“Critical” Overrun of Sentinel ICBM Program Demands Government Transparency

On January 18th, the Air Force notified Congress that its program for the new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) being developed by Northrop Grumman will cost 37 percent more than projected and take at least two years longer than estimated–an overrun in ‘critical’ breach of Congress’s Nunn-McCurdy Act. Transparency from the Department of Defense and Congress over the following months will be crucial to understand the causes and consequences and ensure proper public oversight of one of the largest nuclear weapons programs in U.S. history. 

What caused the overrun?

While Air Force officials have cited inflation and unexpected infrastructure costs related to command and launch as the primary causes of the overrun, skewed cost estimates since the program’s inception and consequences of unhealthy practices related to industry competition are likely to blame as well.  

Infrastructure costs 

According to Andrew Hunter, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, there has been a slight increase in cost of the missile itself, but the cost and schedule growth for the project is largely due to supporting infrastructure costs. The Sentinel program includes not only an entirely new long-range missile but replacement or enhancement of silos, launch command centers, and command and control facilities for the ICBM force. For example, the silos and launch facilities for Sentinel will be significantly larger than for the Minuteman missiles. Additionally, the Air Force had planned to reuse the communications infrastructure from Minuteman III for Sentinel but determined that the system was too old to fully function with the new ICBM, requiring completely new cabling. Kristyn Jones, acting Under Secretary of the Air Force, similarly cited the “massive ‘civil works’ project” as the primary overrun cause. 

The Government Accountability Office (GAO)’s annual evaluation of Pentagon weapons programs in June 2023 additionally revealed that the Sentinel program was delayed because Northrop Grumman is experiencing staffing shortfalls, clearance delays, IT infrastructure challenges, and supply chain disruptions. Northrop Grumman was issued a sole-source, $13.3 billion contract for the program in September 2020.

Skewed cost estimates

A 2016 Air Force cost analysis for the Sentinel program (previously known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent or GBSD) concluded that replacing the existing force of Minuteman III ICBMs would be cheaper than a life-extension program. The assumptions that led to this assessment, however, were flawed and potentially skewed to favor a full replacement of the ICBM program.

The primary factor leading to the Air Force’s determination that a life-extension of Minuteman ICBMs would be more expensive was the requirement from their Analysis of Alternatives that the ICBM force level be maintained until 2075. This arbitrary requirement for force levels and timeline meant that a life-extension program for Minuteman III ICBMs would have to include the cost of building a follow-on missile to reach the 2075 requirement, ensuring a favorable look for Sentinel. Projections for a program lifespan before or after 2075–like 2050 or 2100–result in cheaper cost estimates for life-extension of Minuteman than development of Sentinel. 

As recently as 2021, Air Force Global Strike Command claimed the Sentinel program would be $38 billion cheaper than attempting to upgrade and extend the life of the Minuteman III. After the “critical” cost projection increase was made public, the Air Force insisted that “There is not a viable service life extension program that we can foresee for Minuteman III. It was fielded in the 70s as a 10-year weapon,” even though the Air Force put the Minuteman III through a complete life-extension a decade ago.

The Air Force’s first cost estimate for the Sentinel program in February 2015 was $62.3 billion (in then-year dollars). Just nine months later, the Pentagon’s cost estimation team put the number between $85 billion and $100 billion, already over one-third higher than the original estimate. After setting the estimate at $85 billion in 2016, the Air Force again increased the estimated program cost in 2020 to $95.8 billion. With the recently reported cost overrun of 37 percent, the latest cost estimate for the program––scheduled for release this year––could jump to more than $130 billion. 

The Air Force knew that the low cost projection that was used to secure Congressional approval and lock the program in was made with incomplete data. After the newest cost increase was disclosed, the Air Force acknowledged: “Some of the assumptions that were made at the beginning of the program when the initial cost estimates were made were just not particularly valid, and now we have a lot more information that should allow us to stay much closer to the cost estimates that will be developed as part of the Nunn-McCurdy process.”

Industry and competition

One persistent justification for Sentinel voiced by the Air Force is that a new missile program would help protect the large solid rocket motor (LSRM) industrial base that has suffered from consolidation in recent years. In 2018, Northrop Grumman–one of just two competitors for the Sentinel program alongside Boeing–purchased Orbital ATK, one of the two remaining LSRM manufacturers. This acquisition gave Northrop Grumman a significant advantage over Boeing, who ultimately withdrew from the Sentinel competition in 2019, citing “inherently unfair cost, resource and integration advantages.” 

With Boeing declining to bid, Northrop Grumman became the sole contract winner for the Sentinel program. Ultimately, the Air Force’s failure to mitigate anti-competitive behavior by Northrop Grumman and its awarding of an unprecedented high-value sole-source contract likely contributed to higher costs for the Sentinel program and a more unhealthy industrial base. 

The Nunn-McCurdy process

The Air Force is required to provide the overrun notification to Congress due to the Nunn-McCurdy Act, which mandates that the Pentagon disclose to Congress if a program faces cost or schedule overruns exceeding 15 percent. With a cost overrun of 37 percent, the Sentinel program is in “critical” breach of the Nunn-McCurdy Act, requiring the Secretary of Defense to conduct a root-cause analysis and renewed cost assessment. Following completion of these requirements, the program will be terminated unless the Secretary of Defense certifies the program no later than 60 days after a required Selected Acquisition Report is submitted to Congress.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will engage in these processes over the next several months to uncover the cause of the cost overrun and assess, alongside the Pentagon’s Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation. Together, they will determine:

  1. the estimated cost of the program if no changes are made to the current requirements, 
  2. the estimated cost of the program if requirements are modified, 
  3. the estimated cost of reasonable alternatives to the program, and  
  4. the extent to which funding from other programs will need to be cut to cover the cost growth of this program.

The certification required to keep the program alive must then certify, in the exact words of the legislation, that: [author context and commentary added below]

  1. the program is essential to national security, [How will Secretary Austin certify this? Expert analysis has identified cheaper and more efficient alternatives to the Sentinel program and challenged the necessity of ICBMs in the U.S. arsenal.]
  2. the new cost estimates have been determined by the Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation to be reasonable, [What is the standard for ‘reasonable’? Will this determination consider cheaper alternatives to the Sentinel program, such as a life-extension program of the Minuteman III ICBM? The details of this determination should be made public to ensure proper oversight, given that a Pentagon official will be making the determination for a defense program.] 
  3. the program is a higher priority than programs whose funding will be reduced to cover the increased cost of this program, and [What programs will be cut to pay for the Sentinel program? Will only other defense programs be at risk? That information and the method of determining priority should be available to the public.]
  4. the management structure is sufficient to control additional cost growth. [The continuous delays and cost growth of the Sentinel program reveal a persistent failure in program management. Any certification presented by Secretary Austin must address this failure and explain how the management structure will be altered to address it.]

If the program avoids termination, the Nunn-McCurdy Act requires that it be restructured to rectify the root cause of the overrun and receive new milestone approval. Even before the review has been completed, the Air Force argues the Sentinel program will not be canceled: “Sentinel will be funded. We’ll make the trades that it takes to make that happen.” Those “trades” may include reduction or even cancellation of other programs or asking Congress to further increase the defense budget.

Implications for force structure

Although the news and forthcoming processes related to the Sentinel overrun are largely focused on cost, the two-year schedule overrun could have critical implications for U.S. nuclear force structure as well. 

Pentagon documents have previously indicated that a two-year programmatic slippage could result in up to 35 ICBMs being removed from alert status. While several analysts have questioned the continued U.S. requirement for 400 deployed ICBMs, a provision included in each National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) since FY 2017 legally prohibits the number of deployed ICBMS from dropping below 400. The 2023 Congressional Strategic Posture Commission appeared to acknowledge a possible dip in the ICBM number by recommending the Air Force plan to deploy the Sentinel in a MIRVed configuration.

In order to prevent this slippage, according to senior Air Force and Northrop officials, the two-year delay in achieving initial operational capability (IOC) means the Air Force will have to life-extend some Minuteman III ICBMs, something senior officials have previously argued was not possible. In defense of the Sentinel program in 2021, then-Commander of USSTRATCOM Adm. Charles Richard said, “you cannot life extend the Minuteman 3,” and argued the system is “so old that in some cases the drawings don’t exist any more.” While Sentinel is meant to replace the Minuteman missiles, the two programs will have to operate simultaneously for some time due to the delay, which will add additional cost. This delay also puts Sentinel’s IOC beyond the no-fail IOC date of September 2030 set by Air Force Global Strike Command. 

Incomplete data, rosy cost projections, and excessive secrecy appear to have combined to push the Sentinel program deep into the red. Institutional preference of getting a new weapon system rather than operating an existing missile for another decade or two has probably been another factor; the technical-cost assessment of a Minuteman III life-extension has never been made public.

The Pentagon and/or Congress should make all steps and results of this Sentinel review process open to the public to ensure maximum transparency, scrutiny, and oversight. Secretary Austin’s likely certification of the Sentinel program should be open to public interrogation, and Congress must thoroughly examine whether every certification requirement is met. Congress should ask the Government Accountability Office and Congressional Budget Office to make independent reviews. The Sentinel program has been plagued with cost increases, flawed assumptions, and misleading arguments from the beginning; this most recent overrun demands a reassessment of the Pentagon’s justification for Sentinel and hawk-eyed scrutiny of the program’s next steps.

This research was carried out with generous contributions from the New-Land Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Longview Philanthropy, and individual donors.

Upgrade Underway for Russian Silos to Receive New Sarmat ICBM

New satellite imagery shows that preparations to deploy Russia’s new RS-28 Sarmat (SS-29) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) are well underway.

However, the imagery also indicates that President Putin’s claims of deployment “in the near future” may be too optimistic. It is potentially possible that one or two missiles could be deployed early, but major construction is still ongoing at many of the silos in the first regiment and has not yet begun at all of them, and the completion of construction at all eventual Sarmat regiments may be over a decade away.

The Sarmat––which was originally scheduled to enter service between 2018 and 2020 and will replace Russia’s aging RS-20V Voevoda (SS-18) ICBM––had been subject to significant manufacturing, production, and testing delays. In January 2022, the “War Bolts” Telegram channel reported that flight tests for Sarmat had been postponed due to problems with the missile’s command module. Following Sarmat’s eventual first test flight on 20 April 2022, Putin announced that the new ICBM would enter combat duty by the end of the year. As of October 2023, however, only one additional Sarmat flight test had reportedly taken place (in February 2023) and, according to US officials, likely ended in failure.

Despite the lack of successful tests, in November 2022 the General Director of the Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau––responsible for the design of Sarmat––claimed that the missile had already entered serial production. On 1 September 2023, Roscosmos Chief Yury Borisov announced that Sarmat had “assumed combat alert posture,” although this was likely premature: on 5 October 2023, President Putin noted during his speech at the Valdai Club that some “administrative and bureaucratic procedures” still needed to be carried out before Sarmat could be placed on combat duty, and on 7 October 2023, the Russian Ministry of Defence noted on Telegram that the “final stages” of construction and installation were still underway at the first launch facilities and associated command post.

New satellite imagery indicates construction is well underway at the first regiment of the 62nd Missile Division near Uzhur in south Siberia. It is expected that a total of 46 Sarmat missiles will eventually be deployed with seven regiments (six missiles per regiment, plus one 10-missile regiment) in two divisions at Uzhur and Dombarovsky.

The first missile regiment undergoing its upgrade to Sarmat is the 302nd Missile Regiment and consists of six silos. Major construction continues at the launch control center and its accompanying silo (12C) and three other silos (13C, 15C, and 17C). The two remaining silos (16C and 18C) have only received minor upgrades and will take many months to complete if scheduled for the same comprehensive upgrade as the other silos.

Silos 12C and 17C:

The first two silos to begin their upgrades were Silos 12C (55.1144°, 89.6344°) and 17C (55.0347°, 89.7286°), which began their upgrades in the spring and summer of 2021, respectively. Over the past two years, the perimeters at both sites were removed, reshaped, and expanded with additional layers of fencing. The surface area of both silos has nearly doubled in size: Silo 12C has been expanded from approximately 0.228 square kilometers to 0.427 square kilometers, and the area of Silo 17C has been expanded from approximately 0.082 square kilometers to 0.136 square kilometers.

Silo 12C, Uzhur Missile Silo Field (55.1144°, 89.6344°)
Timelapse of Construction at Silo 12C, Uzhur Missile Silo Field (55.1144°, 89.6344°)

As of mid-September, construction appeared to be nearly complete inside the inner silo areas at both sites. The launch control center at Silo 12C has been upgraded to a newer LCC design that can also be seen at other Russian ICBM complexes, including the SS-27 Mod 1 “Topol-M” silo field near Tatishchevo, the SS-27 Mod 2 “Yars” silo field near Kozelsk, and the SS-19 Mod 4 “Avangard” silo field near Dombarovsky. In addition, Silo 12C boasts a new gun turret placement and expanded administrative area, although this outer area is not yet complete.

Annotated satellite image comparing and contrasting new ICBM launch control center designs across Russia.

Notably, the immediate area surrounding Silo 17C has been subject to significant wildfire damage in the past. In 2017, a wildfire burned through all three sets of perimeter fencing and damaged the inner road leading to the silo hatch. In May 2021, another wildfire again burned through the three layers of fencing and appeared to damage an administrative building near the hatch.

Annotated satellite image showing extensive wildfire damage to the same silo complex at the Uzhur missile silo field.

