The W78 warhead, used on the Minuteman III, had seven flight tests (of the eight planned) between 1992 and 1996. DOE and the national laboratory officials told us that a flight test with telemetry equipment was not conducted because the Department decided to use the available warhead test slot on the test missile for a nontelemetry DOE test of the W78. Flight tests involve the actual dropping or launching of a weapon from which the nuclear components have been removed. DOE uses specially designed equipment-referred to as telemetry packages-to test the integration and functioning of the weapon's electrical and mechanical subsystems.
To provide warhead diversity in the force, some Safety Enhanced Reentry Vehicle (SERV) modified Minuteman missiles would carry the W78 warhead. A number of W78 and W87 warheads will be retained as reliability replacements and surveillance assets to support the responsive force.
Air Force regulations prohibit air transport of nuclear weapons containing conventional high explosives (CHE), (i.e., B53, W62, W78) unless ground transport is not feasible. Air transport of CHE weapons requires approval by the Secretary of the Military Department or the Commander of the Unified or Specified Command or their designated representatives.
In 2013, the Air Force plans to initiate a study, called the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent analysis of alternatives (hereafter “Minuteman III follow-on study”), to identify the best approach to upgrade or replace the Minuteman III. The Joint Requirements Oversight Council approved the Air Force’s initial capabilities document in August 2012, and since that time the Air Force drafted a plan for conducting the Minuteman III followon study.
In June 2012 the Nuclear Weapons Council requested that the Air Force, Navy, and NNSA study the feasibility and costs of options to extend the service life of the W78 ICBM warhead (hereafter “warhead feasibility study”). The council directed this study to recommend options for developing a warhead that not only would replace the W78 ICBM warhead, but also could replace the W88 SLBM warhead. The resulting W78/88-1 warhead would be the first of three “interoperable warheads” — warheads designed with common (or “interoperable”) nuclear explosive packages and similar (or “adaptable”) nonnuclear components, such that they are compatible with both Air Force and Navy ballistic missile systems—that the Nuclear Weapons Council envisions introducing to the stockpile over the next 25 years. This approach to warhead modernization marks a departure from prior ballistic missile warhead life extension programs, which did not consider such options.
The W78/88-1 life-extension program is being conducted under the Nuclear Weapons Council’s Procedural Guideline for the Phase 6.X Process,
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