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Report to Congress on U.S. Strategic Nuclear Weapons

The following is the Nov. 21, 2018 Congressional Research Service report, U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Developments, and Issues.

Even though the United States has reduced the number of warheads deployed on its long-range missiles and bombers, consistent with the terms of the 2010 New START Treaty, it also plans to develop new delivery systems for deployment over the next 10-30 years. The 116th 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. With the implementation of New START completed in February 2018, the United States is limited to 1,550 accountable warheads on these delivery vehicles, a restriction that will remain in place at least through 2021, while New START Treaty remains in force.

At the present time, the U.S. land-based ballistic missile force (ICBMs) consists of 400 land-based Minuteman III ICBMs, each deployed with one warhead, spread among a total of 450 operational launchers. This force is consistent with 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 2029.

The U.S. ballistic missile submarine fleet currently consists of 14 Trident submarines. Each has been modified to carry 20 Trident II (D-5) missiles—a reduction from 24 missiles per submarine—to meet the launcher limits in the New START Treaty. The Navy converted 4 of the original 18 Trident submarines to carry non-nuclear cruise missiles. 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 2031.

The U.S. fleet of heavy bombers includes 20 B-2 bombers and 40 nuclear-capable B-52 bombers. The B-1 bomber is no longer equipped for nuclear missions. This fleet of 60 nuclear-capable aircraft is consistent with the U.S. obligations under 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, known as the B-21, and a new long-range standoff (LRSO) 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 advised the force structure that the United States will deploy under the New START Treaty. The Trump Administration completed its review of U.S. nuclear forces in February 2018, and reaffirmed the basic contours of the current U.S. force structure and the ongoing modernization programs. The Trump Administration has also called for the development of a new low-yield warhead for deployment on Trident II (D-5) missiles. Congress will review the Administration’s plans for U.S. strategic nuclear forces during the annual authorization and appropriations process, and as it assesses the costs of these plans in the current fiscal environment. This report will be updated as needed.

  • NavySubNuke

    It will be interesting to see if the Low Yield Ballistic Missile warhead actually makes it through congress and is deployed into the fleet. Given the democrats have taken over control of the house there will be a much bigger fight this year than there was to provide the original funding.
    Hopefully it makes it through since it will enhance our deterrent and make nuclear war less likely but such considerations aren’t exactly important to the thieves, liars, and idiots who make up congress.

    • Natalya

      Question related to New START Treaty:

      I have skimmed over it and was curious to where does the “Status-6” nuclear torpedo fit into it? Or doesn’t it? New START talks about ICBM’s, SLBM’s, verifying the number or RV’s on each, BMD, etc. But no where does it mention anything about underwater ballistic nuclear weapons.

      Shouldn’t this be addressed in a addendum to the treaty in your opinion?
      At least counted as a delivery system?

      • NavySubNuke

        Yes, it doesn’t fit in.
        Neither do non-strategic nuclear weapons (i.e. nuclear weapons carried by a bomber).
        Status-6 isn’t a ballistic weapon either from what I understand — it is just a longer ranged nuclear torpedo, it drives the whole way.
        Nuclear torpedoes have existed for decades and are not covered by any arms treaties. If it’s range really is thousands of miles there is good cause to add it to the treaty and make it count — just as we do with strategic bomber launched nuclear tipped cruise missiles. The trick will be in enforcing such a measure, I doubt Russia will want the US inspecting their SSGNs and as we have seen with their violations of INF if we don’t have a good method of forcing them into compliance then they will just violate the treaty.
        I think the issue of compliance verification via inspection is where this would all fall apart. That and there isn’t anything the US would want to give up in negotiations to get the Russians to give it up. All the more reason to keep our ICBMs around — you can’t hit a silo in North Dakota with a surprise torpedo after all ;).

        • Natalya

          Thanks for your response. Agreed! Enforcing compliance with the Russians is problematic at best.

          As I look at our contracts, so far we’re keeping our ICBM’s current meaning replacing older, outdated parts and maintaining engines, etc. Those “birds” are a strong deturent and since they are scattered around among Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming, it would take an an abundance of incoming missiles to take out those silo’s.