Silos 13C and 15C:

Silos 13C (55.2008°, 89.7061°) and 17C (55.0822°, 89.8155°) began their upgrades in late-2022, nearly 1.5 years after construction on the first two silos began. As of mid-October 2023, significant construction at both sites was still underway, including underground and inside the silos themselves. Trees have been removed at both sites to make space for the expanded perimeter fences. While the new perimeters at both sites have been marked out, the multiple layers of fencing have not yet been completed. New gun turrets at both sites now appear to be in place.

Timelapse of construction at Silo 13C
Timelapse of Construction at Silo 13C, Uzhur Missile Silo Field (55.2008°, 89.7061°)

Use the Planet Labs PBC interactive slider to compare before/after images. 

Silos 16C and 18C:

As of mid-September 2023, full-site construction at Silos 16C (55.0247º, 89.5711º) and 18C (54.9501º, 89.6833º) had not yet begun, although some silo maintenance work has been visible since mid-2021, possibly in preparation for the full-site construction.

Open silos

It is notable that satellites have managed to capture images of all four silos currently under construction with their hatches open; on more than one occasion, multiple different silos could be seen with their hatches open on the same day, and in some cases hatches have stayed open for days at a time. This suggests that operations to upgrade the silos themselves and preparations to deploy Sarmat ICBMs inside them––as touted by high-ranking Russian officials––are well underway.

Annotated satellite image showing multiple open silo hatches on the same day (22 June 2023) within the same ICBM regiment.

Additional information:
Nuclear Notebook: Russian Nuclear Weapons, 2023

This research was carried out with generous contributions from the New-Land Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Longview Philanthropy, and individual donors.

STRATCOM Says China Has More ICBM Launchers Than The United States – We Have Questions

In early-February 2023, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) had informed Congress that China now has more launchers for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) than the United States. The report is the latest in a serious of revelations over the past four years about China’s growing nuclear weapons arsenal and the deepening strategic competition between the world’s nuclear weapon states. It is important to monitor China’s developments to understand what it means for Chinese nuclear strategy and intensions, but it is also important to avoid overreactions and exaggerations.

First, a reminder about what the STRATCOM letter says and does not say. It does not say that China has more ICBMs or warheads on them than the United States, or that the United States is at an overall disadvantage. The letter has three findings (in that order):

It is already well-known that China is building several hundred new missile silos. We documented many of them (see here, here and here), as did other analysts (here and here). It was expected that sooner or later some of them would be completed and bring China’s total number of ICBM launchers (silo and road-mobile) above the number of US ICBM launchers. That is what STRATCOM says has now happened.


The number of Chinese ICBM launchers included in the STRATCOM report to Congress was counted at a cut-off date of October 2022. It is unclear precisely how STRATCOM counts the Chinese silos, but the number appears to include hundreds of silos that were not yet operational with missiles at the time. So, at what point in its construction process did STRATCOM include a silo as part of the count? Does it have to be completely finished with everything ready except a loaded missile?

We have examined satellite photos of every single silo under construction in the three new large missile silo fields (Hami, Julin, and Yumen). It is impossible to determine with certainty from a satellite photo if a silo is completely finished, much less whether it is loaded with a missile. However, the available images indicate it is possible that most of the silos at Hami might have been complete by October 2022, that many of the silos at the Yumen field were still under construction, and that none of the silos at the Julin (Ordos) fields had been completed at the time of STRATCOM’s cutoff date (see image below).

Commercial satellite images help assess STRATCOM claim about China’s missile silos.

The number of Chinese ICBM launchers reported by the Pentagon over the past three years has increased significantly from 100 launchers at the end of 2020, to 300 launchers at the end of 2021, to now more than 450 launchers as of October 2022. That is an increase of 350 launchers in only three years.

To exceed the number of US ICBM launchers as most recently reported by STRATCOM, China would have to have more than 450 launchers (mobile and silo) –  the US Air Force has 400 silos with missiles and another 50 empty silos that could be loaded as well if necessary. Without counting the new silos under construction, we estimate that China has approximately 140 operational ICBM launchers with as many missiles. To get to 300 launchers with as many missiles, as the 2022 China Military Power Report (CMPR) estimated, the Pentagon would have to include about 160 launchers from the new silo fields – half of all the silos – as not only finished but with missiles loaded in them. We have not yet seen a missile loading – training or otherwise – on any of the satellite photos. To reach 450 launchers as of October 2022, STRATCOM would have to count nearly all the silos in the three new missile silo fields (see graph below).

Pentagon estimates of Chinese completed ICBM launchers appear to include hundreds of new silos at three missile silo fields.

The point at which a silo is loaded with a missile depends not only on the silo itself but also on the operational status of support facilities, command and control systems, and security perimeters. Construction of that infrastructure is still ongoing at all the three missile silo fields.

It is also possible that the number of launchers and missiles in the Pentagon estimate is less directly linked. The number could potentially refer to the number of missiles for operational launchers plus missiles produced for launchers that have been more or less completed but not yet loaded with missiles.

All of that to underscore that there is considerable uncertainty about the operational status of the Chinese ICBM force.

However – in time for the Congressional debate on the FY2024 defense budget – some appear to be using the STRATCOM letter to suggest the United States also needs to increase its nuclear arsenal.

Comparing The Full Arsenals

The rapid increase of the Chinese ICBM force is important and unprecedented. Yet, it is also crucial to keep things in perspective. In his response to the STRATCOM letter, Rep. Mike Rogers – the new conservative chairman of the House Armed Services Committee – claimed that China is “rapidly approaching parity with the United States” in nuclear forces. That is not accurate.

Even if China ends up with more ICBMs than the United States and increases its nuclear stockpile to 1,500 warheads by 2035, as projected by the Pentagon, that does not give China parity. The United States has 800 launchers for strategic nuclear weapons and a stockpile of 3,700 warheads (see graph below).

Even if China increases it nuclear weapons stockpile to 1,500 by 2035, it will only make up a fraction of the much larger US and Russian stockpiles.

The worst-case projection about China’s nuclear expansion assumes that it will fill everything with missiles with multiple warheads. In reality, it is unknown how many of the new silos will be filled with missiles, how many warheads each missile will carry, and how many warheads China can actually produce over the next decade.

The nuclear arsenals do not exist in a vacuum but are linked to the overall military capabilities and the policies and strategies of the owners. 

The Political Dimension

STRATCOM initially informed Congress about its assessment that the number of Chinese ICBM launchers exceeded that of the United States back in November 2022. But the letter was classified, so four conservative members of the Senate and House armed services committees reminded STRATCOM that it was required to also release an unclassified version. They then used the unclassified letter to argue for more nuclear weapons stating (see screen shot of Committee web page below):

“We have no time to waste in adjusting our nuclear force posture to deter both Russia and China. This will have to mean higher numbers and new capabilities.” (Emphasis added.)

Lawmakers immediately used STRATCOM assessment of Chinese ICBM launchers to call for more US nuclear weapons.

Although defense contractors probably would be happy about that response, it is less clear why ‘higher numbers’ are necessary for US nuclear strategy. Increasing US nuclear weapons could in fact end up worsening the problem by causing China and Russia to increase their arsenals even further. And as we have already seen, that would likely cause a heightened demand for more US nuclear weapons.

We have seen this playbook before during the Cold War nuclear arms race. Only this time, it’s not just between the United States and the Soviet Union, but with Russia and a growing China.

Even before China will reach the force levels projected by the Pentagon, the last remaining arms control treaty with Russia – the New START Treaty – will expire in February 2026. Without a follow-on agreement, Russia could potentially double the number of warheads it deploys on its strategic launchers.

Even if the defense hawks in Congress have their way, the United States does not seem to be in a position to compete in a nuclear arms race with both Russia and China. The modernization program is already overwhelmed with little room for expansion, and the warhead production capacity will not be able to produce large numbers of additional nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future.

What the Chinese nuclear buildup means for Chinese nuclear policy and how the United States should respond to it (as well as to Russia) is much more complicated and important to address than a rush to get more nuclear weapons. It would be more constructive for the United States to focus on engaging with Russia and China on nuclear risk reduction and arms control rather than engage in a build-up of its nuclear forces.

Additional Information:

Status of World Nuclear Forces

This research was carried out with generous contributions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New-Land Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Longview Philanthropy, the Stewart R. Mott Foundation, the Future of Life Institute, Open Philanthropy, and individual donors.

If Arms Control Collapses, US and Russian Strategic Nuclear Arsenals Could Double In Size

On January 31st, the State Department issued its annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the New START Treaty, with a notable––yet unsurprising––conclusion:

“Based on the information available as of December 31, 2022, the United States cannot certify the Russian Federation to be in compliance with the terms of the New START Treaty.”

This finding was not unexpected. In August 2022, in response to a US treaty notification expressing an intent to conduct an inspection, Russia invoked an infrequently used treaty clause “temporarily exempting” all of its facilities from inspection. At the time, Russia attempted to justify its actions by citing “incomplete” work regarding Covid-19 inspection protocols and perceived “unilateral advantages” created by US sanctions; however, the State Department’s report assesses that this is “false:”

“Contrary to Russia’s claim that Russian inspectors cannot travel to the United States to conduct inspections, Russian inspectors can in fact travel to the United States via commercial flights or authorized inspection airplanes. There are no impediments arising from U.S. sanctions that would prevent Russia’s full exercise of its inspection rights under the Treaty. The United States has been extremely clear with the Russian Federation on this point.”

Instead, the report suggests that the primary reason for suspending inspections “centered on Russian grievances regarding U.S. and other countries’ measures imposed on Russia in response to its unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”

Echoing the findings of the report, on February 1st, Cara Abercrombie, deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for defense policy and arms control for the White House National Security Council, stated in a briefing at the Arms Control Association that the United States had done everything in its power to remove pandemic- and sanctions-related limitations for Russian inspectors, and that “[t]here are absolutely no barriers, as far as we’re concerned, to facilitating Russian inspections.”

Nonetheless, Russia has still not rescinded its exemption and also indefinitely postponed a scheduled meeting of the Bilateral Consultative Commission in November. In a similar vein, this is believed to be tied to US support for Ukraine, as indicated by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov who said that arms control “has been held hostage by the U.S. line of inflicting strategic defeat on Russia,” and that Russia was “ready for such a scenario” if New START expired without a replacement.

These two actions, according to the United States, constitute a state of “noncompliance” with specific clauses of New START. It is crucial to note, however, the distinction between findings of “noncompliance” (serious, yet informal assessments, often with a clear path to reestablishing compliance), “violation” (requiring a formal determination), and “material breach” (where a violation rises to the level of contravening the object or purpose of the treaty).

It is also important to note that the United States’ findings of Russian noncompliance are not related to the actual number of deployed Russian warheads and launchers. While the report notes that the lack of inspections means that “the United States has less confidence in the accuracy of Russia’s declarations,” the report is careful to note that “While this is a serious concern, it is not a determination of noncompliance.” The report also assesses that “Russia was likely under the New START warhead limit at the end of 2022” and that Russia’s noncompliance does not threaten the national security interests of the United States.


The high stakes of failure: worst-case force projections after New START’s expiry

Both the US and Russia have meticulously planned their respective nuclear modernization programs based on the assumption that neither country will exceed the force levels currently dictated by New START. Without a deal after 2026, that assumption immediately disappears; both sides would likely default to mutual distrust amid fewer verifiable data points, and our discourse would be dominated by worst case thinking about how both countries’ arsenals would grow in the future.

For an example of this kind of thinking, look no further than the new Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, who argued in response to the State Department’s findings of Russian noncompliance that “The Joint Staff needs to assume Russia has or will be breaching New START caps.” As previously mentioned, the State Department report explicitly states that they have only found Russia to be noncompliant on facilitating inspections and BCC meetings, not on deployed warheads and launchers.

It is clear that the longer that these compliance issues persist, the more they will ultimately hinder US-Russia negotiations over a follow-on treaty, which is necessary in order to continue the bilateral strategic arms control regime beyond New START’s expiry in February 2026. As Amb. Steve Pifer, non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted during the ACA webinar, “We have three years until New START expires. That seems like a lot of time, but it’s not a long of time if you’re going to try to do something ambitious.”

To that end, both sides should be clear-eyed about the stakes, and more specifically, about what happens if they fail to secure a new deal limiting strategic offensive arms.

The United States has a significant upload capacity on its strategic nuclear forces, where it can bring extra warheads out of storage and add them to the deployed missiles and bombers. Although all 400 deployed US ICBMs currently only carry a single warhead, about half of them use the Mk21A reentry vehicle that is capable of carrying up to three warheads each. Moreover, the United States has an additional 50 “warm” ICBM silos which could be reloaded with missiles if necessary. With these potential additions in mind, the US ICBM force could potentially more than double from 400 to 950 warheads.

In the absence of treaty limitations, the United States could also upload each of its deployed Trident SLBMs with a full complement of eight warheads, rather than the current average of four to five. Factoring in the small numbers of submarines that are assumed to be out for maintenance at any given time, then the United States could approximately double the number of warheads deployed on its SLBMs, to roughly 1,920. The United States could potentially also reactivate the four launch tubes on each submarine that it deactivated to meet the New START limit, thus adding 56 missiles with 448 warheads to the fleet. However, this possibility is not reflected in the table because it is unlikely that the United States would choose to reconstitute the additional four launch tubes on each submarine given their imminent replacement with the next-generation Columbia-class.

Either of these actions would likely take months to complete, particularly given the complexities involved with uploading additional warheads on ICBMs. Moreover, ballistic missile submarines would have to return to port on a rotating schedule in order to be uploaded with additional warheads. However, deploying additional warheads to US bomber bases could be done very quickly, and the United States could potentially upload nearly 700 cruise missiles and bombs on its B-52 and B-2 bombers.

