Nuclear Modernization Under Austerity: Hard but Necessary Choices

In 1983, the film WarGames depicted a computer hacker nearly starting a nuclear war. At that time, relations between Moscow and Washington were at their lowest point in decades and anxieties about the U.S. President and the possibility of nuclear war were running high. Sound familiar?

In the 1980s, the United States was also in the midst of a massive modernization of its nuclear arsenal. Now, as then, the United States is embarking on a far-reaching plan to replace its so-called nuclear triad, because the systems it deployed during the late 1970s and 1980s are reaching retirement age. This modernization, unprecedented since the Reagan era, is occurring nearly simultaneously in all three legs of the triad -- ballistic missile submarines (SLBM), land-based intercontinental-range ballistic missiles and heavy bombers.

The Obama Administration began modernization of the nuclear triad in 2010 as part of the political deal to secure Senate consent to ratification of the New START Treaty. Obama committed to a near one-for-one replacement of existing nuclear weapons systems for political reasons, as much as strategic ones.



Modernization Under Austerity

Much has changed since 2010. Shortly after ratification of New START, the United States experienced a period of budgetary austerity driven by fights over the debt ceiling, ultimately leading to a process of across-the-board defense cuts known as sequestration. With flat defense budgets projected for the foreseeable future and rising costs associated with a number of triad modernization programs, some members of Congress have expressed skepticism about the ability of the United States to complete the modernization program outlined in the report the Obama Administration submitted to Congress as part of the New START ratification debate (called the "1251 report" after the section in the FY2010 National Defense Authorization Act). “When you look at some of the estimates as to what it would take to update the triad, would it be the long range bomber or missiles or new submarines? It’s very, very, very expensive,” Senator John McCain said. “And I mean when you look at the cost of this new submarine they want, it’s extremely high. You look at the long range bomber. We’re looking at tens of billions of dollars.” [1]

The problem is not merely the cost of the modernization programs – although at approximately $100 billion per leg of the triad, the cost of replacement is eye-popping. Even more alarmingly, however, the United States must pay for all of these programs at the same time, and complete them on tight schedules so that replacements will be ready for deployment before existing systems begin to age out starting in the late 2020s.

In recent years, Obama Administration officials were increasingly frank in expressing doubts about where to find the money for such an ambitious modernization. As one Obama Administration official said, they were “thanking our stars we won’t be here to have to answer the question.” [2]

That unenviable task falls to the Trump Administration, which is beginning its own Nuclear Posture Review. While the President has tweeted supportive statements about expanding U.S. nuclear capabilities, the reality is that the Nuclear Posture Review offers an opportunity to think about the ongoing modernization in a holistic manner. Instead of attempting to replace each element of each leg of the triad with a new and expensive replacement, the new administration could think broadly about what mix of capabilities and redundancies is necessary to ensure deterrence.

In some cases, decision-makers have considered consolidating capabilities. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy is consolidating four tactical and strategic modifications (or mods) of the B61 into a single design, the B61 Mod 12. The Department of Energy is also proposing a single, common replacement for the two “backup” warhead designs for the SLBM and ICBM force.

Yet independent observers have raised questions about whether these limited efforts are, in fact, cost-saving. The Government Accountability Office has raised questions about the ballooning cost of the B61-12 program, which will cost the Departments of Energy and Defense more than $9.5 billion. And an independent scientific advisory group, JASON, found no “compelling analysis" that NNSA’s strategy for replacement warheads would reduce costs or technical risk. [3]

Repurposing Existing Capabilities?

Clearly, there are opportunities to think more broadly about how existing systems might be used in alternative roles to reduce the cost and program risk of conducting so many expensive procurement programs at once.

For example, the Air Force is considering developing a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The Pentagon's office for cost estimates places the cost of the new missile at between $80-140 billion. A cost-saving alternative that has not been considered would be to place existing submarine-launched ballistic missiles (which have a comparable range) in canisters, and to slide those canisters into existing Minuteman III silos, just as the United States did with the Peacekeeper ICBM in the 1990s.

Similarly, the Air Force is developing a new long-range cruise missile, known as the LRSO, to replace the existing Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM). But the Air Force already has another new cruise missile, JASSM-ER, with a comparable engine and range. (Conventional variants of both the ALCM and JASSM have a range of approximately 1200 km; nuclear variants with a lighter payload would fly farther.)

There may be advantages to a new ICBM or a new cruise missile over existing systems, but the advantages need to be specified, evaluated, and compared with the cost-savings from reuse of existing systems. Either way, there may be enormous benefits to using existing systems as gap fillers, so that development of new capabilities can be undertaken later, when future threats are clearer and technologies more mature.

Foregoing Some Capabilities?

In other cases, new capabilities may not be necessary. Does the United States need both a new nuclear-armed cruise missile and a nuclear-gravity bomb? The Air Force, for example, was tasked with developing a series of “risk mitigation” strategies in the event that the new B61 Mod 12 gravity bomb was not available. These strategies included alternative approaches to assure U.S. allies in NATO of U.S. commitments if the B61 force was retired before the new B61 Mod 12 became available. While those risk mitigation strategies remain classified, it is worth asking how much of the risk they can reduce compared to the $9 billion program to develop a new B61.

At present, these kinds of choices have largely been ignored. The new defense budget request by the Trump Administration maintains the Obama Administration’s emphasis on near one-for-one replacement of U.S. nuclear forces. While Trump has spoken positively about expanding nuclear capabilities, it is not clear that the anticipated levels of investment are sustainable, or that programmatic risks can be managed on rigid replacement schedules. Failure to make intelligent decisions about defense investments may lead to much deeper cuts in nuclear forces—cuts that are not made on the basis of strategy nor embedded in the bilateral arms reduction process. When confronted with the many challenges of executing so many programs at so great a cost and with such demanding timeliness, officials have largely avoided the question. One official, unable to explain how it will be possible to do everything at once, simply attempted to turn the question around asking “Can we afford not to modernize?” [4] Rhetorical sidesteps, however, are not a strategy toward a sustainable modernization program that meets legitimate requirements for deterrence, any more than we can plan around the WarGames famous injunction that “the only winning move is not to play.” Establishing a sustainable nuclear policy requires difficult choices, not clever turns of phrase.

[1] Senator John McCain was speaking at a May 19, 2016 event hosted by the Brookings Institution titled, New Demands on the Military and the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act,
[2] Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Brian McKeon quoted by Aaron Mehta, "Is the Pentagon's Budget About To Be Nuked?" Defense News, February 5, 2016,
[3] An unclassified executive summary of the JASON study, Technical Considerations for the Evolving U.S. Nuclear-Weapons Stockpile, JSR-14-Task-006E, January 2015,
[4] Jim Garamone, "Haney: Nuclear Triad Remains Necessary for Deterrence," DoD News, October 23, 2015,

May 25, 2017

A new infographic and article on the U.S. nuclear modernization program, which is unprecedented in scale since the 1980s and will require hard choices in an era of austerity.

Jeffrey Lewis

Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program, Center for Nonproliferation Studies

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2017.