The U.S. Nuclear Recapitalization Program: Obama’s Down Payment to Trump’s Expansion
The United States currently possesses approximately 3,800 active nuclear warheads, down from a mid-1960s high of over 30,000.8 Of that amount, approximately 1,600 warheads are deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and at strategic bomber bases. An additional 150 non-strategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons are believed to deployed at military bases in five European countries.
The United States maintains a nuclear triad, meaning it can deliver nuclear weapons by land, sea, and air. In reality, however, the Defense Department has five distinct ways to deliver a nuclear weapon. It can launch a warhead from a Minuteman III ICBM housed in an underground silo or a Trident II (D-5) SLBM carried on an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). It can drop a gravity bomb directly from a long-range, nuclear-capable B-2 bomber or fire a nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) from a long-range, nuclear-capable B-52 bomber. And it can deliver gravity bombs from shorter-range, nuclear-capable fighter aircraft.
As of September 1, 2018, the U.S. State Department reported that it deploys approximately 1,398 accountable strategic warheads on 659 long-range delivery systems (ballistic missiles and bombers) under the counting rules of New START.9 The treaty limits the strategic forces of the United States and Russia to no more than 1,550 deployed warheads, 700 deployed delivery systems, and 800 deployed and non-deployed launchers of missiles and bombers.
During the Cold War, the United States replaced its nuclear forces in two major waves. The first wave, which took place between 1951 and 1965, saw the Defense Department devote up to 17 percent of its annual budget to building and maintaining nuclear weapons, according to the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).10 Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan oversaw a second wave that lasted for over a decade and peaked at nearly 11 percent of department spending.11 This wave produced the Ohio-class submarine, the AGM-86B ALCM, the B-1 bomber, the MX Peacekeeper ICBM, B-2 bomber, and the W80, B83, W87, and W88 warheads. With the exception of the Peacekeeper ICBM and the B-1 bomber, which is no longer part of the nuclear mission, all of these weapons remain in the arsenal today.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, nuclear spending dropped, as did military spending more generally.12 But while the defense budget at large climbed back up after the September 11th terrorist attacks, nuclear weapons spending remained relatively flat.13 Between 2001 and 2017, it comprised no more than four percent of Pentagon spending.
Other nuclear-armed states, notably Russia and China, are upgrading their arsenals and have tested, produced, and deployed more brand-new weapons than the United States over the past decade. But this does not mean the United States has fallen behind.14 The U.S. military has refurbished and improved nearly all of its existing strategic and tactical delivery systems and many of the warheads they carry to last well beyond their planned service life. Though decades old, these forces are more capable than the originals. Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee in March 2017 that while Russia and China continue to modernize their nuclear forces, “we do have a qualitative advantage.”15
But the U.S. government argues that incremental upgrades of the current arsenal are no longer feasible nor advisable and that today’s arsenal requires a third wave of major recapitalization. As former Defense Secretary Ash Carter in a September 2016 speech in Minot, North Dakota, “it’s not a choice between replacing these platforms or keeping [them], it’s really a choice between replacing them or losing them.”16 The Obama administration committed to a major overhaul of the arsenal in 2010, part of its effort to win Republican support in the Senate for New START.17 Not only has the Trump administration continued this effort, it has expanded upon it with proposals for new weapons and infrastructure.
The Obama Down Payment
The Obama administration’s 2010 NPR endorsed the continued maintenance of a nuclear triad. In a message to the Senate on February 2, 2011, following the Senate’s approval of New START in December 2010, President Obama stated:
“I intend to (a) modernize or replace the triad of strategic nuclear delivery systems: a heavy bomber and air- launched cruise missile, an ICBM, and a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) and SLBM; and (b) maintain the United States rocket motor industrial base.”18
The administration based its plans to rebuild the arsenal on maintaining a force structure under New START consisting of 240 deployed SLBMs, 400 deployed ICBMs, and 60 deployed long-range bombers.19 The plans aimed to replace existing strategic nuclear delivery systems with similar numbers of new or refurbished systems. Initially there wasn’t a commitment to a single modernization approach, such as building a new ICBM instead of modernizing the existing Minuteman III.20 But by 2016 many aspects of the plans went well beyond what was envisioned in 2010, notably programs to develop a new ICBM and interoperable ballistic missile warheads.
Obama’s commitment to recapitalize the arsenal was part of a larger agenda that aimed to reduce nuclear weapons risks. Obama delivered his first major foreign policy address as president on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation in Prague on April 5, 2009.21 The speech outlined his vision for strengthening global efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and moving forward on practical, immediate steps “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Notable achievements of this agenda included securing vulnerable nuclear materials around the world through the nuclear security summit process, taking measures (such as committing not to develop new warheads with new capabilities) to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy, negotiating New START (and gaining U.S. Senate approval), and spearheading six-party talks that concluded in the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.22 But other key administration priorities, such as stopping the advance of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, achieving further reductions beyond New START, and ratifying the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), were not fulfilled.
