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U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Developments, and Issues

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Publication Date: April 2009

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL33640

Topic: Military and defense (Military equipment and weapons)


During the Cold War, the U.S. nuclear arsenal contained many types of delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons. The longer range systems, which included long-range missiles based on U.S. territory, long-range missiles based on submarines, and heavy bombers that could threaten Soviet targets from their bases in the United States, are known as strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. At the end of the Cold War, in 1991, the United States deployed more than 10,000 warheads on these delivery vehicles. That number has declined to around 6,000 warheads today, and is slated, under the 2002 Moscow Treaty, to decline to 2,200 warheads by the year 2012.

At the present time, the U.S. land-based ballistic missile force (ICBMs) consists of 500 Minuteman III ICBMs, each deployed with between one and three warheads, for a total of 1,200 warheads. The Air Force recently deactivated all 50 of the 10warhead Peacekeeper ICBMs; it plans to eventually deploy Peacekeeper warheads on some of the Minuteman ICBMs. The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) report also indicated that it planned to eliminate 50 of the Minuteman III missiles, leaving a force of 450 missiles that would carry, perhaps, 500-600 warheads. The 109th Congress stalled this plan, pending a study from the Administration. The Air Force is also modernizing the Minuteman missiles, replacing and upgrading their rocket motors, guidance systems, and other components. The Air Force had expected to begin replacing the Minuteman missiles around 2018, but has decided, instead, to continue to modernize and maintain the existing missiles.

The U.S. ballistic missile submarine fleet currently consists of 14 Trident submarines; each carries 24 Trident II (D-5) missiles. The Navy has converted 4 of the original 18 Trident submarines to carry non-nuclear cruise missiles. The remaining submarines currently carry around 2,000 warheads in total, a number that may decline by a few hundred as the United States implements the Moscow Treaty. The Navy has shifted the basing of the submarines, so that 9 are deployed in the Pacific Ocean and 5 are in the Atlantic, to better cover targets in and around Asia. It also has undertaken efforts to extend the life of the missiles so that they and the submarines can remain in the fleet past 2020.

The U.S. fleet of heavy bombers currently includes 21 B-2 bombers and 94 B-52 bombers. The B-1 bomber no longer is equipped for nuclear missions. The QDR recommended that the Air Force reduce the B-52 fleet to 56 aircraft; the 109th Congress rejected that recommendation. The Air Force has argued that this number is sufficient to meet conventional warfighting needs; there is little discussion about a continuing nuclear role for the U.S. bomber fleet.

The 110th Congress will again review the Bush Administration's plans for U.S. strategic nuclear forces, during the annual authorization and appropriations process. It may review a number of questions about the future size of that force. For example, some have questioned why the United States must retain 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads. Congress may also question the Administration's plans for reductions in the Minuteman force and B-52 fleet. This report will be updated as needed.