July 11, 2019

Modernizing the Nuclear Triad


  • The United States military is modernizing the three weapon systems that constitute the “nuclear triad.”
  • The near-simultaneous transition to these new nuclear delivery systems raises risks if one of the three is delayed.
  • Modernization of all our nuclear weapon systems is a necessary and decades-long effort needed for both national security and safety reasons. 

The backbone of American military deterrence is the nuclear triad – submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and bombers. The three separate ways of delivering nuclear weapons have different advantages:

  1. Nuclear submarines are the most likely to survive a strike by another country, guaranteeing the United States the ability to strike back.

  2. ICBMs can be launched quickly if necessary.

  3. Strategic bombers armed with penetrating cruise missiles can be deployed and recalled more easily.

Nuclear Triad

 Nuclear Triad

The Department of Defense is currently modernizing the triad by simultaneously building a new ballistic missile submarine, a new ICBM, and a new bomber. All are scheduled to enter service in the late 2020s or early 2030s, and DOD considers them top priorities. The cost of modernizing the three programs is estimated at $217 billion.

ballistic missile nuclear SUBmarines

The Navy is in the process of developing and building 12 new Columbia class ballistic missile submarines to replace the current fleet of 14 Ohio class submarines. The Navy acquired Ohio class submarines from 1984-1997, and they have an expected service life of 42 years. It will begin retiring one submarine per year in 2027. The first Columbia class submarine will not be fully operational until 2031, which means the Navy’s ballistic missile submarine fleet may drop as low as 10 submarines sometime between fiscal years 2030 and 2040.

There are plans for alternate procurement schedules that could accelerate submarine delivery if needed. The Navy expects to invest more than $100 billion in the Columbia class submarine.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles

Today, there are 400 Minuteman 3 ICBMs deployed in silos at Air Force bases in Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota. These are expected to be operational until the mid-2030s, around the same time DOD will be retiring Ohio class submarines.

The Air Force will replace the Minuteman 3 with the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. The GBSD will maintain a deployment force of 400 missiles, with an additional 242 missiles for testing. The first GBSD missiles are planned to be operational in 2029, and all missiles will be deployed by 2036.

The Air Force projects GBSD will cost $62 billion over 30 years, while the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation Office at DOD has estimated the cost could go as high as $85 billion over the same period. While the Pentagon contemplated doing a life-extension on the current warheads, it has now decided to upgrade to a newer model warhead that will be less likely to detonate in case of an accident, fire, or unexpected impact. The upgrades will largely be for safety and security reasons, as the Department of Energy has stated the missile will not provide any new military capabilities.

strategic bombers

The Air Force had previously said that its current fleet of strategic bombers could fly until 2037. However, they may have challenges overcoming the new technologies other countries have developed.

In 2015, DOD selected Northrop Grumman to build the new long-range strike bomber – the B-21 Raider – to replace the B-2 bomber currently in the Air Force nuclear-capable inventory. It will be able to operate with both nuclear and conventional weapons, as the B-52 does today. The Air Force is also planning to put new engines on the B-52 in order to operate it through the 2050s.

The B-21 bomber is scheduled to enter service in the late 2020s. Many of the details are classified, but the Air Force publicly stated a cost goal of $550 million per aircraft. It is estimated that the Air Force will purchase approximately 100 B-21s over the course of the program, for a total of $55 billion.

In order to maintain the ability to strike targets in heavily defended enemy air space, the Air Force is planning to replace the aging air-launched cruise missile with a new Long-Range Standoff weapon. The LRSO will deploy in the late 2020s.

Issue Tag: National Security