Strategic Nuclear Delivery Vehicles


A nuclear weapon system consists of a nuclear warhead, a delivery vehicle, and those components required for its operation. A warhead with a physics package, a bomb or missile, and integration with facilities, support equipment, procedures, and personnel – along with a test or demonstration – constitutes a nuclear capability. The United States relies on these interrelated aspects to help manage geopolitical and operational risks.

Gravity Bombs

Gravity bombs are intended for deployment on both strategic and non-strategic aircraft in the United States and Europe. They can be for ground shock or air burst.

B61-11. The B61-11 has a variable yield allowing its yield to range from less than a kiloton to several hundred kilotons. It can penetrate and detonate below the surface creating a shock wave capable of destroying underground targets. When configured to a 10 kt yield and detonated 4 feet underground, it can produce a shock wave sufficient to crush a bunker buried beneath 100 meters of rock. In tests, it penetrated 20 feet into the earth. Each B-2 can carry up to 16 gravity bombs.

B61-12. This variable yield, precision guided bomb carries a warhead with four selective yield options: .3 kt, 1.5 kt, 10 kt, and 50 kt. The B61-12 air-launched tactical bomb will carry a low-yield nuclear warhead to destroy military targets with minimum collateral damage. The National Nuclear Security Administration and the Air Force completed flight tests from an F-15F fighter jet, and integration is underway on the F-16, F-15E, PA-200, B-2A, and the F-35A.

Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile Warheads (SLBMs)

Most modern SLBMs are closely related to Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), and they operate in a different way from Submarine Launched Cruise Missiles (SLCMs). They have ranges of over 5,500 kilometers.

W76-1. The W76-1 has an estimated yield of 90 kt. It is designed to obliterate hardened nuclear missile silos and annihilate large, populated areas. The warhead is used with the Mark 4A reentry body, which arms Trident II D-5 missiles in the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine. Designed for use with multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs), each Trident missile carries multiple Mk4A/W76-1 reentry bodies.

W76-2. The W76-2 has an estimated yield of 5 to 8 kt. The warhead is a tactical nuclear weapon designed to hit individual military bases and formations on the battlefield. It is deployed on a small number of Trident II D-5 missiles. Each missile can carry up to eight warheads in the current loading configurations.

W88. The W88 has an estimated yield of 475 kt. It is designed as a hard target kill weapon or to flatten cities. A portion of the fleet carries the W88 warhead. It is used with the Mark 5 reentry body, which arms Trident II D-5 missiles. Each missile can carry up to eight warheads.

Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Warheads (ICBMs)

ICBMs have a range greater than 5,500 km. They also have greater range and speed than intermediate range, medium range, short range, or tactical range missiles.

W78. The W78 has an estimated yield of 350 kt. The warhead is designed as a hard target kill weapon. It is used with the Mark 12A reentry vehicle, which arms a portion of the Minuteman III force based in hardened, underground silos. Each Minuteman missile carries up to three Mk12A/W78 reentry vehicles.

W87. The W87 has an estimated yield of 300 kt. It is hardened against nuclear effects and has enhanced safety features. It is paired with the Mk 21 reentry vehicle, which arms a large portion of the Minuteman III force based in hardened silos. The Minuteman III missile configured for the Mk21 reentry vehicle with the larger W87 warhead cannot carry multiple warheads.

Aircraft Launched Cruise Missile Warhead (ALCMs)

ALCMs are typically stand-off weapons. They are used to attack predetermined land targets.

W80-1. The W80-1 has a variable yield allowing its yield to range from 5 kt to 150 kt. It has a hard target kill capability. The warhead is currently used to arm the Air-to-Ground (AGM) 86B ALCMs. Each B-52H can carry up to 20 cruise missiles.

Platform Delivery

The United States maintains a triad of strategic nuclear forces that include land-based ICBMs, nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) with SLBMs, and long-range bombers able to deliver cruise missiles and gravity bombs. Each leg of the triad brings unique capabilities. Minuteman III ICBMs provide prompt launch. Ohio-class SSBNs provide survivability that helps ensure that an adversary cannot pose a threat that could potentially negate the entire force. B-2 and B-52 bombers and other dual capable aircraft provide operational flexibility. The strategic nuclear forces’ structure is adaptable to a range of plausible, but unforeseeable future needs.