Following an interagency review, Obama determined in 2013 that the United States could further reduce the size of the deployed arsenal by up to one-third from 1,550 New START-accountable deployed strategic warheads to about 1,000 (or about 1,300 actual warheads when counting gravity bombs and ALCMs stored at bomber bases).23 Yet Obama did not immediately reduce the size of the arsenal, despite the review’s conclusion that deterrence could be achieved by even a unilateral reduction.24 Instead the administration invited Russia to negotiate a further one-third reduction of each country’s strategic nuclear arms. But Moscow repeatedly rebuffed the offer.
In an October 2017 report titled Approaches for Managing the Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017 to 2046, the CBO estimated that the Obama administration’s plans to maintain and replace the arsenal over 30 years would cost $1.2 trillion in fiscal year 2017 constant dollars.25 When the effects of inflation were included, the estimated total cost approached $1.7 trillion. The CBO projection included about $400 billion in modernization spending that falls largely in the period between the early 2020s and late 2030s, as well as $843 billion in relatively stable, though steadily increasing, operations and sustainment costs over the entire 30-year period for the current generation of forces and new forces once they enter service.
Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, by Department and Function, 2017 to 2046
Billions of 2017 Dollars
The CBO estimate captured spending on the triad of nuclear delivery systems, on command and control systems at the Defense Department, and on nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure at the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Most of the programs to buy new systems are in the early stages, and a few others have yet to begin.
The projection included the full cost of the long-range bomber leg of the triad, which has nuclear and non-nuclear missions, and an estimate of additional costs based on historical cost growth. It also included $25 billion to sustain and replace tactical nuclear delivery systems and a portion of the cost of the low-yield B61 gravity bombs they carry. Annual costs were slated to peak at about $50 billion during the late 2020s and early 2030s. During this period, nuclear weapons would consume about eight percent of total national defense spending and, during the early 2030s, 15 percent of the Defense Department’s acquisition costs.26
The CBO’s estimate of $400 billion in nuclear modernization spending might have been a best-case scenario. Because the Defense Department has not built SSBNs or (especially) ICBMs in a long time, the confidence levels in the cost estimates for the Columbia-class submarine program, which is slated to replace the Ohio-class submarine, and the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), which would replace the Minuteman III ICBM system, are relatively low.27 This means that, even if the programs are managed well, they could end up costing a lot more than the estimates project. The Columbia class and GBSD programs, as well as the plan to replace the B-2 and later the B-52 with the B-21 “Raider,” could each cost as much as $150 billion after including the effects of inflation, easily putting them among the top 10 most expensive Pentagon acquisition programs.28
Key Components of the Obama Nuclear Recapitalization Program
|Columbia Class SSBN||Would replace the current fleet of 14 Ohio-class submarines with 12 new submarines. The first new submarine is scheduled to be purchased in 2021 and enter service in 2031. The new submarines are slated to remain in service though the 2080s. The program’s Milestone B decision occurred in January 2017. The prime contractor is General Dynamics Electric Boat.||The Navy estimates the acquisition cost of the program at $128 billion in thenyear dollars. However, according to the Government Accountability Office, “it is more likely than not that the” program will exceed this cost because “the Navy has budgeted the submarine to a confidence level for the program that is lower than what experts recommend.” The CBO estimates the program will cost roughly $10 billion more in FY 2018 dollars than the Navy’s projection. Roughly $14 billion has been appropriated for the program through FY 2019.|
|B-21 "Raider" Long-Range Strategic Bomber||Would initially replace the B-1 and B-2 bombers. The current plan is to procure at least 100 new bombers that would begin to enter service in the late-2020s and be capable of penetrating the most advanced adversary air defenses. The Air Force has refused to release the value of the EMD contract awarded to Northrop Grumman Corp. in October 2015 to develop the B-21 and purchase the first 21 aircraft citing classification concerns.||The CBO estimates the cost of the program at $97 billion (in FY 2017 dollars). The Pentagon projects the cost of each bomber at between $564 million and $606 million in FY 2016 dollars assuming the purchase of 100 aircraft. The Defense Department attributes 5% of the acquisition cost of the program to the nuclear mission. Over $8 billion has been appropriated for the program through FY 2019.|
|Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD)||Would replace the current Minuteman III ICBM system and its supporting infrastructure. GBSD is slated for initial fielding in FY 2028. The Air Force is planning to procure 666 GBSD missiles to ensure a deployed force of 400 missiles through 2070. In August 2017 the Air Force selected Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp. to proceed with development of GBSD. The program’s Milestone B decision is slated for FY 2020.||An independent Pentagon cost estimate conducted in 2016 put GBSD's price tag at between $85 billion and $150 billion (in then-year dollars), well above the Air Force's initial estimate of $62 billion. Pentagon officials ultimately approved the $85 billion figure as the initial official cost of the program. Nearly $900 million has been appropriated for the program through FY 2019.|
|Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO)||Would develop a replacement for the AGM-86B air launched cruise missile (ALCM). The new missile would be compatible with the B-2 and B-52 bombers, as well as the planned B-21 “Raider” and be capable of penetrating the most advanced adversary air defenses. The first missile is slated to be produced in 2026. The current plan calls for about 1,000 new missiles. In August 2017 the Air Force awarded two $900 million contracts to Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co. to proceed with development of LRSO. The program’s Milestone B decision is slated for FY 2022.||The Air Force estimates the program will cost $10.8 billion in then-year dollars to acquire. Nearly $1.3 billion has been appropriated for the program though FY 2019.|
