases the vulnerability of the strategic forces from being destroyed in a sneak attack; others argue that this can be accomplished with just a sea-based system, as modern submarines are extremely difficult to track. 

WMD – Weapons of Mass Destruction

Courtesy of the William J Perry Project.