nuclear warhead blasting off as money swirls around

Future of Warfare

Published — December 23, 2020 Updated — January 15, 2021 at 2:20 pm ET

Under Trump, the nuclear weapons industry has boomed

(Tim Foley for the Center for Public Integrity)

Expansion could be scaled back as President-elect Biden and Congress prioritize pandemic and recession problems.

This story was published in partnership with the Los Angeles Times.


While the country has been coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, economic decline, and the election, President Donald Trump’s administration quietly and steadily steered America’s nuclear weapons industry to its largest expansion since the end of the Cold War, increasing spending on such arms by billions of dollars with bipartisan congressional support.

Overall, the budget for making and maintaining nuclear warheads has risen more than 50 percent since Trump was elected in 2016, substantially outpacing the rates of increase for the defense budget and overall federal spending during his presidency before the pandemic. On Monday, Congress approved Trump’s proposal to increase spending next year alone for the production of such weaponry by roughly $3 billion.

President-elect Joe Biden may embrace other priorities as he confronts the pandemic, tries to steer the country out of a recession, and is pressured to address social programs neglected under the Trump administration, as well as a ballooning deficit created by the 2017 Trump tax cuts and COVID-19 stimulus spending. 

But the creation of a larger and more modern nuclear warhead complex of factories, laboratories, and related businesses is already playing out around the country, despite slowdowns in other federal projects due to the pandemic.

Four factories in Texas, South Carolina, Tennessee and New Mexico dedicated to producing warheads are being modernized. Four existing warheads are being substantially rebuilt with modern parts, on top of another such upgrade – costing $3.5 billion – that was completed last year. This pace compares with an average modernization of one type of warhead at a time during the Obama administration.

“Over the next five years, the [nuclear weapons-related] costs start going up dramatically,” Mackenzie Eaglen, a former congressional staff member who is now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said at a recent defense conference. “These are sharp, significant increases, and we are not seeing sharp, significant increases in defense spending overall.”

Jon Wolfsthal, a White House adviser on nuclear weapons issues while Biden was serving as vice president, said in an interview that the new Democratic administration may adopt different policies. He predicted, for example, that “there will be some broad thinking about the defense budget and how quickly we need to replace” existing land-, air-, and sea-based nuclear forces, possibly revisiting the aggressive timetables set by Trump over the past four years. 

“I think Biden will look at the full suite of these issues. It is well known to him and his advisers that the cost of nuclear modernization is very high and that that money can be better invested elsewhere. But how he decides to allocate those resources and when he decides to take on those bureaucratic fights is something they still themselves don’t know,” Wolfsthal told a Nov. 18 symposium organized by the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear advocacy group.

The roots of a fifth warhead program

One of the most vulnerable Trump nuclear programs in the Biden era might be a request this year for congressional approval to start work on a new warhead, a program that fulfills a controversial, long-held ambition by the three major government-owned, privately run nuclear weapons laboratories.

Since the U.S. halted its nuclear explosive testing in 1992, many weapons engineers at the nation’s key laboratories in Los Alamos, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., have chafed at policy restrictions on the creation of warheads with novel designs – a limitation that crimps their business income and, in their view, undermines the scientific excitement underlying their work.

Their discontent has found resonance in Republican administrations, including that of President George W. Bush, who tried but failed to get congressional approval of a new nuclear warhead design the labs sought. Advisers to President Barack Obama spurned such appeals, arguing that making warheads with novel designs would alarm other nations and cause them to do likewise. “We see no need for additional nuclear weapons of a new type, either in capability or in capacity,” Gen. James Cartwright, then-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in 2010.

But the labs helped turn this view around during Trump’s tenure, in a campaign that effectively began even before his election. That’s when they formed a study group to sketch out potential policy options for officials coming into office after the November 2016 vote. Their directors in March of 2017 then jointly sent a confidential, 17-chapter, summary paper to Trump’s initial secretaries of energy and defense, which pointedly posed the following question: Should “current policy constraining the fielding of new warheads, or warheads with new or different military capabilities, be continued?”

Lifting that restriction, the lab directors said, would “provide weapons designers with unique opportunities to exercise, and thereby sustain, certain critical skills,” according to an excerpt of the heavily redacted copy of the paper the Center for Public Integrity obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request.