[Note: These numbers are projections based off of estimates; they are not predictions or endorsements. They also do not take into account how the number of available launchers and warheads will change when ongoing modernization programs are eventually completed, as this is unlikely to occur before New START’s expiry in 2026]

Russia also has a significant upload capacity, especially for its ICBMs. Several of Russia’s existing ICBMs are thought to have been downloaded to a smaller number of warheads than their maximum capacities, in order to meet the New START force limits. As a result, without the limits imposed by New START, Russia’s ICBM force could potentially increase from approximately 834 warheads to roughly 1,197 warheads.

Warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles onboard some of Russia’s SSBNs are also thought to have been reduced to a lower number to meet New START limits. Without these limitations, the number of deployed warheads could potentially be increased from an estimated 640 to approximately 832 (also with a small number of SSBNs assumed to be out for maintenance). As in the US case, Russian bombers could be loaded relatively quickly with hundreds of nuclear weapons. The number is highly uncertain but assuming approximately 50 bombers are operational, the number of warheads could potentially be increased to nearly 600.

Slide showing estimates of Russian strategic forces, as well as a projection showing the possible upload without a follow-on treaty. Numbers mirror those found in the article text.

Combined, if both countries uploaded their delivery systems to accommodate the maximum number of possible warheads, both sets of arsenals would approximately double in size. The United States would have more deployable strategic warheads but Russia would still have a larger total arsenal of operational nuclear weapons, given its sizable stockpile of nonstrategic nuclear warheads which are not treaty-accountable.

Slide showing comparison estimates of US and Russian strategic forces, as well as a projection showing the possible upload without a follow-on treaty. Numbers mirror those found in the article text.

Moreover, there are expected consequences beyond the offensive strategic nuclear forces that New START regulates. If the verification regime and data exchanges elapse, both countries are likely to enhance their intelligence capabilities to make up for the uncertainty regarding the other side’s nuclear forces. Both countries are also likely to invest more into what they perceive will increase their overall military capabilities, such as conventional missile forces, nonstrategic nuclear forces, and missile defense.

These moves could trigger reactions in other nuclear-armed states, some of whom might also decide to increase their nuclear forces and the role they play in their military strategies. In particular, it is becoming increasingly clear that China appears to no longer be satisfied with just a couple hundred nuclear weapons to ensure its security, and in a shift from longstanding doctrine, may now be looking to size its own nuclear force closer to the size of the US and Russian deployed nuclear forces.

Some US former defense officials have suggested that the United States needs to increase its deployed nuclear force to compensate for the increased nuclear arsenal that China is already building and an alleged increase in Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons––either by negotiating a higher treaty limit with Russia or withdrawing from the New START treaty.

But doing so would not solve the problem and could put the United States on a path where it would in fact face even greater numbers of Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons in the future. A higher treaty warhead limit would obviously increase – not reduce – the number of Russian warheads aimed at the United States; and pulling out of New START would likely cause Russia to deploy even more weapons. Moreover, a significant increase in the size of US and Russian deployed nuclear forces could cause China to increase its arsenal even further. Such developments could subsequently have ripple effects for India, Pakistan, and elsewhere – developments that would undermine, rather than improve, US and international security.

Uploading more warheads is not necessary to maintain deterrence

It is important to note that even if such worst-case scenarios were to occur, in the past the Department of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence have assessed that even a significant Russian increase of deployed nuclear warheads would not have a deleterious effect on US deterrence capabilities. A 2012 joint study assessed:

“[E]ven if significantly above the New START Treaty limits, [Russia’s deployment of additional nuclear warheads] would have little to no effect on the U.S. assured second-strike capabilities that underwrite our strategic deterrence posture. The Russian Federation, therefore, would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario under the New START Treaty, primarily because of the inherent survivability of the planned U.S. strategic force structure, particularly the OHIO-class ballistic missile submarines, a number of which are at sea at any given time.”

Although the political situation has dramatically changed over the past decade since the study was published, this particular deterrence dynamic has not. The United States’ second-strike capabilities remain as secure today––even among Russia’s noncompliance and China’s nuclear buildup––as they did a decade ago. As a result, it seems clear that although uploading additional warheads onto US systems may seem like a politically strong response, it would not offer the United States any additional advantage that it does not already possess, and would likely trigger developments that would not be in its national security interest.

Background Information:

This research was carried out with generous contributions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New-Land Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Longview Philanthropy, the Stewart R. Mott Foundation, the Future of Life Institute, Open Philanthropy, and individual donors.

New Environmental Assessment Reveals Fascinating Alternatives to Land-Based ICBMs

A new Air Force environmental assessment reveals that it considered basing ICBMs in underground railway tunnels––or possibly underwater.

Map of the ICBM missile fields contained within the Air Force’s July 2022 assessment.

On July 1st, the Air Force published its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for its proposed ICBM replacement program, previously known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) and now by its new name, “Sentinel.” The government typically conducts an EIS whenever a federal program could potentially disrupt local water supplies, transportation, socioeconomics, geology, air quality, and other related factors. 

A comprehensive environmental assessment is certainly warranted in this case, given the tremendous scale of the Sentinel program––which consists of a like-for-like replacement of all 400 Minuteman III missiles that are currently deployed across Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming, plus upgrades to the launch facilities, launch control centers, and other supporting infrastructure. 

Cover page of the Air Force’s July 2022 Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the GBSD.

The Draft EIS was anxiously awaited by local stakeholders, chambers of commerce, contractors, residents, and… me! Not because I’m losing sleep about whether Sentinel construction will disturb Wyoming’s Western Bumble Bee (although maybe I should be!), but rather because an EIS is also a wonderful repository for juicy, and often new, details about federal programs––and the Sentinel’s Draft EIS is certainly no exception. 

Interestingly, the most exciting new details are not necessarily about what the Air Force is currently planning for the Sentinel, but rather about which ICBM replacement options they previously considered as alternatives to the current program of record. These alternatives were assessed during in the Air Force’s 2014 Analysis of Alternatives––a key document that weighs the risks and benefits of each proposed action––however, that document remains classified. Therefore, until they were recently referenced in the July 2022 Draft EIS, it was not clear to the public what the Air Force was actually assessing as alternatives to the current Sentinel program. 

Missile alternatives

The Draft EIS notes that the Air Force assessed four potential missile alternatives to the current plan, which involves designing a completely new ICBM:

The Air Force appears to have ultimately eliminated all four of these options from consideration because they did not meet all of their “selection standards,” which included criteria like sustainability, performance, safety, riskiness, and capacity for integration into existing or proposed infrastructure. 

Of particular interest, however, is the Air Force’s note that the Minuteman III reproduction alternative was eliminated in part because it did not “meet the required performance criteria for ICBMs in the context of modern and evolving threats (e.g., range, payload, and effectiveness.” It is highly significant to state that the Minuteman III cannot meet the required performance criteria for ICBMs, given that the Minuteman III currently performs the ICBM role for the US Air Force and will continue to do so for the next decade. 

This statement also suggests that “modern and evolving threats” are driving the need for an operationally improved ICBM; however, it is unclear what the Air Force is referring to, or how these threats would necessarily justify a brand-new ICBM with new capabilities. As I wrote in my March 2021 report, “Siloed Thinking: A Closer Look at the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent,” 

“With respect to US-centric nuclear deterrence, what has changed since the end of the Cold War? China is slowly but steadily expanding its nuclear arsenal and suite of delivery systems, and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program continues to mature. However, the range and deployment locations of the US ICBM force would force the missiles to fly over Russian territory in the event that they were aimed at Chinese or North Korean targets, thus significantly increasing the risk of using ICBMs to target either country. Moreover, […] other elements of the US nuclear force––especially SSBNs––could be used to accomplish the ICBM force’s mission under a revised nuclear force posture, potentially even faster and in a more flexible manner. […] It is additionally important to note that even if adversarial missile defenses improved significantly, the ability to evade missile defenses lies with the payload––not the missile itself. By the time that an adversary’s interceptor was able to engage a US ICBM in its midcourse phase of flight, the ICBM would have already shed its boosters, deployed its penetration aids, and would be guided solely by its reentry vehicle. Reentry vehicles and missile boosters can be independently upgraded as necessary, meaning that any concerns about adversarial missile defenses could be mitigated by deploying a more advanced payload on a life-extended Minuteman III ICBM.”

Of additional interest is the passage explaining why the Air Force dismissed the possibility of using the Trident II D5 SLBM as a land-based weapon: 

“The D5 is a high-accuracy weapon system capable of engaging many targets simultaneously with overall functionality approaching that of land- based missiles. The D5 represents an existing technology, and substantial design and development cost savings would be realized; but the associated savings would not appreciably offset the infrastructure investment requirements (road and bridge enhancements) necessary to make it a land-based weapon system. In addition, motor performance and explosive safety concerns undermine the feasibility of using the D5 as a land-based weapon system.”

The Air Force’s concerns over road and bridge quality are probably justified––missiles are incredibly heavy, and America’s bridges are falling apart at a terrifying rate. However, it is unclear why the Air Force is not confident about the D5’s motor performance, given that even aging Trident SLBMs have performed very well in recent flight tests: in 2015 the Navy conducted a successful Trident flight test using “the oldest 1st stage solid rocket motor flown to date” (over 26 years old), with 2nd and 3rd stage motors that were 22 years old. In January 2021, Vice Admiral Johnny Wolfe Jr.––the Navy’s Director for Strategic Systems Programs––remarked that “solid rocket motors, the age of those we can extend quite a while, we understand that very well.” This is largely due to the Navy’s incorporation of nondestructive testing techniques––which involve sending a probe into the bore to measure the elasticity of the propellant––to evaluate the reliability of their missiles. 

As a result, the Navy is not currently contemplating the purchase of a brand-new missile to replace its current arsenal of Trident SLBMs, and instead plans to conduct a second life-extension to keep them in service until 2084. However, the Air Force’s comments suggest either a lack of confidence in this approach, or perhaps an institutional preference towards developing an entirely new missile system. [Note: Amy Woolf helpfully offered up another possible explanation, that the Air Force’s concerns could be related to the ability of the Trident SLBM’s cold launch system to perform effectively on land, given that these very different launch conditions could place additional stress on the missile system itself.]

Basing alternatives

The Draft EIS also notes that the Air Force assessed two fascinating––and somewhat familiar––alternatives for basing the new missiles: in underground tunnels and in “deep-lake silos.”

The tunnel option––which had been teased in previous programmatic documents but never explained in detail––would include “locating, designing, excavating, developing, and installing critical support infrastructure such as rail systems and [launch facilities] for an array of underground tunnels that would likely span hundreds of miles”––and it is effectively a mashup of two concepts from the late Cold War.  

The rail concept was strongly considered during the development of the MX missile in the 1980s, although the plan called for missile trains to be dispersed onto the country’s existing civilian rail network, rather than into newly-built underground tunnels. Both the rail and tunnel concepts were referenced in one of my favourite Pentagon reports––a December 1980 Pentagon study called “ICBM Basing Options,” which considered 30 distinct and often bizarre ICBM basing options, including dirigibles, barges, seaplanes, and even hovercraft!

Illustrations of “Commercial Rail” concept from 1980 Pentagon report, “ICBM Basing Options.”

The second option––basing ICBMs in deep-lake silos––was also referenced in that same December 1980 study. The concept––nicknamed “Hydra”––proposed dispersing missiles across the ocean using floating silos, with “only an inconspicuous part of the missile front end [being] visible above the surface.” Interestingly, this raises the theoretical question of whether the Air Force would still maintain control over the ICBM mission, given that the missiles would be underwater. 

Illustration of “Hydra” concept from 1980 Pentagon report, “ICBM Basing Options.”

When considering alternative basing modes for the Sentinel ICBM, the Air Force eliminated both concepts due to cost prohibitions, and, in the case of underwater basing, a lack of confidence that the missiles would be safe and secure. This concern was also floated in the 1980 study as well, with the Pentagon acknowledging the likelihood that US adversaries and non-state actors “would also be engaged in a hunt for the Hydras. Not under our direct control, any missile can be destroyed or towed away (stolen) at leisure.” 

Another potential option?

In addition to revealing these fascinating details about previously considered alternatives to the Sentinel program, the Draft EIS also highlighted a public comment suggesting that “the most environmentally responsible option” would simply be the reduction of the Minuteman III inventory. 

The Air Force rejected the comment because it says that it is “required by law to accelerate the development, procurement, and fielding of the ground based strategic deterrent program;’” however, the public commenter’s suggestion is certainly a reasonable one. The current force level of 400 deployed ICBMs is not––and has never been––a magic number, and it could be reduced further for a variety of reasons, including those related to security, economics, or a good faith effort to reduce deployed US nuclear forces. In particular, as George Perkovich and Pranay Vaddi wrote in a 2021 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report, “This assumption that the ICBM force would not be eliminated or reduced before 2075 is difficult to reconcile with U.S. disarmament obligations under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.” 

The security environment of the 21st century is already very different than that of the previous century. The greatest threats to Americans’ collective safety are non-militarized, global phenomena like climate change, domestic unrest and inequality, and public health crises. And recent polling efforts by ReThink Media, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Federation of American Scientists suggest that Americans overwhelmingly want the government to invest in more proximate social issues, rather than on nuclear weapons. To that end, rather than considering building new missile tunnels, it would likely be much more domestically popular to spend money on domestic priorities––perhaps new subway tunnels? 

