US Completes 20-Year-Long Naval Nuclear Warhead Overhaul
22:02 24.01.2019(updated 22:10 24.01.2019)
The US has completed a two-decade-long project to refurbish and update the W76 nuclear warhead in use on US Navy submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the US Department of Energy (DOE) announced Wednesday. However, the larger problem of its Trident missile delivery system remains.
The DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) noted completion of the project, begun in 1998, to update the W76-0 warhead to the W76-1. The nuclear warheads date to the 1970s, and the refurbishment adds new safety features and further extends their life by at least 20 years, a Wednesday DOE press release said.
"A great deal of teamwork and dedication went into this incredible achievement. People all across our country did their part to make the delivery of this refurbished warhead possible, and they did it ahead of schedule and under budget," US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said at a ceremony at the Pantex Plant, the US' primary nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility in Amarillo, Texas.
"Today is a shining example of the crucial role NNSA plays in enhancing our nation's nuclear security," Undersecretary for Nuclear Security and NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty said at the ceremony, according to Defense News.
"The success we've achieved on the W76-1 is a testament to our ability across the Nuclear Security Enterprise to deliver on commitments to the Department of Defense, Congress and the American people," Gordon-Hagerty said. "With this proven path forward, we will continue to make progress on our other modernization programs, including the B61-12, W80-4 and the W88 Alteration 370."
In 2010, then US-President Barack Obama began a $1.5 trillion modernization of the US' entire nuclear weapons program, a project expected to take 30 years to complete. That also includes new facilities, a new stealth bomber, a new nuclear armed cruise missile dubbed the Long Range Standoff weapon (LRSO) and the above-mentioned warhead overhauls, The Hill noted.
It also includes development of a new Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile, which carries the W-76 warhead. That new missile, the Trident D5 LE2, must also be developed and constructed, as the present Tridents were built decades ago.
While the W76 might be under budget according to Perry, modernization of the related W88 Trident II ballistic missile warhead and the B61-12 gravity bomb are way over budget, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in November 2018. The GAO found the W88 life extension program was 11 percent over preliminary estimates, and the B-61-12 program was 1.2 percent over.
The Trump administration's Nuclear Posture Review, released on February 2, 2018, set further ambitions for the US nuclear weapons program, including a low-yield variant of the W76, dubbed the W76-2. The NNSA expects that program to deliver its first production unit in 2020 and be completed by 2024, to the tune of between $7.3 and $9.5 billion, Defense News noted.
Congressional Democrats have vowed to oppose the program, and Rep. Adam Smith, the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has vowed to kill funding for it.
The W76 variants could also find use on the Navy's prospective submarine-launched hypersonic weapon being developed by the Strategic Systems Program (SSP).
"We just about tested everything that we need to test at one point or another for that program [W76], which is what gives us the confidence that when we go to do these, the system will work," Vice Admiral Johnny Wolfe said at the annual Naval Submarine League symposium last November. "We don't need to go do a test with this; we've got all the right models from all the years of operating the 76 and the 76-1, which we're deploying now."
Sputnik reported in November that because the US has already signed off on an international ban on testing new nuclear weapons, it's leaning on already-proven technology.
Despite this, US fidelity to international nuclear weapons treaties isn't what it used to be: Washington has announced its intention to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, an agreement signed with the Soviet Union that envisioned the destruction of all nuclear-armed, ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles, Sputnik reported. Russia, the successor state to the Soviet Union, has urged Washington to return to the confines of the INF and the related New Strategic Arms Reduction (New START) treaty, a 2010 bilateral accord on nuclear arms reduction.
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