The Ongoing “Modernization” of the United States’ Nuclear Arsenal

The Ohio-Class ballistic missile submarine USS Nevada returns to homeport at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor following a strategic deterrent patrol, in Bangor, Washington, in this March 4, 2014. Photo: REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Chief Mass Communication

After two decades of progress on disarmament, the specter of a renewed nuclear arms race has once again reared its ugly head. China and Russia’s bellicose nuclear saber rattling has been a recent cause for alarm within security circles, and Iran and North Korea’s ballistic missile tests have compounded fears of emerging nuclear threats. Regrettably, this renewed proliferation has prompted the United States to respond with a nuclear modernization program of its own.

While proponents of modernization claim that it will enhance strategic stability, the supposed security benefits are highly contested, and a plethora of evidence suggests that many of the proposed weapons upgrades are counterproductive to US foreign policy goals. Contrary to the defenses raised by the Obama administration, the development of the new Long Range Standoff Weapon,  the F-35 nuclear mission, and the B61-12 warhead will make conflict more likely by signaling an aggressive nuclear posture and increasing the likelihood of inadvertent escalation. Moreover, the effort to upgrade various nuclear weapons systems will have disastrous implications for international arms control efforts. Modernization could undermine several existing arms control agreements, while further weakening the prospect of arms control in the future. In addition to being detrimental to U.S. security and international credibility, nuclear modernization is simply unaffordable, with a price tag of approximately $1 trillion over 30 years.

The Future of Nuclear Weapons Policy

As many nuclear weapons systems are nearing the end of their service lives, Washington faces a crucial decision regarding the future of nuclear weapons policy and development. The Obama administration has three options. It could pursue international arms control agreements with the aim of reducing and securing nuclear stockpiles worldwide, eventually allowing its successors to pursue a policy of comprehensive disarmament. Alternatively, it could continue with the established  route of maintenance, refurbishment, and Life Extension Programs (LEPs) for existing weapons systems, which would still allow the U.S. to maintain a considerable nuclear advantage over its rivals. Both of these policies would comply with the limits imposed under the New START Treaty, while still allowing the US to maintain a No First Use of Nuclear Weapons pledge (NOFUN), an action that would signal benign intentions to rival nuclear powers. Instead, the U.S. has jettisoned these approaches and opted to go on the offensive by modernizing the various components of its nuclear weapons systems.

The nuclear modernization effort is not encapsulated in one government program or bill. Rather, it is comprised of several related programs that operate under the auspice of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Funding for the weapons delivery systems is allocated to the Department of Defense (DoD) as part of the annual defense budget, whereas the warhead modernization programs receive funding through the Department of Energy. Synchronization is then carried out through the Nuclear Weapons Council.

Within the Department of Defense, a major effort is underway to revamp the three legs of the nuclear forces delivery systems, knows as the “Nuclear Triad”,  which includes ballistic missile submarines (SSBNS), strategic bombers, and silo based missiles (ICBMS). In addition to the delivery system upgrades, the individual warheads are scheduled for retrofitting and redesign. A “3+2” strategy will reduce the total number of warhead variations from 12 to 5, producing 3 interoperable bombs for ballistic missile delivery and 2 for cruise missiles and bombers. Several of these new warhead variations will be fundamentally redesigned and equipped with new capabilities. Together, these programs will constitute the larger part of an entirely revamped nuclear weapons system, which will also include upgrades to its production facilities, command and control systems, and logistical operations.

The major developments of the modernization effort, along with their associated costs[i]

  • Modernized Delivery Systems:
    • Service life extension of existing Ohio Class Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBNs)
    • Development and construction of 12 new SSBN(X) submarines to replace the Ohio class. Estimated Cost: $347 billion
    • Modernization of Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) and Trident II Sub Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM). Estimated Cost: $7 billion for Minuteman III upgrades and $62 billion for the new mobile Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) missile
    • Upgrades to existing B-52 and B-52H bombers.
    • Development and construction of new Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) or B-21. Estimated Cost: $41.7 billion
    • Development and construction of Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO) to replace the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM). Estimated Cost: $25 billion
  • Nuclear Warhead Refurbishment and Modernization:
    • Continuation of LEPs for existing nuclear warhead stockpile
    • Retrofitting for new delivery systems
    • “3+2” design overhaul to reduce the types of nuclear warheads from 12 to 5, make them interoperable and decrease risk of plutonium dispersion
    • Development of the new B-61-12 Warhead
    • Total Estimated Cost: $65 billion
  • Modernized Production Complex:
    • Construction of new Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Oakwood, Tennessee
    • Renovations to plutonium pits at Los Alamos
    • Redesigned bomb plant in Kansas City
    • Improvements or renovations at a total of eight nuclear production facilities
    • Total Estimated Cost: $6.5-11 billion
  • Modernized Command and Control Systems:
    • Improvements to command, control, communications, and early warning systems
    • Improvements to systems designed to detect or rule out incoming attacks
    • Total Estimated Cost: $52 billion
  • Nuclear Force Improvement Program:
    • Elevation of Air Force Global Strike Command from a three to four star rank
    • Addition of 1,120 new personnel to work on nuclear weapons systems
    • Total Estimated Cost: $8 billion

Security Risks

The effect of these new weapons upgrades will serve to reduce rather than enhance national security. Moreover, claims that modernization will promote nuclear stability break down when subject to serious scrutiny.