|Nuclear Capability for F-35A Joint Strike Fighter||Would allow the Air Force to retain and forward deploy a dual-capable fighter aircraft, a role currently filled by the F-15E and F-16 in support of NATO commitments. The Air Force plans to provide Block 4A and Block 4B versions of the F-35A with the ability to carry the B61-12 by 2022.||The CBO estimated in 2013 that it would cost about $350 million to finish developing the modifications to make the F-35 nuclear-capable. This does not include the costs for implementing those modifications. Roughly $160 million has been appropriated for the program through FY 2019.|
|B61 mod 12 tail kit||Would provide the B61-12 (a life extension program overseen by NNSA) with a new guided tail kit that would increase the accuracy of the weapon. The Air Force is currently planning to procure over 800 tail kits. The program also supports integration of the B61-12 on existing long-range bombers and short-range fighter aircraft.||The Air Force estimates the tail kit will cost $1.6 billion in then-year dollars to develop. A 2013 Pentagon report put the total life-cycle cost for the program at $3.7 billion. About $740 million has been appropriated for the program through FY 2019.|
|B61 mod 12 LEP||Would refurbish the aging B61 nuclear gravity bomb by consolidating four of the five existing versions of the bomb into a single weapon known as the B61-12. The first bomb is slated to be produced in 2020. The upgraded weapon would be equipped with a new tail-kit guidance assembly (see above) and is expected to last for 20–30 years.||NNSA estimates the cost of the LEP at $7.6 billion in then-year dollars but the agency’s independent cost estimate projects the cost at $10 billion and thinks the programs will take longer to complete. Over $4.5 billion has been appropriated for the program through FY 2019.|
|W80-4 LEP||Would refurbish the aging ALCM warhead for delivery on the LRSO (see above). The first refurbished warhead is scheduled for production in 2025.||NNSA estimates the cost of the program at between $7.6-$11.7 billion in then-year dollars. Roughly $1.5 billion has been appropriated for the program through FY 2019.|
|W78 LEP||Would refurbish the aging W78 ICBM warhead for delivery on GBSD (see above). The Obama-era plan was to replace the warhead with an interoperable warhead for deployment on both ICBMs and SLBMs that would eventually replace the W78 and W88 warheads.||NNSA estimates the cost of the program will be between $9.9–$15.1 billion in then-year dollars. $53 million has been appropriated for the program through FY 2019.|
The projected cost to replace the Defense Department’s command, control, communications, and early-warning systems and NNSA’s nuclear infrastructure may also be understated. The Pentagon’s command-and-control network allows operators to communicate with nuclear forces, issue commands that control their use, and detect or rule out incoming attacks. The report projected $184 billion in spending on command-and-control systems over 30 years. But the budget office noted that while many of these systems “need to be modernized,” the “plans to do so are generally not yet well defined. For that reason, they have not been included in CBO’s estimates of costs (except to the extent that they are included in… existing budgets).”
The report projected the 30-year cost to operate and replace the complex of design laboratories and production facilities that provide the engineering and scientific capabilities required to sustain warheads at $261 billion. But as of the end of the Obama administration, plans for several NNSA priorities, such as building new plutonium production capabilities and reducing the number of aging facilities that require maintenance, had yet to be fully developed.
Congress largely supported the Obama administration’s spending plans, though not without controversy. For example, the Democrat-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee sought to scale back NNSA’s plans for the B61-12 life extension program (LEP) in 2013 and block funding for the W80-4 ALCM warhead LEP in 2014.29 The vast majority of Democrats in the House also opposed elements of the recapitalization program, notably the plans to replace the ALCM with the long-range standoff weapon (LRSO) and the ALCM warhead with the W80-4.
In 2016 during his last year in office, Obama evaluated several options to adjust the nuclear weapons spending programs in the face of concerns about the need, growing scope, and affordability of the recapitalization effort.30 These included reducing the number and diversity of deployed strategic nuclear weapons consistent with Obama’s determination in 2013 that the arsenal could be reduced by up to one-third below New START limits, appointing a blue ribbon presidential commission to assess and identify possible alternatives to the recapitalization plans, and delaying the planned purchase of a new fleet of 1,000 nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles. Yet no action was taken to adjust the plans.
The Trump Nuclear Expansion
In December 2016, President-Elect Donald Trump tweeted that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability” and later told MSNBC that he would “outmatch” and “outlast” other potential competitors in a nuclear arms race.31 The Trump administration’s NPR, released in February 2018, comports with this objective by reaffirming the Obama administration’s recapitalization plans, calling for new warheads and new missiles to counter Russia and more bomb production infrastructure at NNSA, and treating arms control and nonproliferation largely as an afterthought.
In January 2019, the CBO published the latest iteration of its biennial report estimating the 10- year costs of U.S. nuclear forces. The report, which covers the period between fiscal years 2019 and 2028, projects the cost of the Trump administration’s nuclear spending plans at $494 billion in then-year dollars.32 This is an increase of $94 billion, or about 23 percent, above the CBO’s 2017 estimate as of the end of the Obama administration.33 By 2028 nuclear weapons would consume about seven percent of total national defense spending.
