war on the rocks

Why America Must Modernize Its Nuclear Forces

March 15, 2018

“We took a procurement holiday for almost 30 years and stopped modernizing our force.” That’s what Gen. Garret Harencak, the former Air Force assistant chief of staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Matters, told one of my nuclear seminars in 2013.

America’s nuclear force is aging: U.S. land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are now 47 years old, the B-52 strategic bomber is approaching 50 years, and the submarines are approaching 40 years — the longest any U.S. submarine has ever been at sea.

The new Nuclear Posture Review is a restrained and well-thought out roadmap for the future development and modernization of U.S. nuclear forces as well as a strategy for maintaining and improving America’s deterrent capability.

Given the age of U.S. systems, and the late start the Pentagon got to modernization, a new strategic bomber will not be in the skies until the middle of the next decade.  We won’t see a new U.S. land-based until the end of that decade. And there won’t be a new Columbia class submarine until 2031. Waiting any longer would be a dangerous risk.

The Modernization Debate

Many analysts have criticized the administration for its ambitious plan to modernize nuclear weapons, with most critiques focusing on the high price tag and worrying that the administration is going to increase the number of nuclear warheads.

In fact, the modernization effort outlined in the Nuclear Posture Review is sensible and more affordable than the alternative –  sustaining an aging force that requires greater and greater funding each year. Critics tend to highlight the cost implications of the Nuclear Posture Review because this is the first such review completed just as a major nuclear modernization program got underway. Thus future costs are more visible and much larger than previously projected under past nuclear reviews.

Many Americans may not realize this, but the last comprehensive modernization of the U.S. nuclear deterrent began in 1981, some 37 years ago. The choice America faces is simple: modernize or disarm. Doing nothing would rust the nuclear forces to obsolescence — essentially a policy of unilateral disarmament. Administrations may have delayed, truncated, or otherwise slowed modernization, but modernization has always been the path forward; the key issue has been when to do so.

Indeed, the 2018 document does not propose policies that are a radical departure from previous nuclear policy: The proposed modernization of the triad of bombers, cruise missiles, submarines, and land-based missiles is largely inherited from the previous administration. The Senate ratified the New START Treaty, with the understanding that this approval was explicitly tied to most of the nuclear modernization that the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review is now endorsing.

Exploring the Costs

Using budget charts from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments’ (CSBA) 2015 study of nuclear modernization costs— the cost of nuclear modernization is estimated to be $300 billion over 25 years, even in inflation-adjusted dollars. This is true even if one includes 25 percent of all nuclear-capable bomber costs, (though the real nuclear cost portion of the B-21 bomber program is around 3 percent). Estimates of $1.2–$1.7 trillion for the cost of nuclear modernization are incorrect. In these estimates, bomber costs are excessive, sustainment costs assume the worst case, the ground-based strategic deterrent numbers assume low rates of production, and modernization investments are confused with operations and maintenance funding of old, legacy systems.

Keeping the old systems around is getting expensive. The cost of simply sustaining the current force, with zero modernization, is close to $800 billion over 30 years according to an October 2017 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report. This would include incremental fixes to the systems, but also incorporate inflation-adjusted dollars and cost growth. The figure assumes that there are few, if any, cost-effective measures to better sustain or support modern future systems compared to the relatively old systems of today that are indeed more and more expensive to keep in the force. The assumption is that new, modern weapons systems are going to require relatively expensive operating and sustainment budgets, which may not be the case at all.

Thus, when the sustainment costs of the current old systems, the costs of the new systems when deployed, plus the acquisition costs of new systems, are all combined, the costs come to $1.2 trillion, according to that CBO report, far higher than any of the office’s previous assessments. When examined closely, there are two important caveats to this figure. The report acknowldged using 100 percent of the bomber modernization and sustainment costs, even though all previous CBO assessments used a more realistic 25 percent. That factor alone increased the estimated 2017 costs by at least $142 billion compared to the similar CBO nuclear cost study done just two years before in 2015. And if expressed in then-year rather than 2017 dollars, the difference would have been more than $200 billion.