Background Information:

This publication was made possible by generous support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New-Land Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, the Prospect Hill Foundation, and Longview Philanthropy. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

The U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Force: A Post-Cold War Timeline

The Pentagon is currently planning to replace its current arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with a brand-new missile force, known as the Sentinel (previously called the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD); it was previously estimated to cost approximately $100 billion in acquisition fees and $264 billion throughout its lifecycle until 2075 (in Then-Year dollars); however, the price tag has since risen substantially, calling the program’s future into question.

Below, you will find a comprehensive timeline of all relevant actions taken relating to the ICBM force since the end of the Cold War, including force posture alterations, international treaties, congressional efforts, government studies, and milestones in the Sentinel acquisition process.

31 July 1991

The United States and Soviet Union sign the START Treaty.

START prohibited each country from deploying more than 6,000 nuclear warheads deployed on up to 1,600 strategic delivery vehicles. At the time, the United States’ ICBM force comprised 450 single-warhead Minuteman IIs, 500 three-warhead Minuteman IIIs, and 50 ten-warhead Peacekeeper MX missiles––for a total of 2,450 warheads attributed to 1,000 ICBMs.

27 September 1991

President Bush announces the de-alerting and eventual retirement of all 450 Minuteman II ICBMs.

With the Cold War coming to a close, President Bush took the first steps toward reducing the United States’ land-based nuclear force under the direction of the newly-signed START Treaty.

Image: National Park Service, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
3 December 1991

The first Minuteman II ICBM is removed from Ellsworth Air Force Base’s Golf-02 silo near Red Owl, South Dakota.

The last Minuteman II ICBM at Ellsworth Air Force Base was withdrawn from its silo in April 1994, and the 44th Missile Wing became formally inactive in July 1994. 

3 January 1993

The United States and Russia sign the START II Treaty.

In order to comply with START II’s ban on ICBMs with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), the Pentagon planned to retire its 50 Peacekeeper MX ICBMs and de-MIRV its Minuteman III fleet, for an expected future ICBM force of 500 warheads attributed to 500 Minuteman III ICBMs; however, START II never entered into force. After the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) was signed in 2002, President George Bush eventually did retire the Peacekeepers and download many of the MIRV’ed warheads from the Minuteman III force.

June 1993

GAO publishes an evaluation of the proposed Minuteman III Guidance Replacement Program.

At the time, the Air Force hoped to begin replacing the Minuteman III’s guidance systems with upgraded versions. The GAO’s evaluation, titled” Minuteman III Guidance Replacement Program Had Not Been Adequately Justified,” noted that the Air Force’s own assessments “are not identifying any Minuteman III missile guidance set system-level performance concerns. To the contrary, for the last several years the Minuteman III missile guidance set flight reliability has improved.”

The study further assessed that “missile guidance set failure rates have remained at an acceptable level, with no adverse failure rate trends,” and quoted a previous Air Force study which suggested that “there is no conclusive evidence of degradation within the Minuteman III missile guidance set that cannot be corrected on a case-by-case basis.”

Ultimately, Congress chose to fully fund the $1.6 billion program, which was completed in December 2008.

10 June 1993

GAO publishes its evaluation of the US nuclear modernization program.

The GAO’s evaluation included several notable passages:

p. 5: “We found that the Soviet threat to the weapon systems of the land and sea legs had also been overstated. For the sea leg, this was reflected in unsubstantiated allegations about likely future breakthroughs in Soviet submarine detection technologies, along with underestimation of the performance and capabilities of our own nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. The projected threat to the sea leg was, however, used frequently as a justification for costly modernizations in the other legs to ‘hedge’ against SSBN vulnerability. Our specific finding, based on operational test results, was that submerged SSBNs are even less detectable than is generally understood, and that there appear to be no current or long-term technologies that would change this. Moreover, even if such technologies did exist, test and operational data show that the survivability of the SSBN fleet would not be in question.”

pp. 6-7, 14: “Compared to ICBMs, no operationally meaningful difference in time to target was found,” further noting that “SSBNs are in essentially constant communication with national command authorities and, depending on the scenario, SLBMs from submarine platforms would be almost as prompt as ICBMs in hitting enemy targets.”

pp. 7-8: “In comparing performance and cost across the legs and weapon systems of the triad, we were concerned to find little or no prior recent effort by DOD to do what we were doing––that is, evaluate comprehensively the relative effectiveness of similar weapon systems. Yet such agency evaluation is critical if limited budget dollars are to be concentrated on programs that are both needed and effective. With regard to proposed upgrades, we found many instances of dubious support for claims of their high performance; insufficient and often unrealistic testing; understated cost; incomplete or unrepresentative reporting; lack of systematic comparison against the systems they were to replace; and unconvincing rationales for their development in the first place. Where mature programs were concerned, on the other hand, we often found that their performance was understated and that inappropriate claims of obsolescence had been made. […] Perhaps the most important point here is that comparative evaluation across the three legs of the triad–and between individual weapon systems and their proposed upgrades–has been signally lacking. This is unfortunate because it deprives policymakers in both the executive branch and the Congress of information they need for making decisions involving hundreds of billions of dollars.”

p. 14: Nuclear “[command, control, and communications] to SSBNs is about as prompt and as reliable as to ICBMs, under a range of conditions.”


The Clinton administration releases its Nuclear Posture Review.

The first comprehensive review of the United States’ nuclear posture in the post-Cold War era was launched by the Department of Defense under Secretary Les Aspin. The Clinton administration’s Nuclear Posture Review working groups, convened by future Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, considered several proposals that would have eliminated the ICBM force entirely––including Carter’s suggestion to adopt a “monad” of 10 submarines carrying 24 Trident missiles with six warheads each––however, these proposals were quickly shot down. Ultimately, it was decided that ICBMs would remain part of the US nuclear deterrent. 

5 December 1994

The START Treaty enters into force.

The START Treaty, signed three years earlier, was the first post-Cold War bilateral arms control treaty to reduce global nuclear arsenals and resulted in an 80 percent reduction of all strategic nuclear weapons in the world at the time of its implementation. The treaty expired in December 2009 and would later be replaced by New START, which was signed by the United States and Russia in 2010.

July 1996

Rapid Execution and Combat Targeting (REACT) upgrade program completed.

The REACT system, originally conceived in the early 1980s, made it possible to retarget the entire Minuteman fleet in under ten hours, and––most critically––allowed missileers to continuously retarget individual missiles as necessary. Although the upgrade was painted at the time as primarily a means of reducing crew fatigue, it also further entrenched the idea of nuclear weapons as “flexible” tools that could be called upon in warfighting scenarios––a strain of thought that continues to dominate nuclear deterrence thinking to this day.

15 December 1997

The Minuteman II elimination process is completed.

The last Minuteman II silo––Hotel-11, near Dederick, Montana––was imploded on 15 December 1997, formally completing the Minuteman II elimination process.


Propulsion Replacement Program (PRP) begins.

The PRP was a life-extension program for the Minuteman III that extended the service lives of approximately 600 solid rocket motors by re-manufacturing all three stages. The first PRP-extended missile was deployed at Malmstrom in April 2001.*

*David K. Stumpf, Minuteman: A Technical History of the Missile That Defined American Nuclear Warfare (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2020), p. 395. 

March 1998

Guidance Replacement Program (GRP) begins.

The GRP was a life-extension program for the Minuteman III that replaced both the electronic components of the missile guidance set control and the inertial measurement instruments contained within the gyro-stabilized platform.* The first GRP missile was installed on 3 August 1999 in launch facility I-09 at Malmstrom Air Force Base.**

*David Spires, On Alert: An Operational History of the United States Air Force Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Program, 1945-2011 (Colorado Springs: United States Air Force, 2012), p. 174. 

**David K. Stumpf, Minuteman: A Technical History of the Missile That Defined American Nuclear Warfare (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2020), p. 397. 

February 2000

Propulsion System Rocket Engine (PSRE) life-extension program begins.

The PSRE life-extension program was initiated in February 2000 to sustain the Minuteman III missiles’ post-boost propulsion system. The program included the manufacture of 586 PSRE modification kits and cost approximately $107 million to complete.* 

*David K. Stumpf, Minuteman: A Technical History of the Missile That Defined American Nuclear Warfare (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2020), p. 395. 

8 January 2002

Bush administration publishes its Nuclear Posture Review.

This review established a “New Triad” composed of nuclear and non-nuclear offensive strike systems, active and passive defenses, and a responsive defense infrastructure. The report also called for a reduction in the US nuclear arsenal.

24 May 2002

The United States and Russia sign the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT).

Both parties agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 operationally deployed warheads each. SORT entered into force on June 1, 2003, and was eventually superseded by the New START Treaty.

October 2002

The Air Force begins to decommission all 50 Peacekeeper ICBMs.

After almost twenty years of service, the LGM-118 Peacekeeper (MX) was phased out as part of the START II agreement (later bypassed by the SORT Treaty) with Russia.

September 2005

The Air Force deactivates the last remaining Peacekeeper ICBM.

As part of the Peacekeeper deactivation, the rockets were converted and repurpose for exploratory space missions (satellite launchers) and the W87 warheads were deployed on the Minuteman III missiles.

6 February 2006

Quadrennial Defense Review announces the reduction of the deployed Minuteman III force from 500 to 450.

The Department of Defense released the QDR in the fifth year of the War in Afghanistan. This review promoted the “New Triad” strategy proposed by the 2002 Nuclear Posture review and emphasized more tailorable approaches to deterrence. The QDR also announced the elimination of 50 additional ICBMs from service, for a remaining force of 450 ICBMs.

August 2006

Rapid Execution and Combat Targeting (REACT) Service Life-Extension Program (SLEP) completed.

This upgrade modified the Minuteman launch control centers to combine the communications system and weapons system into one console, thereby reducing the number of keys for a launch and the time needed to retarget the ICBM force. The effort was identified as “essential to the future nuclear force,” according to the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review.* 

*David Spires, On Alert: An Operational History of the United States Air Force Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Program, 1945-2011 (Colorado Springs: United States Air Force, 2012), p. 178.

October 2006

As part of the SERV program, the Minuteman III three-warhead MIRVs were converted to the single Mk21 reentry vehicles that were previously carried by the Peacekeeper missile. The first SERV Minuteman III was deployed with the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base and placed on alert on 1 January 2007.*

*David K. Stumpf, Minuteman: A Technical History of the Missile That Defined American Nuclear Warfare (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2020), p. 396. 

17 October 2006

Congress passes the FY 2007 Defense Appropriations Act.

Sec. 139 directs the Secretary of the Air Force to “modernize Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles in the United States inventory as required to maintain a sufficient supply of launch test assets and spares to sustain the deployed force of such missiles through 2030.” This amendment proved to be incredibly 18 consequential because, as Air Force historian David N. Spires describes, “Although Air Force leaders had asserted that incremental upgrades, as prescribed in the analysis of land-based strategic deterrent alternatives, could extend the Minuteman’s life span to 2040, the congressionally mandated target year of 2030 became the new standard.”*

*David Spires, On Alert: An Operational History of the United States Air Force Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Program, 1945-2011 (Colorado Springs: United States Air Force, 2012), pp. 184-185. 

12 July 2007

The Air Force begins to deactivate the 50 Minuteman III ICBMs scheduled for retirement.

The 564th Missile Squadron, colloquially known as the “Odd Squad,” used different communications and launch control systems from the rest of the Minuteman III force, and was therefore a clear candidate for decommissioning. The entire decommissioning process was completed in approximately one year, with the final Minuteman III removed from its silo on 28 July 2008.*

*David Spires, On Alert: An Operational History of the United States Air Force Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Program, 1945-2011 (Colorado Springs: United States Air Force, 2012), p. 185-186.

December 2008

Guidance Replacement Program (GRP) completed.

The final GRP missile was installed on 18 February 2008 with the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, and Boeing delivered the final upgraded missile guidance set to the Air Force in December 2008.*

*David K. Stumpf, Minuteman: A Technical History of the Missile That Defined American Nuclear Warfare (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2020), p. 397. 

7 August 2009

Creation of the Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC).

With major command headquarters at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, AFGSC is responsible for the three ICBM wings and the entire bomber force. Air Force Global Strike Command is the service component to the United States Strategic Command, and its major command mission was formerly under the direction of Strategic Air Command, which was disestablished in 1992.

November 2009

ICBM Coalition publishes first white paper.

In anticipation of the crucial Senate vote on New START ratification, the white paper implied that the Coalition would deliver the crucial votes to support the treaty if the Obama administration committed to maintaining 450 ICBMs equipped with one warhead each. 

March 2010

US Strategic Command sends an ICBM memo to Air Force Global Strike Command calling for an immediate start to a follow-on ICBM.

The memo indicates that the Air Force would have to begin a procurement effort for a follow-on ICBM immediately, if the Air Force planned to deploy it in the 2030 timeframe.*

*Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, Intelligence and Capabilities Integration Directorate (AFNWC/XR), “Request for Information 12122011” (December 2011), US General Services Administration.

6 April 2010

Obama administration releases its Nuclear Posture Review.

The NPR announced the “deMIRV-ing” of the ICBM force, and called for the Pentagon to begin the Analysis of Alternatives process for a follow-on ICBM in fiscal years 2011 and 2012.

8 April 2010

The United States and Russia sign the New START Treaty.

Replacing the START I Treaty, New START placed updated limitations on strategic nuclear arms, including a limit of 1,550 nuclear warheads deployed on no more than 700 strategic delivery vehicles. The treaty was set to have a duration of ten years and was extended in January 2021 for an additional five years.

13 May 2010

On the same day as the ratification vote, the Obama administration delivered its intended force posture to Congress: the United States would eliminate 30 ICBMs, ultimately retaining a force level of 420 ICBMs with one warhead each. Of the 71 Senators who voted in favor of New START, six of them were members of the Senate ICBM Coalition. 

