Most expensive U.S. military weapons and programs

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January 31, 2021
USAF // Getty Images

Most expensive military weapons and programs

Government budget proposals don’t exactly make for the most scintillating reading. Still, they’re one of the best ways to gain insight into the nation’s priorities—after all, the way you spend your money says a lot. Civilians can gain insights into military operations by learning about the weapons and programs in government budget plans. Using the data from the Feb. 10, 2020 Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Proposal, Stacker ranked the most expensive military weapons. This budget was passed by Congress on Jan. 1, 2021, despite then-President Donald Trump's veto. 

Year over year, the U.S. spends significantly more of its budget on military operations than any other country. In 2019, the U.S. spent almost three times as much as China, the country that spends the second most of its budget on its military, and after China, 10 times more than any other country.

The 2021 budget came to a total of $706 billion—a high number, but actually 4% less than 2020's budget. Most of 2021's budget— $706 billion—is allocated for the Department of Defense's "base budget," which includes peacetime military operations and management of weapon systems. The rest—$69 billion—is for "overseas contingency operations" (OCO) that goes to temporary "war-related activities." At $706 billion, defense spending makes up more than half of the U.S.'s overall total budget, at 55%. For comparison, the Department of Education received $66.6 billion in the 2021 budget. 

As you'll see in this list, weapons easily eat up that enormous amount of money. Hundreds of millions of dollars go into helicopters, missiles, and even digital security. Keep reading to see which missile defense systems, space programs, submarines, and other weapons the U.S. military plans to invest in next year. Staying informed is your civic duty, after all.

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U.S. Defense Imagery // Wikimedia Commons

#30. VH-92 Presidential Helicopters

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $739 million
- Amount invested in: 5
- Type of weapon or program: aircraft

The fleet of VH-92 helicopters flies the president and other high-level White House personnel around the world. The U.S. Marine Corps handles the president’s air transportation.

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Ministerie van Defensie // Wikimedia Commons

#29. Patriot Advanced Capability Missile Segment Enhancement

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $780 million
- Amount invested in: data not available
- Type of weapon or program: missile defeat and defense

This powerful air defense missile can be deployed to protect ground forces from aircraft, cruise missiles, and other tactical ballistic missiles. The U.S. government expects to spend $780 million on PAC-3 missiles in 2021.

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#28. Cloud

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $789 million
- Amount invested in: data not available
- Type of weapon or program: cyberspace

Threats no longer come in just physical form; the digital realm is equally as dangerous. In an unclassified Department of Defense document from 2018, the DOD admitted to “a lack of cloud fitness” and outlined a more definitive cloud strategy.

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Jordon R. Beesley/U.S. Navy // Getty Images

#27. Standard Missile-6

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $816 million
- Amount invested in: 125
- Type of weapon or program: munitions

Three missiles in one, the Standard Missile-6 is unique in that it can perform anti-surface missions, anti-air warfare, and ballistic missile defense. The system is particularly useful to the U.S. Navy because in confined ship space, it offers flexibility.

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#26. Artificial Intelligence

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $841 million
- Amount invested in: data not available
- Type of weapon or program: cyberspace

The Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) leads the Department of Defense’s AI strategies and development. While China and Russia are known for their advancements with AI as a military weapon, questions of ethics and safety often arise. The United States has promised its AI technology and will be both safe and ethical and cite the creation of programs like Project Salus, which helped with supply chain management during COVID-19.

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RINGO CHIU // Getty Images

#25. THAAD Ballistic Missile Defense

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $916 million
- Amount invested in: data not available
- Type of weapon or program: missile defeat and defense

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system provides the capability to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles during their final phase of flight. Though the weapon is based on land, it can shoot down missiles inside and outside the atmosphere.

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#23. Frigate (FFG(X)) (tie)

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $1.1 billion
- Amount invested in: 1
- Type of weapon or program: maritime

The FFG(X) program is set to build a class of 20 guided-missile frigates, and falls under the United States Navy. Construction is set to begin by April 2022. Completion of the first ship should happen by 2026, and it should be operational by 2030.

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U.S. Navy // Flickr

#23. AEGIS Ballistic Missile Defense System (tie)

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $1.1 billion
- Amount invested in: data not available
- Type of weapon or program: missile defeat and defense

The naval component of the missile defense system, AEGIS Ballistic Missile Defense can defeat short-to-intermediate range missiles. It’s a crucial part of the nation’s defense.

