Flexibility and Survivability: The Next Generation of the U.S. Nuclear Stockpile

While the current environment continues to challenge the United States, future threats will further weaken America's nuclear weapons stockpile without action. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called for nuclear modernization and the time is now to act and secure our strategic deterrent for the future.

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Reviving the Nuclear Enterprise

The United States faces an array of challenges in today’s security environment, given the desire from several nation states to create a multipolar international system. As President Trump’s 2018 U.S. National Security Strategy stated, there is a return to great power competition, with China and Russia reasserting their influence regionally and globally in contention with U.S. interests. From a nuclear forces perspective, the United States’ strategic nuclear advantage is at risk, as China and Russia continue to invest in modernizing its nuclear weapons and missile capabilities, while the U.S. stockpile continues to age.

In conjunction with China and Russia seeking to surpass U.S. offensive and defensive nuclear capabilities, illicit nuclear programs from Iran and North Korea continue to pose a significant threat to America’s national security interests. The future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Iran remains to be seen, as a second-round of U.S. sanctions aimed “at fundamentally altering the behavior of [Iran]” went into effect on November 5, 2018. On the Korean Peninsula, despite President Trump praising the progress made by Pyongyang since the Singapore Summit, North Korea continues to not fully commit to verification activities deemed necessary for nuclear disarmament by the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Given these circumstances, President Trump’s administration sent a clear message to the American people and international community, modernizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent to meet its critical national security mission is the Department of Defense’s (DoD) top priority. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) tasked DoD with ensuring the nation’s nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats.

In order to sustain a qualitative advantage in nuclear forces against our enemies and competitors, a significant focus must be placed on the flexibility and survivability of these weapons and supporting infrastructure. The technological advances in military capabilities by potential adversaries require the U.S. to ensure its nuclear modernization efforts provide our stockpile with the ability to survive against contemporary and emerging future threats. As stated by the 2018 NPR, “The United States must be capable of developing and deploying new capabilities, if necessary, to deter, assure, achieve U.S. objectives if deterrence fails, and hedge against uncertainty.” While our nation’s competitors and adversaries continue to pose a threat to the U.S.’s most important strategic weapons, it is necessary for U.S. policy decision-makers to support nuclear weapons modernization with a specific focus on survivability and flexibility.

Current Threat Landscape


One of the most significant potential challenges to the survivability of America’s nuclear deterrent is China. America’s nuclear weapons and policies contribute significantly to China’s nuclear weapons strategy. Thus, China has made considerable investments in maintaining and modernizing its limited, but increasingly survivable nuclear forces. The Asia powerhouse’s deterrence posture is based on its declaration of a “no first use” policy to ensure its nuclear forces survive a first strike and “respond with sufficient strength to inflict unacceptable damage on an enemy.” Additionally, China continues to modernize its nuclear forces through the development of more survivable road-mobile systems and enhancing its silo-based systems.

China strives to surpass the capabilities of the U.S. nuclear stockpile and ballistic missile defense systems. A recent effort by China, which is also being pursued by the U.S. and Russia, is to develop a hypersonic-glide vehicle (i.e., traveling faster than five times the speed of sound) to counter missile defenses, which the U.S. cannot currently defend against. China claimed a successful hypersonic test this summer, placing pressure on the U.S. to develop capabilities to defeat such weapons from adversaries. The United States will need to continue to monitor China’s advances on hypersonic weapons, and others, to determine what future requirements Washington will need to develop to effectively modernize its nuclear forces and defenses against potential future threats. As Gen. John Hyten of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) has stated, “China has tested hypersonic capabilities. Russia has tested. We have as well…We are going to need a different set of sensors in order to see the hypersonic threats. Our adversaries know that.”


Russia and its growing nuclear weapons systems pose the “most significant existential threat to the United States,” according to the current U.S. National Security Strategy. Moscow continues to modernize, develop, and field a wide range of advanced nuclear capabilities to balance its strategic military inferiority to the United States. In recent months, it has been reported that Russia is (again) violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty through the covert development of a new ground-launched system capable of launching a nuclear strike at Europe and Alaska. Russia’s weak history of abiding by the Cold War era treaty has led to President Trump publicly stating the U.S. intends to withdraw from the treaty.

Additionally, Moscow is allocating time and money toward the development of a hypersonic missile, despite news reports highlighting Russia’s struggles with the technology. President Vladimir Putin seems driven to develop this capability to an operational capacity. Russia’s demonstrated unwillingness to abide by arms control commitments proves that the United States must be prepared to implement the President and Secretary of Defense’s decisions to enhance our country’s nuclear forces and infrastructure in support of increased global security. The United States is cognizant of Russia’s intentions regarding its nuclear modernization, therefore, the U.S. leadership should be adamant about linking today’s nuclear modernization efforts to what the future threat landscape will be.