5 February 2011

New START enters into force.

From the date the treaty entered into force, the United States and Russia had seven years to meet the treaty’s central limits on arms reduction. Both parties were in compliance with the central limits in February 2018.

May 2011

Air Force Global Strike Command completes its Capabilities-Based Assessment for the proposed GBSD program.

Capabilities-Based Assessment (CBA) is one of the earliest elements of the defense acquisition process. It is used to identify the capabilities required to conduct a particular mission, determine whether there are potential capability gaps in the current system and evaluate their associated risks, and provide abstract recommendations for addressing those gaps. This analysis feeds into the subsequent Initial Capabilities Document, which the Air Force completed for the GBSD in May 2012.

December 2011

The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center issues a Request For Information for the proposed GBSD program.

This RFI – which was based on the conclusions reached in the CBA and still-in-progress Initial Capabilities Document, was intended to solicit “concepts that address modernization or replacement of the ground based leg of the nuclear triad.”* It was one of the first public documents offering significant insight into how the Air Force was imagining the GBSD system at the time.  Notably, the Air Force suggested that contractors could “propose innovative deployment and basing strategies, including, but not limited to mobile basing, fixed basing with mobile elements, or hardened silos, in addition to or in place of existing Minuteman III infrastructure.”

*Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, Intelligence and Capabilities Integration Directorate (AFNWC/XR), “Request for Information RFI-12122011” (December 2011), US General Services Administration.


Safety Enhanced Reentry Vehicle (SERV) conversion for Minuteman III completed.

Although the SERV program was billed as a safety measure due to the new emphasis on configuring the missile fleet with insensitive high explosives, enhanced detonation systems, and other safety features, it also had the practical effect of dramatically improving the Minuteman III’s hard-target kill capability.*

*David Spires, On Alert: An Operational History of the United States Air Force Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Program, 1945-2011 (Colorado Springs: United States Air Force, 2012), pp. 176-178.

May 2012

Joint DOD/DNI Report on Russian strategic forces.

In 2012, the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence jointly concluded in a report to Congress that “the only Russian shift in its nuclear forces that could undermine the basic framework of mutual deterrence […] is a scenario that enables Russia to deny the United States the assured ability to respond against a substantial number of highly valued Russian targets following a Russian attempt at a disarming first strike––a scenario that the Department of Defense judges will most likely not occur.”

4 June 2012

An Initial Capabilities Document (ICD) further refines the analysis of the Capabilities-Based Assessment, justifies the need for a material change to the system, and provides a list of capabilities that the proposed new system would need to fulfill. This analysis is required for the acquisition process to proceed. The ICD suggested the following capability requirements for the GBSD: adaptable, effective, flexible, global, reliable, responsive, safe, secure, survivable, sustainable, transportable.

July 2012

Revised US nuclear war plan (OPLAN 8010-12) comes into effect.

As Hans Kristensen suggested at the time, “although very different from the [Cold War-era Single Integrated Operational Plan], OPLAN 8010-12 is still thought to be focused on nuclear warfighting scenarios using a Cold War-like Triad of nuclear forces on high alert to hold at risk and, if necessary, hunt down and destroy nuclear (and to a smaller extent chemical and biological) forces, command and control facilities, military and national leadership, and war supporting infrastructure in a myriad of tailored strike scenarios.”

8 August 2012

The Joint Requirements Oversight Council approves the Air Force’s Initial Capabilities Document and directs it to begin the Analysis of Alternatives process.

The Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) process is a critical component of the defense acquisition process. It compares the effectiveness, suitability, and life-cycle costs of each proposed material solution, and is therefore a key document that influences the system’s ultimate development and acquisition.*

*United States Air Force, “Cost Comparison of Extending the Life of the Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile to Replacing it with a Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent: Report to Congress,” Department of Defense (July 2016), p. 4.


President Obama directs the Pentagon to reduce the number of circumstances under which the United States would rely on launch-under-attack.

Jon Wolfsthal, former senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation, subsequently described the implications of this decision as follows: “By openly stating that the United States could, and would, sacrifice its ICBMs in a conflict and still fulfill its missions, the country signaled the reliability and strength of its retaliatory forces.”


Propulsion System Rocket Engine (PSRE) life-extension program completed.

This marked the conclusion of the $107 million contract that the Air Force had awarded to TRW in 2000 for refurbishing the Minuteman III’s liquid-propellant, upper-stage engine that operated during the post-boost phase of flight.*

*David K. Stumpf, Minuteman: A Technical History of the Missile That Defined American Nuclear Warfare (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2020), p. 177. 

January 2013

The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center issues a Broad Agency Announcement for the GBSD program.

The Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) is intended to solicit white papers from industry with the purpose of further developing the GBSD design, specifically with an eye towards exploring new basing concepts. In the BAA, the Air Force listed five basing options for further consideration and refinement: “continued use”, “current fixed”, “new fixed”, “new mobile”, and “new tunnel.”*

*Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, Program Development and Integration Directorate (AFNWC/XZ), “Broad Agency Announcement BAA-AFNWC-XZ-13-001Rev2” (14 January 2013), US General Services Administration.

30 January 2013

Senate ICBM Coalition writes to incoming Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, critiquing his participation in Global Zero’s 2012 Nuclear Policy Commission Report, which specifically recommended eliminating US ICBMs.

The eight senators wrote to Hagel requesting a clarification regarding his position on ICBMs in a Global Zero report which Hagel had recently co-authored. The letter inquired as to whether Hagel supported eliminating ICBMs and whether he would support the continuation of the Analysis of Alternatives process for the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent. 

June 2013

The Obama administration completes its review of US nuclear force posture under New START.

Although the administration ultimately concluded that the United States could reduce its deployed strategic forces by up to “one-third”––down to approximately 1,000-1,100 warheads––press reports indicated that the Pentagon contemplated reducing the arsenal to as low as 500 warheads in a plan known as the “deterrence only” approach.

23 July 2013

Allies of the Senate ICBM Coalition in the House of Representatives help quash an amendment to the FY 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that would reduce the number of ICBMs from 450 to 300.

As Illinois Democrat Rep. Mike Quigley’s amendment was defeated by voice vote, he took to the House floor to lambast his colleagues: “I’ve been here for four years, and I now recognize what the Department of Defense is. It is our jobs program. I respect my colleagues defending jobs in their district. But this isn’t about national security, it’s about job maintenance. That’s not what this is supposed to be about. If we’re going to spend money creating jobs, I want to build bridges, schools, and transit systems.”

25 September 2013

The Senate ICBM Coalition writes to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in “strenuous opposition” to the Pentagon’s plan to conduct an environmental assessment on the elimination of ICBM silos.

The environmental assessment would have been prepared as part of the New START implementation process; however, the Coalition called such a move “premature,” suggesting that “Treaty terms do not require the destruction of a single one of the 450 silos housing our Minuteman III force” and that considering such an action “would represent a serious breach of faith.” 

18 December 2013

The Senate ICBM Coalition writes another letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, as well as to Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale, in opposition to the Pentagon’s plan to conduct an environmental assessment on the elimination of ICBM silos.

The letter was very similar in tone and substance to the one sent in September 2013, and advocated for the Pentagon to wait until the passing of the defense appropriations bill before taking any actions related to an ICBM silo environmental assessment.

26 December 2013

Congress passes the FY 2014 National Defense Authorization Act.

The bill included a Sense of Congress inserted by allies of the Senate ICBM Coalition which noted that any silos that would soon be emptied due to New START force restructuring should be kept “warm,” so that the silos could be made fully operational on short notice. The amendment also noted that “the distribution of any such warm-status silos should not disproportionately affect the force structure of any one operational intercontinental ballistic missile wing.” This suggests that the Coalition was more preoccupied with economic interests than strategic ones. 

17 January 2014

Congress passes the FY 2014 Defense Appropriations Act.

The bill included language inserted by members of the Senate ICBM Coalition that explicitly blocked the Obama administration from conducting the environmental assessment that would be legally necessary to reduce the number of ICBM silos. In a subsequent statement, Coalition members specifically boasted about how they had overruled the Pentagon on the ICBM issue: “the Defense Department tried to find a way around the Hoeven-Tester language, but pressure from the coalition forced the department to back off.”

16 June 2014

Process of downgrading all Minuteman IIIs from three to one warhead completed.

In order to comply with New START, all remaining Minuteman III ICBMs were downgraded from three warheads to just one per missile.*

*John M. LaForge and Arianne S. Peterson, eds. Nuclear Heartland: Revised Edition (Luck, Wisconsin: The Progressive Foundation, Inc., 2015), p. 9.

July 2014

The Air Force completes its Analysis of Alternatives for the GBSD.

The Air Force’s AoA for the GBSD program recommended a complete replacement of the Minuteman III ICBM with The AoA offered four discrete reasons for its consequential recommendation, noting that a replacement would: address capability gaps and improve performance against current and expected threats; maintain the large solid rocket motor industrial base; share subcomponent commonality with the Navy’s ballistic missiles; and be cheaper than the cost of life-extending the Minuteman IIIs.* In hindsight, and upon further scrutiny, these assumptions appear to have either been flawed, exaggerated, or deprioritized.

*United States Air Force, “Cost Comparison of Extending the Life of the Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile to Replacing it with a Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent: Report to Congress,” Department of Defense (July 2016), p. 4.

23 January 2015

The Air Force issues another Request For Information for the GBSD program.

In this RFI, the Air Force offered some additional public information about the proposed GBSD weapon system characteristics, specifically noting that they sought a replacement system that “replaces the entire flight system, retains the silo basing mode while recapitalizing the infrastructure, and implements a new Weapon System Command and Control (WSC2) system.”* Additionally, the RFI stated that the GBSD would utilize the existing Mk12A and Mk21 Reentry Vehicles, in addition to a brand-new missile stack and a potentially reduced number of launch control systems and launch facilities.

*Air Force Materiel Command Lifecycle Management Center, Hill Air Force Base, “Request for Information RFI #1, Ground Based Strategic Deterrent,” Contract Opportunity FA8219-15-R-GBSD-RFI1 (23 January 2015).

February 2015

The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center completes its initial GBSD cost estimate.

The cost estimate of $62.3 billion (in Then-Year dollars) for 642 missiles over a 30-year period was eventually disclosed to the public on 5 June 2015. The total amount includes $48.5 billion for the missiles themselves, $6.9 billion for command and control systems, and $6.9 billion to renovate and upgrade the launch control centers and launch facilities.

November 2015

The Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation completes its review of the GBSD Program.

The Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE), the Pentagon’s independent budgetary and cost estimation assessment team, estimated that the GBSD would cost between $85 billion and $100 billion (in Then-Year dollars) – a discrepancy more than one-third higher than the Air Force’s original estimate. The Pentagon ultimately selected the lower $85 billion number for the GBSD program.

25 November 2015

Congress passes the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act.

The bill specifically prohibited the Pentagon from further reducing the alert level of the ICBM force, with the exception of changes “that are carried out in compliance with the New START treaty.”

8 July 2016

Senate ICBM Coalition sends a letter to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter about GBSD.

The letter asked Carter to recommit to pursuing the GBSD program “as expeditiously as possible,” in light of concerns “that the Administration now may consider steps to slow down modernization programs or withdraw them from future year defense plans.”

29 July 2016

The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center releases its Request For Proposals for the GBSD Technology Maturation and Risk Reduction contract.

The Technology Maturation and Risk Reduction phase of a defense acquisition program seeks to reduce technology and list-cycle cost risks, and further refine the requirements of the proposed system. In the RFP, the Air Force noted its intention to award up to two contracts for the TMRR phase of the GBSD program, which was scheduled to last approximately 36 months.

23 August 2016

Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics approves the Milestone A decision for the GBSD program.

With the Under Secretary’s decision, the GBSD program formally entered the Technology Maturation and Risk Reduction phase of the acquisition process.* The Acquisition Decision Memorandum that was produced in conjunction with the decision accepted CAPE’s higher estimate of $85 billion for the production of 666 missiles and associated infrastructure costs.

*Now called the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment.

12 October 2016

Deadline for Technology Maturation and Risk Reduction proposals.

The Air Force received three submissions: Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin.

December 2016

Senate ICBM Coalition publishes a white paper: “The Enduring Value of America’s ICBMs.”

The paper argued that “The administration and Congress should reject any proposal to delay GBSD or extend the life of Minuteman III beyond the currently-planned 2030 timeframe.” 

23 December 2016

Congress passes the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.

The bill included a prohibition on reducing the alert level and quantity of deployed ICBMs below 400––a provision that has since been included in every subsequent NDAA to date.

2 June 2017

Process of removing 50 Minuteman IIIs from their silos is completed.

In order to comply with New START’s central limits, 50 Minuteman III ICBMs were removed from their silos. As Congress had previously mandated, these silos were kept “warm.”

21 August 2017

The Air Force awards TMRR contracts to Boeing and Northrop Grumman.

The Air Force awarded two 36-month contracts for the TMRR phase of the GBSD program – one to Boeing for $349.2 million (FA8219-17-C-0001) and one to Northrop Grumman for $328.6 million (FA8219-17-C-0002). Nine days later, Lockheed Martin announced its intention not to protest its exclusion from the competition.

17 September 2017

Northrop Grumman agrees to terms of purchase with Orbital ATK for approximately $7.8 billion.

Over the past several decades, corporate consolidation in the defense industry had dramatically reduced the number of large solid rocket motor producers in the United States. In 1990 there were five, by 2017 there were only two remaining––Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne. To that end, Northrop Grumman’s acquisition of Orbital ATK offered it a serious bidding advantage over Boeing––its only competitor for the GBSD program.