After the CBO made its 30-year assessment in October 2017, the Air Force announced it would be retiring the B-2 (and B-1) bombers early, which alone will further reduce bomber sustainment costs by $38.5 billion. A B-2 takes 27 hours of maintenance for one hour of flying time. By contrast, a B-52 has a maintenance to flying time ratio of 17 to 1. When the funds saved from retiring the B-1 and B-2 early are added to the $10 billion in operating costs over 30 years saved by the recently proposed B-52 re-engining, the overall bomber sustainment costs are reduced significantly from earlier estimates.

CBO also factored in 100 percent of certain satellite costs, which CSBA does not, as the satellite mission cannot accurately be considered solely nuclear. Combined, these factors account for $250 billion in reduced cost estimates by my counting.

In estimating the sustainment costs of the future nuclear force, CBO clearly assumes little improved efficiency compared to the CSBA assessment. And given that sustainment of the nuclear force is two-thirds of the total nuclear costs, higher sustainment estimates obviously boost the anticipated expenditures. Similarly, future efficiencies will sharply reduce program costs.

In contrast with CBO, the Nuclear Posture Review estimates lower sustainment costs from 2018 through 2029–30 and then a modest 1 percent ramp up to 2040. In short, it is cheaper and more intelligent to modernize forces rather than stopping or slowing modernization for budget reasons. To really save money, the United States would have to retire systems and get out of the nuclear business.

Digging Into the Numbers

According to CSBA, a realistic estimate of the total cost of the nuclear enterprise comes to around $28 billion a year. This is how much it would cost to sustain the old force, efficiently replace it, and in roughly 20 years have a fully modernized and sustainable force.

The CSBA estimate rejected the CBO assumption that 100 percent of bomber costs should be included. CSBA used 25 percent of bomber costs plus more reasonable estimates of annual sustainment. CSBA estimated the full nuclear modernization and sustainment costs over 25 years were $706 billion, even in then-year dollars, peaking at $34 billion a year in 2029 but averaging $28 billion a year, or on average 4 percent of the defense budget.

Even considering that the CSBA looked at a 25-year horizon while the CBO looked at a 30-year one, (the longer-term estimate will of course be more, everything else being equal), the two assessments differ by at least $240 billion and as much as $300 billion.

That’s real money, even in Washington.

It is true that in some years the annual cost will be higher than the average of $28 billion, but in any acquisition program, there first will be a ramp-up and annual expenditures will decline markedly thereafter. What’s more, according to the CSBA report, is even at its peak, spending will grow to no more than $34 billion a year, which is a very reasonable 4.7 percent of today’s defense budget even including anticipated inflation and program cost growth.

And while the CBO and most other analyses assume the nuclear enterprise will cost more in the future than current estimates project, there is no reason future cost savings cannot be accomplished. Since the October 2017 CBO report, we have already seen multiple millions of savings realized in the ICBM Fuze program, according to my conversations with Air Force officers. $960 million has been saved in the hull costs of the new Columbia class submarines, and we expect $10 billion in projected savings from the  plans to re-engine the B-52s.

Some argue that these are forgone costs and not costs that can be subtracted from current program estimates. Even if true, these savings bring previous estimates down, and reflect real program cost reductions. The planned retirement of the B-2 and the B-1 plus the re-engining of the B-52 were announced in December 2017 and February 2018, after the October 2017 CBO study, and thus these savings are not included in the CBO assessment. Taken together, retiring the B-2 and the B-1 early saves $38 billion through 2050; adding new engines to the B-52 actually saves a net $10 billion, offset by the additional $22 billion needed to keep the bomber in the force longer.

When buying weapons systems, it normally takes 12–13 years to get to initial operating capability. First the Navy and Air Force, overseen by the Department of Defense, contract to reduce the risk inherent in such weapons systems. Then they move to research, development, test and evaluation. When those tasks are completed, the actual production of the bomber, submarine, or ICBM begins, with future annual production often stretched out to continue supporting the industrial base.

