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United States nuclear forces, 2017

Hans M. Kristensen & Robert S. Norris

To cite this article: Hans M. Kristensen & Robert S. Norris (2017) United States nuclear forces,
2017, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 73:1, 48-57, DOI: 10.1080/00963402.2016.1264213

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Published online: 14 Dec 2016.

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VOL. 73, NO. 1, 4857


United States nuclear forces, 2017

Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris

The US nuclear arsenal remained roughly unchanged in the last year, with the Defense Ballistic missiles; cruise
Department maintaining an estimated stockpile of some 4,480 warheads to be delivered via missiles; nuclear weapons;
ballistic missiles and aircraft. Since September 2009, when the United States announced that the United States; ICBM; SLBM;
nuclear modernization;
nuclear arsenal contained 5,113 warheads, the stockpile has decreased by 633. Most warheads in
SSBN; ground-based
the current arsenal are not deployed but stored, and many are destined to be retired. Of the strategic deterrent;
approximately 1,740 warheads deployed, roughly 1,590 are on ballistic missiles or at bomber long-range strike bomber;
bases in the United States, with another 150 tactical bombs deployed at European bases. The LRSO
number of US deployed strategic warheads has decreased since September 1, 2016.

At the beginning of 2017, the US Defense Department a decrease of 170 warheads and 81 launchers compared
maintained a stockpile of an estimated 4,480 nuclear with a year ago (State Department 2016). The decrease
warheads for delivery by more than 800 ballistic mis- reflects the removal of additional excess intercontinental
siles and aircraft. This figure is unchanged over the last ballistic missiles (ICBMs) from their silos, deactivation of
year. Since September 2009, when the United States excess launch tubes on several nuclear-powered ballistic
announced that the nuclear arsenal contained 5,113 missile submarines (SSBNs), and denuclearization of sev-
warheads, the stockpile has decreased by 633. eral excess B-52H bombers. Since the treaty entered into
Most of the warheads in the stockpile are not deployed force in February 2011, the United States has reported
but stored for potential upload onto missiles and aircraft, cutting a total of 433 deployed strategic warheads and 201
and many are destined for retirement. We estimate that deployed launchers.
approximately 1,740 warheads are currently deployed, of We estimate that all, or nearly all, of 50 excess
which roughly 1,590 strategic warheads are deployed on Minuteman III ICBMs have by now been removed
ballistic missiles and at bomber bases in the United States. from their silos. This effort is intended to reduce the
Another 150 tactical bombs are deployed in Europe. The number of deployed ICBMs from 450 to 400 under
remaining approximately 2,740 warheads61% of the New START. The 50 excess silos will not be destroyed
totalare in storage as a so-called hedge against technical but kept warm to reload the missiles if necessary.
or geopolitical surprises (see Table 1). Several hundred of Destruction of previously emptied silos at F.E.
those are scheduled to be retired before 2030. Warren Air Force Base and four excess test-launch
In addition to the warheads in the Defense silos at Vandenberg Air Force Base was scheduled for
Department stockpile, approximately 2,300 retired but completion in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
still intact warheads are stored under custody of the We estimate that the number of deployed nuclear
Energy Department and awaiting dismantlement, for a bombers declined by about 10 since March 2016 due to
total US inventory of roughly 6,780 warheads. continued denuclearization of excess B-52H bombers.
In total, 30 operational and 12 nonoperational B-52Hs
are to be converted to nonnuclear configuration to
Implementing new START
meet the goal of no more than 60 deployed nuclear
Under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New bombers by 2018. Denuclearized B-52H bombers are
START), the United States and Russia report the size of now beginning to appear in exercises alongside their
their deployed strategic nuclear arsenals every six months. nuclear-capable counterparts, and sometimes deploy
As of September 1, 2016, the United States reported that on entirely nonnuclear bomber operations.
its nuclear arsenal included 1,367 deployed strategic war- The US Navy is well on its way to reducing the
heads attributed to 681 deployed missiles and bombers number of missile tubes on each nuclear missile

CONTACT Hans M. Kristensen

2016 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

submarine from 24 to 20. We estimate that about 10 2015b). The results of this effort will include a new class of
SSBNs have been converted, and the process is sched- SSBNs, a new long-range bomber with nuclear capability,
uled for completion in early 2017. The intention is to a new air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), a next-gen-
reduce the number of deployed submarine-launched eration land-based ICBM, and a new nuclear-capable
ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to no more than 240 by 2018. tactical fighter aircraft. It will also include complete full-
scale production of one nuclear warhead (the W76-1),
initiation of production on two others (the B61-12 and
Nuclear modernization W80-4), modernized nuclear command and control facil-
The United States is well underway on an extensive ities, and new or upgraded nuclear weapon production
modernization of its entire nuclear weapons enterprise. and simulation facilities.
Over the next decade, the US government plans to spend In addition to these programs, the United States is
nearly $350 billion on modernizing and maintaining its planning to significantly redesign warheads for ballistic
nuclear forces and the facilities that support them (CBO missiles. These modified versions will be interoperable

Table 1. The US nuclear arsenal, 2017.