October 2017

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of US nuclear modernization to be $1.2 trillion.

The CBO estimated that if the United States delayed GBSD for two decades, then approximately $42 billion (in 2017 dollars) of the costs of replacing the Minuteman IIIs would be pushed beyond 2046. This would allow the total costs of nuclear modernization to be spread out over several decades and alleviate significant budgetary pressures over the coming years. If GBSD was ultimately cancelled, the CBO estimated that this would save $120 billion (in 2017 dollars).

12 December 2017

Congress passes the FY 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.

The bill prevented the Air Force from awarding an engineering and manufacturing development contract for the GBSD that would reduce the number of fixed launch control centers below current levels, unless the Commander of STRATCOM overruled it. This provision, however, was not included in subsequent NDAAs and appears to have been overridden, as the Air Force’s recent Environmental Impact Statement announcement appears to indicate a significant reduction in each missile wing’s launch control centers––from the current 15 to an eventual eight per wing.

5 February 2018

Both the United States and Russia reach compliance with New START’s central limits.

By this time the United States and Russia were required to meet the Treaty’s central limits of 800 deployed and non-deployed land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers and deployed and non-deployed nuclear-capable heavy bombers; 700 deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed nuclear-capable heavy bombers; and 1,550 deployed warheads.

March 2018

The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center drafts a memo seeking “Justification and Approval (J&A) for Other Than Full and Open Competition” for the GBSD program.

Since “full and open competition” for contracts is required by law, an awarding agency must submit a “Justification and Approval” (J&A) request in order to circumvent this procedure. The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center’s J&A request suggested that limiting the solicitation of the GBSD’s Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) contract to just two bidders––Boeing and Northrop Grumman––would be acceptable because “typically, expected cost savings from a competition come from a competition premium––the cost savings which come from competing a contract rather than soliciting a single supplier. In this case, the [Air Force] expects to obtain a competition premium despite the exclusion of sources, because the selection will be a competition between the two TMRR offerors [sic].”* Given that the EMD contract was ultimately sole-sourced to Northrop Grumman in September 2020, these expected cost savings are unlikely to be realized. The J&A request was ultimately approved by Assistant Secretary of the Air Force William B. Roper, Jr. on 26 February 2019.

*“Justification and Approval (J&A) for Other Than Full and Open Competition,” GBSD program document approved by William B. Roper, Jr., Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition, Technology & Logistics), 26 February 2019.

June 2018

Northrop Grumman acquires Orbital ATK for $7.8 billion.

The Federal Trade Commission investigated the merger over concerns that it could “substantially lessen competition and […] create a monopoly in the relevant market for missile systems.” Specifically, the FTC expressed concerns that “If Northrop were to foreclose its missile system prime contractor competitors in any of these ways, the United States Government would be harmed because cost of missile systems may increase, innovation may be lessened, and/or quality would be reduced because the United States Government would be less likely to obtain the best possible combination of missile system prime contractor and SRM supplier.” The FTC ultimately did not block the acquisition; however, it ruled that Northrop Grumman was required to “not Discriminate in any Missile Competition where Northrop is currently competing to be the Prime Contractor.” Specifically, Northrop Grumman would have to make its solid rocket motor products and services fully available to Boeing and would not be permitted to share Boeing’s proprietary data with other parts of the Northrop Grumman corporation to gain leverage over its competitor in other projects.

March 2019

The Air Force’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration testifies to Congress that it would be technologically feasible to life-extend the Minuteman III one more time.

When asked about extending the service life of the Minuteman III, Lieutenant General Richard Clark testified, “The propulsion system, the guidance system, even the ability to provide the solid rocket motor fuel, we only have one more opportunity to do that for these weapons.”

21 May 2019

The Army Corps of Engineers breaks ground on a new Weapons Generation Facility at F.E. Warren Air Force Base.

The 90,000 square-foot underground facility will eventually store all US nuclear weapons at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, and is expected to be completed in 2022. 

18 June 2019

The GBSD Capability Development Document is validated.

The Capability Development Document specifies the operational requirements for the system that is being developed.*

*Department of the Air Force, “Report on Development of Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent Weapon,” Report to Congressional Committees (May 2020), p. 3.

3 July 2019

Northrop Grumman reportedly signs FTC-mandated firewall agreement for the GBSD program.

This agreement was reportedly signed over a year after the FTC’s ruling, and only five months away from the RFP submission deadline for the GBSD EMD contract. According to Boeing CEO Leanne Caret, this delay did not leave Boeing enough time to negotiate a competitive price for solid rocket motors.

11 July 2019

House amendment in FY 2020 NDAA for ICBM study is voted down.

The Senate ICBM Coalition’s allies in the House of Representatives helped quash an amendment to the FY 2020 NDAA that calls for an independent study on a life-extension program for the Minuteman III.

16 July 2019

The Air Force releases its RFP for the Engineering and Manufacturing Development phase of the GBSD program.

The request for proposals process lasted just over a year before the eventual award of the EMD contract to Northrop Grumman in September 2020.

25 July 2019

Boeing announces its withdrawal from the GBSD competition.

In a series of letters addressed to Air Force acquisition executive Will Roper, Boeing Defense and Security CEO Leanne Caret wrote, “We lack confidence in the fairness of any procurement that does not correct this basic imbalance between competitors,” explicitly citing Northrop Grumman’s acquisition of Orbital ATK as evidence that there were “inherently unfair cost, resource and integration advantages” at play.

September 2019

Boeing lobbies both Congress and the Air Force, with the goal of forcing Northrop Grumman into a joint GBSD bid.

Boeing announced that it is actively seeking “government intervention” that would require Northrop Grumman to either add Boeing to its GBSD team as a major subcontractor, or perhaps as a co-equal partner. This effort was ultimately unsuccessful, despite the public support from allies like Senator Doug Jones (D-AL).

3 September 2019

Northrop Grumman formally declines Boeing’s request to form a “best-of-industry GBSD team.”

Boeing officials claimed that a Northrop Grumman-Boeing partnership would produce the GBSD “sooner, and with lower risk than either of us could do alone.” Northrop Grumman declined the offer.

16 September 2019

Northrop Grumman unveils its GBSD team.

Northrop Grumman’s team announcement included the following contractors:

  • Aerojet Rocketdyne: solid-fueled rocket motors, post-boost propulsion
  • General Dynamics: command and control
  • Collins Aerospace: command and control
  • Lockheed Martin: command and control, missile payload integration
  • Textron System: missile payload integration
  • Parsons: engineering, procurement, construction
  • BRPH: architectural and engineering
  • Clark Construction: construction integration
  • L3Harris: training systems
  • Honeywell: guidance, missile electronics

The inclusion of Aerojet Rocketdyne is notable, given Northrop Grumman’s prior acquisition of Orbital ATK. However, it remains unclear how much of the overall large solid rocket motor order will be filled by Aerojet and how much will be filled by Orbital, which has since been renamed “Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems.”

25 September 2019

Senate ICBM Coalition sends a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

The letter noted the Coalition’s concerns over “recent calls to modify the GBSD acquisition strategy,” and urged Esper to “ensure the GBSD program is not disrupted or delayed.”

October 2019

The Air Force functionally cancels the remainder of Boeing’s TMRR contract for the GBSD.

Given Boeing’s stated intention to not bid for the EMD contract in December 2019, the Air Force refused to allocate any further funding to Boeing’s TMRR contract. This prompted Boeing to immediately issue a Stop Work notice for all GBSD work, stating that “We believe this work would provide substantial value to the Government, irrespective of the fact that Boeing will not participate as a prime offeror under the current EMD [engineering, manufacturing and development] solicitation structure for the next phase of the GBSD program.”

13 December 2019

The RFP deadline for the GBSD’s Engineering and Manufacturing Development contract passes, with the Air Force only receiving a single bid––that of Northrop Grumman.

Northrop Grumman became the default winner of the EMD contract after Boeing declined to bid on the program.

1 July 2020

The House Armed Services Committee rejects an amendment to transfer $1 billion from the GBSD towards Covid-19 relief.

In a bipartisan vote of 44-12, the HASC voted down an effort to transfer GBSD funding to pandemic preparedness, with Committee member Liz Cheney (R-WY) claiming that such an amendment would “help America’s adversaries.”

22 August 2020

CAPE raises its GBSD cost estimate, projecting a new total acquisition cost of $95.8 billion.

This constitutes a near-10 percent increase from the $85 billion figure adopted by the Pentagon in 2016. The cost breakdown is listed as follows: $25.5 billion for research and development, $61.6 billion for missile procurement, and $8.7 billion for military construction, plus an additional $166.6 billion for long-term support costs and $1.4 billion for disposal. CAPE’s projection for the GBSD’s total life-cycle cost is set at $263.9 billion (in Then-Year dollars) through 2075. This new estimate was provided to Congress in September.*

*Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, “(U) Ground Based Strategic Deterrent Milestone B Summary: Report to Congress,” Department of Defense (September 2020), p. 5, retrieved through FOIA 21-F-0065 on 24 November 2020.

4 September 2020

Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment approves the Milestone B decision for the GBSD program.

A Milestone B approval is necessary in order to award an Engineering and Manufacturing Development contract.*

*Previously called the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics.

8 September 2020

The Air Force awards the $13.3 Engineering and Manufacturing Development contract for the GBSD to Northrop Grumman.

The EMD contract is expected to run through February of 2029, and the contract includes weapon system design, qualification, test and evaluation, and nuclear certification.

25 September 2020

25 September 2020

The Air Force issues a Notice of Intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the GBSD.

The Air Force’s GBSD EIS website reveals that the number of launch control centers at each missile wing will be reduced by nearly half, and that substantial GBSD-related construction is expected to take place at all three ICBM bases, in addition to Hill Air Force Base and the Utah Test and Training Range. 

Spring 2022

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the GBSD is scheduled to be released, and will be available for public comment.

Click here to read the schedule.


Construction and deployment is scheduled to begin at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, and is expected to be completed by 2031.

Spring 2023

The Final Environmental Impact Statement for the GBSD is scheduled to be released.


Construction and deployment is scheduled to begin at Malmstrom Air Force Base, and is expected to be completed by 2033.


The NNSA is scheduled to produce up to 30 plutonium pits per year by 2026.

These pits will ultimately be used to produce the W87-1 warhead, which will be used for the GBSD. Given that the United States has not had the capability to produce more than 10 plutonium pits per year for over two decades, it is widely expected that this ambitious schedule will be delayed. 


Construction and deployment is scheduled to begin at Minot Air Force Base, and is expected to be completed by 2036.

April-June 2029

The Air Force projects the GBSD to reach Initial Operational Capability.

In order to reach IOC, the GBSD program must complete the Minuteman III-to-GBSD transition for 20 Launch Facilities––each loaded with an in-silo missile and deployed with a Mk21/W87-1 warhead––three Launch Control Centers, and one Integrated Command Center at the same missile wing as the three Launch Control Centers (likely to be F.E. Warren).*

*Department of the Air Force, “Report on Development of Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent Weapon,” Report to Congressional Committees (May 2020).


The NNSA is scheduled to produce up to 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030.

According to the Government Accountability Office, “it is not clear that NNSA will be able to produce sufficient numbers of pits—the fissile cores of the primary—to meet the W87-1 warhead’s planned production schedule.”


The Air Force projects the GBSD to reach Full Operational Capability.

In order to reach IOC, the GBSD program must complete the Minuteman III-to-GBSD transition for all 450 Launch Facilities, at least 24 Launch Control Centers (eight per wing), three Integrated Command Centers, and command and control infrastructure for all three missile wings.*

*Department of the Air Force, “Report on Development of Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent Weapon,” Report to Congressional Committees (May 2020). 

Environmental Assessment Reveals New Details About the Air Force’s ICBM Replacement Plan

Any time a US federal agency proposes a major action that “has the potential to cause significant effects on the natural or human environment,” they must complete an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS. An EIS typically addresses potential disruptions to water supplies, transportation, socioeconomics, geology, air quality, and other factors in great detail––meaning that one can usually learn a lot about the scale and scope of a federal program by examining its Environmental Impact Statement.

What does all this have to do with nuclear weapons, you ask?

Well, given that the Air Force’s current plan to modernize its intercontinental ballistic missile force involves upgrading hundreds of underground and aboveground facilities, it appears that these actions have been deemed sufficiently “disruptive” to trigger the production of an EIS.

To that end, the Air Force recently issued a Notice of Intent to begin the EIS process for its Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program––the official name of the ICBM replacement program. Usually, this notice is coupled with the announcement of open public hearings, where locals can register questions or complaints with the scope of the program. These hearings can be influential; in the early 1980s, tremendous public opposition during the EIS hearings in Nevada and Utah ultimately contributed to the cancellation of the mobile MX missile concept. Unfortunately, in-person EIS hearings for the GBSD have been cancelled due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic; however, they’ve been replaced with something that might be even better.

The Air Force has substituted its in-person meetings for an uncharacteristically helpful and well-designed website––gbsdeis.com––where people can go to submit comments for EIS consideration (before November 13th!). But aside from the website being just a place for civic engagement and cute animal photos, it is also a wonderful repository for juicy––and sometimes new––details about the GBSD program itself.

The website includes detailed overviews of the GBSD-related work that will take place at the three deployment bases––F.E. Warren (located in Wyoming, but responsible for silos in Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska), Malmstrom (Montana), and Minot (North Dakota)––plus Hill Air Force Base in Utah (where maintenance and sustainment operations will take place), the Utah Test and Training Range (where missile storage, decommissioning, and disposal activities will take place), Camp Navajo in Arizona (where rocket boosters and motors will be stored), and Camp Guernsey in Wyoming (where additional training operations will take place).