Though the U.S. nuclear modernization program may be portrayed as a response to Russian and Chinese efforts to modernize and buildup their respective nuclear arsenals, there is no clear evidence that Russia and China bear primary responsibility for initiating this arms race, and the dangers posed by these rival programs are vastly exaggerated. China has long embraced a policy of No First Use of Nuclear Weapons (NOFUN). By maintaining a purely retaliatory nuclear posture, the PRC aims to deter attacks from potential adversaries without provoking them or instigating conflict. Despite the insistence of a few paranoid defense analysts, there is little evidence that China is pursuing a posture of nuclear parity, or that it is revising its pledge of NOFUN. China currently maintains roughly 260 deployed warheads, none of which are on hair trigger alert, compared to Washington’s 1,900 operationalized weapons on high alert. If China were to sprint to nuclear parity, it would have to build a considerable amount of new centrifuges, a project that would take years and that U.S. intelligence services could likely detect. Moreover, the PRC’s assertive civil military relationship restricts it from issuing a first use nuclear threat. For the foreseeable future, China’s nuclear capability is noticeably constrained in more than one dimension.

It is worth noting that China is currently expanding the size and scope of its nuclear arsenal. However, in defense of the Second Artillery’s ongoing nuclear buildup, Chinese military officials consistently cite U.S. counterforce efforts – weapon systems designed to penetrate and destroy China’s nuclear retaliatory capability – as the impetus behind their modernization effort. U.S. missile defense systems, such as THAAD, as well as strategically arrayed conventional cruise missiles, Command Prompt Global Strike (CPGS), and a hypersonic glide vehicle currently under development, all threaten to undermine China’s nuclear retaliatory capability. Since China’s command, control, and communications systems for conventional and nuclear weapons are integrated, their nuclear deterrent remains particularly vulnerable. The DoD’s proposed LRS-O – a deep penetrating nuclear armed cruise missile – has been an even greater cause for Chinese consternation, as it threatens the reliability of their nascent Anti-Access Area Denial (A2/AD) systems. For this reason, the Chinese Second Artillery has been forced to upgrade, expand, and diversify both its nuclear and conventional arsenals as means of securing its second strike deterrent. Put in perspective, China’s nuclear posture looks purely defensive. Allegations  that China is provoking the United States – or using its nuclear capability to buttress an aggressive posture in the South China Sea – remain unsupported.

In the same vein, claims pointing to Russia’s nuclear modernization as the source of this reinvigorated arms race are equally hollow. Though Russia has no doubt displayed aggressive and revisionist tendencies in Eastern Europe, its ongoing nuclear weapons development does not represent a direct threat to U.S. security, nor is it provocative. Russian nuclear modernization has always occurred on a different timetable from U.S. weapons development. The programs are simply out of sync, which dispels the myth that Russia is gaining a competitive nuclear advantage over the U.S.

It may be true that Russia refused to cooperate on arms reduction proposals during the 2010 New START talks. After Obama offered to reduce the maximum number of warheads to be deployed on each ICBM to one, he faulted Putin for  not reciprocating. The administration has also accused the Russians of violating the Intermediate Nuclear-Forces Treaty (INF). But much like the alarmed Chinese, Putin has cited the provocative nature of NATO’s nuclear posture as the primary motivation behind Russia’s nuclear weapons overhaul. NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons seem to suggest an evolving first strike capability, which threatens Russia’s retaliatory nuclear deterrent. The U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty (ABM) in 2002 has magnified these concerns. Missile defense systems alter the strategic balance in NATO’s favor, and  since Russian conventional capabilities remain inferior to NATO’s, it feels the need to maintain strategic nuclear parity. Furthermore, the Russians view the expansion of NATO as an existential threat to their security, a development that has only encouraged their reliance on nuclear weapons. Taking these developments into account, it seems unfair to fully ascribe the failure of arms control to Russian intransigence.