Year Warheads Warheads
Type/Designation No. deployed yield (kilotons) (total available)a
LGM-30G Minuteman III
Mk-12A 200 1979 1-3 W78 335 (MIRV) 600b
Mk-21/SERV 200 2006c 1 W87 300 200d
Total 400 800e
UGM-133A Trident II D5 248f
Mk-4 1992 1-8 W76-0 100 (MIRV) 385g
Mk-4A 2008 1-8 W76-1 100 (MIRV) 1,215
Mk-5 1990 1-8 W88 455 (MIRV) 384
Total 248 1,984h
B-52H Stratofortress 89/44 1961 ALCM/W80-1 5150 528
B-2A Spirit 20/16 1994 B61-7/-11, B83-1 510
Total 109/60i 1,038j

Total strategic forces 3,822

Nonstrategic forces
B61-3, 4, 10 bombs n/a 1979 0.3170 500
Total 500k

Total stockpile ~4,480l

Deployed ~1,740m
Reserve (hedge and spares) ~2,740
Retired, awaiting dismantlement ~2,300
Total inventory ~6,780
ALCM: Air-launched cruise missile; ICBM: intercontinental ballistic missile; LGM: silo-launched ground-attack missile; MIRV: multiple independently targetable
reentry vehicle; SERV: security-enhanced reentry vehicle; SLCM: sea-launched cruise missile; SLBM: submarine-launched ballistic missile; UGM: underwater-
launched ground-attack missile
In contrast to previous US Notebooks, which only listed deployed warheads for each weapon type, this Notebook lists total warheads available, for
consistency with Notebooks on other nuclear-armed states.
Roughly 200 of these are deployed on 200 Minuteman IIIs equipped with the Mk12A reentry vehicle. The rest are in central storage.
The W87 was initially deployed on the MX/Peacekeeper in 1986 but first transferred to the Minuteman in 2006.
There are a total of 540 W87s in the stockpile. The 200 Mk21-equipped ICBMs can each carry one W87. The remaining 320 W87s are in storage.
Of these ICBM warheads, 400 are deployed on operational missiles and the rest are in long-term storage.
The Navy is reducing the number of missile tubes on each SSBN from 24 to 20. As of early 2017, the force included 10 SSBNs with 20 tubes each and two
SSBNs with 24 tubes each, for a total of 12 deployable submarines. Two additional submarines, each still with 24 missile tubes, are in refueling overhaul.
They are not available for deployment and not assigned nuclear weapons. Sometimes more than two submarines are undergoing maintenance at once.
All W76-0 warheads have been replaced on SSBNs by W76-1 warheads but several hundred are still in storage and more have been retired. When the W76-
1 life-extension program production is completed in FY2019, the remaining W76-0 warheads will be scrapped.
Of these SLBM warheads, approximately 890 are deployed on missiles loaded in SSBN launchers.
The first figure is the aircraft inventory, including those used for training, testing, and backup; the second is the portion of the primary-mission aircraft
inventory estimated to be tasked for nuclear missions. As of September 2016, nuclear-capable bombers counted under New START included roughly 70
B-52Hs and 20 B-2s.
Of these bomber weapons, only about 300 are deployed at bomber bases. This includes an estimated 200 ALCMs at Minot Air Force Base and approximately
100 bombs at Whiteman Air Force Base. The remaining 738 weapons are in long-term storage. B-52s are no longer tasked to deliver gravity bombs.
Roughly 150 B61-3 and 4 bombs are deployed in Europe and the rest are in central storage in the United States.
This includes 4,322 warheads for the operational forces (listed above) plus roughly 160 spare warheads (part of the reserve).
Deployed warheads include approximately 1,290 on ballistic missiles (400 on ICBMs and 890 on SLBMs), 300 weapons at heavy bombers bases, and 150
nonstrategic bombs deployed in Europe.

