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Nuclear ballistic missile technology remains a post-Cold-War defense priority

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The modern defense era where counter-terrorism initiatives revolve around stealthy special forces operations, detecting and neutralizing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and wide-area persistent surveillance, not many people are talking about nuclear ballistic missiles.

These doomsday weapons, after all, are relics of the Cold War when the U.S. and Soviet Union maintained a global military balance based on the notion of mutually assured destruction.

This concept, appropriately called MAD for short, saw the U.S. and Soviet Union point thousands of high-energy nuclear warheads at one another such that an all-out atomic war most likely would destroy the entirety of each nation many times over.

We remember the movie icons of that era: Dr. Strangelove, WarGames, FailSafe, the Hunt for Red October. Everything about that era was about dealing with Armageddon, backyard bomb safe rooms, fallout shelters, drop drills and choosing survival ... or not.

Today things are different. The military concentrates on small, light, and fast-moving forces, counter-terrorism, IED detection, and persistent surveillance. Nuclear arsenals are the stuff of museums and movies, right?

Well, not actually. Despite the low profile that strategic atomic forces have taken in recent years, these weapons still represent a high priority for U.S. military forces.

Just last week the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) let two contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and launched a search for an obsolete strategic communications electronic part, that drive home just how important the nation's strategic nuclear capability remains in this day and age.

The Navy Strategic Systems Program Office awarded a $257.8 million contract to the Charles Stark Draper Lab in Cambridge, Mass., and a $6.8 million contract to Aero Thermo Technology Inc. in Huntsville, Ala., for guidance upgrades to the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile.

The Trident II D5 is the latest U.S. submarine-based nuclear missile deterrent, which is based on Ohio-class nuclear submarines. Each submarine carries 14 Trident missiles, and each missile has four independently targeted warheads. Each warhead has about 30 times the destructive power of the nuclear bomb that destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945.

In other words, each of those submarines carries weaponry sufficient to destroy 56 big cities. The upgrades to these missiles that the Navy is pursuing with Draper Lab and Aero Thermo are to ensure the Trident nuclear missile is accurate and deadly for decades to come.