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Aviv Dibon/IDF // Getty Images

#20. Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) (tie)

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $1.2 billion
- Amount invested in: 7,360
- Type of weapon or program: munitions

This rocket system has both an upgraded tracked launcher and high-mobility wheeled launcher, allowing it to carry out precise and destructive hits on a variety of targets. Munitions fired by the GMLRS are more accurate than ballistic rockets.

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OLAF KRAAK // Getty Images

#20. Landing Platform Dock Ship (LPD) (tie)

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $1.2 billion
- Amount invested in: 1
- Type of weapon or program: maritime

Also known as an amphibious transport dock, the Landing Platform Dock Ship (LPD) is a versatile maritime vessel that aids with expeditionary warfare. It can carry hundreds of troops as well as equipment and vehicles, making it a valuable wartime weapon.

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Shawn Hussong // Wikimedia Commons

#20. AH-64E Attack Helicopters (tie)

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $1.2 billion
- Amount invested in: 52
- Type of weapon or program: aircraft

These multi-purpose combat helicopters are used by the U.S. Army and international armies around the world. The U.S. Army’s Apache fleet has flown more than 4.2 million flight hours since they first began buying them in 1984.

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Sebastian Saarloos // Wikimedia Commons

#19. Joint Light Tactical Vehicles

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $1.4 billion
- Amount invested in: 4,247
- Type of weapon or program: land

The Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (or JLTV) is stronger, faster, and lighter than the Humvee. Still, these armored trucks weigh about 14,000 pounds each.

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Christopher McCullough // Wikimedia Commons

#16. M-1 Abrams Tank Modifications/Upgrades (tie)

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $1.5 billion
- Amount invested in: 89
- Type of weapon or program: land

The upgrades to the U.S. Army’s Abrams tanks come after a two-year review of the protection systems for these vehicles. The upgrades are designed to better defend the tanks against rockets and missiles.

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Gabriela Garcia // Wikimedia Commons

#16. CH-53K King Stallion (tie)

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $1.5 billion
- Amount invested in: 7
- Type of weapon or program: aircraft

This helicopter was designed for use by the U.S. Marine Corps and serves as a crucial logistics connector. It can lift extremely heavy loads, allowing the military to lift weapons, equipment, and other loads from ship to shore or over difficult terrain.

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Keni // Shutterstock

#16. Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) (tie)

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $1.5 billion
- Amount invested in: data not available
- Type of weapon or program: nuclear modernization

This weapon system will replace the LGM-30 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile system (ICBM). The contract for the GBSD was awarded to Northrop Grumman in September 2020.

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Suzanne Jenkins/U.S. Air Force // Getty Images

#14. F-15EX (tie)

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $1.6 billion
- Amount invested in: 12
- Type of weapon or program: aircraft

This U.S Air Force fighter jet is the latest and greatest version of the F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter, which was introduced in the 1970s. This twin-seat jet will nearly triple air-to-air missile capability, from 8 to 22, using the new AMBER missile racks.

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United States Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

#14. National Security Space Launch (aka EELV) (tie)

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $1.6 billion
- Amount invested in: 3
- Type of weapon or program: space

The overarching mission of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) is to make space launches more affordable and reliable. The military is slowly replacing the current launch systems with EELVs to improve the space program overall.

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NASA // Wikipedia Commons

#13. Global Positioning System III and Projects

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $1.8 billion
- Amount invested in: 2
- Type of weapon or program: space

This collection of orbiting satellites provides crucial navigation data to both the military and civilians all over the world. GPS satellites orbit the earth every 12 hours, transmitting data to computer systems on the ground that allow the calculation of time, distance, and velocity with incredible accuracy.

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Navy // Wikimedia Commons

#12. F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $2.1 billion
- Amount invested in: 24
- Type of weapon or program: aircraft

These all-weather aircraft are used as both fighter planes and attack aircraft. The nation’s first strike-fighter, the single-seat F/A-18 has increased the likelihood of military forces surviving their missions.

