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Nuclear Weapons

Paying for America’s Arsenal

by Stephen I. Schwartz
January 29, 2018

The U.S. military’s plan to upgrade our nuclear arsenal is extensive and expensive. Is it necessary?

Many politicians and citizens think we should reduce our nuclear arsenal.

Simply maintaining our arsenal is massively expensive. The cost to rebuild it—replacing our existing nuclear weapons with new and improved models—is enormous. But while this debate is happening, the U.S. military continues to modernize its capabilities across every front. Should we be upgrading our arsenal? If so, by how much? And who’s making these decisions?

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, addressing the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 16, 1953

What does our arsenal look like?

The backbone of America’s nuclear arsenal is a “strategic nuclear triad” of long-range delivery systems and their associated warheads. It has three parts: nuclear weapons that launch from land, from sea, and from the air.


The Cost of Modernization

Over the next three decades, the air force and the navy plan to replace every strategic missile, bomber, submarine, nuclear bomb, and warhead in their stockpiles. They’ve already gotten started. The plan to sustain and update our arsenal went into effect in 2010, without significant congressional or public debate. The projected cost is at least $1.2 trillion—that’s $4.6 million every hour for the next 30 years. But there’s still time to reduce and modify this plan.

What $1.2 Trillion can do

  • Increase medical funding for veterans by 50% above current levels for the next 30 years.
  • Fund a 30-year program to replace every city and school bus in the United States with an electric bus.
  • Buy solar panels to meet the energy needs of 2 million households living in poverty each year for 30 years.

So what exactly is the military’s modernization plan?


By Land

Our land-based nuclear arsenal consists of one type of weapon: Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs.

These missiles are massive. The current model the United States uses, the Minuteman III, is nearly 60 feet long and presently carries a single nuclear warhead with an explosive strength at least 20 times bigger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. They launch from missile silos on U.S. soil, spread across 33,600 square miles of farmland in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming. Four hundred ICBMs are kept ready to launch at any time. From the time a strike is ordered to launch is just four to five minutes.

A map of the continental United States, highlighting the areas where ballistic missile silos are concentrated.

Map showing clusters of ICBM silos in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, and North Dakota.

The Minuteman III was introduced into the U.S. arsenal in 1970. But over the years, they’ve been rebuilt, updated, and improved at the cost of tens of billions of dollars. Just about the only thing that remains from the original Minuteman III is its metal outer skin. And they can continue to be maintained for the foreseeable future.

So why has the Air Force decided to replace them?

Minuteman ICBM Silo

Launch Tube

The cylindrical launch tube contains the missile and is about 80 ft deep.

Launcher closure door

A 110-ton rolling door covers the top of the silo.

Launcher equipment building

The launcher equipment building is about 21 feet underground and contains support equipment like a diesel generator, environmental controls, communications and electrical power

Launch Tube

The cylindrical launch tube contains the missile and is about 80 ft deep.

Launcher closure door

A 110-ton rolling door covers the top of the silo.

Launcher equipment building

The launcher equipment building is about 21 feet underground and contains support equipment like a diesel generator, environmental controls, communications and electrical power

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New ICBMs—what we know, what we don’t

So far we don’t know much about air force’s plan to replace the Minuteman III. We know it plans to have a new missile produced and ready for deployment by 2029 or 2030, and that it is intended to remain operational until 2075. We know it wants to build 666 of them (400 of which will be deployed, with the rest used for flight testing or spares). These missiles will have a new, more accurate guidance system, be armed with an improved version of larger of the two warhead types the Minuteman III can now carry, and they will be placed in existing (but refurbished) Minuteman silos.

ICBM Missile Launch

We don’t know what the program will ultimately cost. In 2015, the air force estimated the total cost at $62 billion. But an independent 2017 Defense Department assessment pegged the cost at, at least $85-140 billion.

The final ICBM design and production contract will be awarded in 2020. In the meantime, the air force has awarded $349.2 million to Boeing and $328.6 million to Northrop Grumman to compete for the contract.

The necessity of land-based missiles is another question. ICBMs are America’s fastest-to-launch nuclear option. But they come with a unique set of drawbacks. ICBMs cannot be recalled once they’ve been launched. In a potential standoff with Iran, ICBMs would have to fly over Russia. If the target were North Korea, they would fly over both Russia and China—at best angering both countries and at worst triggering an accidental nuclear war.