According to the Nuclear Posture Review, current bomber, ICBM and submarine production will not result in a weapons system being put into the force until 2026, 2029, and 2031, respectively. By contrast, Russia says its entire nuclear deterrent will be fully modernized by 2021, having begun the effort in 2006.

The Threat Environment

It is important to look at other nuclear powers to get a full picture of the emerging strategic landscape. Russia continues to add to its arsenal of theater nuclear weapons, which are not under arms control limits. China, according to the Nuclear Posture Review, is “modernizing its nuclear weapons as part of an effort to prevent the United States from defending its allies and partners in the region.”

In addition, from 2009–2016, Russian military and government officials threatened the United States and its allies more than two dozen times with the use of nuclear weapons. Over that same time period, China also explicitly noted that its submarine launched ballistic missiles could destroy American West coast cities. North Korea has also regularly threatened to turn Seoul or New York or Tokyo into a “sea of fire.”

Clearly, as the United States delayed modernization and dramatically reduced its nuclear arsenal through arms control, other nuclear powers including major American adversaries did not mimic this restraint.

The United States, as it has for decades, needs advanced capabilities to respond to the advances of its adversaries. The threat environment does not stay static. Staying ahead of the threat lessens the chances an adversary will consider a reckless attack. To the extent America’s leaders know the nuclear forces are deteriorating, they may be less willing to rely on deterrence to successfully challenge America’s adversaries.

For example, when the United States delayed modernization of its nuclear deterrent in the 1970s, the Soviet Union toppled the governments of more than a dozen countries. In the view of KGB Chairman Andropov, the “correlation of forces” was moving markedly toward the Soviets. Moscow was increasingly willing to take risks such as deploying nuclear missiles in Europe, invading Afghanistan, and supporting terror groups such as the Red Brigades, Black September, the IRA, and Baader-Meinhof gang.

To avoid another similar decade of retreat and the rise of what was termed “Hollow Army,” the United States must commit itself to a nuclear modernization effort.

Modernization and Arms Control

Critics also believe that modernization will be inconsistent with America’s arms control obligations, specifically the obligation to stay within the limits of the 2010 new Star Treaty.

However, the Nuclear Posture Review calls for a nuclear force that is consistent with being “prepared for and receptive to future arms control negotiations … as arms control is an important tool for managing competition and building predictability and transparency between nuclear armed states.”

Moreover, America must have a “hedge” to maintain “flexibility to respond to a variety of current threats while preparing for future uncertainties.” This means if the Russians abandoned New START treaty and expanded their nuclear forces, America would have to match their capability to maintain deterrence.

Modernization of the nuclear force is now threat-driven, according to  Gen. John Hyten, head of U.S. Strategic Command. As U.S. adversaries build and deploy nuclear forces of greater capability, the United States has little choice but to do the same. By delaying those choices for nearly three decades, America largely pushed nuclear modernization into the next 20 years, such that the annual costs are higher than if modernization had taken place more gradually over a longer period.


As every previous administration has emphasized, the goal of the U.S. nuclear deterrent is “to deter nuclear and non-nuclear attack, assure allies and partners … and hedge against uncertainty.” Without a robust nuclear deterrent force, these tasks cannot be achieved. An aging force, rusting to obsolescence, won’t be in the field to deter, it will be retired.

The good news is that, as a percentag of the defense budget and certainly compared to what America has spent historically on nuclear weapons, the costs to modernize are relatively modest. The United States must choose between keeping its deterrent force or gradually disarming. In the face of the threats America faces, modernization is the smart option: relatively cheap, stabilizing, and consistent with deterrent needs and arms control goals and obligations.


Peter Huessy is President of Geo-Strategic Analysis, a Potomac-based national security consulting company that is supported by aerospace companies in the space, missile defense and nuclear deterrent business. He is Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Huessy is also a guest lecturer at the US Naval Academy on nuclear deterrent policy, and for 35 years has hosted a congressional breakfast seminar series on Capitol Hill.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman J.T. Armstrong