Of the $94 billion increase, 55 percent is due to the report capturing two additional years of recapitalization spending during the late 2020s, 39 percent is due to the additions proposed in the Trump NPR and rising costs of other programs, particularly command-and-control systems, and the last six percent is due to a higher estimate of cost growth. The CBO estimates that implementing the NPR’s recommendations to build two new low-yield nuclear weapons and increase the U.S. capacity to produce plutonium pits would cost $17 billion over the next decade, although the estimate is very uncertain.
The Trump administration’s plan to withdraw from the INF Treaty in August 2019 if Russia doesn’t return to compliance and the apparent lack of interest in extending New START could further increase the price tag. In particular, the verifiable New START caps on Russian deployed nuclear forces aid U.S. military and intelligence planning by reducing the need to make worst-case assessments that might prompt additional costly nuclear force and intelligence investments. Russia already has open production lines for warheads and new strategic delivery systems and in the absence of New START could build additional weapons faster than the United States
However, a 2012 Defense Department report concluded that the U.S. force structure under New START “has been designed to account for any possible adjustments in the Russian strategic force configurations that may be implemented in response to the New START Treaty.”34 The report added that Russia “would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario under the New START Treaty, primarily because of the inherent survivability of the planned U.S. strategic force structure, particularly the Ohio class ballistic missile submarines, a number of which are at sea at any given time.”
The Trump NPR states that “DoD and NNSA
will develop a low-yield SLBM warhead to
ensure a prompt response option that is able
to penetrate adversary defenses.” NNSA has
begun production of the warhead and aims to
complete production by the end of FY 2019.
NNSA requested $65 million for the W76-2 in
FY 2019. Congress authorized and approved
this request. The Pentagon and NNSA anticipate
spending a total of about $125 million to develop
and produce the warhead modification.
According to the Trump NPR, a new SLCM
“will provide a needed non-strategic regional
presence, an assured response capability,
and an INF-Treaty compliant response
to Russia’s continuing Treaty violation.”
Development is estimated to take 7–10 years.
The Pentagon requested and Congress approved
$1 million in FY 2019 to begin an analysis of the
performance requirements and costs to pursue
a new SLCM. The CBO projects a new SLCM
and its associated warhead will cost $9 billion
in then-year dollars from 2019 to 2028. The cost
to develop the capability is uncertain given
the administration has yet to decide on what
approach to pursue.
the B83 Until
The Trump NPR seeks to retain the highyield B83-1 gravity bomb, until a suitable
replacement is found. The decision reverses
the Obama administration’s proposal to
retire the warhead once confidence in the
under-development B61-12 is achieved by the
mid- to late-2020s. According to NNSA’s FY
2019 Stockpile Stewardship and Management
Plan (SSMP), the agency is coordinating
with the Pentagon to determine the period
for sustaining the B83 and the schedule for
restarting limited refurbishment programs
In 2013 NNSA estimated that it would cost
$4 billion (in FY 2012 dollars) to sustain the
warhead through the 2030s and an additional
$7 to $9 billion to extend the warhead’s life
at least 80
Per Year By 2030
The Trump NPR calls for building “the
enduring capability and capacity to produce
plutonium pits at a rate of no fewer than 80
pits per year by 2030.” No basis is offered
for this minimum capacity target, which
is an increase over the requirement of
50–80 pits mandated by Congress during
the Obama administration
The CBO projects that expanding pit production
will cost $9 billion in then-year dollars from
2019 to 2028, although that estimate is very
uncertain. According to a May 2018 internal
NNSA assessment, producing plutonium pits at
the Savannah River Site would cost at least
$9 billion more in fiscal year 2018 dollars than
three alternative plans evaluated by the agency.
The NPR says that the Pentagon will
undertake research and development “for
advanced nuclear delivery system technology
and prototyping capabilities,” including “on
the rapid development of nuclear delivery
systems, alternative basing modes, and
capabilities for defeating advanced air and
missile defenses.” The language suggests
the possible pursuit of R&D on mobile
ICBMs and hypersonic missiles for nuclear
In 2014 the Air Force completed an analysis of
alternatives to sustain the ICBM force beyond
the anticipated end of the Minuteman III’s service
life in 2030. The analysis found that the hybrid
option consisting of a mix of silo-based and
road-mobile ICBMs would cost at least $80
billion (in FY 2014 dollars) through 2075 than
retaining only silo-based missiles.
The Trump NPR highlights the growing
number of threats to the aging U.S. nuclear,
command, control, and communications
systems. To address these challenges the
review states the United States will pursue a
series of initiatives, including strengthening
protection against cyber threats and spacebased threats and reforming governance of
the overall NC3 system.
The Trump NPR lacks key specifics about the
plans to place a greater emphasis on nuclear
command, control, communications, and early
warning systems, namely the estimated cost
of these initiatives. The CBO estimates that
spending on these systems would total $77
billion in then-year dollars from 2019 and 2028,
about $19 billion more than the 2017 estimate.
