TechUS modernizes nuclear arsenal amid rising global tensions

US modernizes nuclear arsenal amid rising global tensions

MIRV warhead of the LGM-118A Peacekeeper missile
MIRV warhead of the LGM-118A Peacekeeper missile
Images source: © Atomic Archive

12:44 PM EST, December 9, 2023

More than two decades of eased international relations following the end of the Cold War have stalled the evolution of the American nuclear arsenal. Even though the US possesses a missile capable of reaching speeds up to 15,000 miles per hour, there is a pressing need to concentrate on developing a newer arsenal. In an environment where Russia and China continue to build their strategic forces, Washington is endeavoring to keep up. The modernization of the nuclear arsenal hinges on three ambitious weapons programs.

Nuclear forces serve as a form of security assurance in the global struggle for influence. Although it's unlikely anyone desires their use, the doctrine of MAD (mutual assured destruction), conceived during the Cold War, provides the foundation for a tense yet stable truce between nuclear powers.

Despite criticism, the MAD doctrine, which was introduced in the early 1960s, with its guarantee of mutual destruction, dissuades the possibility of winning a full-scale nuclear war. It has restrained the powers from launching nuclear attacks for several decades.

Nevertheless, the legacy of MAD is a nuclear arms race and expansion of strategic nuclear forces. For the United States, this translates to possessing thousands of nuclear warheads and the weaponry to deliver them, such as bombs or ballistic missiles, despite ongoing reduction efforts.

LGM-30G Minuteman III Ballistic Missiles

However, America's nuclear arsenal is severely outdated. It was operated using the now obsolete, 8-inch floppy disk - a data carrier popular in the 1970s - until just a few years ago.

Until 2017, the safety of the USA depended on 8-inch floppy disks.
Until 2017, the safety of the USA depended on 8-inch floppy disks.© Public domain

A significant development, announced by the Department of Defense, was the 2017 substitution of floppy disks with SD cards. Yet, replacing America's nuclear deterrent base, the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, presents a more daunting task.

The LGM-30G Minuteman III missile, introduced in 1970, is fueled by a solid engine, measures over 59 feet in length, and weighs more than 35 tons. It can reach a target roughly 8,000 miles away, achieving a speed of up to 15,000 miles per hour in flight.

The missile carries a W87-0/Mk-21 warhead weighing around 2535 pounds, with an explosive force estimated at 300-475 kilotons (in comparison, the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was estimated at 16-20 kilotons).

The Minuteman's name speaks to its primary advantage: minimal time from launch command to takeoff. The roughly 450 Minuteman missiles, which currently form the backbone of America's nuclear deterrent, are now considered obsolete. The issue lies not so much in their effectiveness, but in the escalating costs of servicing and maintaining this weapon.

Peacekeeper: The Minutemen's retired successor

It's worth noting that the United States not only developed but also deployed the Peacekeeper missile, the LGM-118A, as the successor to the Minuteman. Unfortunately, this more modern and cost-effective weapon fell prey to political relaxation. Peacekeepers were withdrawn in 2005, and the role of nuclear deterrent was reverted to the old Minutemen.

The Pentagon recognizes that America's nuclear arsenal now mirrors a technological museum. This applies not just to Minuteman missiles, but also to Ohio-class submarines (the first commissioned in 1981), and even the iconic, stealthy B-2 Spirit strategic bombers (the first flight was in 1989).

As such, the United States has initiated three ambitious weapons programs aimed at upgrading the nuclear arsenal. So, what do we know about these?

LGM-35A Sentinel Missile

The LGM-35A Sentinel, the future intercontinental missile, is being developed to replace the Minutemen. The technical specifications of this new weapon remain confidential, but it is said to be a relatively simple, lightweight missile, bearing a structural resemblance to its predecessor.

This new missile will integrate existing infrastructure and silos designed for the Minutemen, offering significant savings. Its key advantage will be a modular design that allows for easy, cost-effective modernization of the nuclear arsenal. The LGM-35A missiles are expected to stay in service until 2075, with a projected deployment date set for 2029.

The Columbia-class, a type of nuclear-powered submarines, are anticipated to replace the Ohio-class. Here, the Americans decided to develop an entirely new design, incorporating the lessons learned during the over 40 years of service of their predecessors.

Visualization of the Columbia type submarine
Visualization of the Columbia type submarine© Public domain | U.S. Navy illustration

The plan involves constructing 16 Columbia-class vessels. With a length of 561 feet, they are expected to displace 23,000 tons underwater, and their main armament will be 16 UGM-133 Trident II missiles. The first of these units is projected for service by 2031.

Unveiled in fall 2022, the B-21 Raider is the first American bomber built in the 21st century. The aircraft bears a visual resemblance to the B-2, but was conceived using different principles.

Strategic bomber B-21 Raider
Strategic bomber B-21 Raider© Northrop Grumman

Unlike its predecessor, the B-21 is designed for mass production. Its key advantage, stealth, is achieved not only through its unique aircraft shape and radar wave-absorbing coating, but also via advanced electronic warfare systems.

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