ICBM silo locations are well-known, which means they are a logical target in a nuclear strike against the United States. Experts—including former Minuteman launch officers and military leaders—worry that in the chaos of a suspected incoming attack, a U.S. president might order the launch of some or all of the ICBM force. This “use it or lose it” snap decision would have catastrophic consequences.

These operational limitations mean that ICBMs are the least useful weapons in our nuclear arsenal—and yet, the military plans to spend tens of billions of dollars to retain and enhance them.


By Sea

Ballistic missiles can also be launched from submarines.

Right now, the Navy has 14 Ohio-class submarines, also known as Trident submarines for the type of missile they carry. Six subs, based in Georgia, patrol the Atlantic; eight subs, based in Washington State, patrol the Pacific. At any given time, seven subs are in transit to or from their patrol areas. Two are docked for maintenance and refueling. The remaining five are on “hard alert,” ready to receive a launch order. Each sub carries 20 Trident II D5 missiles, and each missile has on average 4 or 5 nuclear warheads—with nuclear yields of either 100 kilotons or 455 kilotons. That means 400-500 warheads are ready to launch at any given time. The time from order to launch is around 15 minutes or less.

Ohio-Class Nuclear Submarine

Engine Room

The submarine is driven by a single propeller.  Ohio-class submarines can travel at speeds over 20 knots (23 mph).

Reactor compartment

Each submarine has a nuclear reactor which produces heat.  The heat generates steam which turns turbines.  The turbines turn a series of gears that drive the sub’s propeller.

Missile compartment

Each submarine carries 20 Trident II D5 missiles, and each missile carries an average of 4 or 5 warheads.

Crew quarters

Ohio-class submarines carry 15 officers and 144 enlisted crew members.

Torpedo room

Each submarine has 4 tubes for launching Mark 48 torpedoes.  The Mark 48 torpedoes have been operational in the U.S. Navy since 1972.

Engine Room

The submarine is driven by a single propeller.  Ohio-class submarines can travel at speeds over 20 knots (23 mph).

Reactor compartment

Each submarine has a nuclear reactor which produces heat.  The heat generates steam which turns turbines.  The turbines turn a series of gears that drive the sub’s propeller.

Missile compartment

Each submarine carries 20 Trident II D5 missiles, and each missile carries an average of 4 or 5 warheads.

Crew quarters

Ohio-class submarines carry 15 officers and 144 enlisted crew members.

Torpedo room

Each submarine has 4 tubes for launching Mark 48 torpedoes.  The Mark 48 torpedoes have been operational in the U.S. Navy since 1972.

New subs: what we know

The navy plans to replace this entire fleet of submarines. Submarine pressure hulls can only endure a finite number of deep submersions before they develop stress fractures, so replacements will be necessary. The Navy plans to start building the new subs—called Columbia-class—in 2021, for operational deployment starting in 2031. They’re expected to have a 42-year service life.

According to the Trump administration's February 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the new fleet is expected to consist of a minimum of 12 submarines. Each will carry 16 missiles—down from the 20 they carry today. The navy awarded a $5.1 billion development contract to General Dynamics Electric Boat in 2017. The first boat is estimated to cost around $8.2 billion, plus another $4 billion for the design and engineering costs. The average cost for all 12 is currently $8.1 to $8.6 billion. The projected total acquisition cost, including research, development, test, and evaluation, is $128 billion, a figure the congressional accounting office calls “not realistic” and “overly optimistic” because it does not reflect all costs and known technological risks. (An estimated additional $140 billion will be necessary to operate, sustain, and dispose of these submarines over their lifetimes.)

But at the same time as it plans for this new fleet, the navy is spending money to sustain the existing Trident II D 5 missile force for another two decades. According to the NPR, in 2020 the Navy will begin studies on spending additional billions of dollars on a new missile to replace the Trident II D5 before its planned service life ends in 2042.

Do we need ballistic missile subs?

Few nonproliferation experts suggest decommissioning ballistic missile submarines as a first priority—especially compared to ICBMs and other nuclear weapons. They’re the least vulnerable of the U.S. strategic weapon systems: they’re extremely difficult to track when they’re submerged. Their mobility means they can launch weapons close to an adversary’s territory. This avoids flying nuclear weapons over countries that would see the act as a threat. It also allows us to take advantage of gaps in adversaries’ early-warning radar networks.

