November 9, 1989. As the Berlin Wall fell and the Iron Curtain was lifted from Europe, the ever looming threat of nuclear annihilation was too lifted from the world. It appeared to be the dawning of a new era of global cooperation and prosperity. However this thin veil of peace was short lasting. A new century brought new threats: Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, the Russian annexation of Crimea. However the new century also brought new technology. America’s nuclear arsenal is aging, and something must be done about it.
Due to increasing world tension and the advancement of modern technology, the United States should modernize its nuclear arsenal by replacing and upgrading its current weapons and weapon platforms. Nuclear missiles are the metaphorical “bread and butter” of any nuclear arsenal. Intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMS, are able to deliver a payload to anywhere in the world in under an hour. Currently the United States has around 440 missiles, each capable of carrying up to three warheads.
America’s current ICBM, the Minuteman III, has been in service since the early 70’s. And for the past 40 years, the Minuteman has undergone numerous life extension programs (Sources? ). The Air Force is currently planning its last extension program. It will begin with replacing the current W78 warhead with the relatively new W87 warhead (NNSA 2-8). Not only does the W87 have a yield 35% stronger than its predecessor, but it also has numerous features which make it a safer option (Source? ).
The new W87 warheads have something called “insensitive explosives” integrated into their payload. These explosives are, as can be inferred from their name, resistant to many hazards such as shock or fire; which greatly improves the safety of the device. In fact, these new warheads can be transported by air without any fear of accidental detonation, something underheard of with the old W78s (Rief). They are also implementing a new “fire resistant pit-design” which will, in the event of an accident, preventing “plutonium dispersal”; the release of nuclear material.
The REACT, or rapid execution and target combat targeting, which allows the missile to change target mid launch, is also planned to receive a complete overhaul, improving not only its precision but extending its shelf life as well. Among these major changes, the Air Force also plans to implement changes to secondary systemssyststems. They plan to replace the current propellent, upgrade the propulsion system, and improve and modernize the guidance system. Now there is a wide held belief that with periodic maintenance and replacement of the warhead every few years, the current iteration of ICBMs can be maintained indefinitely.
However, the Air Force is currently exploring ways to completely overhaul the ICBM program. They plan to replace the Minuteman III missile and its various launch systems with entirely new ones. Not only will these new missiles be safer and more reliable, they will be able to carry a heavier payload. It is currently estimated that the government will purchase around 660 new missiles over the next 20 years. The Minuteman III missile will be phased out over time for a newer model (Rief). Overall, the current modernization program of the Minuteman III will cost around 7$ billion dollars and last for about 15 years.
The new missile and missile systems will require around 85$ billion initially, and will cost around 238$ billion over its thirty year life cycle (Source? ). Another vital part of the United States’s nuclear program is its submarines. Submarines allow a nation to deliver a nuclear payload to a target in a significantly faster time than conventional land based missiles. As such the navy is placing an extreme interesting in ensuring that the fleet is up-to-date and reliable. The current Ohio-Class submarines are currently around halfway through their forty-two year life expectancy.
The first of these vessels will be decommissioned in 2027, and the last around 2040. There are a total of fourteen ships in the fleet. However only twelve of them are currently in service, as the other two are undergoing their midlife refueling. Each ship can carry 24 Trident II D Submarine Ballistic Missiles (SLBM), and each SLBM can carry a total of 8 warheads. The current iteration of the SLBM has been in use since the early 90’s. The Trident II is the world’s most reliable SLBM, with over 160 successful tests. (Source? )
The Navy plans to develop a replacement for the current submarines, the Columbia Class SSBN(X). The first is scheduled to launch in 2031. There will be a total of twelve ships in the fleet. Each submarine will be able to carry 12 of the improved Trident II. Each of the SLBM will undergo a complete revamping (NNSA C-4). The navy estimates that the life extension program will add forty years to the lifespan of each missile. The main focus of the program will be on modernizing and improving the various electrical systems found within the SLBM.