Notwithstanding, there is little reason to fear the Kremlin’s ongoing modernization from the standpoint of strategic security. The efficacy and sophistication of Russia’s new weapons systems will pale in comparison to those that the U.S. currently maintains, even if the U.S. abandons the current path of modernization. Several of Russia’s new weapons systems, such as the Bulava SLBM, have failed numerous flight tests and proved unreliable. [ii]

A renewed nuclear arms race is not the only concern raised by modernization. The program is also likely to compound crisis instability. Several of the proposed weapons systems either create unique incentives for preemption or raise the risk of inadvertent escalation. Warhead modernization is a case in point. The new B61-12 warhead, currently under development, is equipped with steerable tail fins, a GPS navigation system, and an improved fuse. Yet, the most notable modifications in the B61-12 are its reduced “dial-yield” and upgraded casing designed to restrict plutonium dispersion. The reduced yield is compensated for with an advanced fuse, giving the bomb a higher probability of destroying targets. While these modifications may be designed to improve the warhead’s accuracy, reduce fallout, and minimize collateral damage, they raise a whole new set of concerns. If “smaller” nuclear weapons are less lethal and allow for the minimization of undesired civilian casualties, the possibility of nuclear attacks on military targets is no longer unthinkable. With low yield warheads, the boundary between nuclear and conventional weapons becomes blurred. Moreover, warhead miniaturization seems to mitigate the very feature of these weapons – their immensely destructive power – that makes their use unthinkable.

Former secretary of Defense William J. Perry and Assistant Secretary of Defense Andy Weber have also raised compelling objections to the development of the Long Range Standoff Weapon, (LRS-O) a new Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) to replace the existing model. According to Perry and Weber, nuclear armed cruise missiles pose a high risk of inadvertent escalation. Since cruise missiles have an ambiguous payload – able to carry either conventional munitions or nuclear warheads – detection systems may misperceive incoming conventional cruise missiles as their nuclear armed counterparts, inadvertently triggering a retaliatory nuclear response. The plan to equip the new F-35 Lightning II with the capability to deliver nuclear weapons raises similar concerns, albeit somewhat less severe given that bombers can be turned around.

Defenders of modernization insist that these new weapons will provide the United States with a more robust, flexible deterrent to better meet our twenty-first century security needs. Yet, objections along these lines obscure the true purpose of tactical nuclear weapons. The “flexible” nuclear options provided by modernized nukes are geared more towards fighting wars than deterring them. Throughout the last few decades, Washington’s strategy of nuclear deterrence has shifted drastically from retaliation to “counterforce.” Counterforce refers to the ability to effectively conduct a disarming strike against an enemy’s nuclear forces, military installations, and high level command centers. According to proponents of this doctrine, our current nuclear weapons do not constitute an effective deterrent. Using these nukes in a limited war would be disproportionate and produce unjustified collateral damage. Therefore “large nukes”  are essentially useless because they do not pose a credible threat. An adventurous enemy might therefore be willing to use nuclear force against our offshore military installations without fear of reprisal.  Supporters of the countervailing strategy maintain that a credible first strike capability against an enemy’s nuclear forces is the only way to deter them from escalating a limited conventional war to the nuclear level.

Modernized warheads are designed for this very purpose. They are flexible in that they can supposedly deter different forms and levels of escalation by threatening to deny the opponent any military gain, all without producing an unthinkable civilian death toll. This strategy anticipates how a nuclear war might be fought in order to deter or win it.

There are two major limitations with this defense. First, this view supposes that nuclear war is controllable. However, escalation is not necessarily a deliberate, controlled process between two actors; it is often inadvertent. In limited war, it is difficult to interpret the meaning of military actions. Defensive maneuvers can be misperceived as offensive actions. Furthermore, the destruction of command, control, and communication systems in a limited nuclear war would further complicate “signaling” and obscure each actor’s intentions, making de-escalation virtually impossible. Thomas Schelling refers to this autonomous risk as “the threat that leaves something to chance.” If nuclear war is uncontrollable, a limited nuclear strike is no longer credible, because there is always some autonomous risk that the fighting could escalate into an all out nuclear exchange. Modernized nukes therefore pose no more of a credible threat than our existing strategic nuclear weapons.

Second, it is unclear how a threatened opponent would react under these circumstances.  It seems more plausible that having a disarming first-strike capability would incentivize a threatened opponent to attack preemptively. If a weakened state is caught in a “use it or lose it scenario” with its tactical forces,  it may prefer to launch a preemptive strike in order to fight an impending war on preferable terms. It seems more plausible that the mere presence of modernized nukes would provoke an adversary to  attack when a military conflagration would otherwise seem unlikely.

Peacetime implications of nuclear modernization are just as grim. If the U.S. continues to improve upon its flexible nuclear option, threatened states are bound to expand and diversify their nuclear arsenals in response. Concerned with the security of their nuclear deterrents, they will aim to preserve the reliability of their second strike forces. Of course, if the U.S. aims to maintain a “viable” and flexible counterforce capability, it too must respond with a buildup of its own to counter any gains its rivals make. The inevitable result is a spiraling arms race that is both fiscally reckless and self defeating.