This year, their wish came at least partly true. The Trump administration asked Congress for $53 million to begin designing a warhead new enough to get its own title, the W93. Officials say that while some of its explosive parts will be based on existing weapons designs, it is a replacement, not a refurbishment, for older warheads now deployed atop submarine-launched missiles – including one that completed a modernization program last year.

The funds approved for the W93 this year are less than 1 percent of its projected $10 billion to $14 billion cost, but amount to a politically significant green light and a reversal of Obama’s policy to avoid creating new warheads. A year ago, the program – which has the support of Britain because it will share in the warhead’s deployment — was not set to begin until 2023, so Trump appointees hurried it up.

Nuclear manufacturing ramps up

Besides the ramp-up in warhead production, hundreds of new strategic missiles and bombers and a dozen advanced submarines —– all designed to carry nuclear weapons to targets in Russia, China, North Korea or Iran —– are under intensifying development by Defense Department contractors and private laboratories across the country. The Air Force signed a contract on Sept. 8 to begin spending at least $93 billion on new land-based, nuclear-tipped missiles, for example, and the Navy has been accelerating its spending for new missile-carrying submarines that will cost a total of $128 billion. The projected spending on all these systems has been estimated by congressional experts at roughly $50 billion a year over the next decade alone.

A nuclear warhead ordered into production by Trump and his advisers —– a three-foot tall, cone-shaped weapon with roughly half the explosive force of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, using a modified existing design —– was built last year, and has begun to be deployed. The administration also reversed an Obama-era decision to retire the largest nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal, the B83, keeping roughly 100 warheads, each with the power of 1.2 million tons of TNT, or 80 times the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, in active status.

The administration further agreed to spend $1 billion upgrading an underground site in Nevada where government scientists test weapons designs in explosions that fall just short of a so-called nuclear chain reaction, so it can increase the number of such tests and collect more data in each one. The number of experiments is undergoing a fourfold increase, under an overall program of “significant growth,” according to site director Mark Martinez. And it has also begun construction of a new, $144 million bunker for storing nuclear weapons in Cheyenne, Wyoming, as big as 18 basketball courts.

Roughly 50,000 Americans are now involved in making nuclear warheads at eight principal sites stretching from California to South Carolina. And the three principal U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories —– located in Los Alamos and Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Livermore, California —– have said they are adding thousands of new workers at a time when the overall federal workforce is shrinking.

Those in Los Alamos are preparing to make the first new explosive cores for deployed nuclear weapons produced in the past five years, a costly and difficult task that will expand in a few years from one site to two. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees the work, held hiring fairs in a half-dozen cities and college campuses and accelerated training and apprenticeship, so that the job of building new weapons can be sped up.

The nuclear security enterprise “is busier than it has been since the end of the Cold War,” Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, Trump’s appointee as the NNSA administrator until November, affirmed in Sept. 17 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Trump’s top arms control adviser, former Pentagon official Marshall Billingslea, after completing a tour of the multiple nuclear weapons sites this autumn tweeted awkwardly on Sept. 10 that the Texas facility where each of America’s nuclear warheads is assembled is “booming.”

Pantex, he boasted, is now the “busiest it’s been in two decades.”

Building nuclear weapons to last a century

Two of the most important additions to the nuclear weapons complex are advancing at secure sites east of Knoxville, Tennessee, and in the sand hills northeast of Augusta, Georgia, with the labor of thousands of workers. One is an immense $6.5 billion bunkhouse where uranium is cast into explosive shapes for hydrogen warheads, and the second is a $4.8 billion factory where dozens of plutonium cores for those warheads will eventually be produced.

The former, nearly as big as a Manhattan city block, was begun during the Obama administration and is slated for completion in 2025; it’s been rising steadily beneath what the company overseeing the work says are the two tallest free-standing construction cranes in the Western hemisphere. The latter, already a thick-walled concrete shell as big as five city blocks, is slated to begin machining the cores later this decade. In the meantime, another factory operation – located at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where America’s first such bombs were created – will itself begin churning out new cores for weapons in 2023, for the first time in seven years, at a cost exceeding $3 billion.

