Modernizing the nation's nuclear delivery systems and weapons to ensure they remain effective, safe, and reliable is an extraordinarily complex job that requires significant resources—over $600 billion through 2030.
The Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) are undertaking an extensive, multifaceted effort to sustain aging systems and weapons and modernize virtually all U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities. DOD manages the systems and platforms that deliver nuclear warheads and bombs—such as submarines, nuclear-capable aircraft, and missile systems—and nuclear command, control, and communications systems. NNSA, a part of the Department of Energy, manages the nuclear warheads and bombs, as well as the infrastructure and capabilities needed to produce and maintain these weapons.
However, DOD and NNSA face risks to their nuclear modernization programs, including the prospect of delays. Both agencies could improve their modernization by addressing priority recommendations and taking additional actions.
- DOD and NNSA have interdependencies among their nuclear programs, including among the weapon and delivery platform systems of the strategic nuclear triad. These interdependencies may result in additional risks to individual programs’ schedules and costs. However, the agencies have not established joint processes to periodically identify, analyze, and respond to risks that affect the joint U.S. nuclear enterprise, and report information about these risks to stakeholders. Without such a risk management process, senior leaders may not be able to effectively manage risks or make informed resource decisions.
- Almost all of the existing nuclear weapon delivery systems are being deployed beyond their originally intended service lives, which adds to the challenges of sustaining these systems—including replacing failing submarine parts that were never intended to be replaced. DOD will need to maintain these systems until replacements are available. However, DOD’s poor record of timely delivery of new weapon systems creates additional risk that existing systems will need to be maintained even longer—likely at even higher costs.
- DOD has conducted several reviews of its nuclear forces, and came up with recommendations to address problems with leadership, organization, investment, morale, policy, and procedures (among other things). DOD has implemented some recommendations but doesn’t keep complete information on its progress.
- NNSA is in the midst of a costly and complex effort to modernize and extend the lives of much of the nuclear weapons stockpile. For example, modernizing the W80, a type of nuclear warhead carried on air-launched cruise missiles, is estimated to cost $11.2 billion. NNSA initially planned to deliver the first warhead by September 2025. However, this date is more than a year earlier than the program’s own analysis says is reasonable. (In July 2022, DOD and NNSA acknowledged that the first modernized warhead (known as the W80-4) will not be produced until 2027.) In addition, NNSA plans to replace the W78—an older type of nuclear warhead used in intercontinental ballistic missiles—with the W87-1 starting in 2030. But it's unclear if NNSA can produce enough plutonium fissile cores in time to meet its planned production schedule.
U.S. Air Force missile maintainers working on an intercontinental ballistic missile
- NNSA is investing billions of dollars into the infrastructure needed to sustain and modernize the stockpile, including new facilities and modern equipment to support plutonium fissile cores and uranium component manufacturing. NNSA is also planning to reestablish the domestic capability to enrich uranium to support tritium production and to produce depleted uranium and lithium components. For instance, NNSA has proposed a new facility to meet the demand for lithium. However, its cost and schedule estimates for the new facility grew by as much as $1 billion and 6 years between 2015 and 2019. In addition, NNSA is starting a $1 billion, 20-year effort to upgrade and sustain existing microelectronic facilities. However, the agency hasn’t fully developed a thorough set of controls for managing the cost, schedule, and associated risks of this project. Likewise, NNSA hasn’t clearly defined the scope or reliably estimated the cost of its effort to re-establish domestic enrichment of uranium needs.