warheads. While the new designs are intended to be of nuclear weapons.1 Defense Department sources say
based on existing weapons, they will mix warhead the nuclear portion of the update has been completed
components from different types of warheads into and that a new plan will be published soon.
new designs that do not currently exist. The first of To practice and fine-tune these plans, the armed
these modified interoperable warheads, known as IW-1 forces conducted several nuclear strike exercises in
or W78/W88-1, would create an interoperable nuclear 2016. This included STRATCOMs Global Lightning
explosive package for use in the Mk21 ICBMs and the 16 in April, a nuclear command and control exercise
Mk5 SLBM aeroshells, with adaptable nonnuclear com- that included rapid-launching nuclear bombers.
ponents, according to a recent report from the The exercise followed a very busy series of six nuclear
National Nuclear Security Administration (Energy weapon test launches. Within a 30-day period in
Department 2016). Formal development would start February and March of 2016, the Pentagon launched
in 2020 with first delivery in 2030 and production three SLBMs, two ICBMs, and one ALCM. Deputy
continuing through the early 2040s at a cost of around Secretary of Defense Robert Work said, These six nom-
$15 billion. The second modified interoperable war- inal launches, all within the past 30 days, represent all
head, the IW-2, would combine the W87 and W88 three legs of the Nuclear Triad and serve as indicators of
and start in 2023 with first delivery in 2034 and a our unbelievably capable force (STRATCOM 2016).
cost of more than $17 billion. The third version, the The US Air Forces Global Strike Command contin-
IW-3, would be a modified W76-1 and cost more than ued nuclear bomber tests with Operation Polar Roar in
$18 billion (Energy Department 2015). August, which sent six B-2 and B-52H bombers on
Whether Congress agrees to fund these expensive simulated strike exercise over the North Pole, North
programs instead of building simpler and cheaper life- Sea, Baltic Sea, and Northern Pacific Ocean.
extended versions of existing designs remains to be Finally, STRATCOMs Global Thunder exercise in
seen. Moreover, the significant redesign on interoper- October and November practiced command and con-
able warheads would challenge the pledge made in the trol of offensive nuclear strike operations, as well as
2010 US Nuclear Posture Review Report, which stated STRATCOMs other mission areas across the United
that the United States will not develop new nuclear States.
warheads but consider the full range of life-exten-
sion program options, including refurbishment of
Land-based ballistic missiles
existing warheads, reuse of nuclear components from
different warheads, and replacement of nuclear com- The US Air Force operates a force of 400 silo-based
ponents (Defense Department 2010). This pledge was Minuteman III ICBMs split across three wings: the
intended to prevent resumption of nuclear explosive 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in
testing and adhere to the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming; the 91st Missile
Test Ban Treaty. The report also stated that any life- Wing at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota; and
extension programs will use only nuclear components the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in
based on previously tested designs, and will not sup- Montana. In addition to the 400 silos with missiles,
port . . . new military capabilities (Defense Department another 50 silos are kept warm to load stored missiles
2010). Of course, compliance depends on how new if necessary. Each wing has three squadrons, each with
military capabilities are defined, since the addition of 50 Minuteman III silos. They are collectively controlled
new or improved features outside the nuclear explosive by five launch-control centers.
package may increase a weapons military capabilities. There are an estimated 800 warheads available for
It is anticipated that the United States will generally the ICBM force, but only 400 are deployed under
seek to increase the accuracy of its nuclear weapons in normal circumstances. The Minuteman III is config-
order to lower the yield of modified warheads with ured to carry one of two types of nuclear warheads: the
improved performance margins. 335 kiloton (kt) W78 warhead carried in the Mk12A
reentry vehicle (RV), or the 300 kt W87 warhead car-
ried in the Mk21 reentry vehicle. Each missile carries a
Nuclear weapons policy and planning
single warhead under normal circumstances, but those
The Pentagon and US Strategic Command are still equipped for the W78/Mk12A can load up to three
working on updating nuclear war plans following the warheads in a multiple independently targetable reen-
publication of Presidential Policy Directive 24 in June try vehicle (MIRV) arrangement. Those equipped for
2013. The directive contains the White Houses gui- the larger and heavier W87/Mk21 can only carry one
dance on how the military should plan for employment warhead each.