However it will also improve other components, such as the propulsion system and the targeting system. (Source? ) It is estimated that the R/D and acquisition of the new Columbia Class will cost 140$ billion. The total lifetime cost of the new submarines will be around 282$ billion. The cost of the life extension program for the Trident II missiles is currently unknown. However the price of replacing the current W76 and W88 warheads with the new W76-1 warhead will cost 4$ billion. (Source? ) The Air Force currently has two aircraft capable of delivering a nuclear payload, the B-52H and the B-2.
The B-52H has been in service since 1961. Ever since the 80’s the plane has undergone numerous upgrades. The next batch plans to upgrade the GPS and computer systems found within the aircraft. They also plan to adapt the aircraft to be compatible with new weapons and weapon systems. The B-2 will also have similar upgrades. It will receive new flight computers and improved strategic communications. The B-2 will also be connected to the Global Information Grid, a sort of militarized internet. The Air Force will also implement the Radar Modernization Program (Rief).
The old antennas will be replaced with new more precise and efficient ones. The radar avionics will also will also be improved Not much is known about the new replacement aircraft, the B-21. It will be a “dual-capable long-range penetrating bomber” (Source? ). The new plane will take on the roles of both the B-52H and the B-2. Currently 41. 7$ billion has been appropriated for R/D of the new plane. The Air Force also plans to update their Cruise Missile program. The current Air Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCM) have been in use since 1981.
In 2026 the Air Force plans to roll-out 1,100 new Long Range Standoff Cruise Missiles (LRSO), each carrying the new W80-4 warhead. Current estimates place the total price of the LRSOs at around 11$ billion. (Source? ) There are also various other subsidiary programs. One of them is the construction of a new Uranium Processing Facility. Located in Oakville, TN, the facility would create the various isotopes of uranium found in nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors. The pricetag on this new facility will be around 6. 5$ to 7. 5$ billion.
A new supercomputer was also commissioned to assist with research at Los Alamos National Laboratory (NNSA iv). Another 35$ billion has been set up to improve the command and control centers vital to the nuclear program. (Source? ) The modernization program is vital for maintaining the safety and security of the united States. And a major part of that is the need to replace aging systems. Some of the equipment used by the nuclear program has been in use since the 60’s. Many of the missile silos still require the use of special 8″ floppy disks (Source? .
Not only are replacement parts getting hard and harder to find, but there have been issues in meshing old technology with new. Also something very important to keep in mind the fact that new warheads are not only more powerful, but they are safer and more reliable than their ancient counterparts. Another reason for a revamping of the nuclear program is the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or START. Signed in 2010 by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the agreement created set limits imposed on each country’s nuclear arsenal.
The treaty set limitations on everything from the number of warheads on each missile to how many nuclear capable aircraft each country was allowed. Currently there are around 440 Minuteman III missiles. Once the Air Force develops a replacement for the current ICBMs that number will be reduced to about four hundred. As for the SLBMs, there are currently 288 deployed on the Ohio-Class (Source? ). Starting in 2018 only a total of 240 will be deployed. And finally, when the new Columbia Class is introduced, the number again will be reduced to 192 SLBMs.
Currently there are 94 nuclear-capable aircraft used by the Air Force, 18 B-2s and 76 B-52Hs. Once the new B-21 is deployed, the United States will only have forty-two nuclear-capable bombers. Curiously enough, the treaty does not put any limitations on the amount of cruise missiles either country can have. In order to offset the decrease in the quantity of nuclear weapons available to the United States in the upcoming years, the quality of the remaining stockpile must be ensured. The new plan addresses this issue.
Not only are the new weapons more powerful, but they have significant advantages over the old equipment. The new missiles will be able to destroy reinforced targets with only a single warhead. Also with the improved navigational systems the new ICBMs will be even more accurate than the current versions. The new weapons have many advantages over their outdated counterparts. And while America might see an overall decrease in the total number of nuclear weapons, the potency of the arsenal will not be affected.