The $1.2 Trillion Question: Modernizing America's Nuclear Arsenal

October 31, 2017 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: DefenseNuclear WeaponsNational SecurityNukesBudget

The $1.2 Trillion Question: Modernizing America's Nuclear Arsenal

The CBO projects that the 2017 plan for nuclear forces would cost a total of $1.2 trillion from 2017 to 2046.

The United States is facing a $1.2 trillion bill through 2046 to modernize and sustain its nuclear arsenal according to a new report from the Congressional Budget Office.

“To continue to field a nuclear force roughly the same size as it is today, the United States plans to modernize virtually every element of that force over the coming decades,” reads a CBO summary of its report. “CBO estimates that the most recent detailed plans for nuclear forces, which were incorporated in the Obama Administration’s 2017 budget request, would cost $1.2 trillion in 2017 dollars over the 2017–2046 period: more than $800 billion to operate and sustain (that is, incrementally upgrade) nuclear forces and about $400 billion to modernize them.”

However, the current plan was put forth by the previous Obama Administration, the Trump Administration might revise that policy after it completes its Nuclear Posture Review. The Trump Administration might envision a more ambitious plan, which could raise costs.  Or it could lower costs if the Trump Administration adjusts its priorities.

“In its first few months, the Trump Administration began a new Nuclear Posture Review to determine a nuclear policy and force structure ‘appropriately tailored to deter 21st century threats,’” the CBO report states. “That review may recommend changing modernization plans and force sizes inherited from the Obama Administration to reflect the Trump Administration’s priorities for nuclear forces or to shift resources to address other defense priorities in the face of long-term budgetary pressures.”

The CBO projects that the 2017 plan for nuclear forces would cost a total of $1.2 trillion from 2017 to 2046.

  • $772 billion would be allocated for the operation, sustainment, and modernization of strategic nuclear delivery systems and weapons—the long-range aircraft, missiles, and submarines that launch nuclear weapons; the nuclear weapons they carry; and the nuclear reactors that power the submarines (see table below).

  • $25 billion would be allocated for the operation, sustainment, and modernization of tactical nuclear delivery systems—the aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons over shorter ranges—and the weapons they carry.

  • $445 billion would be allocated for the complex of laboratories and production facilities that support nuclear weapons activities and the command, control, communications, and early-warning systems that enable the safe and secure operation of nuclear forces.


Modernization costs are broken out by system.

Overall, CBO estimates that planned modernization would cost $399 billion through 2046 and include these programs:

  • A new ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), designated the Columbia class;

  • A new silo-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and refurbished silos and other supporting infrastructure for ICBMs through the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program;

  • A new long-range stealthy bomber, designated the B-21;

  • Refurbishment of the current-generation D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM);

  • A new SLBM to eventually replace the D5;

  • A new air-launched nuclear cruise missile, the Long- Range Standoff (LRSO) weapon;

  • A life-extension program (LEP) for the B61 nuclear bomb that would combine several different varieties of that bomb into a single type, the B61-12;

  • A LEP for the B61-12 bomb when it reaches the end of its service life, referred to as the Next B61;

  • LEPs for the SSBN-related W76 and W88 warheads;

  • A LEP to refurbish the W80 warhead that would be used on the LRSO; and

  • A series of LEPs that would produce three interoperable warheads (called IW-1 through IW-3), each of which would be compatible with both ICBMs and SLBMs.

The CBO looked at nine options that would the Congress and the White House might be able to use to reduce or delay those costs. However, each option comes with its tradeoffs. One option would delay development of the Air Force’s new ICBM, the B-21 bomber, and their interoperable warheads. Others would eliminate a leg of the nuclear triad or reduce the number of delivery vehicles substantially.  The CBO also looked at options that would cut the nuclear deterrent below the stipulations of the New START Treaty.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image: U.S. DOE