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Research Questions

  1. What criteria must be met to effectively support the strategic nuclear mission?
  2. What are the major challenges to nuclear modernization?
  3. How can AFGSC and the Air Force as a whole mitigate these challenges?

After decades of near neglect, the Air Force is embarking on a vast modernization of its portion of the nation's nuclear deterrence capabilities — but these modernization activities face a range of challenges. Nuclear-specific tasks related to testing and certification have not been performed at scale for many decades and will need to be relearned and revised for the current conditions. The sheer scale of the programs is daunting. And this ambitious set of programs will be fielded by Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), a relatively young command with a relatively small staff that has limited experience in fielding new systems.

This report identifies and describes means to allay these challenges. The authors focus on the integrated planning and preparation for mission success across individual programs, with a special emphasis on the challenges of operational testing and nuclear certification.

Key Findings

Nuclear modernization faces many challenges

  • Nuclear-specific tasks, such as testing for survivability in environments with nuclear weapon effects and the design and operational nuclear certification of systems and units, have not been performed at scale for many decades and must be relearned and revised for the current conditions.
  • The sheer scale of the programs, which touch on nearly every part of the weapons, delivery platforms, command and control, and weapon storage, is daunting.
  • This ambitious set of programs will need to be fielded by AFGSC, a relatively young command with a relatively small staff that has limited experience in fielding new systems.
  • The nuclear modernization effort is happening in a tight fiscal period with some opposition to various nuclear systems in favor of other national priorities.
  • The nuclear modernization effort must also deal with the expiration of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in 2021 and emerging cyber threats.

What needs to be done

  • AFGSC will need to sustain legacy systems, field new systems, and manage the sometimes complicated transition between them.
  • It is vital not only that strategic nuclear systems operate, but that the exact specified number be available or on alert at all times.
  • Because nuclear weapons systems are meant to deter, it is not enough for them to work reliably and effectively when called upon to do so — all adversaries must also be convinced of this ability.


  • The Air Force should develop a master plan for each of the two nuclear roles that AFGSC supports: the land-based strategic deterrent and the strategic bomber deterrent. These master plans would adopt a strategies-to-tasks framework to show a detailed decomposition of the means by which each of these missions will be sustained over time and how these systems contribute to national-level objectives.
  • The Air Force should use this strategies-to-tasks framework for its nuclear roles to strengthen the coordination of advocacy across the Air Force.
  • AFGSC should consider establishing a formal, small presence in the national capital region to help it remain aware of and react to issues in the Pentagon in a timely fashion and to proactively represent AFGSC's interests.
  • The nuclear modernization effort should be managed from end to end, with particular focus on the early steps of the process, when standards and criteria are written and the resultant system design is fixed.
  • AFGSC should reach out to other major commands to learn from their experiences in procuring and fielding weapon systems.
  • To maintain institutional knowledge of nuclear system development and acquisition, historians should be involved in these activities.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the Director, Strategic Plans, Programs, and Requirements, Air Force Global Strike Command and conducted by the Force Modernization and Employment Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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