In 2015, the United States completed a multibillion- making it possible to target not just Russia from the
dollar, decade-long modernization program to extend continental United States, but also China, North Korea,
the service life of the Minuteman III to 2030. Although and Iran.
the United States did not officially deploy a new ICBM, The payload section of the new ground-based stra-
the upgraded Minuteman IIIs are basically new mis- tegic deterrent will use the existing Mk12A and Mk21
siles except for the shell, according to Air Force per- RVs in the single and multiple RV configurations, but
sonnel (Pampe 2012). with new fuzes for enhanced targeting capability (Air
Part of the upgrade involves refurbishing the arm- Force 2015b). In the 2030s, the Mk21 would be used to
ing, fuzing, and firing component on the Mk12A and carry the new interoperable warhead, IW-1. To be
Mk21 RVs. The publicly stated purpose of this refurb- capable of delivering a MIRVed Mk21/IW-1, the
ishment is to extend the vehicles service life, but the ground-based strategic deterrent would need a recon-
effort appears to also involve adding a burst height figured payload bus and a greater throw weight than
compensation to enhance the targeting effectiveness of the current Minuteman III.
the warheads (Postol Theodore 2014). Priority is on The Minuteman III flight-testing program con-
replacement of the Mk21 fuze, which entered phase 6.3 ducted three live launches and several simulated
in August 2013. A total of 693 fuzes are planned at a launches in 2016. The first two test launches, on
cost of nearly $830 million. The effort complements a February 20 and 25, involved Minuteman IIIs pulled
similar fuze upgrade underway to the Navys W76-1/ from silos of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force
Mk4A warhead. The enhanced targeting capability Base. The launches were executed by the 625th
might also allow for lowering the yield on future inter- Strategic Operations Squadron from Offutt Air Force
operable warhead designs. Base, onboard an Airborne Command Post E-6B air-
An upgrade is also underway on the ICBM craft with 91st Missile Wing personnel deployed at
nuclear command and control system as part of the Vandenberg. Each missile delivered a single unarmed
transition from the MILSTAR satellite constellation warhead to an impact point 4,200 miles (6,759 km)
to new Advanced Extremely High Frequency satel- away in the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. This
lites. This involves upgrading launch control term- marked the second year in a row the Air Force test
inals at the launch control centers used to receive launched two ICBMs within one week.
emergency action messages from the National The third test launch also took place from
Command Authority. The upgrade will provide Vandenberg, but involved an ICBM pulled from the
expansion in capability, enhanced operator control, 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom. This missile also
and a state-of-the-art security architecture; signifi- delivered a single unarmed payload to the Kwajalein
cantly increase the speed of emergency-action-mes- Atoll. The test took place only five days after the test
sage transfer; and enable the ICBM crews to launch of a Trident II SLBM in the Atlantic Ocean.
communicate with both MILSTAR and Advanced In addition to the three live Minuteman IIIs test-
Extremely High Frequency satellites. In 2015, the launched from Vandenberg, the Air Force also carried
US Air Force expected initial operational capability out two simulated electronic Minuteman launches. The
for this upgrade in 2016 (Oakes 2015). first of these occurred on February 9 at F.E. Warren.
The US Air Force has begun development of a next- The second was conducted at Minot on September 21
generation ICBM, known as the ground-based strategic and involved deployment of an Airborne Command
deterrent, which is scheduled to replace the Post E-6B aircraft from Offutt to relay launch orders to
Minuteman III between 2028 and 2035. Program the missile crews.
Milestone A was approved in August 2016, which
officially moves the ground-based strategic deterrent
Nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines
program into the Technology Maturation and Risk
Reduction phase. The plan is to buy 666 missiles, of The US Navy operates a fleet of 14 Ohio-class
which 400 would be deployed and the remaining used SSBNs, of which eight operate in the Pacific from
for test-launches and spares, at an estimated 30-year their base near Bangor, Washington, and six operate
lifetime cost of $85 billion to $100 billion (Reif 2016). in the Atlantic from their base at Kings Bay,
The Air Force says the ground-based strategic deter- Georgia. Normally, 12 of the 14 submarines are
rent will meet existing user requirements but have the considered operational, with the 13th and 14th
adaptability and flexibility to be upgraded through boat in a refueling overhaul at any given time, but
2075 (Air Force 2016a). The new missile is expected because some operational SSBNs also undergo
to have a greater range than the Minuteman III, minor repairs, the actual number at sea at any

given time is closer to eight to 10. Five of those are powered ballistic missile submarines (Kristensen
thought to be on hard alert in their designated 2011b), although the warhead on the British subs is
patrol areas. thought to be a slightly modified version of the W76.
To meet the New START limit of a maximum of 700 Since 1960, American SSBNs have conducted some
deployed launchers by 2018, the Navy has begun to 4,050 deterrent patrols at sea. During the past 15 years,
inactivate four of the 24 Trident II SLBM launchers on operations have changed significantly, with the annual
each SSBN. We estimate that 10 submarines have been number of deterrent patrols having declined by more
converted so that they are equipped with only 20 than half, from 64 patrols in 1999 to approximately 26
launchers each, and that the remaining four boats will patrols in 2015. Most submarines now conduct what are
be converted in 2017. Starting in 2017, the Trident II called modified alerts, which mix deterrent patrols with
D5 SLBMs will be replaced with a life-extended version exercises and occasional port visits (Kristensen 2013b).
known as the D5LE, which is equipped with a new While most SSBN patrols are around 77 days, they
guidance system designed to provide flexibility to occasionally last significantly longer. In June 2014, for
support new missions and make the missile more example, the Pennsylvania (SSBN-735) returned to its
accurate, according to the Navy and Draper Kitsap Naval Submarine Base in Washington after a
Laboratory (Naval Surface Warfare Center 2008; 140-day deterrent patrol the longest patrol ever by an
Draper Laboratory 2006). The D5LE will arm Ohio- Ohio-class SSBN. Several patrols in 2013 also lasted
class submarines for the remainder of their service life more than 100 days.
(up to 2042), and will also be deployed on British In contrast to the Cold War years, when the over-
submarines. By 2018 the SSBN fleet will be capable of whelming number of deterrent patrols took place in the
deploying only up to 240 SLBMs, compared to up to Atlantic Ocean, today more than 60% of deterrent
288 two years ago. patrols take place in the Pacific, reflecting increased
Each Trident II D5 SLBM can carry up to eight nuclear war planning against China and North Korea
nuclear warheads, but normally carries an average of (Kristensen 2013b).
four or five warheads for a load-out of nearly 100 For a four-year period in the late 1970s and early
warheads per submarine. The payload of the different 1980s, US nuclear submarines routinely conducted port
missiles on a submarine may vary significantly to pro- visits to South Korea (Kristensen 2011a), with occasional
vide maximum targeting flexibility, but all deployed visits to Europe, the Caribbean, and Pacific ports conti-
submarines are thought to carry the same number nuing during the 1980s and 1990s. These days, American
and types of warheads. Normally a total of around SSBNs normally do not visit foreign ports, but in 2015
9001000 warheads are deployed on the operational and 2016, two made visits to Faslane (Clyde) in Scotland,
SSBNs, although the number can be lower due to the base for Britains SSBN fleet. The 2015 visit was the
maintenance of individual submarines. first time since 2003 that an American SSBN had visited a
Three versions of two basic warhead types exist for foreign port. The visits to Scotland, part of a US Navy
the SLBMs: the 100 kt W76-0, which is being phased plan to make SSBNs more visible (Melia 2015), are prob-
out, the new 100 kt enhanced W76-1, and the 455 kt ably intended to remind Russian leadership that US
W88. The W76-1 is a refurbished version of the W76- nuclear submarines are part of the security guarantee
0, with the same yield but with enhanced safety features provided to NATO. In late October 2016 an American
added. Moreover, the Mk4A reentry body that carries SSBN visited Guam, the first to do so since 1988, as a
the W76-1 is equipped with a new arming, fuzing, and display of the extended nuclear deterrence mission
firing unit with improved targeting efficiency com- against North Korea.
pared with the old Mk4/W76 system. Full-scale pro- Design of the next-generation SSBN, known as the
duction of approximately 1,600 W76-1s is underway at Columbia class or SSBNX, is well underway and
the Pantex Plant in Texas with roughly 75% completed intended to begin replacing the current Ohio-class
and a scheduled finish date of 2019. We estimate that SSBNs in the late 2020s. The Columbia class will be
all W76 warheads deployed on SSBNs by now are of 2,000 tons heavier than the Ohio-class and equipped
the W76-1 design, with all remaining W76-0s serving with 16 missile tubes rather than 24.2 The Columbia
as hedge warheads and feedstock for W76-1 produc- program, which is very expensive and expected to
tion. Once the W76-1 production is complete, all account for approximately one-sixth of the Navys
remaining W76-0s will be retired and the W76 war- entire shipbuilding program for the next 30 years, is
head stockpile reduced by a factor of two. projected to cost between $97 billion (GAO 2016) and
The Mk4A/W761 combination is also being sup- $103 billion (CBO 2015a), or an average of $8.1 billion
plied to the United Kingdom for use on its nuclear- to $8.6 billion per submarine. Procurement of the first

boat is scheduled for 2021, with deployment on deter- Modernization of the nuclear command and control
rent patrol starting in 2031. During the first decade of systems the bombers use to plan and conduct nuclear
its service life, the Columbia class submarines will be strikes include the Global Aircrew Strategic Network
armed with the D5LE, but the Navy has already started Terminal (Global ASNT), a new high-altitude electro-
early design development of a next-generation SLBM magnetic pulse-hardened network of fixed and mobile
to eventually replace it. nuclear command and control terminals that provide
The US Navy test launched Four Trident II (D5) wing command posts, task forces, munitions support
SLBMs from two SSBNs in 2016. The first launch event squadrons, and mobile support teams with survivable
took place from March 1416 in the Pacific Ocean, ground-based communications to receive launch
with an unidentified SSBN test-launching three orders and disseminate them to bomber, tanker, and
SLBMs over the course of three days. The event was reconnaissance air crews. Global ASNT full operational
known as FCET-52 (for Follow-on Commanders capability is expected in 2019.
Evaluation Test 52) and represented the 158th, 159th, Another command and control upgrade involves the
and 160th consecutive successful Trident II D5 test Family of Advanced Beyond Line-of-Sight Terminals
flights since 1989. (FAB-T) program that replaces existing terminals
The fourth SLBM flight test occurred on August 31 designed to communicate with the MILSTAR satellite
from the Maryland (SSBN-238) in the Atlantic Ocean. constellation. The new, FAB-T extremely high fre-
The event was known as DASO-27 (for Demonstration quency terminals are designed to communicate with
and Shakedown Operation 27) and was the Marylands several satellite constellations, including Advanced
certification test following completion of a mid-life Extremely High Frequency satellites. FAB-T will pro-
reactor refueling overhaul. The test launch was the vide protected high-data-rate communication for
161st consecutive successful launch of the Trident II nuclear and conventional forces, to include what is
SLBM since 1989. Despite its age, the Trident II SLBM officially called Presidential National Voice
is the most reliable ballistic missile ever built. Conferencing. According to the Air Force, FAB-T
will provide this new, highly secure, state-of-the-art
capability for [Defense Department] platforms to
Strategic bombers
include strategic platforms and airborne/ground com-
The US Air Force currently operates a fleet of 20 B-2 mand posts via MILSTAR, [Advanced Extremely High
and 89 B-52H bombers (the third strategic bomber, the Frequency], and Enhanced Polar System (EPS) satel-
B-1, is not nuclear-capable). Of those, 18 B-2s and 70 lites. FAB-T terminals will also support the critical
B-52Hs are nuclear-capable. Of these bombers, we command and control (C2) of the MILSTAR,
believe approximately 60 (16 B-2s and 44 B-52Hs) are [Advanced Extremely High Frequency], and EPS satel-
assigned nuclear missions under US nuclear war plans lite constellations (Air Force 2015c).
on a day-to-day basis. The bombers are organized into The heavy bombers are also being upgraded with
nine bomb squadrons in five bomb wings at three improved nuclear weapons. This effort includes devel-
bases: Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, opment of the first guided, standoff nuclear gravity
Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, and Whiteman bomb, known as the B61-12, which is intended to
Air Force Base in Missouri. begin replacing all existing gravity bombs from the
Each B-2 can carry up to 16 nuclear bombs (B61-7, mid-2020s. The bomb will use a modified version of
B61-11, and B83-1 gravity bombs), and each B-52H can the warhead used in the current B61-4 gravity bomb.
carry up to 20 ALCMs (the AGM-86B). B-52H bombers B61-12 integration drop tests have already been con-
are no longer assigned gravity bombs under normal cir- ducted from the B-2 bomber (and several tactical
cumstances. An estimated 1,038 nuclear weapons, includ- fighter jets). The B61-12, which appears to also have
ing 528 ALCMs, are assigned to the bombers, but only earth-penetration capability (Kristensen and McKinzie
about 300 weapons are typically deployed at bomber 2016), is expected to cost roughly $10 billion for
bases. The remaining 700 weapons are in central storage approximately 480 bombs.
at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. The Air Force is also designing a new nuclear
The United States is modernizing its nuclear bom- ALCM known as the LRSO missile. It will replace the
ber force by upgrading nuclear command and control AGM-86B ALCM in 2030 and carry the W80-4 war-
capabilities on existing bombers; developing improved head, a modified version of the W80-1 used in the
nuclear weapons (B61-12s and long-range standoff current ALCM.3 A Milestone A decision was expected
missiles, or LRSOs); and designing a new heavy in August 2016, but delayed for unknown reasons.
bomber. LRSO supporters argue that a nuclear cruise missile is

needed to enable bombers to strike targets from well Northrop Grumman Corporation. The B-21 will begin
outside the range of the modern and future air-defense to enter service in the late 2020s, and replace the B-52H
systems of potential adversaries, and to provide US and B-1B bombers during the 2030s and 2040s. The
leaders with flexible strike options in limited regional B-2 will be retained through the 2050s. The Air Force
scenarios.4 Critics argue that conventional cruise mis- plans to buy at least 100 B-21s for $511 million to $550
siles today can provide bomber standoff strike capabil- million per plane, plus development and engineering
ity and that other nuclear weapons would be sufficient. costs. But there is still no official public estimate for the
The LRSO missile itself is entirely new, with signifi- expected total cost of the program, which like all pre-
cantly improved military capabilities compared with vious bomber programs will most likely increase.
the ALCM, including longer range, greater accuracy, The B-21 is very similar in design to the B-2, but
and enhanced stealth (Young 2016). This violates the expected to be a little smaller and have slightly less
White House pledge from 2010: The United States will weapons capability. Nuclear weapons will include the
not . . . pursue . . . new capabilities for nuclear weapons B61-12 guided nuclear bomb and the LRSO missile.
(White House 2010). In February 2015, the US govern- The B-21 will also be capable of delivering a wide range
ment invited defense contractors to examine three of nonnuclear weapons, including the JASSM-ER
potential options for the LRSO engine: First, a deriva- cruise missile.
tive subsonic engine with up to five percent improve- Heavy bomber operations have increased in scope and
ment over current engine technology; second, an visibility in recent years in response to a perceived grow-
advanced subsonic engine with 1520% improvement; ing threat from Russia and China. To support Operation
and third, a supersonic engine (Air Force 2015a). Atlantic Resolve, a new NATO defense posture in
Unlike the ALCM, which is only carried by the response to Russian aggression, US European
B-52H bomber, the LRSO will be integrated on the Command has forged a link between STRATCOM
B-52H, B-2, and next-generation bomber Bomber Assurance and Deterrence missions to NATO
(Kristensen 2013c). The cost of developing the regional exercises, (Breedlove 2015) which has increased
LRSO is on the order of $20 billion, with the first the US nuclear bomber mission in Europe.
missiles scheduled for deployment in the late 2020s. Examples of this expanded European presence
The Air Force plans to buy 1,000 LRSO missiles include Operation Polar Roar in August 2016, which
(Reif 2015), but there will only be enough warheads followed a similar exercise in 2015 called Polar Growl.
for about half of those. The excess missiles are During Polar Growl and possibly also Polar Roar, the
intended to be used as spares and for test flights B-52 bombers deployed all the way to their hypothe-
over the course of the weapons 30-year service life. tical launch points for ALCMs, in an offensive display
Moreover, several hundred ALCMs were converted of a kind STRATCOM sources say has not been seen
to conventional missiles (AFM-86 C/D), and the US since the 1980s.
Air Force Global Strike Command said we fully US nuclear bombers also participated in several
intend to develop a conventional version of the other exercises in 2016, including Operation Cold
LRSO as a future spiral to the nuclear variant Response in Norway and Spain in March, Operation
(Wilson 2015). Constant Vigilance and Operation Global Lightning
Given the deployment of several new long-range over North America in April, Operation Baltops over
conventional cruise missiles and development of even the Baltic Sea and Northern Europe in June, Operation
more advanced versions,5 it remains to be seen if the Prairie Vigilance over North America in September,
Air Force can persuade Congress to also pay for a and Operation Global Thunder over North America
conventional LRSO missile. Indeed, the Air Force has in October and November.
already decided to retire the conventional ALCM and
replace it with the extended-range joint air-to-surface
Nonstrategic nuclear weapons
standoff missile (JASSM-ER). If Congress will not pay
for conventional LRSOs, it can probably be assumed The United States has one type of nonstrategic nuclear
that the plan to buy 1,000 missiles can be reduced by weapon in its stockpilethe B61 gravity bomb. The
several hundred. weapon exists in three modifications, the B61-3, B61-4,
The Air Force announced in September 2016 that and B61-10. (Two other modificationsthe B61-7 and
the next-generation heavy bomber will be called the B61-11are strategic.) Approximately 500 tactical B61
B-21 Raider (Air Force 2016b). The announcement bombs of all versions remain in the stockpile. About
followed the awarding in October 2015 of the engineer- 150 of these (versions 3 and 4) are deployed at six
ing, manufacturing, and early production contract to bases in five European countries: Aviano in Italy,