Though they can take a little longer to launch than ICBMs when not fully alerted, the mobility of submarine-launched missiles means their warheads could hit their targets more quickly, in some cases within five to ten minutes.

Updates to our submarine force could—and should—mean that we reduce our reliance on ICBMs, the land-based leg of the triad. Relying more heavily on our submarine force could be folded into a plan for gradual step-by-step disarmament. Many analysts believe the United States could reduce the number of new submarines to 8 or 10, saving billions of dollars.


By Air

Air-based weapons have a long history. The United States has been dropping bombs from airplanes since World War I. The only nuclear weapons ever used in warfare were dropped by American bombers on Japan in August 1945.

Modern bombers drop both nuclear and conventional bombs. The U.S. Air Force maintains a fleet of bombers that can deliver a variety of nuclear weapons to targets all over the world. These bombs include:

  • The B83-1 gravity bomb is the largest nuclear weapon in the US arsenal. It has a yield of 1.2 megatons, 80 times larger than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
  • The B61-7 and B61-11 gravity bombs both have selectable yields up to 360 kilotons.
  • The Air-Launched Cruise Missile carries a W80-1 warhead with a yield that ranges from 5 to 150 kilotons.

Bombers have a few unique advantages. They’re the only nuclear weapon delivery system piloted by human beings. They can be recalled or re-targeted after launch since it can take 8 or more hours for them to reach their targets. Their visibility means they can also be used to send a message to adversaries by flying to or near a hotspot.

New bombers: what we don’t know

The air force is in the midst of a years-long program to supplement and eventually replace its B-2A, B-52H, and B-1B bombers with a new bomber, the B-21. But what, exactly, is its plan?

Inside the cockpit of a B-52H Stratofortress bomber.

Inside the cockpit of a B-52H Stratofortress bomber.

U.S. Air Force

The Air Force has refused to disclose the total estimated cost of its contract with Northrop Grumman for this work or to release a complete list of subcontractors. Not even Congress has been allowed to see this information. The Air Force will only say that each B-21 bomber will cost an estimated $564 million (not including substantial research and development costs) and that it plans to build a minimum of 100. However, it won’t rule out buying significantly more.

More controversial than this lack of transparency is the call for development of a new kind of nuclear-armed cruise missile to replace the Air-Launched Cruise Missile first deployed in 1982. The Trump NPR calls for production of the Long-Range Standoff Weapon, or LRSO, to arm the B-52H and B-21 bombers and hedge against "unforeseen technical and geopolitical challenges." The LRSO has been met with skepticism from members of Congress and nongovernmental analysts. It doesn’t do anything our existing conventional and nuclear-armed cruise missiles can’t do. The air force insists it must have multiple options to hold critical targets at risk and wants to acquire 1,000-1,100 of the new weapons, but it has been unable to explain why it requires a new stealth bomber that can penetrate enemy air defenses and a new cruise missile designed to be launched far outside those defenses. The weapon will cost an estimated $23 billion (including an updated warhead).

A flat near-featureless plane flies against a cloudscape.

A rendering of the new B-21 bomber, from Northrop Grumman.

Northrup Grumman

Do We Need New Bombers?

Bombers have their unique advantages among the arsenal of nuclear weapons delivery systems. But without details on the new stealth bomber, it’s impossible to determine whether the updates are necessary—and worth the cost. Near the end of the Cold War, the B-2 bomber program had multiple cost overruns. In the end, only 20 of the planned 132 aircraft were built, and the bombers cost more than five times their weight in gold.

Congress and the American public deserve an opportunity to weigh in on this program, to determine that its scope is logical and necessary.

B-2 Bomber in flight

Nuclear bombs and warheads update

The nuclear triad systems bring nuclear warheads and bombs to their targets; it’s the warheads themselves that do the damage. While the air force and the navy are replacing every bomber, ICBM, cruise missile, and Trident submarine, the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), is planning to upgrade or replace all of the 4,000 bombs and warheads in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, along with many of the aging facilities used to manufacture and maintain them.

