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Nuclear Weapons Modernization: Challenges Ahead

Adam Lowther and Michaela Dodge Winter 2016

President Barack Obama came to office in 2009 with a desire to move the United States toward a nuclear-free world. The President outlined his vision in his April 2009 Prague speech in which he identified several key priorities: reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy; negotiating a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia; ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT); and negotiating with Iran about its nuclear program “based on mutual interests and mutual respect.” While Obama was successful in achieving many of these objectives, it is safe to say that they have not benefited the United States.

Specifically, New START disadvantages the United States vis-à-vis Russia. The poorly negotiated treaty left such a bad aftertaste that the Administration did not attempt to get the Senate to ratify the CTBT. The “Iran deal” legitimizes Tehran’s dangerous and illegal nuclear enrichment program and rewards it with billions of dollars worth of sanctions relief.

The President’s effort to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security did not bring about similar steps from other countries. Quite the contrary: Russia has launched the most extensive nuclear modernization program since the end of the Cold War. This includes the ongoing development of new intercontinental ballistic missiles, new nuclear warheads, new submarines, a new stealth bomber, and an unmanned submarine with heavy nuclear warheads (a system specifically designed to increase collateral damage along U.S. coastlines). Moscow also remains in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which prohibits the kinds of nuclear missiles that would be used in a war with NATO.

Then there is a less frequently quoted part of the Prague speech: that the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary and will guarantee that defense to our allies as long as nuclear weapons exist. U.S. nuclear weapon modernization plans suffer from a disconnect between a desire to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our security and a desire to keep them viable for decades ahead. The next President will have to struggle with this polarizing intellectual legacy and sustain a fragile consensus on the need to modernize U.S. nuclear weapons, delivery platforms, and the human capital that makes deterrence possible.

Warheads and Infrastructure

Nuclear weapons modernization is at a critical juncture. Since the end of the Cold War, the nation has failed to invest properly in these systems, warheads, and the infrastructure and command and control systems that support them. A generation of inaction has resulted in the oldest nuclear arsenal the United States has ever had, with the average age of a warhead being over 25 years.

To make matters worse, American nuclear warheads are largely based on 1960s and 1970s designs. The world has changed much since then, and future challenges will be different from challenges during the Cold War when the primary focus was on the Soviet Union and mutually assured destruction. The next administration must recognize that the prospect of their own annihilation may not deter some actors from attacking the United States or its allies. They may also not believe that the United States would be willing to use its warheads designed to inflict large collateral damage in response to smaller-scale uses of nuclear weapons. Maintaining American credibility vis-à-vis future challenges will be the main task of the next several administrations.

Second, making our nuclear weapons infrastructure more flexible and adaptive is key to being able to react to any unforeseen developments in nuclear weapons technology. Due to long development times, the next administration will have to start making investments in capabilities that the nation may find useful decades from now. One such project, the Chemical Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility that would allow the United States to preserve and slightly expand its plutonium-related research, was cancelled by the current administration. It remains to be seen whether a modular approach currently pursued as its substitute will be adequate to meet the nation’s future stockpile needs.

American plutonium pit production is well below that of Russia. Even if all nuclear warheads disappeared tomorrow, the United States would be at a massive disadvantage relative to its near-peer competitors and potential adversaries because it simply does not have equal production capabilities should a “break-out” occur in a hypothetical nuclear-free world. Our nuclear stockpile might experience unanticipated problems in the future, and its decreasing diversity—another potentially dangerous post–Cold War trend—makes any potential problems even more serious. And with the United States moving forward with the “Three-plus-Two” plan that would shrink the diversity of nuclear weapons even further, the discovery of a fundamental warhead flaw would seriously compromise a large portion of the arsenal.

The next administration should seriously consider whether low-yield experiments could lead to a better understanding of nuclear warhead science and to savings in ways the United States conducts its stockpile stewardship program. Additionally, even small-scale yield-producing experiments could help us create and incorporate better safety features into our existing warheads. As other nations conduct these experiments and build new nuclear weapons, any American qualitative advantage is likely to deteriorate in the years and decades ahead if current policy does not change. Currently, the U.S. is simulating yield-producing experiments using high-performance computing with codes built on previous testing. The next administration should be thinking about what kinds of nuclear warheads would be most appropriate to address challenges in the coming decades.


American nuclear delivery platforms, intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs), bombers, submarines, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) are in dire need of recapitalization. The B-52 was deployed in the 1950s and 1960s and has remained in the arsenal for half a century. While it can no longer penetrate defended airspace, it remains a potent part of the nuclear arsenal because of its ability to deliver nuclear cruise missiles. The B-2 stealth bomber is itself 25 years old and limited by its small numbers. Minuteman III ICBMs were deployed in the 1970s. By the 1980s, the United States had serious concerns about their survivability, which played a role in the development of the MX Peacekeeper ICBM—a weapon we retired after the Cold War. Our SLBMs are over 20 years old, and the first Ohio-class submarine carrying them was commissioned in 1981.

