The Cost and Composition of America's Nuclear Weapons Arsenal
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The Cost and Composition of America’s Nuclear Weapons Arsenal

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The American nuclear weapons arsenal is nowhere near its 1960s peak, but there are still thousands of warheads in the stockpile today.

The U.S. nuclear program is comprised of a complex network of facilities and weaponry, and of course the actual warheads themselves. Let’s look at the location of warheads, how they’re deployed, and the costs associated with running and refurbishing an aging nuclear program.

Let’s launch into the data.

Nuclear Weapons Map

As of 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense maintained an estimated stockpile of 3,800 nuclear warheads for delivery by more than 800 ballistic missiles and aircraft. Roughly 1,300 warheads are actually deployed, while most of the remaining inventory is either held in reserve (as a hedge against “technical or geopolitical surprises”) or is destined to be dismantled.

These weapons are thought to be stored across 11 U.S. states, with the vast majority residing in New Mexico, Washington, and Georgia.

us nuclear weapons location

Source

Over 1,500 of the warheads in New Mexico are retired and are destined to be dismantled at the Pantex facility in Texas.

The United States also maintains a small amount of nuclear inventory in and around Europe as well. Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base likely holds the biggest supply of warheads outside the U.S., and a few weapons are also located in storage vaults in Belgium, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Deployment Data

Nuclear warheads, while devastatingly powerful, are nothing without a delivery mechanism. In simple terms, there are three primary methods for actually launching missiles: Silos, bombers, and submarines.

us nuclear weapons strategic deployment

The most common deployment of nuclear weapons is under the sea. The U.S. Navy is thought to operate 14 ballistic missile submarines, with each carrying as many as 24 Trident II missiles.

Missile silos are not as popular as they once were, but the U.S. Air Force still maintains 400 silo-based missiles, and another 50 are kept “warm” in the event of an emergency.

America’s Nuclear Weapons Budget

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is required to project the 10-year costs of nuclear forces every two years.

Though much of the program is shrouded in secrecy, the budget below provides an overview of the costs of running America’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

America's nuclear warhead arsenal budget

Costs in the budget are split between the Department of Energy (DoE) and the Department of Defense (DoD), which handle different parts of the process.

On one hand, the DoD takes care of the delivery systems for warheads. Those submarines, bombers, and missile silos spread around the country will add up to a projected $249 billion in costs over the next decade. Another large portion of the DoD budget accounts for operational aspects of the program, such as funding facilities, control, and early warning systems.

On the other hand, the DoE is responsible for building and maintaining the actual warheads themselves. The U.S. stopped producing new warheads in the 1990s, but all that changed last year.

Back in the Bomb Business

Generally, we think of nuclear weapons stockpiles as a sunsetting resource, slowly being dismantled; however, since the treaty that ended the arms race collapsed in mid-2019, the flood gates may be opening once again.

New warheads are reportedly rolling off the production line, and in the beginning of this year, Lockheed Martin was tapped by the U.S. Navy to manufacture low yield submarine-based nuclear missiles.

The development of lower yield nuclear weapons appears to be a response to efforts by Russia to modernize their arsenal.

Recent Russian statements […] appear to lower the threshold for Moscow’s first-use of nuclear weapons.

– Nuclear Posture Review (2018)

With this new weapons development, the U.S. is aiming to create “tailored response options” to any potential conflict. By eliminating the perceived advantages that adversaries may have, the U.S. is hoping to lower the likelihood of a nuclear conflict.

Arms control advocates warn that new lower-yield warheads entering production will lower the threshold for a nuclear conflict.

While advocates and critics of nuclear weapons debate the merits of new weapons, we appear to be entering a new era of weapons proliferation.

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Mapped: Geopolitical Risk by Economy

Prior to invading Ukraine, Russia had one of the highest levels of geopolitical risk. How does geopolitical uncertainty vary around the world?

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World map with countries coloured according to their level of geopolitical risk. Pakistan has the most geopolitical risk while New Zealand has the least.
The following content is sponsored by The Hinrich Foundation

Geopolitical Risk by Economy

The Russia-Ukraine war highlighted how geopolitical risk can up-end supply chains and weaponize trade. More precisely, the war led to trade sanctions, a food crisis, and energy shortages.

This graphic from The Hinrich Foundation, the third in a five-part series on the sustainability of trade, explores how geopolitical risk differs by economy. It pulls data from the 2022 Sustainable Trade Index, which The Hinrich Foundation produced in collaboration with the IMD World Competitiveness Center.

Breaking Down Geopolitical Risk

Geopolitical risk has a strong correlation with GDP per capita, meaning that developing economies typically have less stability.

The following table shows how geopolitical risk breaks down for select economies that are covered in the 2022 Sustainable Trade Index. A lower number indicates less stability, while a higher number indicates more stability.

EconomyGeopolitical Stability
Pakistan5.2
Myanmar9.9
Bangladesh16.0
India17.0
Mexico17.9
Philippines18.9
Papua New Guinea20.3
Russia20.8
Thailand24.5
Indonesia28.3
Ecuador34.4
China37.7
Peru38.7
Cambodia41.0
Vietnam44.8
Sri Lanka45.3
U.S.46.2
Chile49.1
Hong Kong50.0
Malaysia50.9
UK61.3
South Korea62.7
Laos69.3
Taiwan72.2
Australia73.1
Japan87.3
Canada90.1
Brunei90.6
Singapore97.2
New Zealand97.6

Source: World Bank, based on the latest available data from 2020. Values measure perceptions of political instability and violence, which are a proxy and precursor to geopolitical risk.

New Zealand has the highest level of stability, likely supported by the fact that it is a small nation with no direct neighbors. The country has taken steps to repair relationships with Indigenous peoples, through land and monetary settlements, though challenges remain. 

The U.S. has moderate stability. It has been impacted by increasing political polarization that has led to people having lower trust in institutions and more negative views of people from the opposing party. As the world’s largest economy, the U.S. also faces geopolitical risk such as escalating tariffs in the U.S.-China trade war. 

Want more insights into trade sustainability?

Sustainable Trade Index 2022 Report Cover

Download the 2022 Sustainable Trade Index for free.

Russia has one of the lowest levels of stability. The country’s invasion of Ukraine has led to war along with economic roadblocks that restrict normal trade activity. For instance, sanctions against Russia and blocked Ukrainian ports led to a food shortage. The two countries supply a third of the world’s wheat and 75% of the sunflower oil supply. 

The Impact of Geopolitical Uncertainty on Trade

Geopolitical risk can lead to civil unrest and war. It also has economic consequences including trade disruptions. As a result of the Russia-Ukraine war, the World Bank estimates that “world trade will drop by 1%, lowering global GDP by 0.7% and GDP of low-income economies by 1%.” A separate study found that Pakistan’s history of political instability has negatively affected trade in the country.

Of course, geopolitical risk is just one component of an economy’s trade sustainability. The Sustainable Trade Index uses a number of other metrics to measure economies’ ability to trade in a way that balances economic growth, societal development, and environmental protection. To learn more, visit the STI landing page where you can download the report for free.

The fourth piece in this series will explore air pollution by economy, and how it is influenced by economic activity such as trade.

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