Key Issues > Nuclear Weapons and Forces Sustainment and Modernization
energy icon, source: Art Explosion

Nuclear Weapons and Forces Sustainment and Modernization

Ensuring that the nation's nuclear weapons remain safe and reliable is an extraordinarily complicated job that requires significant resources.

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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. These capabilities include new missiles, aircraft, and submarines; the nuclear command, control, and communications systems that authorize the use of nuclear weapons in a crisis and prevent unauthorized or accidental use; the nuclear weapons stockpile of warheads and bombs; and the research and production infrastructure to support the stockpile. However, both DOD and NNSA face a number of challenges to achieving their nuclear modernization goals.

Challenges at DOD

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. The department has faced challenges in modernizing these resources.

For example:  

  • Almost all of the existing nuclear weapon systems are being deployed beyond their originally intended service lives, which adds to the challenges of sustaining these systems. 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 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. DOD is also struggling to sustain and maintain aging nuclear weapon systems—such as failing submarine parts that were never intended to be replaced.
  • The Navy plans to invest over $100 billion to develop and purchase 12 Columbia class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines to replace aging Ohio class submarines by 2031. However, the schedule for construction and delivery of the first submarine is aggressive and leaves little room for error. Additionally, the Navy's cost estimate to construct these submarines—$115 billion—is not realistic because it is based on several overly optimistic assumptions (such as the amount of labor needed for construction).

Design Rendering of the Columbia Class Nuclear-Powered Ballistic Missile Submarine

Challenges at NNSA

NNSA is modernizing the nuclear weapons stockpile by replacing or modifying existing warheads and bombs. At the same time, NNSA is managing numerous, multi-billion-dollar construction projects to modernize the infrastructure or reestablish long-dormant capabilities to produce the components and materials needed for these nuclear weapons. NNSA faces challenges effectively implementing these multiple efforts.

For example:

  • NNSA is modernizing and extending the life of the W80, a type of nuclear warhead carried on air-launched cruise missiles. It estimated that this program will cost $11.2 billion, and plans to deliver the first W80-4 nuclear warhead by September 2025. However, this date is more than a year earlier than the program’s own analysis says is reasonable.
  • 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 of the W87-1's plutonium fissile cores in time to meet its planned production schedule. NNSA estimates this new warhead could cost up to $14.8 billion, which could make it the most expensive program of this type to date.
  • NNSA is investing billions of dollars into facilities to support plutonium fissile cores and uranium component manufacturing as well as reestablishing capabilities to produce depleted uranium and lithium components. The facilities must be completed on time to support warhead replacement or modernization schedules. 
  • Microelectronics used in nuclear weapons must function in environments with extremely high radiation levels. NNSA’s only source for producing these specialized microelectronics are aging facilities at Sandia National Labs. NNSA is starting a $1 billion, 20-year effort to upgrade and sustain Sandia’s existing facilities and nuclear capabilities. However, the agency hasn’t fully developed a thorough set of controls for managing the cost, schedule, and associated risks of this project.
  • NNSA manages U.S.-origin enriched uranium for certain civil and defense needs, such as for the production of tritium—a key isotope used in nuclear weapons. After losing its last source of U.S.-origin enriched uranium in 2013, NNSA is taking action to extend its inventory to 2038, but it has not clearly defined the scope of its civil and defense enriched uranium needs for a future enrichment capability and its initial cost estimates are not reliable.
  • NNSA works with contractors to design and make explosive materials for nuclear weapons. Challenges to carrying out this work include deteriorating conditions in many labs and facilities, dwindling supplies of specialized explosive materials, and delayed security clearances for new staff. NNSA issued a plan to address these challenges, but didn't follow strategic planning practices that ensure accountability over progress. For example, it generally didn't include measurable performance goals that identify timeframes and responsible parties.

In addition to addressing these challenges, NNSA could implement some priority recommendations to improve how it manages its nuclear modernization programs.

Looking for our recommendations? Click on any report to find each associated recommendation and its current implementation status.

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