Finally, an often overlooked concern, nuclear warhead modernization requires the construction of new production facilities and the renovation of existing plants.  A total of eight  production facilities will undergo extensive improvements and renovations, such as the new Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Oak Ridge Tennessee. In the wake of recent security breaches by activists at the Y-12 National Security Complex, additional uranium production raises important considerations. If security at nuclear laboratories is inadequate, and enriched uranium is more abundant and therefore more easily attainable, the frightening possibility of nuclear terrorism becomes a more pressing concern.

Implications for International Arms Control

            The ongoing upgrades to the nuclear complex effectively spell a death warrant for existing and future arms control efforts. The signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty pledged to, “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” If the U.S. continues to develop more sophisticated warheads and proceeds to rely on nuclear weapons as a major component of its grand strategy, it will be flouting the aim of the NPT. Not only does nuclear modernization belie this pledge, it invites other states to renege on their commitments. A strong link exists between U.S. nuclear posture and the willingness of non-nuclear states to cooperate on non-proliferation, further evidenced by the success of the 2010 nuclear security summit. If the U.S. makes a credible commitment to reduce nuclear stockpiles, other states are bound to follow. Conversely, a nuclear modernization program that leaves weak states vulnerable to a first strike, or susceptible to nuclear coercion, only encourages them to respond with comparable upgrades of their own. Current plans to provide nuclear capable F-35 jets and B61warheads to various non-nuclear NATO states will only aggravate this security dilemma.

            In the same vein, warhead modernization undermines the explicit goal of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty without directly violating any major provisions of the agreement. Designed to prohibit nuclear explosive testing worldwide, the CTBT has been remarkably successful since it opened for signing in 1996. Though the senate has not ratified the treaty, the U.S. has remained committed to a self imposed moratorium on nuclear weapons testing for more than two decades. A major pretext of the treaty was to prevent established nuclear powers from developing more sophisticated nuclear weapons. Since the NNSA is restricted from field testing its new warheads, it relies on complex computer simulations to model and predict their effects, effectively sidestepping the enforcement mechanism of the agreement. But even more worrisome, as some analysts have pointed out, is that these computer simulations may not be entirely reliable, which could encourage resumed field testing. If the U.S. were to abrogate its official moratorium on nuclear testing, many nuclear powers would likely follow suit.

While nuclear modernization is an exercise in futility, arms control presents a legitimate avenue through which we can enhance our national security. To advance a costly and ineffective modernization program at the expense of viable arms control is simply impractical.

Total Expense

 Three independent estimates have put the collective sum of all modernization programs at $1 trillion over the span of three decades. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), total spending on nuclear weapons between FY2015 and FY2024 will amount to $348 billion. The development of new weapons systems, when accompanied by the sustenance of the existing arsenal, will more than double spending on nuclear weapons as a function of military expenditures, from roughly 3.4 to 7%. Notwithstanding, these projections are likely to fall short. Cost overruns are endemic to defense projects. Military contractors will often implement a strategy known as “buying in”, in which they deliberately underestimate the cost of a project in order to outbid their competitors and procure a deal. They then offset their losses by raising rates on a future run of production.

It appears that the NNSA is guilty of the same tricks. The B61-12 warhead modernization is already $8 billion over budget, and additional costs will be required in order to retrofit these weapons for existing bombers. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has criticized the NNSA for underestimating the costs associated with modernization. Projections from FY2014 to 2031 have already increased by $19 billion. According to the GAO, the NNSA did not include all long term programs necessitated by the modernization enterprise, and it failed to account for the effects of sequestration, planned cost savings, and pension liability.

Several private defense contractors also stand to gain from nuclear modernization. Warhead modifications will necessitate expensive retrofitting to existing bombers, such as Lockheed Martin’s new F-35 Lightning and Boeing’s B-52H. These powerful entrenched interests with fight tooth and nail to ensure that modernization proceeds as a planned.

Rather than cutting its losses and nixing the project, Congress is more likely to approve additional requests for funding when cost overruns inevitably develop, seeing that a half completed defense program would provide few benefits and kill high paying jobs. That modernization programs are spread out across eight facilities and states makes their termination even less likely once the projects gain momentum. It is noteworthy that several congressmen and senators have already expressed approval of the plans to renovate nuclear plants in their states.

Quit While We’re Ahead

Nuclear modernization offers no prospects for enhanced security, though it may raise the risk of inadvertent escalation during crisis instability. It is virtually guaranteed  to prompt a renewed nuclear arms race, which constitutes a major a threat to strategic stability and encourages proliferation beyond the existing nuclear powers. If the program is not trimmed or killed in its infancy, it will be virtually impossible to stop.


Sam Worthington is a graduate of Tufts University and was an intern at Massachusetts Peace Action in spring 2016.