US DoD plans $29bn nuclear modernisation

Harry Lye 12 February 2020 (Last Updated February 12th, 2020 12:14)

The US Department of Defence (DoD) FY2021 budget requests bets big on nuclear modernisation efforts including investment in submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and command and control systems.

US DoD plans $29bn nuclear modernisation
The submerged USS Nebraska launches an unarmed Trident II D5 missile in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: US Navy.

As part of an ongoing plan to modernise the US nuclear deterrent force, the DoD’s FY2021 budget request outlines $28.9bn worth of investment in plans to upgrade the nuclear triad.

Encompassing new bombers, submarines, missiles and command and control, the massive modernisation budget follows a number of earlier developments and investments into the US nuclear forces.

Key investments in the US nuclear deterrent include:

  • $7bn for nuclear command, control and communications.
  • $2-8bn for the development of the B-21 long-range strike bomber.
  • $4.4bn for Columbia-Class ballistic missile development and;
  • $1.5bn for ground-based strategic deterrent (GBSD).

Budget documents for the FY2021 request make clear the budget “prioritises nuclear deterrence recapitalisation and strengthens homeland missile defence” as the US pushes into an era of omni-domain operations along with a return to great power projection competition.

According to a Pentagon briefing presentation DoD views the modernisation of the US nuclear delivery, command, control and communications systems as one of the most important priorities going forward.

In a press briefing, Vice Admiral Ron Boxall commented on the budget request saying that the nuclear deterrent was at the centre of every US military operation and was the foundation of the defence of the US and its allies.

Boxall added: “[The] 2021 budget fully funds and modernises all three legs of the triad with key investments in ground-based strategic deterrent B-21 bomber, the Columbia-class submarine, and nuclear command, control and communications systems.”

A large portion of the US nuclear triad is carried via ageing systems that are beginning to approach the end of their service life; the GBSD is carried via the Minuteman III ICBM which entered service in the 1970s. The submarine-borne deterrent is carried on Ohio-class submarines, which first entered service in the 1980s. Finally, the airborne nuclear deterrent is carried on a range of aircraft including the B-52, which entered service 65 years ago.

All three of these methods of delivering nuclear warheads are being upgraded, with Northrop Grumman recently winning a contract to develop the next iteration of the GBSD and developing the B-21 long-range strike bomber (LRS-B). General Dynamics Electric Boat is set to break keel on the Columbia-Class of submarines to replace the in-service Ohio.

The budget request also sets aside around $500m for the continued development of the US Air Force’s (USAF) long-range standoff (LRSO) nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), capable of being carried on the new B-21 bomber and the existing B-52.

The various nuclear modernisation projects in the budget requests show an overall increase in spending on nuclear systems with the exception of the B-21, which sees its requested funding drop by about $100m compared with the enacted FY2020 budget.

FY2021 is an important junction for a number of the US nuclear modernisation efforts, with construction expected to start on the first-in-class Columbia submarine; the GBSD modernisation programme will also be in its engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase by this time.

The developments in Columbia are also being backed by $1.2bn requested for the continuing Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile (SBLM) life extension programme (D5LE). According to budget documents, work on developing a follow-on to the D5LE missile continues throughout 2021.

Developing new nuclear weapons

Outside of the DoD the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a Department of Energy (DoE) agency that is tasked with maintaining the US nuclear stockpile, has issued a budget request of $19.8bn in FY20201. This budget features a 25% increase in funding compared with the 2020 budget for the NNSA’s weapons activities.

This budget request reveals the intention of the US to develop an entirely new submarine-launched warhead, the W93, to be carried on Trident SLBMs.

In a press release, the DoE said: “The W93 warhead programme was recently endorsed by the Nuclear Weapons Council and the Deputy Secretary of Defense to support the US Strategic Command-required replacement for the Navy’s Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM)”

The department is undertaking five weapons sustainment and modernisation programmes including the new W93 warhead, B61-12 life extension programme, W80-4 life extension programme, W88 alteration 370, and W87-1 modification programme.