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The Air Force plans to spend billions upgrading America's aging nuclear arsenal

The Air Force put out a call for proposals on Friday to replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and the nuclear cruise missile.
Photo de Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

The US Air Force is planning to spruce up its aging nuclear arsenal — and it could cost taxpayers as much as $1 trillion over the next three decades.

The Air Force put out a call for proposals on Friday to replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and the nuclear cruise missile, saying in a statement that it expects to award contracts for the projects before the end of 2017.


The nation's top three military contractors — Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin — will compete for the job. The Minuteman III program alone is projected to cost $62 billion from 2015 through 2044, according to a Congressional Research Service estimate cited by National Defense magazine. That figure includes $14 billion for upgrades to command-and-control systems and launch centers, and $48.5 billion for new missiles.

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Modernizing all of America's nuclear weapons — including bombs, missiles, and the planes and submarines to carry them — is projected to cost more than $350 billion over the next decade, according to Reuters. In the long-term, some analysts have reportedly projected a bill of $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

Critics argue that the upgrades are too costly, unnecessary, and counter to the long-term global goal of achieving nuclear disarmament. The military insists the new weapons it wants built are must-haves.

"This request for proposals is the next step to ensuring the nation's ICBM leg of the nuclear triad remains safe, secure and effective," said Major General Scott Jansson, commander of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center.

The launch systems and infrastructure for the Air Force's Minuteman ICBMs date back to the mid-1960s. The most recent versions of the Minuteman III date from the late 1990s and early 2000s and had an intended 20-year life span, the Air Force said, noting that the missile will "face increased operational and sustainment challenges until it can be replaced."

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According to National Defense, the US currently has 440 Minuteman III ICBMs at bases in Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota. Each missile is deployed with one nuclear warhead. That arsenal will decline to 400 by February 5, 2018 as part of the New START Treaty, the nuclear arms reduction agreement between the US and Russia.

The Air Force's nuclear program has been plagued by scandals in recent years, with media reports detailing cheating on proficiency tests, drug abuse, and abysmal morale among the personnel responsible for overseeing and maintaining the weapons of mass destruction.

Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton