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U.S. nuclear forces, 2004

NRDC: Nuclear Notebook 


In spring 2004, the U.S. stockpile contained approximately 7,000 operational nuclear warheads, including 5,886 strategic and 1,120 non-strategic warheads. Some 3,000 additional warheads are held in reserve, with a few hundred, under current plans, slated for dismantlement. The Bush administration continues to implement provisions of its 2001 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), including phasing out weapons previously earmarked for retirement, developing new ballistic missiles, designing new nuclear warheads, building new production facilities to manufacture them, and modernizing the nuclear command and control system. None of these activities are banned or limited by the 2002 Moscow Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions (SORT).

Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The ICBM force was reduced by 17 missiles in 2003 as part of the MX/Peacekeeper's ongoing retirement, leaving 29 missiles on alert at the beginning of 2004. Seventeen more will be retired this year and 16 in 2005. One MX, carrying eight unarmed reentry vehicles, was test-launched in 2003.

The NPR calls for the MX silos to be retained, rather than destroyed, as was required in the now-defunct START II treaty. The United States will keep MX missiles for possible use as space launch vehicles, as target vehicles, or for redeployment. The W87 warheads from the 50 retired MXs will be temporarily stored until 2006, when some of them will begin to replace the W62 warheads on Minuteman ICBMs. (The W62 is scheduled to be retired in 2009.) We estimate that 200 W87 warheads will be used to arm Minuteman IIIs, with the balance placed in the "responsive force" of reserve warheads. Some W87s may be used to arm Trident D5s in the future.

he 500-strong Minuteman III force remains basically unchanged from last year. With START II's ban on multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) now a dead letter, earlier plans to download all Minuteman missiles to a single-warhead configuration have been revised. The United States is now considering keeping as many as 800 warheads on the Minuteman force. Minuteman modernization continues under an ambitious $6 billion, six-part program intended to improve the missile's accuracy and reliability and extend its service life beyond 2020. The air force flight-tested three Minuteman IIIs (each carrying three unarmed reentry vehicles) in 2003.

The air force issued a new Mission Need Statement in 2002 that called for the replacement of the Minuteman III beginning in 2020. The statement reaffirmed that nuclear weapons will "continue to play a unique and indispensable role in U.S. security policy." The air force has begun to solicit bids from contractors for initial deployment of the new missile in 2018.

Submarines. The United States has 360 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) on 15 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), armed with almost 2,740 warheads, about 46 percent of all strategic weapons. The service life of the subs has been extended from 30 to 44 years; the oldest is scheduled to retire in 2029, when a new SSBN will be introduced. The Clinton administration decided on an eventual force of 14 SSBNs in its 1994 NPR.

The conversion of three older SSBNs to non-nuclear operations (a fourth is scheduled to begin conversion next year) has removed 432 "accountable" W76 warheads from operational status, nearly half of what the Bush administration has pledged to "cut" from "operationally deployed" warheads under the first phase of the SORT reduction.

In October 2003, the navy began deploying the new SLBM Retargeting System (SRS) after more than a decade in development. The SRS is designed to "provide the increased flexibility and capability required by the Nuclear Posture Review for [the U.S.] offensive strike platform," according to navy budget documents. The new system enables SSBNs to quickly, accurately, and reliably retarget missiles; to allow better processing of more targets; to reduce overall Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) processing time; and to support adaptive planning. Despite these improvements, development of the Mk-4A reentry vehicle and an upgrade of the current Mk-6 guidance system with new navigation and radiation-hardened technologies are already underway. A $104 million contract was issued in December 2003 (following $190 million in earlier contracts) to complete work by September 2006.

The navy is also developing the Enhanced Effectiveness (E2) Reentry Body to create "a near-term capability to steer an SLBM warhead to Global Positioning Satellite (GPS)-like accuracy" (within about 10 meters), according to the Pentagon. This will expand the potential targets threatened by Trident. Both nuclear and conventional warheads are being considered. The nuclear options are examined in the navy's SLBM Warhead Protection Program, which maintains the capability to develop replacement nuclear warheads for both the Mk-5/ W88 and the Mk-4/W76.

