Monday, April 10, 2017

U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Developments, and Issues

Even though the United States is in the process of reducing the number of warheads deployed on
its long-range missiles and bombers, consistent with the terms of the New START Treaty, it also
plans to develop new delivery systems for deployment over the next 20-30 years. The 115th
Congress will continue to review these programs, and the funding requested for them, during the
annual authorization and appropriations process.
During the Cold War, the U.S. nuclear arsenal contained many types of delivery vehicles for
nuclear weapons. The longer-range systems, which included long-range missiles based on U.S.
territory, long-range missiles based on submarines, and heavy bombers that could threaten Soviet
targets from their bases in the United States, are known as strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. At
the end of the Cold War, in 1991, the United States deployed more than 10,000 warheads on these
delivery vehicles. That number has declined to less than 1,500 deployed warheads today, and is
slated to be 1,550 deployed warheads in 2018, after the New START Treaty completes
At the present time, the U.S. land-based ballistic missile force (ICBMs) consists of 414 land-
based Minuteman III ICBMs, each deployed with one warhead. The fleet will decline to 400
deployed missiles, while retaining 450 launchers, to meet the terms of the New START Treaty.
The Air Force is also modernizing the Minuteman missiles, replacing and upgrading their rocket
motors, guidance systems, and other components, so that they can remain in the force through
2030. It plans to replace the missiles with a new Ground-based Strategic Deterrent around 2030.
The U.S. ballistic missile submarine fleet currently consists of 14 Trident submarines; each can
carry up to 24 Trident II (D-5) missiles, although they will carry only 20 under the New START
Treaty. The Navy converted 4 of the original 18 Trident submarines to carry non-nuclear cruise
missiles. The remaining carry around 1,000 warheads in total; that number will decline as the
United States implements the New START Treaty. Nine of the submarines are deployed in the
Pacific Ocean and five are in the Atlantic. The Navy also has undertaken efforts to extend the life
of the missiles and warheads so that they and the submarines can remain in the fleet past 2020. It
is designing a new Columbia class submarine that will replace the existing fleet beginning in
The U.S. fleet of heavy bombers includes 20 B-2 bombers and 54 nuclear-capable B-52 bombers.
The B-1 bomber is no longer equipped for nuclear missions. The fleet will decline to around 60
aircraft in coming years, as the United States implements New START. The Air Force has also
begun to retire the nuclear-armed cruise missiles carried by B-52 bombers, leaving only about
half the B-52 fleet equipped to carry nuclear weapons. The Air Force plans to procure both a new
long-range bomber and a new cruise missile during the 2020s. DOE is also modifying and
extending the life of the B61 bomb carried on B-2 bombers and fighter aircraft and the W80
warhead for cruise missiles.
The Obama Administration completed a review of the size and structure of the U.S. nuclear force,
and a review of U.S. nuclear employment policy, in June 2013. This review has advised the force
structure that the United States will deploy under the New START Treaty. It is currently
implementing the New START Treaty, with the reductions due to be completed by 2018. The
Trump Administration has indicated that it will conduct a new review of the U.S. nuclear force
posture. Congress will review the Administration's plans for U.S. strategic nuclear forces during
the annual authorization and appropriations process, and as it assesses U.S. plans under New
START and the costs of these plans in the current fiscal environment. This report will be updated
as needed.

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