U.S. Nuclear Modernization Programs

Contact: Shannon Bugossenior policy analyst, [email protected]


Cost Overview

The United States maintains an arsenal of about 1,700 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and at strategic bomber bases. There are an additional estimated 100 non-strategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons at bomber bases in five European countries and about 2,000 nuclear warheads in storage.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated in May 2021 that the United States will spend a total of $634 billion over the next 10 years to sustain and modernize its nuclear arsenal, which is 28 percent higher than the previous 10-year projection released in 2019. This estimate in planned spending in fiscal years 2021–2030 is projected to consume 6.0–8.5 percent of projected total spending on national defense during those years. Over the next 30 years, the total sustainment and modernization costs of U.S. nuclear forces could reach $2 trillion.

The CBO estimate captures spending on the triad of nuclear delivery systems and command and control systems at the Defense Department and on nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure at the Energy Department’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Nearly every element of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is slated to be upgraded over the next 20 years. Most of these efforts are in the early stages, and a few others have yet to begin.

Other nuclear-armed states, notably Russia and China, are upgrading and may be posed to increase the size of their arsenals and have tested, produced, and deployed more brand new systems than the United States over the past decade. But the U.S. military has upgraded and refurbished nearly all of its existing strategic and tactical delivery systems and the warheads they carry to last well beyond their originally planned service life and is now in the early stages of replacing many of these aging systems with new systems. Though decades old, these modernized forces are more capable than the originals, and the new systems will include additional capability upgrades. The current and planned U.S. financial investment in nuclear forces is unrivaled by any other nuclear power.

Gen. Paul Selva, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee in March 2017 that while Russia and China continue to modernize their nuclear forces, the United States maintains "a qualitative advantage."

Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Hyten, acknowledged in January 2019 that the United States still leads in most capabilities. However, he argued that the Defense Department must move quickly in order to keep up with “the speed” at which Russia and China are moving.

The Trump administration, as outlined in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released on Feb. 2, 2018, continued the modernization plan laid out by the Obama administration, as well as developed several new nuclear weapons capabilities that will add to the price tag for nuclear forces. This included the new low-yield nuclear warhead (the W76-2, which was deployed in 2019) for some submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and the longer-term development of a new nuclear submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM).

The Biden administration's first budget request proposed to continue every part of the unnecessary and unsustainable nuclear weapons spending plans it inherited from the Trump administration. This includes funding for development of the new nuclear SLCM, continued early development of a new high yield submarine launched ballistic missile warhead (the W93) and associated aeroshell, and sustainment of the B83-1 bomb.

White House and Pentagon officials and defense budget watchers have expressed concern that the current triad modernization plans may not be executable in the absence of significant and sustained increases to overall military spending in the coming 15-20 years. This is in large part due to the fact that nuclear costs are scheduled to rise and overlap with a large "bow wave" in projected spending on conventional weapon system modernization programs, as well as rising personnel and readiness costs.

Former head of U.S. Strategic Command Gen. Robert Kehler said in November 2017 that he is "skeptical that we are capable of remaining committed to a long-term project like this [nuclear modernization] without basically messing with it and screwing it up."

The rising cost of the nuclear weapons mission is forcing hard choices for the Pentagon as to what other priorities must be cut back. In both the FY 2021 and FY 2022 budget requests, the Pentagon proposed cutting the Navy’s conventional shipbuilding account in order to pay for unplanned cost overruns for nuclear modernization.

The NNSA warhead and infrastructure modernization effort in particular has experienced significant cost overruns and schedule delays. Spending on NNSA weapons activities grew by nearly 70 percent during the Trump administration.

A 2018 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued in 2018 warned that the “NNSA’s plans to modernize its nuclear weapons do not align with its budget, raising affordability concerns.” And former agency administrator Frank Klotz said in a January 2018 interview given just two days after leaving office that the agency is “working pretty much at full capacity.”

In March 2020, Allison Bawden from the GAO expressed to the House Armed Services Committee that the NNSA has “not addressed the projected bow wave of future funding needs and the mismatch between those needs and the potential funding available in the years in question.” As a result, Bawden said, “the NNSA raised questions about its ability to achieve its modernization program goals at cost and on schedule.”