Taking a closer look at these overviews offers some expanded details about where, when, and for how long GBSD-related construction will be taking place at each location.

For example, previous reporting seemed to indicate that all 450 Minuteman Launch Facilities (which contain the silos themselves) and “up to 45” Missile Alert Facilities (each of which consists of a buried and hardened Launch Control Center and associated above- or below-ground support buildings) would need to be upgraded to accommodate the GBSD. However, the GBSD EIS documents now seem to indicate that while all 450 Launch Facilities will be upgraded as expected, only eight of the 15 Missile Alert Facilities (MAF) per missile field would be “made like new,” while the remainder would be “dismantled and the real property would be disposed of.”

Currently, each Missile Alert Facility is responsible for a group of 10 Launch Facilities; however, the decision to only upgrade eight MAFs per wing––while dismantling the rest––could indicate that each MAF could be responsible for up to 18 or 19 separate Launch Facilities once GBSD becomes operational. If this is true, then this near-doubling of each MAF’s responsibilities could have implications for the future vulnerability of the ICBM force’s command and control systems.

The GBSD EIS website also offers a prospective construction timeline for these proposed upgrades. The website notes that it will take seven months to modernize each Launch Facility, and 12 months to modernize each Missile Alert Facility. Once construction begins, which could be as early as 2023, the Air Force has a very tight schedule in order to fully deploy the GBSD by 2036: they have to finish converting one Launch Facility per week for nine years. It is expected that construction and deployment will begin at F.E. Warren between 2023 and 2031, followed by Malmstrom between 2025 and 2033, and finally Minot between 2027 and 2036.

Although it is still unclear exactly what the new Missile Alert Facilities and Launch Facilities will look like, the EIS documents helpfully offer some glimpses of the GBSD-related construction that will take place at each of the three Air Force bases over the coming years.

In addition to the temporary workforce housing camps and construction staging areas that will be established for each missile wing, each base is expected to receive several new training, storage, and maintenance facilities. With a single exception––the construction of a new reentry system and reentry vehicle maintenance facility at Minot––all of the new facilities will be built outside of the existing Weapons Storage Areas, likely because these areas are expected to be replaced as well. As we reported in September, construction has already begun at F.E. Warren on a new underground Weapons Generation Facility to replace the existing Weapons Storage Area, and it is expected that similar upgrades are planned for the other ICBM bases.

Finally, the EIS documents also provide an overview of how and where Minuteman III disposal activities will take place. Upon removal from their silos, the Minutemen IIIs will be transported to their respective hosting bases––F.E. Warren, Malmstrom, or Minot––for temporary storage. They will then be transported to Hill Air Force Base, the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR), or Camp Najavo, in Arizona. It is expected that the majority of the rocket motors will be stored at either Hill AFB or UTTR until their eventual destruction at UTTR, while non-motor components will be demilitarized and disposed of at Hill AFB. To that end, five new storage igloos and 11 new storage igloos will be constructed at Hill AFB and UTTR, respectively. If any rocket motors are stored at Camp Navajo, they will utilize existing storage facilities.

After the completion of public scoping on November 13th (during which anyone can submit comments to the Air Force via Google Form), the next public milestone for the GBSD’s EIS process will occur in spring 2022, when the Air Force will solicit public comments for their Draft EIS. When that draft is released, we should learn even more about the GBSD program, and particularly about how it impacts––and is impacted by––the surrounding environment. These particular aspects of the program are growing in significance, as it is becoming increasingly clear that the US nuclear deterrent––and particularly the ICBM fleet deployed across the Midwest––is uniquely vulnerable to climate catastrophe. Given that the GBSD program is expected to cost nearly $264 billion through 2075, Congress should reconsider whether it is an appropriate use of public funds to recapitalize on elements of the US nuclear arsenal that could ultimately be rendered ineffective by climate change.


Additional background information:

This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

Image sources: Air Force Global Strike Command. 2020. “Environmental Impact Statement for the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent Deployment and Minuteman III Decommissioning and Disposal: Public Scoping Materials.”

Construction of New Underground Nuclear Warhead Facility At Warren AFB

Construction has begun of a new nuclear weapons storage facility at F.E. Warren Air Force Base. Click on image to view full size

The Air Force has begun construction of a new underground nuclear weapons storage and handling facility at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The new Weapons Storage and Maintenance Facility (WSMF; sometimes called Weapons Generation Facility), which will replace the current Weapons Storage Area (WSA), will be a 90,000-square-foot reinforced concrete and earth-covered facility with supporting surface structures.

A satellite image taken in August and obtained from Maxar shows construction is well underway of the underground facility as well as several supporting facilities.

The Air Force says the new facility “will provide a safer and more secure facility for the storage of U. S. Air Force (USAF) assets,” a reference to W78/Mk12A and W87/Mk21 warheads for the Minuteman III ICBMs deployed in Warren AFB’s 150 missile silos. In the future, if Congress agrees to fund it, the new W87-1 warhead will replace the W78. According to the Air Force:

“The primary interior walls of Maintenance and Storage Area are 4-foot thick reinforced concrete (RC) elements with 4-foot thick RC roof slabs. The primary wall and roof elements are surrounded by a 20-foot thick soil layer which is contained by a 3-foot thick RC wall and roof element layer. The heavy multilayered system sits on a 5-foot thick RC structural mat for support.”

The $144 million contract was awarded to Fluor Corporation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2018. The ground-breaking ceremony took place on May 21, 2019 but substantial construction (of buildings) did not begin until the Spring of 2020. The president of Flour’s Government Group is Tom D’Agostino, who previously served as the undersecretary for nuclear security at the Department of Energy, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), and deputy administrator for defense programs. Construction was scheduled to take 40 months and be completed in 2022.

Construction of the underground storage facility at F.E. Warren AFB follows the completion in 2012 of a massive underground nuclear weapons storage facility at the Strategic Weapons Facility Pacific (SWFPAC) next to the Kitsap Naval Submarine Base. Underground storage facilities are also planned at other bases.

75 Years Ago: The Trinity Nuclear Test

On this day 75 years ago, the world entered the nuclear age. The first ever nuclear detonation – known as the Trinity test – took place in New Mexico on July 16th, 1945. Since then, ten countries built more than 134,000 nuclear weapons. More than 13,400 remain today.

In the decades that followed, nuclear testing contaminated lands, oceans, and people, and triggered a nuclear arms race that continues to this day. The Federation of American Scientists is honored to join our colleagues at the Union of Concerned Scientists and Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium in a joint statement with five other U.S. organizations on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear testing, endured by victims in the United States and its Pacific territories, from French nuclear testing in French Polynesia and Algeria, Russian nuclear testing in Kazakhstan, British nuclear testing in Australia, and others.

In addition to these harms, the Trinity test marked the beginning of the global nuclear arms race with its endless cycles of nuclear modernization and competition, which continue to this day. Unlike any other invention, nuclear weapons have the capability to destroy human civilization and much or life on Planet Earth.

The Federation of American Scientists has tracked the rise and fall of global nuclear arsenals for many years. Despite reductions since the Cold War, there are still more than 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world. And we are disappointed to note the emergence of five disturbing trends regarding the current and future state of nuclear weapons:

  1. Every nuclear-armed country is currently in the midst of modernizing their nuclear arsenals. Some countries are actually increasing their stockpiles, while others are swapping out their older weapons with newer, more effective ones that will endure almost until the end of the 21st century.
  2. Not only are nuclear arsenals either increasing or improving, but it appears that many states are reinvigorating or even expanding the role of nuclear weapons – specifically tactical nuclear weapons – in their military doctrines. State representatives have often claimed that these deployments are actually intended to prevent conflict; however, regardless of how much stake one puts into that sort of statement, it is a fact that many states are now increasingly posturing themselves for nuclear warfighting. This development will make it more difficult to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and pursue significant reductions – and certainly disarmament – in the future.
  3. In recent years, we have also seen the decline – and general disinterest – in arms control writ large. Today, bilateral and multilateral arms control agreements have fallen away or are under severe stress, multilateral efforts to engage in good faith arms reductions appear to have completely stagnated, and states often seem more interested in blaming and shaming their prospective arms control partners than actually pursuing measures that would offer a modicum of transparency and predictability in an otherwise unpredictable world.
  4. Rather than pursue arms control, it seems that states are more content with pursuing arms competition and even arms races. This is a result of renewed military competition and is fueled by the tremendous influence that weapons contractors and lobbyists have on government decisions; indeed, sometimes nuclear decisions seem to be driven as much – if not more – by corporate interests than by national security concerns.
  5. Nuclear-armed states largely do not appear to consider nuclear disarmament to be an urgent global security, humanitarian, or environmental imperative. Instead, most states seem to consider disarmament as a type of chore mandated by the Non-Proliferation Treaty – and not one that they are seriously interested in completing in the foreseeable future. It is increasingly rare to hear any officials from nuclear weapon states express a coherent rationale for pursuing disarmament other than as a result of the obligation to do so under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Moreover, they seem increasingly focused on shifting the disarmament responsibility onto the non-nuclear states by arguing they first must create the security conditions that will make nuclear disarmament possible.

Although the Trinity test took place 75 years ago, its destructive legacy continues to this day. And despite these harms, some politicians are even trying to return to an era of live nuclear testing. Resuming nuclear explosive testing would be taking a monumental step backward and would open the floodgates for worldwide resumption of nuclear testing and development of new nuclear weapons. Instead, on this 75th anniversary, we must look forward, try our best to reverse these worrying trends, responsibly reduce the arsenals and the role that nuclear weapons serve, and work towards a world eventually free from nuclear weapons.

The Federation of American Scientists is honored to provide the world with the best non-classified estimates of the nuclear weapons arsenals. We are grateful for the financial support from the New Land Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation to do this work. To explore this vast data, developed over many decades, start here: https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/

The State Department’s Compliance Report Plays the Blame Game, Despite Offering Little Evidence

The State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance yesterday released its annual “Compliance Report,” which provides a detailed overview of US (and other countries’) adherence to various treaty and agreement commitments.

The report’s publication comes at a critical time, as the Trump administration has spent the past few years––and the past three months in particular––dismantling the last vestiges of US commitments to the international arms control regime. The administration has recently declared that it is unlikely to extend New START, has withdrawn from the Open Skies Treaty, has alluded to an intent to resume nuclear testing, and has announced that it will “reinterpret” the Missile Technology Control Regime in order to allow the United States to sell armed drones to previously-forbidden countries.

In addition to its intended purpose––providing the official public US assessment of how other countries adhere to arms control treaties and agreements––the administration clearly sees the Compliance Report as a tool to provide justification for shedding treaties. As such, other countries might question the report’s conclusion that the United States is in full compliance with all of its international obligations, but that other treaty parties are not.

Several sections of the Compliance Report are missing both critical context about how and why certain treaties met their eventual ends, as well as actual evidence for some of its claims about the actions of its arms control partners. To that end, we have tried to fill in some of the blanks below.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty

The report assesses that throughout 2019, the United States was in full compliance with the INF Treaty––the landmark Cold War-era treaty that eliminated and banned all US and Russian ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

Although this assertion appears to be technically correct and provides an extensive overview of Russian activities, it is missing some critical context. Both the United States and Russia suspended their respective obligations under the treaty in February 2019, and the treaty officially died in August 2019. Although it appeared that Russia had been violating the treaty for many years, we have argued that the Trump administration’s decision to finally kill the treaty was the wrong move, for several reasons.

Firstly, withdrawal established a false moral equivalency between the United States, who probably was not violating the treaty, and Russia, who probably was. It also put the United States in conflict with its own key policy documents like the Nuclear Posture Review and public statements made last year, which emphasized staying in the treaty while trying to bring Russia back into compliance through diplomatic, economic, and military measures. NATO preferred this approach until the Trump administration changed its mind and decided to withdraw, at which point NATO followed suit to avoid being seen to be in conflict with Washington.

The 2020 Compliance Report states that withdrawal from the INF Treaty was intended as a “remedy” for Russia’s material breach. But if the ultimate goal was to coax or coerce Russia back into compliance, then killing the treaty did the opposite. Instead, it legally freed Russia to deploy even more INF missiles on land, something the report explicitly warns that Russia might do by converting the SS-N-30a/Sagaris (Kalibr) sea-launched cruise missile into a land-based system. It also allowed the United States to explore developing INF-range missiles of its own. Only 16 days after the treaty’s collapse, the United States test launched a crudely-fashioned missile that would have certainly violated the INF treaty––if it had still existed.


The 2020 Compliance Report notes that both Russia and the United States are in full compliance with the New START treaty, which caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles that each country is allowed to deploy. This is not newsworthy in itself; mutual compliance was confirmed by State and Defense Department officials during Senate testimony in 2018, after the February treaty deadline had passed.

It is bizarre that the Trump administration is using alleged Russian non-compliance with other treaties in order to undermine the one treaty with which Russia is actually complying. Moreover, unlike any other treaty mentioned in the Compliance Report, the strategic forces limited by the New START treaty are the only weapons of mass destruction that can threaten the very existence of the United States.

New START expires in less than a year, and while Russia has agreed to extend it unconditionally, the Trump administration has been dragging its feet. This should be a no-brainer: the treaty is a good deal for both parties, it offers a critical source of predictability and transparency into Russia’s nuclear forces, and extension is widely supported across the country, even among Trump voters; in fact, it’s one of the very few bipartisan issues still remaining in Congress. Senior military leaders, such as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, have declared their full support for the treaty, largely because it offers a critical source of transparency and stability in the US-Russia nuclear relationship.