New Low-Yield Weapons
The 2018 NPR calls for developing two new low-yield nuclear capabilities primarily to counter Russia’s alleged willingness to use or threaten to use tactical nuclear weapons on a limited basis “in crises and at lower levels of conflict,” a strategy known as “escalate to win.” The “supplements,” as the NPR describes them, include the near-term deployment of low-yield nuclear warheads on SLBMs and, in the longer term, development of a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM). The United States currently possesses two types of nuclear warheads that can be detonated at a low yield: the B61 gravity bomb and the W80-1 ALCM warhead. Russia possesses a larger and more diverse arsenal of low-yield weapons than the United States and is investing to sustain and possibly expand those weapons.
According to the NPR, the development of the two additional options “is not intended to enable, nor does it enable, ‘nuclear war-fighting.’” Rather, expanding U.S. tailored response options will “raise the nuclear threshold and help ensure that potential adversaries perceive no possible advantage in limited nuclear escalation, making nuclear weapons employment less likely.”
The NPR states that a low-yield SLBM warhead would provide a low-cost, prompt response option that is able to penetrate adversary defenses. The review adds that development of a new nuclear SLCM, which would take nearly decade, would provide a nonstrategic regional presence and an assured response capability. The review also claims that the weapon could provide an incentive for Russia to negotiate on its tactical nuclear weapons, which Moscow to date has been reluctant to do. The United States deployed SLCMs during the Cold War, but President George H.W. Bush removed them from attack submarines and surface ships in the early 1990s.35 President Barack Obama ordered the retirement of the aging system as a result of the 2010 NPR.
The NNSA’s fiscal year 2019 budget request included $65 million for modifying a small number of 100-kiloton W76-1 SLBM warheads to reduce their explosive yield. The Defense Department requested $22.6 million for the warhead, dubbed the W76-2. Production of the W76-2 has already begun and the initial batch of warheads are slated to be delivered to the Navy by the end of fiscal year 2019.36 Fielding is scheduled to begin in fiscal year 2020. In total, development and fielding of the capability is expected to cost about $125 million.
The Republican-controlled Congress approved the request for the capability, but not without strong opposition from Democratic lawmakers.37
In addition, the Pentagon received $1 million in fiscal year 2019 to begin an analysis of the performance requirements and costs to pursue a new SLCM. The total cost to develop the capability is uncertain given that the administration has yet to decide on which weapon system to pursue. Potential options range from restoring the Tomahawk cruise missile’s nuclear capability to developing an entirely new missile, which would be the most expensive option.38 The CBO projects a new SLCM and its associated warhead will cost $9 billion in then-year dollars from 2019 to 2028.39 The CBO assumed that the SLCM’s total development costs would be 50 percent less than that of the LRSO and the associated warhead and unit production costs would be the same.
In total, the Defense Department requested $24 billion for nuclear forces in fiscal year 2019, an increase of $5 billion from the fiscal year 2018 request.40 This included $11 billion for nuclear force sustainment and operations; $7 billion for replacement programs such as the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine replacement, B-21 “Raider” heavy bomber, and the LRSO; and $6 billion for nuclear command, control, and communications. In addition, the administration requested $11 billion for the NNSA nuclear weapons account in fiscal year 2019, an increase of nearly $800 million above the fiscal year 2018 request and $1.8 billion above the Obama administration’s final request in fiscal year 2017.
Congress increased funding above the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request for nuclear forces.41 The final defense appropriations bill provided a $200 million increase above the budget request of $3.7 billion for the Columbia-class submarine program. The law also funded an additional $50 million above the budget request of $615 million for the LRSO, and $69 million above the request of $345 million for GBSD. The final energy and water bill provided $11.1 billion for nuclear weapons activities conducted by the NNSA, an increase of about $90 million above the budget request and $500 million more than last year’s appropriation.
The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget request would provide $24.9 billion for nuclear forces at the Pentagon and $12.4 billion for nuclear weapons activities at the NNSA.
Preparing for a New Arms Race
With four major warhead life extensions programs currently underway, the NNSA is already at its busiest since the Cold War era. The Trump NPR proposes a dramatic increase in the scope of the agency’s weapons program.
The review calls for laying the groundwork to provide “capabilities needed to quickly produce new or additional weapons” beyond the roughly 3,800 warheads currently in the active U.S. nuclear stockpile. One measure of the scale of the plan for building “new or additional weapons” is given in the commitment to “[p]rovide the enduring capability and capacity to produce plutonium pits [nuclear warhead cores] at a rate of no fewer than 80 pits per year by 2030.” No basis is offered for this minimum capacity target, which is an increase over the requirement of 50–80 pits mandated by Congress during the Obama administration. Prior to 2013, the Los Alamos National Laboratory had the capacity to produce about 10 pits annually.
The Trump administration announced last May that it planned to re-engineer the partially constructed Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to join Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in meeting the pit production target.42 This new approach replaces an earlier plan to expand pit production at Los Alamos, including by building one or two production “modules.” NNSA officials have stated that they need both locations to meet anticipated pit requirements for the W78 replacement program and for future warhead programs.43 The CBO projects that expanding pit production will cost $9 billion in then-year dollars from 2019 to 2028, although that estimate is very uncertain.44 According to a May 2018 internal NNSA assessment, producing plutonium pits at the Savannah River Site would ultimately cost at least $9 billion more in fiscal year 2018 dollars than three alternative plans to expand plutonium-production capacity at Los Alamos.45 It remains to be seen whether Congress will back the new approach.