To mitigate these challenges, the President accelerated by two years the Long-Range Stand Off missile as a replacement for the current nuclear cruise missile—the AGM-86—an essential advancement in American capabilities. The B-61 mod 12 gravity bomb Life Extension Program is underway and will improve the accuracy of these weapons. The Air Force also recently awarded a contract to build one hundred Long Range Strike Bombers (LRS-B), which will replace the B-52 and B-1 bombers. These are all positive steps.

It is important to note that the Obama administration did put in place the building blocks to begin recapitalization of our strategic systems. Fiscal constraints, however, are threatening the nation’s nuclear weapons modernization plans in several ways. First, there is great concern that constrained defense budgets will force the Air Force to pick winners and losers as it attempts to build and field the F-35, KC-46, Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), and LRS-B, pitting these systems against one another as they are forced to fight among themselves for funding. Such a circumstance would be disastrous for all the platforms.

Second, the Air Force and the Navy are being forced to find commonalities in their future ICBM and SLBM replacement systems. This approach may seem sensible, but extreme caution is warranted because production of a common system also means that both systems might be susceptible to the same flaws, which could dramatically limit the resiliency of our nuclear systems. A reasonable diversity must be preserved in case a system suffers an unforeseen failure in the future. The F-35 program has also pointed out the problems of building a joint platform. In order to meet the Marine Corps’ vertical take-off and landing requirement, design changes in the Air Force and Navy variants were required that limit the aircraft’s capabilities. There is also little evidence that joint development is more cost effective.

Additionally, the Air Force is working through the early phases of selecting a follow-on system to replace the Minuteman III. Selection of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent will likely be driven by cost as much as capability, which will leave the nation with a new system but not the optimal system. The Navy is also facing difficult budgetary decisions. It has been forced to delay the Ohio-class replacement submarine by two years, increasing the cost of a system that the Navy says it cannot afford within its current shipbuilding budget.

For both the Air Force and the Navy, budget constraints are perhaps the single biggest challenge facing their efforts to recapitalize aging systems. As defense spending is increasingly constrained by ever-expanding entitlement programs, it becomes harder and harder to maintain military capabilities that are superior to those of the nation’s adversaries.

The next administration should continue to advance nuclear weapon modernization plans and prevent further delays. This might be quite difficult, given fiscal constraints that are driven primarily by a growth in three large social programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse in these programs alone could pay for nuclear weapon modernization for many years to come. The Department of Defense budget faces its own internal pressure, stemming primarily from a congressionally mandated system of acquisition that drives up the cost of developing and fielding new systems and a personnel system that makes it difficult to hire the most qualified personnel while removing poor performers.

Given the age of our nuclear arsenal, the next administration does not have the luxury of delaying modernization programs. Additional investments will be required in the nation’s command and control infrastructure as well. Nuclear command, control, and communication (NC3) systems are 50 years old and in desperate need of replacement. Often overlooked, an effort is currently underway to develop a plan for replacing these relics of the Cold War. They too are costly to replace. However, if future Presidents are to have a reliable means of communicating with our nuclear forces, a system that is secure and resistant to cyber-attack is required.

Human Capital

The third modernization area that will require the next administration’s attention is continued investment in the human capital supporting the nuclear enterprise. We must ensure that the world’s best engineers and scientists are working in the nuclear complex. Even the best, properly funded modernization plan will fall short if the people working on it are not capable of addressing and meeting the significant technological and policy challenges that are sure to arise in the coming decades. The next administration should continue to pursue a variety of programs aimed at attracting young talent to work within the complex and creating employment opportunities for them so that they can grow into the tasks demanded of them.

The next administration must also ensure that only the best of the best operate American nuclear weapons systems. The Air Force and Navy cheating scandals of 2013–2014 led to a string of reviews and an extensive public debate about what went wrong and how to improve the situation within the force. A repeated theme in these discussions was a need for continued sustained attention and funding for the nuclear enterprise. Reforms are ongoing, and the next administration should continue their implementation and monitor their results.

As with any complex system that relies on humans, the potential for experiencing unforeseen challenges is high, and the United States must get its nuclear policy right. The next administration must ensure that those tending to the mightiest weapons on the planet understand the importance of their mission, which was lacking for 20 years. This will require continued investment in education. The Air Force Global Strike Command School for Advanced Nuclear Deterrence Studies is a step in the right direction.

Well-informed and engaged decision-makers and policymakers are essential to implementation of sound and sensible nuclear policies. The next administration will have multiple opportunities to educate these groups on the importance of nuclear weapons, deterrence, and modernization programs through such mechanisms as hearings, public statements, and regular interactions. It should put them to good use. It should also increase efforts to inform the American public about steps our adversaries are taking and why nuclear deterrence continues to be relevant.

The Way Forward

The choices we make today will influence our policies for decades to come. To illustrate the magnitude of our challenge, imagine we are in the 1920s and trying to envision what kinds of weapons and systems will be most credible in the 1960s. It is an extremely difficult task, yet future administrations must get it right. Getting it wrong is perhaps one of the few mistakes that can truly put the nation’s sovereignty at risk.

Michaela Dodge is a Senior Policy Analyst, Defense and Strategic Policy at The Heritage Foundation. Adam Lowther is Director, School for Advanced Nuclear Deterrence Studies, Air Force Global Strike Command.