Specifically, during the 2018 Senate hearing, then-Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs noted “The United States benefits from the Treaty’s 18 annual on-site inspections, notifications, and biannual data exchanges, which give us insight into the number of Russia’s strategic offensive arms subject to the Treaty and where they are at any given time.” She further noted, “Should the Treaty expire, U.S. inspectors would lose their current access to Russian strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems, bases, and infrastructure, as well as the Treaty’s biannual exchange of data and associated updates on the location and status of Russia’s strategic offensive arms subject to the Treaty.” However, this fact hasn’t stopped Trump’s new arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea––an ardent opponent of arms control who opposed US ratification of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and supported US withdrawal in 2002 from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty––from inexplicably arguing the opposite point. In an interview with The Washington Times last month, he claimed that “The Obama administration negotiated a very weak verification regime […] which the Russians have been exploiting.” The basis for this claim has not been substantiated by other senior administration or military officials, and is not presented in the Compliance Report itself.

Marshall Billingslea

Marshall Billingslea, the Trump administration’s Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control.

In his recent interview, Billingslea noted that a new or extended New START-style deal would necessarily have to include China. This makes no sense. The entire Chinese arsenal is thought to include about 320 warheads––a fraction of the 4,000-4,500 in the US and Russian arsenals––which is why China’s position has consistently been the same: it will not take part in trilateral arms control negotiations while this strategic imbalance remains.

Therefore, as we have previously argued in Forbes, killing New START because it doesn’t include China would do nothing to address the United States’ security concerns about Chinese nuclear forces. Instead, if limits on US and Russian strategic nuclear forces fell away and caused both countries to increase their nuclear forces, China might decide that it would need to increase its stockpile even further in order to adjust to the greater nuclear threat. This would further exacerbate a post-New START nuclear crisis.

Extension does not require Congressional approval; it simply requires a presidential stroke of a pen. Given that both countries benefit from the treaty, that both countries are in compliance, and that the United States’ NATO allies strongly favor an extension, this is a ripe piece of low-hanging fruit.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

The JCPOA (commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal), is not mentioned at all in the Compliance Report. This is not necessarily surprising, as the Trump administration officially withdrew from––and then violated––the deal in 2018. However, in recent weeks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has argued that the United States remains a party to the deal, and therefore could demand a reimposition of sanctions on Iran if an arms embargo is not extended past October. As Senator Elizabeth Warren correctly tweeted in response, “This makes no sense.” “To extend this arms embargo,” she noted, “the Trump admin is suddenly arguing that the US is a party to the same Iran Deal it abandoned.”

Pompeo’s unconvincing argument is undermined by his own former State Department top arms control official, who noted in her 2018 Senate testimony that the United States completed its “withdrawal from the arrangement on May 8.” Additionally, if the Secretary of State truly believed that the United States was still party to the treaty, why would it be excluded from his own department’s comprehensive annual assessment of US treaty obligations?

The absence of JCPOA is even more curious because Iran’s nuclear activities are covered extensively over seven full pages in the Compliance Report.

Nuclear Testing

The Compliance Report does not assess any country’s compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) because the United States has not ratified it. The report repeats the Trump administration’s statement that it has no intentions to ratify the treaty, but nonetheless assesses that Russia and China may have conducted nuclear weapons tests that fail to meet the United States’ “zero-yield” standard. This assertion echoes the claims initially made by DIA Director Ashley during his remarks at the Hudson Institute in May 2019.

On Russia, the report states that the “United States assesses that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons-related experiments that have created nuclear yield.” But it adds in the next sentence that the “United States does not know how many, if any [emphasis added], supercritical or self-sustaining nuclear experiments Russia conducted in 2019.” A test that released nuclear energy from a canister would require Russian notification under the Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTPT), which Russia has not provided. But the Compliance Report does not present any evidence but says additional information is included in a classified annex.

On China, the report is even more vague and circumstantial. It doesn’t explicitly accuse China of having conducted low-yield nuclear tests nor present evidence to that effect. Instead, the Compliance Report says a number of other activities “raise concern” about China’s adherence to the zero-yield standard of the United States and that “the United States cannot rule out the possibility that China could have conducted activities at its test site that are inconsistent with its moratorium commitment…” Details are hidden in a classified annex.

Open source analysists have not detected “any alarming activity” in this regard. Absent public evidence, both China and Russia have rejected the claims, with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister “[urging] the United States to abandon the growing practice of misinforming the global community about what is happening,” and the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson “[refusing] to dignify the groundless US allegation with a refutation.”

Claims about Chinese and Russian low-yield testing are not new, but are occasionally used by anti-arms control hawks working to hype the Russian or Chinese threat, in addition to pushing for the United States to resume nuclear weapons testing. It is unfortunate that this year’s Compliance Report echoed these claims without offering any public proof to back them up, and that would-be arms control killers are subsequently using them as “evidence” of cheating.

Presidential Nuclear Initiatives

A new addition to this year’s Compliance Report is a large section (three and a half pages) on the 1991-1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs). This is an oddball because the PNIs were unilateral declaration, not treaties, without any verification. Apparently, including the PNIs is part of the administration effort to make the case that Russia is cheating and therefore can’t be trusted with other treaties such as the New START treaty.

Russia is cheating on one part of the PNIs, the report says, because Russia hasn’t eliminated all nuclear warheads for Ground Forces as it promised in 1991. The report explicitly identifies the SS-21 and SS-26 short-range ballistic missiles (the SS-26 is replacing the SS-21) as dual-capable. The report does not explicitly say Russian ground-forces have retained nuclear artillery, a frequent rumor on the Internet. Curiously, the SSC-8 GLCM is not mentioned in the PNI section, even though it is a ground-launched dual-capable weapon (it is addressed in the INF section of the report).

The big picture, of course, is that Russia has fulfilled most of the PNI promises and significantly reduced its inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons since the 1990s. The Compliance Report only mentions in passing that “Russia continues to abide by some PNI pledges, such as warhead consolidation and likely the declared reduction in stockpiles…” Although Russia retains more non-strategic nuclear weapons than the United States (up to 2,000 according to the Nuclear Posture Review), that has been the case for the past three decades. Statements by US government officials indicate that Russia reduced its inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons between 2009 and 2019 by more than one-third.

One thing completely missing from the Compliance Report’s assessment of the PNI issue is that US planned production of a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile––as recommended by the Nuclear Posture Review––would be in violation of the United States’ own PNI pledge.

The Role of the Compliance Report

Violations of treaties and agreements must be addressed and resolved, which requires a persistent and professional level of engagement with other countries. Because the Trump administration is focused on abandoning treaties and reinvigorating “Great Power Competition” with Russia and China, however, the Compliance Report may increasingly be seen as a means to provide a justification for that agenda.

Even if Russia is cheating on some agreements, that doesn’t mean they will cheat on all of them, or that it is no longer worth it to retain the ones that are working. Russia has a clear interest in limiting US nuclear forces just as the United States and its allies have an interest in limiting Russian forces.

And even though China is slowly increasing its nuclear arsenal, that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily sprinting to parity. Even if the DIA’s projection that China will “at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile” over the next decade were to happen, that would still not bring the inventory anywhere near the size of the US or Russian stockpiles, which are currently estimated at 4,310 and 3,800 warheads, respectively.

Warhead Inventories 2020

There is also an expectation that if China increases its arsenal it will inevitably result in the abandonment of its no-first-use policy. In February, the head of US STRATCOM offered Senate testimony that he “could drive a truck through that no-first-use policy.” But others, such as Gregory Kulacki, have noted that China’s nuclear strategy is more restrained than what the public debate often assumes.

In sum, the annual Compliance Report should function as a way for the United States and its arms control partners to get on the same page about the status of their respective obligations and anticipate where future compliance issues might arise––not as a way to offer justifications for its own misdeeds. Otherwise, its publication may soon contribute to a breakdown in arms control altogether, rather than function as a mechanism to save it. 

A Rare Look Inside a Russian ICBM Base

It’s relatively easy to observe Russian missile bases from above. It’s much harder to do it from inside.

But in September, the Russian Ministry of Defense released a rare video of a command exercise which features mobile SS-27 Mod 2 “Yars-S” ICBMs driving around their base near Novosibirsk.

The base itself, which is likely to be the temporary home of the 382nd Guards Missile Regiment, has a relatively strange layout, which makes it significantly easier to identify. Unlike other Yars bases in the 39th Guards Missile Division (which houses the 382nd Regiment)––or even across the region––this base does not have any vehicle garages. Instead, the Yars launchers and support vehicles are simply parked out in the open, usually under camouflage (although they occasionally mix up their camouflage, weirdly replacing the forest green with snowy white well before any snow actually touches the ground!). 

The September video shows Russian troops uncovering their ICBMs, taking them out for a spin, and eventually tucking them back in under camouflage blankets.



This regiment––along with the other two Novosibirsk bases associated with the 39th Guards Missile Division––recently completed its long-awaited conversion to Yars ICBMs from its older SS-25 Topol ICBMs. These new missiles are clearly visible in both satellite imagery and in the Ministry of Defense video.



During its conversion, the regiment was moved from its previous base (55°19’2.72”N, 83°10’6.70”E) to this temporary location, while the old base was dismantled in preparation for a substantial upgrade to build new missile shelters for the Yars ICBMs, as well as service and administrative buildings. Construction stalled for several years, possibly because of budget cuts, but has recently picked up again. Once completed, the 382nd Guards Missile Regiment presumably will be relocated back to its old base.



As we write in the Nuclear Notebook, Russia continues to retire its SS-25s at a rate of one or two regiments (nine to 18 missiles) each year, replacing them with newer Yars ICBMs. It is unclear how many SS-25s remain in the active missile force; however, we estimate that it is approximately 54. The remaining two SS-25 equipped divisions will start their upgrades to Yars in 2020, with the SS-25s expected to be fully retired in 2021-2022, according to the commander of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces. 

Read more about Russia’s nuclear forces in the 2019 Russian Nuclear Notebook, which is always freely-accessible via the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Mixed Messages On Trump’s Missile Defense Review

President Trump personally released the long-overdue Missile Defense Review (MDR) today, and despite the document’s assertion that “Missile Defenses are Stabilizing,” the MDR promotes a posture that is anything but.

Firstly, during his presentation, Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan falsely asserted that the MDR is consistent with the priorities of the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS). The NSS’ missile defense section notes that “Enhanced missile defense is not intended to undermine strategic stability or disrupt longstanding strategic relationships with Russia or China.” (p.8) During Shanahan’s and President Trump’s speeches, however, they made it clear that the United States will seek to detect and destroy “any type of target,” “anywhere, anytime, anyplace,” either “before or after launch.” Coupled with numerous references to Russia’s and China’s evolving missile arsenals and advancements in hypersonic technology, this kind of rhetoric is wholly inconsistent with the MDR’s description of missile defense being directed solely against “rogue states.” It is also inconsistent with the more measured language of the National Security Strategy.

Secondly, the MDR clearly states that the United States “will not accept any limitation or constraint on the development or deployment of missile defense capabilities needed to protect the homeland against rogue missile threats.” This is precisely what concerns Russia and China, who fear a future in which unconstrained and technologically advanced US missile defenses will eventually be capable of disrupting their strategic retaliatory capability and could be used to support an offensive war-fighting posture.

Thirdly, in a move that will only exacerbate these fears, the MDR commits the Missile Defense Agency to test the SM-3 Block IIA against an ICBM-class target in 2020. The 2018 NDAA had previously mandated that such a test only take place “if technologically feasible;” it now seems that there is sufficient confidence for the test to take place. However, it is notable that the decision to conduct such a test seems to hinge upon technological capacity and not the changes to the security environment, despite the constraints that Iran (which the SM-3 is supposedly designed to counter) has accepted upon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Fourthly, the MDR indicates that the United States will look into developing and fielding a variety of new capabilities for detecting and intercepting missiles either immediately before or after launch, including:

There exists much hype around the concept of boost-phase intercept—shooting down an adversary missile immediately after launch—because of the missile’s relatively slower velocity and lack of deployable countermeasures at that early stage of the flight. However, an attempt at boost-phase intercept would essentially require advance notice of a missile launch in order to position US interceptors within striking distance. The layer of space-based sensors is presumably intended to alleviate this concern; however, as Laura Grego notes, these sensors would be “easily overwhelmed, easily attacked, and enormously expensive.”

Additionally, boost-phase intercept would require US interceptors to be placed in very close proximity to the target––almost certainly revealing itself to an adversary’s radar network. The interceptor itself would also have to be fast enough to chase down an accelerating missile, which is technologically improbable, even years down the line. A 2012 National Academy of Sciences report puts it very plainly: “Boost-phase missile defense—whether kinetic or directed energy, and whether based on land, sea, air, or in space—is not practical or feasible.” 

Overall, the Trump Administration’s Missile Defense Review offers up a gamut of expensive, ineffective, and destabilizing solutions to problems that missile defense simply cannot solve. The scope of US missile defense should be limited to dealing with errant threats—such as an accidental or limited missile launch—and should not be intended to support a broader war-fighting posture. To that end, the MDR’s argument that “the United States will not accept any limitation or constraint” on its missile defense capabilities will only serve to raise tensions, further stimulate adversarial efforts to outmaneuver or outpace missile defenses, and undermine strategic stability.

During the upcoming spring hearings, Congress will have an important role to play in determining which capabilities are actually necessary in order to enforce a limited missile defense posture, and which ones are superfluous. And for those superfluous capabilities, there should be very strong pushback.