The Myth of American Nuclear Obsolescence

Jon B. Wolfsthal
February 24, 2014

The Pentagon. Source:

The Pentagon. Source:

One of the greatest national security myths being put out in Washington is that the United States is the only nuclear weapon state not modernizing its nuclear arsenal. This allegation, made by Republicans both before and after the Senate passage of New START Treaty, is a convenient talking point that even made it into the Republican National Committee Platform for Mitt Romney in 2012.

The only problem is it is not true. The United States is, in fact, engaged in the world’s largest and most expensive nuclear weapons modernization program. Every aspect of the US nuclear deterrent is being modernized and updated, and has been significantly increased since George W. Bush left office. Moreover, America is on pace to match the size of the Reagan nuclear build up during the 1980s, despite the very changed security and economic realities facing our nation. White House budget requests for nuclear weapons are reaching historic levels, levels the Congress has been unable or unwilling to fully fund. With good reason. Fully implementing the current modernization plans on the books will cost the United States over $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

In fact, over a ten year period in the next decade the United States will build a deploy more nuclear weapons launchers than are currently contained in the nuclear arsenals of China, France and the UK combined.

Land-Based Missiles

The United States is close to completing a $7 Billion life extension program for its 450 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles – the Minuteman III. Originally deployed in the 1970s, this missile has undergone a complete modernization from its engines to its guidance system and is tipped with the some of the most modern and capable nuclear weapons in the US arsenal – the W-78 and W-87 warheads. Completion of the ICBM LEP will ensure that it remains reliable until at least 2030. The Air Force is currently conducting an Assessment of Alternatives for replacing the Minuteman but it looks increasingly like the current system can and will be maintained for the foreseeable future.

Submarines and Submarine-Based Weapons

The United States currently maintains 14 Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic submarines, all armed with the Trident D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile. This force is to be replaced with an entire new class of submarines starting early in the next decade. Currently, the United States plans to buy 12 of these submarines at a cost of $7 billion each. Work on the replacement nuclear reactor to fuel this fleet is nearing completion as well.

The Trident D-5 missiles on board the current generation of US submarines are highly accurate and is tipped with W-76 and W-88 warheads. The new submarines will carry the same missiles and warheads. The W-76 is in the final stages of undergoing a complete life extension program at a cost of over $4 billion. This extensive refurbished warhead will remain safe, secure and effective for the next 30 years, and perhaps even longer. The W-88 is the a highly reliable warhead, yet there are plans to perform a life extension program on it to ensure its long-term reliability.

Air-Delivered Nuclear Weapons

The oldest leg of the nuclear triad is the B-52 long range bomber, but this aging fleet of aircraft is supplemented with the modern B-2 stealth nuclear-capable bombers. Even so, the B-52 has undergone extensive upgrades over the last decades and has advanced avionics, communications and fire control systems. The B-2 bomber is the most modern nuclear-capable aircraft in the world. The United States is beginning to develop a new fleet of nuclear-capable bombers, now estimated to cost $100 billion including procurement and research and development funds. At the same time, the U.S. is building a fleet of F-35 fighter/bomber aircraft that will also be able to deliver nuclear weapons in a tactical role. The F-35 may cost as much as $200 million per aircraft.

The nuclear bomb assigned to the new bomber and F-35 will be the B-61, which is currently undergoing a $10 billion life extension program. The more modern version of this weapon is expected to begin operations before the end of this decade.

To support all of these programs, the United States is also spending between approximately $5 billion per year to maintain and modernize the complex of nuclear facilities that ensure our weapons work as intended. While some aspects of this modernization plans have been deferred because of Congressional funding restrictions, the White House has requested almost $2 billion more per year than it did under President Bush for NNSA-related nuclear activities. The directors of the National Laboratories themselves said in 2010 that they know more about how nuclear weapons work now because of the investments made than we did in the era of live nuclear weapons testing.

Facts Don’t Lie

If the US is engaged in the largest nuclear modernization on earth, comparable to that pursued by Ronald Reagan, then why does the myth of our nuclear obsolescence persist? The facts prove it is not correct, but the narrative seems to have stuck. The truth appears to lie in two historical trends. The first is that when the party in power, Democrat or Republican, try to reduce the number of nuclear weapons we have, the opposition claims these cuts are dangerous and reckless. When George Bush tried to reduce the US force to 2200 offensive weapons, Democrats complained because this was not being done in a treaty with verification provisions with Russia. This approach in fact led President Obama to rely on former President Bush’s nuclear employment guidance in order to rapidly negotiate the New START treaty. Ironically, even those cuts – derived from President Bush’s strategy – had trouble getting Republican support in the Senate. Now that President Obama has determined for himself as commander-in-chief that the US could go to even lower numbers, critics in the other party are again crying foul. The second trend is the long-standing view that nuclear weapons, cited as the ultimate guarantor of American security are cheap. Former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said so last summer when justifying why nuclear forces had been exempted from the effects of the sequester. Yet, while maintaining nuclear weapons may be inexpensive compared to the costs of everything else in the Pentagon, the costs of modernizing the force are anything but. And as the costs for modernizing the arsenal grow, they compete with dollars from other defense projects. Those Senators and Congressmen in states who benefit from the nuclear force are often the most vocal in calling for modernization dollars to be spent on nuclear missions.

The plain truth is that US has a large and diverse nuclear arsenal and that arsenal is expensive. We possess the arsenal to deter other states and reassure our friends and allies, and this mission remains of importance to our security. But nuclear weapons are less central to our security than they were one, two or three decades ago and reductions in the size and mission of our nuclear arsenal make sense. As these weapons age, some will need to be replaced and that will cost money. But decisions about how much to spend on our nuclear arsenal should be made on the basis of fact, not political fantasy. As we determine what level of nuclear forces are required, the costs have to be balanced against what else that money can be spent on – in defense, domestic and other arenas. Nuclear spending, to put it into terms a nuclear theorist would love, is now a zero sum game and it is time to start making some smart choices.

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