The navy continues to buy Trident II D5s (five are requested in the 2005 budget); it has bought 408 so far. D5 production has been extended through 2013, and the total number to be made has increased from 390 to 540, at an additional cost of $12.2 billion. The total cost of the program is now $37.5 billion, or $69 million per missile. To make the D5 operational through 2042 (to the end of the extended service life of the Ohio-class SSBN), existing missiles will be upgraded to a new variant, the D5LE. In 2003, $416 million was budgeted to modernize the D5. Of the 540 D5s, 336 will arm 14 SSBNs (including two sets for two SSBNs that will be in overhaul at any given time) with the balance available for flight tests.

The navy plans to resume SLBM flight-testing in the Pacific in 2005, when the Pacific Missile Range is scheduled to resume operations. The last SLBM test-launch in the Pacific was in July 1993.

Bombers. The United States has two types of long-range bombers for nuclear missions: the B-2A Spirit and the B-52H Stratofortress. Neither is maintained on day-to-day alert, and both also have conventional missions. The B-52s can deliver cruise missiles, gravity bombs, or a combination of both; B-2s carry only bombs.

In 2003 the B-2's "Block 30" upgrade, a five-year modernization effort that enables the aircraft to carry a mix of B61 and B83 nuclear bombs as well as various conventional weapons, was completed. A Nuclear Surety Inspection was conducted at Whiteman Air Force Base (AFB) Missouri, in December 2003. B-2s are scheduled to undergo an upgrade that will allow crews to make mission and targeting changes en route.

The advanced cruise missile (ACM) and air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) are undergoing service life-extension programs to prolong them through 2030. The air force calls the ACM a "critical weapon" that is essential to Air Combat Command and Stratcom SIOP commitments. Five contracts worth nearly $10 million were awarded to Boeing and Raytheon in 2003 for maintenance of the ACM. The air force is studying options for a next-generation cruise missile.

Non-strategic nuclear weapons. The United States retains approximately 1,120 non-strategic nuclear weapons: 800 B61 gravity bombs of three modifications; and 320 nuclear Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles (TLAM/Ns), a portion of which are in reserve or inactive. The 2001 NPR did not address non-strategic nuclear weapons.

The 800 operational B61 non-strategic nuclear bombs are for delivery by various U.S. and NATO aircraft; another 500 are in reserve. Most of the bombs are stored at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, and Nellis AFB, Nevada. A small number are deployed with the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina and the 27th Fighter Wing at Cannon AFB in New Mexico.

U.S. delivery aircraft include the F-16C/D Fighting Falcon and F-15E Strike Eagle. Under current air force planning, a portion of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) force will have nuclear capability from 2012. The JSF is scheduled to complete its initial nuclear certification requirements plan this year.

The only U.S. nuclear weapons that remain forward deployed (besides those on SSBNs) are the approximately 150 B61 bombs at nine airbases in six European NATO countries. NATO aircraft that are assigned nuclear missions include U.S.-supplied F-16s and German and Italian Tornado bombers. One or more bombs are kept in Weapon Storage and Security System vaults inside the airplane hangars. The bombs are fastened in a steel frame structure approximately 14 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 8 feet high that descends on tracks into the vault under the floor. Originally, 208 vaults were built in the 1980s and 1990s at 13 air bases in seven countries. (In the 1990s many bombs were returned to the United States, and nuclear missions at several NATO bases ended.) The vaults were upgraded in 2003, and in a multi-year program all of the bombs were provided with improved safety devices.

The forward deployments continue to aggravate U.S.-Russian relations. "[U.S]. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe are for Russia acquiring a strategic nature," said Col. Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky in late 2003, "since theoretically they could be used on our command centers and strategic nuclear centers." NATO insists that the weapons are essential in preventing war and securing close U.S.-European cooperation.

The Pentagon decided in late 2003 to retain the Tomahawk because of its ability to secretly deploy anywhere on the globe, according to Inside the Navy. The TLAM/N is earmarked for deployment on selected Los Angeles-class, Improved Los Angeles-class, and Virginia-class attack submarines. The missiles and their W80-0 warheads are expected to undergo refurbishment to extend their service life to around 2040. The estimated 320 TLAM/Ns are currently stored at the Strategic Weapons Facilities at Bangor, Washington, and King's Bay, Georgia, alongside strategic weapons for the SSBNs.