The NPR also calls for options to expand the arsenal by using existing warheads, including “modifying warheads,” assessing “the potential for retired warheads and components to augment the future hedge stockpile,” and reducing “the time required to design, develop, and initially produce a warhead, from a decision to enter full-scale development.”
In addition to the two new low-yield capabilities referenced earlier, the review seeks to retain the high-yield B83-1 gravity bomb, the only remaining megaton-class warhead in the U.S. stockpile, until a suitable replacement is found. The decision reverses the Obama administration’s proposal to retire the warhead once confidence in the under-development B61-12 gravity bomb is achieved by the mid- to late-2020s.46 Although the NPR did not provide a rationale for retaining the B83-1, Pentagon officials subsequently stated that the weapon is required to hold a variety of protected targets at risk, including in North Korea. The Defense and Energy Departments are currently evaluating a timeline and options for refurbishing the warhead. In 2013, NNSA estimated that it would cost $4 billion in fiscal year 2012 dollars to sustain the warhead through the 2030s and an additional $7 billion to $9 billion to extend the warhead’s life beyond that.
Furthermore, the NPR says that the Columbia-class program “will deliver a minimum of 12 SSBNs to replace the current Ohio fleet.” This suggests the Trump administration might identify a requirement for more than 12 new boats. The review also states that the Pentagon will undertake research and development “for advanced nuclear delivery system technology and prototyping capabilities,” including “on the rapid development of nuclear delivery systems, alternative basing modes, and capabilities for defeating advanced air and missile defenses.” This sweeping language suggests the possible pursuit of research and development on mobile ICBMs and hypersonic missiles for nuclear weapons delivery.
These preparations for a new arms race go far beyond the Obama administration’s plans, which married the development of a more responsive nuclear infrastructure to pledges for reducing the size of the stockpile of nondeployed hedge warheads and accelerating the rate of dismantlement of retired warheads (which the Republican-controlled Congress thwarted).47 The Trump NPR does not reiterate these commitments.
The budget implications of the additional work for NNSA are staggering. In November 2018, the agency publicly released the sixth version of its annual Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan.48 The fiscal year 2019 iteration projects $390 billion in spending in then-year dollars on agency efforts related to sustaining and modernizing the nuclear weapons stockpile over the next 25 years. This is a massive increase of $70 billion, or 22 percent, over the 2018 version of the plan. Cost overruns, a far from uncommon occurrence in NNSA budgeting, could well drive these projections even higher.
The largest source of projected growth in the new stockpile plan is in the area of nuclear and non-nuclear production facility modernization, including new plutonium pit production, uranium enrichment, and lithium facilities. Whereas in 2018 the agency projected $8.6–$39.3 billion in spending on construction, it now estimates the cost at $61.1–$90.7 billion.
The plan also foresees an increase in spending relative to the 2018 version on warhead life extension programs through the beginning of the 2020s even as it abandons a controversial proposal to develop three interoperable warheads for deployment on land- and sea-based ballistic missiles as part of the so-called “3+2” strategy.
Since 2013 the NNSA had planned to jointly replace the W78 ICBM warhead and the W88 SLBM warhead with a new warhead dubbed the interoperable warhead (IW)-1. Two subsequent interoperable warheads were slated to replace the W87 and W76 warheads.
Instead, the NPR called for accelerating replacement of the W78 by one year to support deployment on the Air Force’s new ICBM by 2030 “and investigate the feasibility of fielding the nuclear explosive package in a Navy flight vehicle.” The review also did not commit to developing two additional common warheads. In late 2018, NNSA confirmed that it no longer plans to pursue interoperable warheads.49 Congress repeatedly questioned the wisdom of the “3+2” strategy, citing the cost and risks involved with the plan.50 The Navy also raised concerns about the IW-1.51
But forgoing interoperable warheads does not appear to have reduced the projected cost of the W78 replacement program, now dubbed the W87-1. The stockpile plan estimates the cost of the program at $12.5 billion in then-year dollars, an increase of $500 million above the prior year’s estimate, and states that the warhead will consist of “all newly manufactured components” and “new technologies.” The plan projects the cost of two additional ballistic missile warhead life extension programs at $15.8 billion and $17.4 billion, respectively.
The fiscal year 2020 budget request foresees even higher costs for the NNSA. The weapons account would receive $12.4 billion, an increase of $1.3 billion above the fiscal year 2019 appropriation and $530 million above the projection in the fiscal year 2019 request. The request includes as much as $12 million to begin a study of the warhead for a new SLCM, $51.5 million to sustain the B83-1 as proposed in the NPR, and $899 million for the W80-4 that would be delivered by the LRSO. The request for the ALCM warhead is an increase of $244 million above the current appropriation of $655 million and $185 million above the projection for fiscal year 2020 in the fiscal year 2019 request.
A Greater Emphasis on Nuclear Command and Control
The NPR highlights the growing number of threats to the aging U.S. nuclear, command, control, and communications systems. To address these challenges the review states that the United States will pursue a series of initiatives, including strengthening protection against cyber threats, strengthening protection against space-based threats, and reforming governance of the overall NC3 system. But the review lacks key specifics, namely the estimated cost of these initiatives.