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#11. Space Based Overhead Persistent Infrared Systems

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $2.5 billion
- Amount invested in: 1
- Type of weapon or program: space

Considered one of the top priority space programs, Space Based Infrared Surveillance (SBIRS) provides an early missile warning system. The system includes satellites and hosted payloads, as well as ground hardware and software.

 

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Eliyahu Yosef Parypa // Shutterstock

#10. B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $2.8 billion
- Amount invested in: data not available
- Type of weapon or program: nuclear modernization

Dubbed the B-21 Raider in honor of World War II’s Doolittle Raiders, the Air Force Long Range Strike Bomber is currently in development. This next-generation bomber would be able to carry heavy payloads such as nuclear weapons. B-21s would eventually replace older B-1 and B-52 bombers.

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Catherine Mae O. Campbell // Wikimedia Commons

#8. CVN-78 FORD Class Aircraft Carrier (tie)

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $3.0 billion
- Amount invested in: data not available
- Type of weapon or program: maritime

These aircraft carriers are part of the Navy’s Gerald R. Ford class of nuclear-powered ships. The CVN-78 design has more electrical power and can be run by several hundred fewer sailors than its predecessors.

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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

#8. KC-46 Tanker Replacements (tie)

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $3.0 billion
- Amount invested in: 15
- Type of weapon or program: aircraft

The effort to replace older KC-135 tanker aircraft with KC-46 hasn’t been efficient: The program has had its fair share of technical problems, leading to long delays. Previous Defense Secretary Jim Mattis noted was not pleased, saying he was “unwilling” to accept any flawed aircraft.

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#7. DDG-51 Arleigh Burke Destroyers

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $3.5 billion
- Amount invested in: 2
- Type of weapon or program: maritime

The “greyhounds of the sea” are warships that have both offensive and defensive capabilities in a variety of missions, and operate both in carrier groups and independently. The DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyers are capable of conducting warfare against aircraft, submarines, and surface-level threats.

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Gorodenkoff // Shutterstock

#6. Cyberspace – Operations

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $3.8 billion
- Amount invested in: data not available
- Type of weapon or program: cyberspace

Cyberspace operations are divided into three categories: DODIN Operations, Defensive Cyberspace Operations, and Offensive Cyberspace Operations. The United States has a military command called Cyber Command and directed by the Secretary of Defense, that was formed in 2009, which plays a key role in the nation’s cyberspace operations.

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U.S. Naval Systems Command Image // Wikimedia Commons

#5. COLUMBIA Class Ballistic Missile Submarine

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $4.4 billion
- Amount invested in: 1
- Type of weapon or program: nuclear modernization, maritime

The Navy is designing and building new Columbia-class submarines to replace older Ohio-class submarines. It hopes to introduce the first Columbia-class sub in the 2021 fiscal year.

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Lara Bollinger // Wikimedia Commons

#4. Virginia Class Submarine

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $4.7 billion
- Amount invested in: 1
- Type of weapon or program: maritime

One of three types of Navy submarines currently in service, the Virginia-class ships are the latest in attack submarines. Innovations like a fly-by-wire ship control system, a reconfigurable torpedo room, and a large lock-in/lock-out chamber for divers make it a superior submarine.

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#3. Cybersecurity

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $5.4 billion
- Amount invested in: data not available
- Type of weapon or program: cyberspace

Cybersecurity is one of the most vital areas of national defense, and cyberattacks from other nations remain an ongoing threat to the United States. In July 2020, valuable data relating to research on the COVID-19 vaccine was stolen. The Department of Homeland Security and The Department of Defense defend our country and national interests against significant cyberattacks.

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#2. Nuclear Command, Control and Communications

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $7 billion
- Amount invested in: data not available
- Type of weapon or program: nuclear modernization

Known as NC3, this system is a terrestrial and space monitor for nuclear threats against the United States. It performs several imperative functions including detection, warning, and attack characterization; intake of Presidential orders; nuclear planning; and the management and direction of forces.

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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

#1. F-35 Joint Strike Fighters

- 2021 Department of Defense budget investment: $11.4 billion
- Amount invested in: 79
- Type of weapon or program: aircraft

Also known as the F-35 Lightning II Program, the Joint Strike Fighter Program is set to receive one of the major investments in the 2021 fiscal year. The advanced airframe, propulsion systems, and stealth features of the F-35 make it more affordable and lethal than other aircraft.

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