While most U.S. attack submarines (SSNs) were credited with some nuclear capability during the Cold War, today most SSNs do not have nuclear missions. In the Pacific Fleet, for example, fewer than half the attack submarines regularly undergo nuclear certification. But if the order were given, Tomahawks could be redeployed in 30 days. We estimate that no more than 12 SSNs have nuclear capability.

The navy occasionally test-fires an unarmed Tomahawk--82 times since 1978. The last known attack submarine to test fire the Tomahawk was the Bremerton, on March 12, 2002.

Nuclear warheads. To ensure the reliability of nuclear weapons beyond their original design lives, most of the warheads in the "enduring" stockpile are scheduled to undergo life-extension programs over the next decade. The first of these programs began in 1999 and was for the W87; it was completed in 2001.

B61-7/11, W76, W78, W80, B83, and W88 warheads will also undergo life-extension programs. Some life-extension programs are substantial enough to change a warhead's modification designation. Accordingly, the W76 will become the W76-1, and the W80-0 and W80-1 will become the W80-2 and W80-3, respectively. The first production units of the W80-2 and B61-7/11 are scheduled for delivery in 2006; the W76-1 in 2007-2008 and the W80-3 around 2008. The B61-7/11 program involves refurbishing the secondary.

Energy Department weapon labs began a study of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator in 2003 after Congress repealed a 1994 ban on research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons. The study is scheduled for completion by 2006.

Because the navy deploys nearly all of its W88 war reserve warheads on its SSBNs, only one W88 surveillance pit was available for evaluation to the Stockpile Evaluation Program in 2003. Small-scale production has been reestablished at Los Alamos and the first certifiable pit was produced in 2003. At least five more pits are scheduled to be produced in 2004. One (or more) of these is scheduled to enter the war reserve stockpile in 2007. Los Alamos's goal is to be able to manufacture 10 W88 pits per year by 2007 and W87 pits by 2010.

Production at a new Modern Pit Facility (location yet to be determined), which will have the capacity to manufacture 250-900 pits annually, is scheduled to begin in 2018. B61-7 and W87 pits will be made first.

A central recommendation of the NPR is to develop advanced capabilities to simulate nuclear weapon performance. The multi-billion dollar National Ignition Facility under construction at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is scheduled to begin nuclear stockpile stewardship experiments this year. The Advanced Simulation and Computing (ASCI) project should deliver the first high fidelity, full-system physics characterization of a stockpiled nuclear weapon in 2008.

Nuclear command and control. Stratcom is modernizing its Strategic War Planning System, the single computer system used to prepare and revise the SIOP and other nuclear strike plans. A decade-long upgrade of the system that was finished in 2003 reduced planning times from 18 to six months and enabled war planners to prepare options in just 24 hours. Nevertheless, the NPR set new goals, and the new project, designated SWPS-M, is intended to "enable government war planners to dramatically shorten the cycle time to develop and execute a strategic war plan," according to the contractor, Lockheed Martin. "The system will assess a given situation and present [Pentagon] decision makers with potential courses of action."

 Nuclear Notebook is prepared by Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Direct inquires to NRDC, 1200 New York Avenue, N.W., Ste. 400, Washington, D.C., 20005; 202-289-6868.

May/June 2004 pp. 68-70 (vol. 60, no. 03)  2004 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists


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U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2004




Year deployed

Warheads x yield (kilotons)

Warheads active/spares








Minuteman III









1 W62 x 170






3 W62 x 170 (MIRV)






3 W78 x 335 (MIRV)






10 W87 x 300 (MIRV)















Trident I C4



6 W76 x 100 (MIRV)



Trident II D5









8 W76 x 100 (MIRV)






8 W88 x 475 (MIRV)


















ALCM/W80-1 x 5–150






ACM/W80-1 x 5–150






B61-7, -11, B83-1 bombs








Non-strategic forces





Tomahawk SLCM




1 W80-0 x 5–150


B61-3, -4, -10 bombs


















Grand total**











ACM: advanced cruise missile; ALCM: air-launched cruise missile; ICBM: intercontinental ballistic missile (range greater than 5,500 kilometers); MIRV: multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle; SLCM: sea-launched cruise missile; SLBM: submarine-launched ballistic missile.

*The first figure is the total inventory, including those used for training, testing, and backup; the second figure is the primary mission inventory: the number of operational aircraft assigned for nuclear or conventional missions. **Approximately 3,000 additional intact warheads are retained in the reserve or inactive stockpiles.


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