Nuclear Modernization Snapshot

The overall nuclear modernization effort includes:

  • Modernized Strategic Delivery Systems: Existing U.S. nuclear delivery systems are undergoing continual modernization, including complete rebuilds of the Minuteman III ICBM and Trident II SLBM. The service lives of the Navy’s 14 Trident Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines are being extended. Additionally, a new submarine, the Columbia-class, which will replace the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, is undergoing development and is expected to cost $127 billion to acquire the 12-ship class, according to a March 2020 report by the Congressional Research Service. The B-2 strategic bomber, a relatively new system, is being upgraded, as is the B-52H bomber. The Air Force is also planning a new strategic bomber, the B-21 Raider, and a new nuclear-capable cruise missile, known as the Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO) to replace the existing Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM).
  • Refurbished Nuclear Warheads: The U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads and bombs is continually refurbished through NNSA’s Life Extension Program (LEP). Existing warheads are certified annually to be safe and reliable. The NNSA is currently pursuing a controversial and expensive plan to refurbish or replace nearly every warhead type in the stockpile.
  • Modernized Production Complex: The nuclear weapons production complex is being modernized as well, with new facilities planned and funded. For example, the FY 2021 NNSA budget request includes $750 million for the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The total construction cost for UPF is estimated at $6.5 – 7.5 billion, according to an independent study conducted by the Corps of Engineers, although some estimates put the price tag at $11 billion. NNSA has has pledged to complete construction by 2025 at a price tag of no more than $6.5 billion.
  • Command and Control Systems: The Defense Department maintains command, control, communications, and early-warning systems that allow operators to communicate with nuclear forces, issue commands that control their use, and detect or rule out incoming attacks. The 2018 NPR calls for placing greater attention and focus on sustaining and upgrading command and control capabilities. The CBO estimates that the Pentagon will need to spend $77 billion on these activities between FY 2019 and FY 2028 in order to implement the department’s plans.

Nuclear Modernization Overview

The following is a status update of existing programs to enhance the nuclear stockpile and modernize the delivery systems that make up each element of the U.S. nuclear triad.

1. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)

The United States Air Force currently deploys about 400 Minuteman III ICBMs (as of September 1, 2020) located across three wings: the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming; the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana; and the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. U.S. nuclear-armed ICBMs are on high alert, meaning the missiles can be fired within minutes of a presidential decision to do so. Under New START, the United States maintains 50 extra missile silos in a "warm" reserve status.

Today's Minuteman weapon system is the product of almost 40 years of continuous enhancement. The Pentagon has spent more than $7 billion over the past 15 years on life extension efforts to keep the ICBMs safe, secure, and reliable through 2030. This modernization program has resulted in an essentially "new" missile, expanded targeting options, and improved accuracy and survivability.

Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent

The Air Force is planning to replace the Minuteman III missile, its supporting launch control facilities, and command and control infrastructure with a program known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) after 2030.

The Air Force intends to purchase over 650 new missiles, 400 of which would be operationally deployed through the 2070s. The remaining missiles would be used for test flights and as spares. The service is seeking to make significant capability upgrades as part of the recapitalization program. The Pentagon in August 2016 set the estimated acquisition cost of the program at $85 billion and the total life-cycle cost at $238 billion (in then-year dollars). The $85 billion estimate is at the lower-end of an independent Pentagon cost-estimate that put the acquisition price tag as high as $150 billion. Bloomberg reported in October 2020 that the Pentagon has updated the estimated cost of the program to between $93.1 billion and $95.8 billion and the total life-cycle cost at $264 billion.

The Air Force awarded contracts to both Boeing Company and Northrop Grumman to continue development and begin design of the new ICBM system in August 2017, but Boeing withdrew from the competition in July 2019. The Air Force awarded a $13.3 billion development contract to the Northrop in September 2020.

Congress authorized $2.6 billion for the GBSD program for FY 2022.

W78 and W87 Warheads

The Air Force has also upgraded the Minuteman’s nuclear warheads by partially replacing older W78 warheads with newer and more powerful W87 warheads, formerly deployed on the now-retired MX Peacekeeper ICBMs. The W87 entered the U.S. stockpile in 1986, making it one of the newest warheads in the arsenal with the most modern safety and security features, including insensitive high explosive and a fire-resistant pit design, which can help to minimize the possibility of plutonium dispersal in the event of an accident. Under a 2004 LEP, the W87 warhead was refurbished to extend its service life past 2025.

NNSA proposed a joint LEP to field a common, refurbished warhead to replace the W78 and W88 (see SLBMs, below). Congress approved NNSA's 2014 proposal to delay production of this warhead by five years from 2025 to 2030. However, the 2018 NPR proposed to accelerate the program by one year, and the NNSA begun work on a life extension program for the W78 warhead, calling it the W87-1 modification program in order to reflect the similar design to that warhead, in FY 2019 with a $53 million appropriation from Congress. In 2018, the NNSA dropped the proposal for a common warhead to focus solely on the W87-1 ICBM warhead.

The W87-1 warhead is set to be fielded on the GBSD by 2030 and projected to cost $11-16 billion, not including the cost of producing new plutonium pits, which adds $14-28 billion.

Congress authorized $691 million for this warhead modification program for FY 2022.

2. Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) and Submarines

The Navy deploys, as of September 1, 2020, 230 Trident II D5 SLBMs. The Navy operates a total fleet of 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) based out of Bangor, Washington, (8 boats) and Kings Bay, Georgia (6 boats), though only 12 are considered operational at any given time. Four to five submarines are believed to be "on station" in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans ready to fire their missiles at targets at any given time.The Ohio-class submarines have a service life of 42 years — two 20-year cycles with a two-year mid-life nuclear refueling.

The Ohio-class SSBNs were first deployed in 1981 and will reach the end of their services at a rate of approximately one boat per year between 2027 and 2040. The Navy plans to replace the Ohio-class starting in October 2030 with a new class of 12 ballistic missile submarines, now referred to as the Columbia-class. The Navy originally planned to begin using the replacement boats in 2029, but in 2012, the Pentagon announced a two-year delay to the replacement program. This pushed back completion of the first new submarine and its first deterrent patrol to 2031. The Navy has named the Columbia-class program its highest priority.

The Navy purchased the first Columbia-class submarine in 2021 and plans to procure the second in 2024 and then one per year between 2026 and 2035. The first vessel is scheduled to become operational in 2031. As a result, the Navy will field 10 ballistic missile submarines between 2033 and 2042.

Under New START, each Ohio-class submarine serves as a launch platform for up to 20 SLBMs loaded with up to eight warheads each, or 280 total SLBMs. The Columbia-class will carry up to 16 SLBMs, for a maximum of 192 deployed SLBMs when the fleet is fully converted to the new boats in 2042.

In its FY 2021 budget request, the Navy stated that the procurement of the 12-ship Columbia-class will be $109.8 billion in then-year dollars. In 2017, however, the estimated the cost to develop and buy the submarines was $128 billion in then-year dollars, with the total life-cycle cost at $267 billion. A GAO report on the Columbia class program published in December 2017 warned that the program is not adequately funded to address program risks and that the acquisition cost is likely to exceed $128 billion. An April 2019 GAO report also concluded that the Navy’s estimate was “not reliable.”

Congress authorized $5.1 billion for the program for FY 2022.

Trident II D5 Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles

First deployed in 1990, the force of Trident II D5 SLBMs has been successfully tested over 160 times since design completion in 1989 and is continuously evaluated. (By contrast, Russia's newest SLBM, the Bulava, has failed in roughly half its flight tests.) Each Trident ballistic missile can carry up to 8 warheads but normally carry an average of 3-4 warheads.

First announced in 2002, the Trident II D5 life-extension program has been underway to modernize key components (notably the electronics), allow it to serve as the initial missile on the Columbia-class submarines, and extend the life of the missile until 2042. The first D5LE missiles were loaded onto the submarines in 2017.

The Navy announced in 2019 that it would pursue a second life-extension program (D5LE2) for the missiles to ensure they can operate for another 60 years, through 2084.

W76, W88, and W93 Warheads

The D5 SLBMs are armed with approximately 1,511 W76-1, 25 W76-2, and 384 W88 warheads.

The W76-1 warhead has an estimated yield of 90-100 kilotons and completed in 2019 a life-extension program to lengthen its service life for an additional 30 years. The new W76-2 warhead, first proposed in the 2018 NPR, has an estimated yield of 8 kilotons and was initially deployed at the end of 2019.

The W88 warhead entered the stockpile in 1989. The first production unit of the W88 Alt 370 program—which replaces the arming, fuzing, and firing subsystem, refreshes the conventional high explosives within the weapon, and supports future life extension options—was initially scheduled for 2020, but did not occur until July 2021.

The NNSA requested and received initial funding for a new W93 warhead (previously known as the “next Navy warhead”) in FY 2021, two years ahead of schedule. The Pentagon plans to have the new warhead eventually replace the W76 and W88 warheads on life-extended Trident II missiles. The Navy aims to also design a new reentry body, known as the MK7 aeroshell, to house the W93 when it is deployed on Trident II missiles.

3. Strategic Bombers

The United States Air Force operates a total fleet of 20 (of which 12 are deployed) B-2 Spirit bombers at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, and 46 (of which 36 are deployed) nuclear-capable B-52H Stratofortress bombers at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, and Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, that can all be equipped for nuclear missions as of September 1, 2020.

B-52H Bomber

First deployed in 1961, the B-52H fleet has an on-going modification program, beginning in 1989, to incorporate updates to the global positioning system, update the weapons capabilities to accommodate a full array of advanced weapons developed after the procurement of the B-52H, and modify the heavy stores adapter beams to allow the B-52H to carry up to 2,000 pound munitions and a total of 70,000 pounds of mixed ordnance armaments. The heavy bombers are currently receiving upgrades to their communications and electronics systems.

The B-52H is no longer assigned to carry gravity bombs and instead can carry up to 20 air-launched cruise missiles. The Air Force operates a total of 87 B-52H bombers, with 46 being nuclear-capable and the rest conventional.

