The United States maintains the strongest nuclear weapons arsenal in the world. We currently have over 1,700 strategic and deadly nuclear warheads deployed at bases across the globe, with thousands more in storage plus thousands more intact and awaiting dismantlement.
It cannot be overstated how truly terrifying their capacity for destruction is. Each warhead is hundreds of times more powerful than the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And that was before the United States began the largest and most expensive nuclear modernization effort the world has ever seen.
President Trump’s response to North Korea’s most recent nuclear posturing references plans to “renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal.” He’s talking about an effort to maintain and upgrade the nuclear warheads themselves, their delivery systems (like submarines and planes), and the infrastructure at nuclear weapons production facilities. It’s an effort that began under President Obama and is likely to cost taxpayers over $1 trillion over the next 30 years.
But if nuclear deterrence is the goal, a $1 trillion modernization effort isn’t necessary. “[T]he thing about a deterrent capability is it does not matter how old it is,” the Commander of US Strategic Command told the Senate Armed Services Committee this past April. “It just matters whether it works…The stuff that we have today will work.”
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has also questioned the scope of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) modernization plans, noting in 2016 that "it's very, very, very expensive[,]” and asking if “we really need the entire triad, given the situation?"
The nuclear triad refers to the three ways the United States is able to fire nuclear weapons, and each leg will receive an update under the current plan. In fact, several different nuclear warhead types have already begun life extension programs to replace their components and add new capabilities. Those that are in process have followed a simpler, more traditional approach to modernization that involves replacing aging components but leaving the basic nuclear explosive package the same.
For example, the Navy’s W76-1 nuclear warhead, which is deployed on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, has been upgraded to include a “super-fuze” device to make these warheads significantly more accurate so that they will explode close enough to hardened targets—like Russian inter-continental ballistic missile silos—and destroy them completely. Despite the addition of this new capability, the W76 life extension program is expected to finish on time in 2020 and will only cost approximately $4 billion. That’s likely because the changes were modest and didn’t include any modifications to the nuclear explosive package. The B61 nuclear warhead, deployed on the Air Force’s B-2 bombers, is also in the midst of a life extension program. This update will cost more than the bomb’s weight in solid gold—literally—yet is still less expensive than some of the other planned modernization efforts. $1.3 billion will be spent on the bomb’s new tail kit alone, which will add guidance capabilities to the weapons and make them far more accurate. This tail kit will also give the bomb a “dial-a-yield” capability, meaning the bomb’s yield can be lowered in order to attack very specific targets without as many unintentional causalities. Again, no changes will be made to the nuclear explosive package itself.
These enhancements are just the beginning of the nuclear modernization plan, a plan that extends far beyond the warheads themselves. But there are a lot of reasons to question what projects are being advanced in the name of a “modern nuclear arsenal.” The NNSA plans to take a much more aggressive and expensive approach to modernizing some warhead classes despite the fact that doing so will not improve the nuclear deterrence strategy or make the United States any safer. This will be incredibly expensive in and of itself, and will require huge, expensive new facilities to support that work. The agency has proposed building several new facilities to manufacture hundreds of new plutonium and uranium cores for the bombs. The NNSA’s cost estimates for these facilities have skyrocketed and would not be necessary for a more scaled-down, straight forward modernization plan.
While certain components of nuclear weapons must be remanufactured and replaced, the plutonium cores have a lifetime of 150 years and can be reused, dramatically reducing the need to build a brand new plutonium pit production facility. As for the uranium portion of nuclear warheads, sources have told POGO that hundreds of warheads going through the life extension programs have not required remanufactured uranium components.
Yet, the NNSA still plans to spend billions of dollars on new facilities capable of producing these nuclear components for weapons that may not even need them. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is also concerned with the purpose of these facilities, asking the NNSA to clarify specifically what these facilities will do and why we need them, and to develop a complete and reliable cost estimate for each proposed project.
NNSA’s nuclear modernization project overall could use some justification. For example, future warhead life extension programs will involve brand new nuclear explosive packages that have never before been tested. These new packages are part of a plan to replace four different missile-carried warheads, two delivered by submarine and two land-based, with three different warheads. They are known as interoperable warheads because they will have a common nuclear explosive package despite being part of different legs of the triad. Development of the first interoperable warhead began in 2012 but was halted in 2014, partially because the Navy didn’t particularly want a new warhead design. Despite their reservations, the NNSA plans to restart their work on the interoperable warheads in 2020.
A peek under the hood of the agency’s cost estimates for the entire modernization effort, which includes both the new warhead designs and the new facilities, shows that additional oversight is needed. Earlier this year, the GAO released a report on the modernization numbers and found NNSA’s plans do not meet realistic budget estimates. The Office of Management and Budget has approved budget estimates for the next five years of the modernization plan so that they align with the President’s 5-year overall federal budget estimates. However, the NNSA has claimed they will need at least an additional $5 billion for some projects between 2018 and 2021. If the agency cannot reconcile the differences between what they say they’ll need and the approved budget estimates, they will have to defer some of the modernization work. “Misalignment between estimates in NNSA’s budget materials and modernization plans raises affordability concerns,” the GAO concluded.
NNSA’s management of contractors, including those conducting this modernization work, has also been notoriously bad—and on the GAO’s list of projects at high risk for waste, fraud, and abuse for years—leading to huge cost increases in the past. This is particularly worrying given that 90 percent of the modernization workforce are contractors, not government employees.
The NNSA’s long history of contractor mismanagement has led to things like budget misalignments, plans to build facilities without a clear mission or complete design, and significant delays in the more ambitious aspects of the nuclear modernization plan. This could leave the NNSA without the resources to fulfill their basic mission: ensuring the US nuclear stockpile is safe and secure. “Program instability poses a significant threat to NNSA’s mission critical capabilities,” an independent advisory group concluded in their review of the nuclear modernization plan.
The NNSA has not proven themselves to be effective stewards of taxpayer dollars, yet they ask Congress to hand over billions of dollars before demonstrating what capabilities they need and before even submitting an accurate cost estimate. It’s time to take a look at how much of this nuclear modernization plan is truly necessary for maintaining an effective nuclear deterrent and how much is just expensive window dressing designed to give nuclear contractors something to do.