On top of this, the Trump NPR also calls for the deployment of two new nuclear weapons: a "small number" of low-yield warheads designed to fit aboard Trident II D5 missiles—the first of which was manufactured in February 2019, with all warheads scheduled to be delivered to the navy before the end of 2019—and a nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile, which is still in the early stages of development. The new cruise missile, which would be launched from Virginia-class attack submarines, is framed as both a response to a Russian treaty violation and a way to defend and reassure U.S. allies. The Trump NPR says the administration "may reconsider" building the new cruise missile if Russia dismantles its illegal land-based cruise missile and reduces its stockpile of short-range nuclear weapons, an offer that is unlikely to be accepted.

A man in a plaid shirt and hard-hat kneels next to a laptop, in the middle of a test-site, near the tip of a missile.

Tyler Keil, lead engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, prepares for a test of the data recorder on a dummy B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb.

National Nuclear Security Administration

Upgrades to nuclear warheads and bombs are known as Life Extension Programs. These can be relatively minor, like replacing components such as batteries or wiring and circuits that degrade over time. But they can also be much more extensive, replacing major components to give older weapons new capabilities. For example, take the W76-1 warhead. It was originally deployed in 1979 aboard Trident missile submarines. Since 2009, it has been upgraded with a new “super fuze” that enables it to destroy hardened targets, like underground Russian missile silos—a mission previously reserved for ICBMs. This significantly enhances U.S. nuclear warfighting capabilities. Not incidentally, the upgrade has alarmed Russia.

Another worrisome upgrade is the planned B61-12 gravity bomb, which will consolidate all four existing versions of the B61 into one version. The B61-12 will be the world’s first guided nuclear bomb. This will significantly increase the weapon’s accuracy and will allow for much lower explosive yields to achieve the same level of destruction as existing versions of the bomb. Military planners argue this will make the B61-12 more usable and more credible as a deterrent. But many nongovernmental analysts are concerned that a more usable weapon is more likely to be used. Military and political leaders might believe that its relatively low yield will cause fewer civilian deaths and help avoid an escalation to all-out nuclear war. But no one has any experience fighting a limited nuclear war.


A worker steadies a mock B61-12 during an experiment that’s part of the B61-12 Life Extension Program. 

National Nuclear Security Administration

The NNSA’s plans are anticipated to take 30 years and cost a minimum of $261 billion, though history suggests costs could actually be much higher. Most of these programs were started by the Obama administration and are expected to continue—and possibly expand—under the Trump administration. But even as currently structured, there are serious questions as to whether they are necessary—or affordable.

The Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office have both warned that there is a serious discrepancy between NNSA’s projected funding for these programs and what they will realistically cost. And in January 2018, the outgoing head of the NNSA warned that it was already "working pretty much at full capacity." He also strongly suggested the NNSA would be unable to take on new work, such as building new weapons, restarting mass production of plutonium "triggers," or resuming nuclear testing, without an overhaul and expansion of its existing facilities and a substantial increase in its budget and personnel.

If we focus on smart reductions to our stockpiles and strategic improvements to our weapons delivery systems, we eliminate the need for new warheads.

A soldier in battle dress stands in a trench in a poppy field.

U.S. Army Spc. Cooley of the 101st Airborne Division pulls security near an open poppy field in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. 

U.S. Army

What Comes Next

If continued as planned, this will be the largest, most comprehensive, and most expensive buildup of U.S. nuclear weapons since the Reagan administration in the early 1980s. But there’s still time for the public to weigh in, and to adjust this trajectory. Congress could push the military towards a minimized update, rather than a complete overhaul. 

Indeed, even as the Republican-run Senate remains highly supportive of these efforts, the Democratic-led House of Representatives is already taking steps to question, slow, or terminate several programs, including the new ICBM, the new sea-launched cruise missile, the new low-yield submarine warhead, and a facility to build new plutonium “triggers.” It remains to be seen which chamber’s positions will prevail in the final, consolidated annual spending bills, and what impact that legislation will have on the Trump administration’s long-term plans.

We could choose to move toward a safer world—and spend hundreds of billions of dollars on something else.

An aerial view of the Pentagon.

The Pentagon houses the Department of Defense, where decisions about military spending are vetted and approved. 

Getty Images

Pressure from the public is crucial to effecting this kind of change. In discussions of government spending—tax cuts, deficit, debt—military spending, especially nuclear weapons spending, shouldn’t take a back seat. Americans have the right to have a say in how their money gets spent.

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