The B-52H is expected to remain in service into the 2050s.

B-2 Bomber

The Air Force continually modernizes the B-2 fleet, which first became operational in 1997 and is expected to last through 2058.

The B-2 bomber can carry up to 16 nuclear gravity bombs, both the B61 and B83, but not cruise missiles. The bomber can also carry conventional weapons.

The Air Force announced in February 2018 that "once sufficient B-21 aircraft are operational, the B-1s and B-2s will be incrementally retired."

B-21 Bomber

The Air Force is planning to purchase at least 100 new, dual-capable long-range penetrating bombers that will begin to enter service in 2025 and replace the B-1 and B-2 bombers (and perhaps the B-52H in the future). The new bomber is known as the B-21 Raider. Much about this long-range bomber remains classified, including its speed, payload, stealthy characteristics, and production schedule. The Air Force awarded the contract to Northrop Grumman in October 2015 to begin developing the B-21 program.

The Pentagon has estimated that the average procurement cost per aircraft to be around $550 million and the cost to develop, purchase, and operate 100 bombers over 30 years to be $203 billion (all in FY 2019 dollars). This latter cost includes $25.1 billion for development, $64 billion for production, and $114 billion for 30 years of sustainment and operation.

The Air Force said in September 2021 that five B-21s were in production. Congress authorized $3 billion for the B-21 bomber program for FY 2022.

Air-Launched Cruise Missile and Long-Range Standoff Cruise Missile

The B-52H carries the AGM-86 air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), first deployed in 1982. Each ALCM carries a W80-1 warhead, first produced in 1982.

As of 2021, the Air Force retains roughly 530 nuclear-capable ALCMs, of which roughly 200 are believed to be deployed at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.

Some reports indicate that the reliability of the ALCM could be in jeopardy due to aging components which are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.

The Air Force is developing the long-range standoff cruise missile (LRSO) to replace the existing ALCM (AGM-86B) in 2030. The new missile will be compatible with the B-2 and B-52H bombers, as well as the planned B-21. The first missile is slated to be produced in 2026. The LRSO would carry the refurbished W80-4 warhead.

The current Air Force procurement plan for the LRSO calls for about 1,000 new nuclear-capable missiles, roughly double the size of the existing fleet of ALCMs. According to the service, the planned purchase of 1,000 missiles includes far more missiles than it plans to arm and deploy with nuclear warheads.

The Air Force announced in April 2020 that Raytheon would be the sole contractor for the development of the LRSO and awarded a $2 billion development contract to the company in July 2021.

In 2016, the Pentagon projected the cost of the LRSO program to be about $11 billion (in then-year dollars). The department updated the cost assessment in 2021 to be between $14.2 billion and $16.2 billion (in then-year dollars). The 2021 projection did not include the cost of the W80-4 warhead, which is expected to cost an additional $11 billion.

Congress authorized $609 million for the LRSO program for FY 2022 and $1.1 billion for the W80-4 LEP.

B61 and B83 Warheads

The B-2 carries the B61 and B83 strategic gravity bombs. The B61, first deployed in 1968, has several mods in the current stockpile: 3, 4, 7, and 11. The B61-3 and B61-4 are non-strategic weapons deployed in Europe for NATO aircraft as part of America’s extended nuclear commitment. The B61-7 and B61-11 are strategic weapons deployed on the B-2 bomber.

The NNSA is conducting a life-extension program for the B61 to extend its life for an additional 20 years. The ongoing B61 LEP would combine mods 3, 4, and 7 into a single low-yield bomb, the B61-12, and ensure compatibility with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The B61-12 began production in 2020 and completed the first production unit in November 2021. The LEP is expected to conclude in FY 2026.

An assessment of the B61 LEP in 2016 put the direct cost of the program at $7.6 billion, an increase of $200 million over the NNSA’s estimate of $7.4 billion provided in its FY 2017 budget materials. The NNSA’s independent Office of Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation, however, told the GAO that its assessment of the program projects a total cost of approximately $10 billion and a two-year delay to the agency’s estimated March 2020 first production-unit date.

The upgraded B61 will be equipped with a new tail-kit guidance assembly that will make the bomb more accurate and allow it to have a lower yield than some of the existing variants. The new tail kit is being developed by the Air Force and is estimated to cost $1.3 billion.

The B83 was first produced in 1983, making it one of the newer weapons in the stockpile and the only remaining megaton-class weapon in the stockpile. The B83 has the most modern safety and security features, including insensitive high explosive and a fire-resistant pit.

The Obama administration stated that the B83 would be retired once confidence in the B61-12 is projected to be achieved in the mid 2020s. However, the 2018 NPR reverses this decision and calls for retaining the B83 until a suitable replacement is found, and the Biden administration has not yet altered this plan.