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Tech. Sgt. Robert Horstman, A munitions display of the B-52 Stratofortress, an Air Force bomber, 2017, Defense Logistics Agency

Issue Brief

The American Nuclear Triad Today (and Tomorrow)

Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation, “Fact Sheet: The United States' Nuclear Inventory,” July 2, 2020, https://armscontrolcenter.org/fact-sheet-the-united-states-nuclear-arsenal/.
 
As of early 2021, the United States has 5,800 nuclear weapons, with 3,800 active warheads in the stockpile and 2,000 weapons awaiting dismantlement
. These warheads are delivered via the so-called “nuclear triad” of land, air, and sea weapons. Since the development of the atomic bomb, there have been three generations of the triad, roughly tracking the three eras of American nuclear weapons policy, with the first generation beginning in the 1950s and running through the 1970s before the first large-scale modernization effort. The second generation began in the mid-to-late 1970s and carried through the 1980s, concluding with the cessation of the Cold War. These second generational updates ended when the B-2 was brought online in 1989. Initiated under the Obama administration and accelerated under Trump, a third generation of nuclear modernization is currently underway, with a trillion dollars of investment in new nuclear delivery systems to come online in the next decade and remain in operation until as late as 2070.

On land, the U.S. Air Force currently operates 400 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, often referred to as ICBMs. American ICBMs are attended to by Air Force Officers, known as missileers. The current generation of missiles are primarily stationed on the Great Plains in Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota, but these missiles can carry over into nearby states, including Colorado, due to the large size of the missile fields. The current arsenal, which will remain operational until 2030, was built with the capacity to carry three independently-guided warheads per missile, though arms control agreements now limit each missile to one. Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation, “Fact Sheet: The United States' Nuclear Inventory,” July 2, 2020, https://armscontrolcenter.org/fact-sheet-the-united-states-nuclear-arsenal/.
 
Beyond 2030, the military plans to completely replace them with a missile fleet known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, built by the defense giant Northrup Grumman. This proposed program will eventually cost more than 100 billion dollars and include 666 missiles: 400 for deployment and 266 as backups or test missiles. These new missiles will begin to roll out in 2027

Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation, “Fact Sheet: The United States' Nuclear Inventory,” July 2, 2020, https://armscontrolcenter.org/fact-sheet-the-united-states-nuclear-arsenal/.
 
In the air, the U.S. Air Force commands a fleet of 20 B-2 bombers (each armed with 16 nuclear gravity bombs) and 46 B-52 bombers (armed with 20 nuclear-equipped cruise missiles)
. Modernization plans call for a transition to the Lockheed Martin-produced F-35 Lightning II fighter planes and the Mehta, Aaron. “America’s Nuclear Weapons Will Cost $1.2 Trillion over the next 30 Years.” Defense News, February 21, 2018. https://www.defensenews.com/breaking-news/2017/10/31/americas-nuclear-weapons-will-cost-12-trillion-over-the-next-30-years/.B-21 Raider bomber, made by Northrup Grummon. The Pentagon ultimately plans to purchase nearly 2,500 fighters and as many as 200 bombers to operate until 2070. The Air Force also operates air-launched nuclear cruise missiles, which are soon to be updated to the Dennis Evans and Jonathan Schwalbe, “The Long Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO) And Its Role in Future Nuclear Forces,” The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, 2017, https://www.jhuapl.edu/content/documents/lrso.pdf.Raytheon-produced Long Range Standoff Weapon to be launched from the B-52 Stratofortress, a long-range strategic bomber. Many of these weapons are lower-yield devices, which arms control experts fear would be more likely to be used in the battlefield than city-obliterating missiles.

At sea, the U.S. Navy now operates 14 ballistic missile submarines, each carrying up to 20 Trident II D5 missiles, which typically host 4 or 5 warheads for an average of 90 warheads per submarine. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, each submarine has the explosive power equivalent to seven World War IIs—and ten of these submarines are in the ocean at any given time. Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation, “Fact Sheet: The United States' Nuclear Inventory,” July 2, 2020, https://armscontrolcenter.org/fact-sheet-the-united-states-nuclear-arsenal/.
 
These will be replaced by 12 Columbia-class submarines beginning in 2031. Each submarine will feature 16 missile tubes, with each tube holding one Trident II D5LE missile
. Like the other two portions of the triad, these new submarines are expected to operate well into the latter half of the 21st Century. 

The U.S. military views Russia and China as its greatest nuclear adversaries, and both appear to be expanding their own nuclear triads. Russia has been modernizing its Soviet-era arsenal since the early 2000s and in 2018 embarked on the development of entirely new weapons. China has maintained a much smaller, deterrent-oriented nuclear arsenal since the 1960s, but some analysts predict intense investment in new weapons and delivery systems in the next decade. Thus, the U.S. modernization process seems to be unfolding within and contributing to a 21st century arms race.

Sources

Arms Control Association. “The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy." Accessed January 23, 2021.

Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation. “Fact Sheet: The United States' Nuclear Inventory.” July 2, 2020. Accessed April 4, 2021.

Congressional Research Services. "Russia’s Nuclear Weapons: Doctrine, Forces, and Modernization." R45861. July 20, 2020. Accessed April 4, 2021.

Evans, Dennis, and Jonathan Schwalbe. “The Long Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO) And Its Role in Future Nuclear Forces." The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, 2017. Accessed June 22, 2021.  

Insinna, Valerie. “Inside America’s Dysfunctional Trillion-Dollar Fighter-Jet Program.The New York Times, August 21, 2019. Accessed April 4, 2021.

Kristensen, Hans M. and Matt Korda. “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2019.Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 75, no. 4 (2019): 171-178.

Kristensen, Hans M. and Matt Korda. “Status of World Nuclear Forces.Federation of American Scientists. September 2020 [last update]. Accessed January 20, 2021. 

Mehta, Aaron. “America’s Nuclear Weapons Will Cost $1.2 Trillion over the next 30 Years.Defense News, October 31, 2017. Accessed April 4, 2021.

Norris, Robbert S. and Hans M. Kristensen. “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945–2010.Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 66, no. 4 (2010): 77–83.

U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense. Nuclear Posture Review. February 2018. Accessed December 18, 2020.
 

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