The CBO estimates that spending on the command-and-control systems would total $77 billion in then-year dollars from 2019 and 2028, about $19 billion more than the 2017 estimate.52 According to the budget office, the “increase is driven largely by changes to modernization programs, specifically the development and purchase of a new fleet to replace the National Airborne Operations Center (NAOC) aircraft and new concepts for early warning satellites and communications satellites used by nuclear forces.”
- Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “United States nuclear forces,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 5, 2018. Located at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00963402.2018.1438219.
- “Factsheet: New START Treaty Aggregate Number of Strategic Offensive Arms,” U.S. Department of State, last modified September 1, 2018. Located at: https://www.state.gov/t/avc/newstart/286466.htm.
- “Nuclear Posture Review,” Office of the Secretary of Defense, February 2018. Located at: https://media.defense.gov/2018/ Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINALREPORT.PDF.
- Daniel Wirls, “Buildup: The Politics of Defense in the Reagan Era,” Cornell University Press, 1992.
- “To Rebuild America’s Military,” American Enterprise Institute, October 2015. Located at: http://www.aei.org/wp-content/ uploads/2015/10/To-Rebuild-Americas-Military.pdf.
- Glenn Kessler, “A Pentagon chart misleadingly suggests the U.S. is falling behind in a nuclear arms race,” The Washington Post, February 12, 2018. Located at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/ wp/2018/02/12/a-pentagon-chart-misleadingly-suggests-the-u-s-isfalling-behind-in-a-nuclear-arms-race/.
- U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Armed Services, “Military Assessment of Nuclear Deterrence Requirements: Hearing Before the House Armed Services Committee,” March 8, 2017. Located at: https://armedservices.house.gov/2017/3/military-assessmentof-nuclear-deterrence-requirements.
- “Remarks by Secretary Carter to Troops at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota,” U.S. Department of Defense, September 26, 2016. Located at: https://dod.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/ Article/956079/remarks-by-secretary-carter-to-troops-at-minot-air-forcebase-north-dakota/.
- Peter Baker, “Obama Expands Modernization of Nuclear Arsenal,” The New York Times, May 13, 2010. Located at: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/14/us/politics/14treaty.html.
The Obama Down Payment:
- “Message from the President on the New START Treaty,” The White House Office of the Press Secretary, February 2, 2011. Located at: https:// obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2011/02/02/messagepresident-new-start-treaty-0.
- “Factsheet: U.S. Strategic Forces Under New START,” Arms Control Association, last modified October 2018. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/USStratNukeForceNewSTART.
- “Update to the National Defense Authorization Act of FY2010 Section 1251 Report: New START Treaty Framework and Nuclear Force Structure Plans,” November 2010. Located at: http://www.lasg.org/ budget/Sect1251_update_17Nov2010.pdf.
- “Remarks By President Barack Obama In Prague As Delivered,” The White House Office of the Press Secretary, April 5, 2009. Located at: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/remarkspresident-barack-obama-prague-delivered.
- Kingston Reif, “Time Expires on Obama Nuclear Agenda,” Arms Control Today, January/February 2017. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/ACT/2017_01/News/Time-Expires-on-Obama-NuclearAgenda.
- “Factsheet: Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy of the United States,” The White House Office of the Press Secretary, June 19, 2013. Located at: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-pressoffice/2013/06/19/fact-sheet-nuclear-weapons-employment-strategyunited-states.
- John R. Harvey, “Speaking Notes: U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policies and Programs,” January 23, 2014. Located at: http://secure.afa.org/HBS/ PDFs/2014/SW21%20TPs-US%20nuke%20policies-programs-23Jan14- updated27Jan14.pdf.
- U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “Approaches for Managing the Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017 to 2046.” The CBO’s estimates of the cost of nuclear weapons include the direct costs associated with fielding nuclear weapons. The budget office does not include other costs associated with possessing nuclear weapons, such as dismantling retired nuclear warheads and cleaning up nuclear facilities and materials from past nuclear weapons production. The Energy Department’s recently estimated that the cost to cleanup legacy nuclear weapons facilities and waste grew by over $100 billion to $377 billion between 2017 and 2018. See U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Program-Wide Strategy and Better Reporting Needed to Address Growing Environmental Cleanup Liability,” January 2019. Located at: https://www.gao.gov/ assets/700/696632.pdf.
- This projection is based on the CBO’s estimate of the cost of the Obama administration’s long-term defense spending plans as of the administration’s final budget request published in February 2016.
- U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Weapons Systems Annual Assessment: Knowledge Gaps Pose Risks to Sustaining Recent Positive Trends,” April 2018. Located at: https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/691473.pdf. See also U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Columbia-class Submarine: Immature Technologies Present Risks to Achieving Cost Schedule and Performance Goals,” December 2017. Located at: https:// www.gao.gov/products/GAO-18-158.
- Ibid; Kingston Reif, “New ICBM Replacement Cost Revealed,” Arms Control Today, March 2017. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/ act/2017-03/news/new-icbm-replacement-cost-revealed.
- Kingston Reif, “Congress Leaves Nuclear Issues in Limbo,” Arms Control Today, November 2014. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/ ACT/2014_11/News/Congress-Leaves-Nuclear-Issues-in-Limbo.
