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U.S. Air Force: Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and Bombers

The Air Force operates 525 (as of May 2004) Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) of two types: 500 Minuteman III and 25 Peacekeeper. The latter is being retired at the rate of one missile every three weeks a process scheduled for completion at the end of Fiscal Year (FY) 2005.

The Air Force also operates 115 nuclear-capable long-range bombers (94 B-52H Stratofortress and 21 B-2A Spirit, of which 72 are considered Primary Mission Inventory (PMI) aircraft (56 B-52H and 16 B-2A).


Fifteen years after the ending of the Cold War, all ICBMs are maintained on high alert, ready to launch in moments. The high alert rate also keeps the retiring Peacekeeper on high alert until the last missile is take off line in 2005.

Under the START II agreement signed with Russian in 1993, the United States pledged to download all of its ICBMs to single-warhead configuration by 2003 (later delayed till 2007). The Bush administration sought to reject such arms control agreements, however, and following its 2001 Nuclear Posture Review and the subsequent Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT, or the Moscow Treaty) in 2002 instead plans to retain multiple warhead (MIRV) capability on the ICBM force.

See analysis "To MIRV or not to MIRV?"

The history of the Minuteman III and many of its characteristics are described in an Air Force document "Minuteman Weapon System History and Description" from July 2001, which was released under FOIA. A copy can be downloaded from the right-hand bar.

Long-Range Bombers

The Air Force operates 94 B-52 and 21 B-2 bombers. The B-52 is the only carrier of the Air Launched Cruise Missile and Advanced Cruise Missile. The bomber is also certified to deliver the B61-7 and B83 nuclear gravity bombs. The B-2 is certified to deliver the B61-7 and B83 nuclear bombs as well as the B61-11 nuclear earth penetrator.

Fighter Bombers

The United States deploys over 400 nuclear B61 nuclear bombs in Europe for delivery by U.S. F-15E and F-16C/D fighter bombers and NATO F-16 and PA-200 Tornado aircraft. Check out the report "U.S. Nuclear Weapons In Europe." Tactical nuclear weapons were also deployed in South Korea during the Cold War, but they have all been withdrawn (see background brief).

Hans M. Kristensen/Federation of American Scientists | www.nukestrat.com | 2004-2006

US Air Force/OO-ALC/LME, "Minuteman Weapon System: History and Description," July 2001. Obtained under FOIA (PDF-version, 2.3 MB).

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