Bchel in Germany, Ghedi in Italy, Incirlik in Turkey, years. The work will upgrade command and control
Kleine Brogel in Belgium, and Volkel in the and security at six active bases (Aviano, Bchel, Ghedi,
Netherlands. This number represents a unilateral Kleine Brogel, Incirlik, and Volkel) and one training
reduction of 30 bombs since 2009. base (Ramstein).
The Belgian, Dutch, and possibly Turkish air NATO held its annual nuclear strike exercise,
forces (with F-16 aircraft), as well as the German Steadfast Noon/Decisive North, at Volkel Air Base
and Italian air forces (with PA-200 Tornado aircraft), in the Netherlands and Kleine Brogel Air Base in
are assigned nuclear strike missions with US nuclear Belgium in September 2016. The operations
weapons. Under normal circumstances the weapons included aircraft from Belgium, Germany, Greece,
are kept under the control of US Air Force personnel Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, and the
until use is authorized by the US president in a war. United States, with Greek and Polish aircraft parti-
(A small number of the remaining nonstrategic cipating in a nonnuclear supporting role known as
weapons stored in the United States are for potential SNOWCAT.
use by US fighter-bombers in support of allies out-
side Europe, including in the Middle East and
Northeast Asia.)
NATO is working on a broad modernization of the 1. For a review of the 2013 nuclear employment strategy,
nuclear posture in Europe that involves upgrading see Kristensen (2013a).
bombs, aircraft, and weapons storage systems. The 2. For overviews of the SSBNX program, see Brougham
(2012) and ORourke (2016).
B61-12 will be deployed to Europe in the early-2020s, 3. For background on the W80-4 and LRSO program, see
at which point the older B61-3 and B61-4 bombs will Kristensen (2014a).
be returned to the United States. The B61-12 will use 4. For a review of official statements on the LRSO mission,
the nuclear explosive package of the B61-4, which has a see Kristensen (2015a).
maximum yield of approximately 50 kt, but will be 5. For a comparison of the capabilities of the LRSO with
advanced conventional cruise missiles, see Kristensen
equipped with a guided tail kit to increase accuracy
and standoff capability, which will allow strike planners 6. For analyses of the military implications of the enhanced
to select lower yields for existing targets to reduce B61-12, see Kristensen (2015c) and Kristensen (2011c).
collateral damage.6 The increased accuracy will give
the tactical bombs in Europe the same military cap-
ability as strategic bombs in the United States. The
Disclosure statement
B61-12s apparent earth-penetration capability further
increases its ability to hold at risk underground targets No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
(Kristensen and McKinzie 2016).
Integration of the B61-12 on F-15E, F-16 and PA- Funding
200 aircraft has begun. Several flight tests took place
during 2015, including a fully guided drop test from an This research was carried out with grants from the New-
F-15E at the Tonopah Test Range in November 2015. Land Foundation and the Ploughshares Fund.
The integration efforts will continue through 2018
(Kristensen 2014b). The F-35A is expected to become Notes on contributors
nuclear certified with the B61-12 in 2024.
Several of the NATO allies that currently have a Hans M. Kristensen is the director of the Nuclear
Information Project with the Federation of American
nuclear strike mission plan to upgrade their fighter- Scientists in Washington, DC. His work focuses on research-
bombers to the more capable and stealthy US-built ing and writing about the status of nuclear weapons and the
F-35A. The Netherlands has already received its first policies that direct them. Kristensen is a co-author of the
F-35A training aircraft and the first Italian F-35A flew world nuclear forces overview in the SIPRI Yearbook (Oxford
for the first time in September 2015 (Kingston 2015). University Press) and a frequent adviser to the news media
on nuclear weapons policy and operations. Inquiries should
Turkey is also acquiring the F-35A, and Belgium is
be directed to FAS, 1725 DeSales St NW, Sixth Floor,
considering whether to buy the F-35A or the French Washington, DC, 20036 USA; +1 (202) 546-3300.
Rafale. Germany does not currently have a plan to
replace the PA-200 Tornado in the nuclear role, but Robert S. Norris is a senior fellow with the Federation of
American Scientists in Washington, DC. His principal areas
is expected to extend its service life through the 2020s. of expertise include writing and research on all aspects of the
NATO is also preparing a life-extension of the nuclear weapons programs of the United States, Russia, Britain,
Weapons Storage Security System over the next four France, and China, as well as India, Pakistan, and Israel. He is

the author of Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, the gov/sites/default/files/nnsa/inlinefiles/FY17SSMP%
Manhattan Projects Indispensable Man (2002). He has co- 20Final_033116.pdf
authored the Nuclear Notebook column since May 1987. GAO (Government Accountability Office). 2016. Defense
Acquisitions: Assessment of Selected Weapon Programs,
GAO-16-329SP. March 2016, 124.
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