- Reif, “Time Expires on Obama Nuclear Agenda.”
The Trump Nuclear Expansion:
- Kingston Reif, “Trump Nuclear Tweet Sparks Controversy,” Arms Control Today, January 2017. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/ ACT/2017_01/News/Trump-Nuclear-Tweet-Sparks-Controversy.
- U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2019 to 2028.” Then-year dollars include the effects of inflation. The CBO’s biennial reports differ from the budget office’s October 2017 report in several ways. First, the biennial report covers a 10-year period whereas the October 2017 report covered 30 years. Second, the biennial reports attribute 25 percent of the cost of the B-52 and B-21 bombers to the nuclear mission. The October 2017 report attributed 100 percent of the cost of these bombers to the nuclear mission. If the 2019 version of the biennial report included the full cost of the B-52 and B-21 bombers, the total costs of nuclear forces would be $559 in then-year dollars billion through 2028. Third, the estimates in the biennial reports include the anticipated effects of inflation. By contrast the estimates in the October 2017 report are in constant, inflation-adjusted dollars.
- The Congressional Budget Office is required by law to project the 10-year costs of nuclear forces every two years.
- Hans M. Kristensen, “DOD: Strategic Stability Not Threatened Even by Greater Russian Nuclear Forces,” Federation of American Scientists Strategic Security blog, October 10, 2012. Located at: https://fas.org/ blogs/security/2012/10/strategicstability/.
- “Factsheet: The Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) on Tactical Nuclear Weapons at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, last updated July 2017. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/pniglance.
- “NNSA completes first production unit of modified warhead,” February 25, 2019. Located at: https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/articles/ nnsa-completes-first-production-unit-modified-warhead.
- Kingston Reif, “Congress Funds Low-Yield Nuclear Warhead,” Arms Control Today, November 2018. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/ act/2018-11/news/congress-funds-low-yield-nuclear-warhead.
- Jon Harper, “Options Abound for New Nuclear Cruise Missile,” National Defense Magazine, March 1, 2018. Located at: http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/articles/2018/3/1/options-abound-for-newnuclear-cruise-missile.
- U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2019 to 2028.”
- U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Armed Services Committee, “U.S. Strategic Forces Posture and the Fiscal Year 2019 Budget Request,” March 7, 2018. Located at: https://docs.house.gov/Committee/Calendar/ ByEvent.aspx?EventID=106941.
- Reif, “Congress Funds Low-Yield Warhead.”
- Kingston Reif, “MOX Facility to Switch to Plutonium Pits,” Arms Control Today, June 2018. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/ act/2018-06/news/mox-facility-switch-plutonium-pits.
- U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Nuclear Weapons: NNSA Has Taken Steps to Prepare to Restart a Program to Replace the W78 Warhead Capacity,” November 2018. Located at: https://www.gao.gov/ assets/700/695759.pdf.
- U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2019 to 2028.”
- U.S. Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration, “Engineering Assessment Report: Pu Pit Production Engineering Assessment,” April 2018. Located at: https://nukewatch.org/importantdocs/resources/Pu-Pit-Engineering-Assessment-Report-Rev2_20-April-2018.pdf.
- “Hagel, Moniz Seek to Assure Feinstein Over B61 Refurbishment,” Exchange Monitor, March 17, 2014. Located at: https://www.exchangemonitor.com/hagel-moniz-seek-to-assure-feinstein-over-b61- refurbishment/.
- Kingston Reif, “Congress Limits Warhead Dismantlement,” Arms Control Today, June 2017. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/ act/2017-06/news/congress-limits-warhead-dismantlement.
- U.S. Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration, “Fiscal Year 2019 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan – Biennial Plan Summary,” October 2018. Located at: https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2018/10/f57/FY2019%20SSMP.pdf.
- Rachel Cohen. “NNSA: New GBSD Warhead Plan Costs Slightly More Than Refurbished Option,” Air Force Magazine, January 31, 2018. Located at: http://www.airforcemag.com/Features/Pages/2019/ January%202019/NNSA-New-GBSD-Warhead-Plan-Costs-Slightly-MoreThan-Refurbished-Option.aspx.
- John M. Donnelly, “Senior Democrats Want Audit of Nuclear Warhead Plan,” Roll Call, March 28, 2017. Located at: https://www.rollcall.com/news/senior-democrats-want-audit-nuclear-warhead-plan.
- Tom Z. Collina, “Pentagon Defends ‘3+2’ Plan for Warheads,” Arms Control Today, September 2013. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2013_09/Pentagon-Defends-3%202-Plan-for-Warheads.
- U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2019 to 2028.”
U.S. Nuclear Excess
The projected cost of the proposed U.S. nuclear spending spree is staggering and it is growing. The United States currently plans to spend nearly $500 billion, after including the effects of inflation, to maintain and replace its nuclear arsenal over the next decade. Over the next 30 years, the price tag is likely to top $1.5 trillion and could even approach $2 trillion. This report describes the ways in which this level of spending is unnecessary, unsustainable, and unsafe. It outlines three realistic options to reduce spending on nuclear weapons while still maintaining a devastating nuclear deterrent. The report also recommends key steps Congress can take to enhance affordability and improve its understanding of the underlying policy assumptions and long-term budget challenges.