America’s Endangered Nuclear Deterrent: The Case for Funding Two Critical Capabilities


The U.S. nuclear triad is an aging collection of weapons, many of which were designed before today’s policymakers were even born. Because of modernization program cancellations, the average age of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is climbing into the mid-40s, while the air-launched cruise missile weapons system has aged more than 20 years past its original intended service life.

Although every administration since the end of the Cold War has agreed that maintaining a triad of nuclear-capable weapons systems is critical to the nation’s security, most have nonetheless treated nuclear modernization as a second-tier concern. In an era of renewed great power competition, nuclear delivery systems should no longer receive low prioritization. It will be especially important in an increasingly competitive global threat environment to maintain a credible deterrent that underpins not only homeland defense, but also America’s numerous allied defense commitments. But for the U.S. to retain that credibility, its systems must receive timely modernization and capability upgrades, just as U.S. conventional forces do. For this reason, it is imperative to fully fund and deliver on schedule the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent and Long Range Standoff weapon (LRSO) programs to ensure that as the Minuteman III and air-launched cruise missile systems are retired in the coming decades, their capabilities will be replaced on schedule.

Failing to Prioritize Deterrence

Every U.S. administration since the end of the Cold War has affirmed the need to sustain a credible triad of ICBMs, long-range bombers, and nuclear ballistic missile submarines. Yet until recently, these same administrations have also chosen to truncate, delay, or cancel needed triad modernization initiatives, including programs to replace 35-year-old air-launched cruise missiles carried by B-52s and the nearly 50-year-old Minuteman III ICBMs. This is reflected in funding allocated to the Defense Department’s “Strategic Forces” investment portfolio, which includes triad weapon system life extension and modernization programs.

Source: Defense Department, “Strategic Forces”

From 1964 until the end of the Cold War, this portfolio accounted for about 9.6 percent of the department’s annual Total Obligation Authority on average. This share has decreased to an average of about 2.4 percent since FY 1992, a level that was barely sufficient to upgrade and extend the operational lives of the aging triad.

While many in Congress and the Defense Department considered this acceptable given the absence of a hostile power capable of challenging America’s military supremacy, it is increasingly clear that these systems will not meet future requirements in an era of renewed great power competition. While the United States essentially deferred nuclear modernization, Russia and China took the opposite tack by aggressively pursuing modernization of their nuclear forces across the board. China has fielded ballistic missile submarines and the world’s largest and most capable inventory of ballistic and cruise missiles, including variants that may be dual-capable. Both Russia and China continue to fund multiple programs to develop new capabilities. They have also invested in conventional systems to deter, degrade, or prevent the United States from intervening in crises in their respective regions.

Although U.S. national security experts acknowledge that these maturing anti-access/area-denial complexes are eroding America’s ability to project military power, they generally do so in the context of how they might affect conventional operations. Advanced integrated air defense systems, offensive cyber applications, electronic warfare systems, and other threats designed to constrain the U.S. military’s freedom of action in conventional conflicts also threaten the effectiveness — and ultimately the credibility — of nuclear triad systems originally designed for the more permissive operational environments of the 1970s.

A Case in Point: Replacing the Air-Launched Cruise Missile

The proliferation of advanced air and missile defenses underscores the need to maintain a bomber leg of the triad with a diverse range of strike capabilities, including the ability to launch stealthy, survivable nuclear cruise missiles against targets without the need for bombers to penetrate heavily defended areas. As with other 1970s-era weapons, it is unlikely that air-launched cruise missiles launched by nuclear-capable B-52H bombers will be able to penetrate future air defenses fielded by Russia and China.

To address these concerns, the Pentagon has funded the development of the LRSO, a long-range nuclear cruise missile that will be compatible with multiple bombers, unlike the air-launched cruise missile. The LRSO would replace the air-launched cruise missile around 2030 and boast a service life of at least 40 years. Without an air-launched cruise missile replacement that can penetrate advanced integrated air defense systems, operate in GPS-denied environments, and hold high-value targets at risk from significant distances, B-52Hs will not be able to credibly threaten targets in contested areas. As air defenses continue to improve, even stealthy bombers may need to launch attacks against some targets from standoff distances that exceed the very short range of a nuclear gravity bomb.

More broadly, the LRSO could also help strengthen America’s extended deterrence posture. The United States has given up a great deal of its capacity for carrying out its extended deterrence commitments, including the Navy’s nuclear Tomahawk Land Attack Missile, which was retired in 2013. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review recognized this shortfall and recommended a study and analysis of alternatives for a new sea-launched cruise missile for extended deterrence. The Defense Department should also consider how the LRSO could support U.S. extended deterrence commitments. For instance, one or more of these weapons could be used in a limited nuclear strike against a rogue state, if necessary, without the need to launch ballistic missiles or use a manned bomber to enter hostile airspace.

LRSO detractors have argued that cruise missiles destabilize the nuclear balance with Russia. But there is little evidence that this was the case during the Cold War, and critics often overlook the bomber’s stabilizing role in the nuclear triad. Unlike both submarine-launched ballistic missiles and ICBMs, bombers are visible, which means they can be used to send signals during crises. Manned bombers also have longer sortie durations, which provides a window of time to make the decision to recall after launch. In a future crisis, the United States could signal its resolve and strengthen its deterrence posture by uploading bombers with nuclear cruise missiles and gravity bombs, and if necessary, disperse send them to distant airfields to increase their survivability. But to be strategically effective, the bombers must retain a penetrating strike capability even in the contested and well-defended threat environments America will face in the coming decades.

