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.
US President Donald Trump signs the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 at Fort Drum, New York, on August 13, 2018. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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.”
In September 1992, U.S. President George Bush announced that the US will unilaterally eliminate its land and sea-based short-range nuclear weapons. (Photo: LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images)
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.
NNSA Administrator Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty interacts with RAP team members and exhibits. Radiological Assistance Program team members form the front line in case of a nuclear emergency. The September 2018 event was a celebration of their 60th anniversary.
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.”
Building 235-F at the Savannah River Site (SRS). NNSA is seeking to build at least 50 plutonium pits per year at the site. (Photo: Savannah River Site/Department of Energy)