Iran and North Korea

As for Iran and North Korea, their defense postures and history of clandestine missile and nuclear activities continue to worry the United States. In the case of Iran, the future of a potential Iranian nuclear weapons program is unknown. However, the U.S. assumes Iran has the technological capability and much of the capacity necessary to develop a nuclear weapon within one year of a decision to do so. The U.S. Intelligence Community believes Iran has had nuclear weapons ambitions prior to 2003, and may have similar ambitions today. In addition, Tehran’s growing ballistic missile program continues to threaten the United States and its interests. Tehran continues to advance its missile technology, while abiding by the JCPOA according to the IAEA. Iran’s increasing development of long-range ballistic missile capabilities concerns the United States and “raises questions about [Iran’s] long-term commitment to foregoing nuclear weapons capability.”

North Korea, known for successfully acquiring a nuclear weapons program illicitly, has demonstrated an inconsistent track record of pursuing a path toward “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” as mentioned when President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un met in June 2018. Despite North Korea’s declaration and promises, suspicion regarding Kim’s intentions still loom. In a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Sakkanmol Missile Operating Base has been identified as one of a potential 20 undeclared missile sites housing short-range ballistic missiles, with the capability to also store medium-range ballistic missiles. Despite Pyongyang’s “commitment” to denuclearization, the regime believes any meaningful steps towards doing so will be reciprocal of U.S. actions, which is contentious for U.S. leaders. North Korea’s history of concealed activities and misdirection toward denuclearization, along with its improving ballistic missile capabilities, provides enough reasoning to continue to label North Korea as an imminent threat to the U.S. and its allies.

Flexibility and Survivability

While the above is a short synopsis of the threats posed by U.S. competitors and adversaries, it is apparent that our nation’s nuclear modernization efforts must be tailored to addressing future threats. During his congressional testimony last year, Gen. Hyten mentioned that survivability challenges range from upgrading the Defense Management System to help the B-2 recognize and elude enemy air defenses, by using various antennas, receivers, and display processors to detect signatures emitting from ground-based anti-aircraft weapons, to maintaining the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) until the Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) cruise missile is operational to prevent a gap in air-delivered deterrence capabilities.

Furthermore, America’s current aging nuclear stockpile risks weakening the efficacy of the nation’s nuclear deterrent. The current stockpile includes the B61, W76, W78, W80, B83, W87, and W88 warheads, many of which have been deployed far past their intended lifespan through multiple life-extension programs (LEP) and leave little room for additional capabilities (e.g., hypersonics, penetration aids). Our competitors and adversaries are not waiting for the U.S. to modernize, it is time to secure our strategic deterrent for the future through survivability and flexibility. Elements of implementing these characteristics into our future weapons involve developing requirements focused on the ability to penetrate adversary defenses, and the ability to visibly signal deterrence messages, prompt response, and a range of warhead yield options depending on the target.

Any leg of the U.S. nuclear triad incapable of surviving a first strike by an adversary creates a significant gap in U.S. security and deterrence. As the 2013 Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the U.S. states, it is the goal for the U.S. to “maintain a sufficient, diversified, and survivable capability to…convince any potential adversary that the adverse consequences of attacking the [U.S.] or our Allies and partners far outweigh any potential benefit they may seek to gain from such an attack.” The Department of Defense, with the support of the Interagency, will need to leverage known and potential future hostile environments in order to develop survivability requirements for next-generation nuclear warheads and supporting infrastructure.

The Nuclear Weapons Enterprise is currently working to develop characteristics to support survivability in a hostile environment. For instance, Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) researchers are using a blast tube configurable to demonstrate how well nuclear weapons could survive the shock wave of a blast from an enemy weapon. Additionally, building survivable next-generation nuclear warheads requires upgrading the President’s nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) to support day-to-day military operations prior to a nuclear event. The 2018 NPR calls for modernizing NC3 to provide the U.S. control of its nuclear forces at all times. Examples of these modernization efforts to increase NC3 survivability include: strengthening protection against cyber threats and space-based threats, enhancing integrated tactical warning and attack assessment, and reforming governance of the overall NC3 system. With such recapitalization efforts, modernized NC3 systems will provide “survivable, secure, and enduring communications to our nuclear and conventional operations,” while sustaining a credible U.S. nuclear deterrent for the long-term.


It is widely believed that the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile requires significant modernization to defeat future threats. U.S. competitors and adversaries continue to progress in advancing its nuclear weapons and missile defense capabilities, despite what policy direction the United States pursues. However, with the newly-elected Democratic House of Representatives there are questions as to how President Trump’s nuclear weapons strategy will materialize. Despite what changes will occur with the Democrats controlling the House, gaps in the survivability in America’s nuclear arsenal will remain.

The uncertainty of hostile environments should drive the U.S. to continue toward modernizing its nuclear weapons stockpile to ensure its survivability for not only the threats of tomorrow, but future threats in the decades to come. Our nation’s future nuclear warheads must be flexible enough to hold a variety of targets at risk throughout a crisis or conflict and strengthen our nuclear forces capability as serving as America’s greatest tool for deterrence. Effective nuclear deterrence requires having the flexibility to respond to the possible shocks of a changing threat environment and the proper strategy aimed to secure the survival and efficacy of our nation’s strategic deterrent for future generations.

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