Most importantly, however, it is difficult to argue in good faith that American nuclear cruise missiles would destabilize global balances when Russia and China have not articulated any concerns about nuclear cruise missiles’ impact on strategic stability, and both countries already are investing heavily in modern, dual-capable air-launched cruise missile systems. The Russian Kh-102 is the nuclear variant of its conventional Kh-101 cruise missile, and the U.S. Air Force’s Global Strike Command has said China’s new CJ-20 land-attack cruise missile may be dual-capable. These acquisitions suggest that neither Moscow nor Beijing is particularly convinced that the weapons uniquely destabilize nuclear competition, and it is the perceptions of U.S. competitors that matter most.

Skeptics also raise the issue of the LRSO’s cost. Although the weapon will not be cheap, its estimated $9.7 billion Program Acquisition Unit Cost for about 1,000 missiles is a small fraction of the $94 billion the Pentagon projects it will spend on the triad between FY 2016 and FY 2020. After adjusting for inflation, this is similar to what it would cost to maintain the air-launched cruise missile. Moreover, in the era of great power competition, arguments about the cost of the LRSO program should also consider the potential cost to Russia and China to defend against it. Unlike ballistic missiles that have a more predictable flight path, cruise missiles can be launched by U.S. bombers from multiple angles and can maneuver en route to the target. To counter these attacks, competitors must develop and procure greater numbers of defensive systems and other countermeasures. These defensive investments could divert funding and other resources away from programs for additional offensive capabilities. During the Cold War, the fielding of the U.S. B-1 bomber similarly caused the Soviet Union to divert significant resources to develop weapon systems to detect and attack penetrating bombers capable of low-altitude, supersonic flight.

Modernizing the Minuteman III Force          

It’s not only the bomber leg of the triad that requires modernization. U.S. ground-based strategic forces have also suffered from the failure to prioritize and fund the necessary upgrades. The land-based leg of the triad provides a rapid response capability, and because an adversary would need to target each missile silo to degrade U.S. nuclear capabilities writ large, a credible ICBM capability makes it harder for an adversary to launch a major nuclear strike against the United States.

Currently, America’s operationally deployed ICBM force is made up entirely of 400 Minuteman III missiles, which were first fielded in the 1970s. Similar to the air-launched cruise missile, the Defense Department has said the Minuteman III will not meet its future requirements. Though a 2017 Congressional Budget Office report suggested that refurbishing the Minuteman III and delaying the proposed replacement program could reduce overall nuclear modernization costs, that report assumed the technical feasibility of continuing to extend the current missile’s service life and did not consider the aging out of Minuteman III’s component parts. Air Force and defense industry experts believe that further extending the service life of the Minuteman III’s solid rocket motors is not viable. Due to aging components that cannot be refurbished or replaced, the Minuteman III inventory may not be able to support a force of 400 operationally deployed missiles much past 2030.

The Air Force estimates that shortfalls in critical Minuteman III components will impact its ability to maintain the size of the operationally deployed ICBM force after about 2030 (Source: Internal Air Force data)

Minuteman III and GBSD Costs Are a Wash – Capabilities Are Not

To ensure the United States maintains an ICBM capability, the Defense Department has funded the development of a replacement capability, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent system. The new missile force is expected to reach full operational capability in 2036 and remain in service until the mid-2070s. The program will also refurbish associated ICBM infrastructure and reuse the 450 existing launch facilities and 45 Launch Control Centers in lieu of new construction. While the system itself remains in development, it is being designed to accept upgrades over time as technology and threat environments evolve. In keeping with the priorities discussed in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the Defense Department should ensure the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent can be quickly modified to carry multiple reentry vehicles if necessary and accept other upgrades as new technologies mature. This would provide a hedge against unforeseen changes in an adversary’s nuclear weapons strategy and posture, and it would help restore the strategic flexibility the military lost when it modified Minuteman IIIs to carry only a single warhead.

Some critics have claimed the cost of replacing Minuteman IIIs with new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent ICBMs would reduce the pool of available funding needed to support other critical modernization programs. This argument does not hold up. According to a 2015 Air Force estimate, the replacement program, including needed upgrades to Minuteman III launch facilities and other infrastructure, will cost approximately $62 billion. According to a Defense Department analysis of alternatives, it would cost about the same to maintain a life-extended Minuteman III force through 2075 — the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent’s anticipated lifespan. And of course, the proposed new system provides greater capability for that similar price. That means that even if one only acknowledges the ICBMs’ value as a “missile sink” to make nuclear aggression against the United States more costly, there is no discernible upside to extending the Minuteman III force instead of investing in the upgraded capabilities that the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent offers.

The alternative to modernization expenditures would be to retire the ground-based leg of the triad. Doing so would cede America’s most potent rapid response capability and dramatically reduce the number of targets an adversary would need to neutralize in a first strike. No matter how unthinkable such a scenario may appear, it is important to consider the costs if deterrence fails. The LRSO and ground-based strategic deterrent programs are a small price to pay to avoid that destabilizing outcome. Investing in air-launched cruise missile and Minuteman III replacements will require a multi-year commitment, but it will help ensure the United States maintains a highly capable and reliable force as part of its strategic deterrent posture. Refusing to invest in triad modernization would be to deliberately weaken the U.S. nuclear deterrent, the risk of which is unquantifiable, but potentially devastating.


Mark Gunzinger is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) and was formerly Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Forces Transformation and Resources. Carl Rehberg is a Senior Fellow at CSBA and was the former Air Force Long Range Planner and Director of the Asia-Pacific Cell. Gillian Evans is an Analyst at CSBA. Their full report, Sustaining the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent: The LRSO and GBSD, is available on CSBA’s website. 

Image: U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Ian Dudley