These are linchpins in the creation of a revitalized pipeline for producing nuclear weapons that’s meant to last for at least three-quarters of a century —– through 2092, as senior Pentagon officials have depicted it. But a major driving force behind the NNSA’s expansion has been a years-long effort by the nuclear weapons laboratories to modernize five of the warheads they created over the past four decades. So far, they’ve largely finished one —– for deployment atop submarine-launched missiles, leaving four more – for bombers, submarines, and land-based missiles – still to go.

An August 2020 aerial view of Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los Alamos National Laboratory via Flickr)

Each involves more than a thousand workers at a half-dozen of NNSA’s main sites; Los Alamos alone has forecast it will need to hire 2,000 employees and spend more than $13 billion to accommodate the military’s nuclear needs over the next decade.

At a plant in Kansas City that makes arming, firing and other electronic components for America’s nuclear weapons, Trump’s ramp-up has helped provoke the workforce to grow by 50 percent since 2014 to 5,000 employees. The plant was the center of a costly slipup last year involving the selection, purchase, and installation of a $5 electric capacitor for installation in six key nuclear weapons components, which officials later deemed insufficiently reliable over the warheads’ planned lifespan. A belated switch to a $75 device set back multiple warhead development efforts, which will cost the government an extra $720 million to $850 billion, according to NNSA and congressional officials.

That’s not the only recent instance in which the production effort gushed hundreds of millions of dollars due to problematic decision-making. The NNSA facility where new plutonium cores are set to be produced was originally created as a giant disposal operation for excess plutonium from the Cold War. South Carolina supported the facility’s construction and agreed to take in the plutonium on the condition that the disposal operation would actually work. After spending billions of dollars, however, the government decided to shift gears and use the site to refashion plutonium into new weapons rather than eliminate it. And so South Carolina sued the administration and on Aug. 31 won an agreement that Washington will pay the state $600 million in penalties simply because it’s been forced to harbor the explosive material longer than anticipated.

Congressional dissent

Ben Rhodes, a former national security aide to President Barack Obama, said at the Ploughshares symposium that “the insane idea that after a pandemic and dealing with climate change and in an economic crisis in which people are struggling with massive inequality that we are going to spend this much money modernizing every last piece of our nuclear infrastructure — that would be a failure, a failure of policy and a failure of imagination.”

But major defense contractors and their employees —– including many of those making nuclear weapons or running the national laboratories where they are designed —– have long influenced budget choices by helping to finance elections of the members of Congress who approve spending for that work. The industry’s donations in the current election cycle to members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees alone had reached $9.4 million as of mid-October; of that amount, the two chairmen took in a total of at least $802,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group. These tallies don’t include separate donations by lawyers or lobbyists.

In the final year of Trump’s term, there wasn’t much dissent among those committees about the nuclear programs. A May letter to the House committee chairman, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and the top Republican, Mac Thornberry, R-Tex., urging lower defense spending in the next fiscal year so more funds could be spent combatting the pandemic drew signatures from only 30 House members. Smith said this fall that he would not contest the Trump administration’s spending plans but told the Ploughshares symposium he now believes the size of the nuclear arsenal poses a “threat” and that the country could have “a lot fewer nuclear weapons.” He added that while he supports reexamining the costly decision to modernize the nuclear-tipped land-based missile force, “I’m not optimistic” the program will be halted.

More serious dissent to Trump flowered in the House Appropriations committee. Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D, who has represented an Ohio district along the shores of Lake Erie for the past 37 years and became chair in 2019 of the appropriations subcommittee that funds nuclear weapons work, said last spring that the administration’s plans were “not realistic nor executable.” The NNSA, she said, “is trying to do far too much, too quickly,” making it prone to repeat its many, past, “costly mistakes.”

In a July committee vote, Kaptur persuaded her colleagues to slice $2 billion from the administration’s proposed increase in its overall military spending bill. Her move would have still given the agency a 7% budget boost of $1 billion, but it evoked strong protests from then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who said in a September letter to Congress that it will create “unacceptable risks” to America’s nuclear deterrent.

In the massive budget bill approved on Monday, which included nearly a trillion dollars for pandemic relief, the nuclear weapons production establishment again came out a winner, as Congress rejected Kaptur’s view and provided NNSA with an extra $2.8 billion sought by Trump.

Correction: Jan. 15, 2:20 p.m.: The Washington home state of Rep. Adam Smith was incorrectly identified in the article.

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