The Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) are working to modernize virtually all U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities, most of which are from the Cold War era. DOD manages the systems and platforms that deliver nuclear warheads and bombs—such as submarines, nuclear-capable aircraft, and missile systems—as well as nuclear command, control, and communications systems. NNSA manages the actual nuclear warheads and bombs, as well as the infrastructure and capabilities needed to produce and maintain these weapons.
However, DOD and NNSA have both faced challenges with their nuclear modernization programs, including some issues that are priority open recommendations.
There are three kinds of delivery systems that comprise the U.S. nuclear triad: nuclear-capable heavy bombers (known as the "air leg"), intercontinental ballistic missiles or ICBMs (the "ground leg"), and ballistic missile submarines (the "sea leg"). But most of these systems are nearing or past their planned end-of-life dates.
The Navy also faces construction challenges for its nuclear-powered Columbia class ballistic missile submarine, and has not conducted analyses to better understand risks to the first submarine’s planned delivery in 2027.
DOD has conducted several reviews of its nuclear forces, and has developed recommendations to address problems with leadership, organization, investment, morale, policy, and procedures (among other things). DOD has implemented some recommendations but has not identified a method for monitoring long-standing issues.
The Department of Energy has several programs to ensure proper access to and handling of the nation's nuclear weapons and related information. For example, it started a program in 2014 to further protect against insider threats from employees, contractors, and trusted visitors—but it hasn't fully implemented this program. Additionally, NNSA's efforts to identify, assess, and mitigate cyber security risks to specific nuclear weapons or manufacturing equipment are still in the early stages of development.
NNSA is also facing delays in its attempt to replace the W78—an older type of nuclear warhead used in ICBMs. Similarly, it may also face delays in its development of a modernized nuclear warhead, the W80-4.
NNSA plans to invest over $30 billion to construct 30 new facilities to modernize the research and production infrastructure supporting the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile. However, as of March 2023, these new facilities collectively exceeded their cost estimates by over $2 billion and surpassed their collective schedules by almost 10 years.
NNSA uses high performance computing and complex computer models (as well as experimental facilities) to assess the performance, safety, and reliability of nuclear weapons without nuclear explosive testing. However, NNSA’s most recent $600 million computing acquisition did not fully follow best practices for acquisitions. In addition, a portion of NNSA’s $2.5 billion effort to modernize an experimental facility did not follow rigorous program and risk management practices—and this resulted in a 2-year delay and increased costs.