The improved W88 Alt 370 warhead comes a year late and millions over budget. America’s newest submarine-launched nuclear weapon has entered production.
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced Tuesday that it has successfully completed the first production unit of the W88 Alt 370 warhead, a year late and millions over budget after a technical issue caused delays.
The NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency located within the Department of Energy. While the DoD has oversight of developing the delivery systems for America’s nuclear arsenal — the planes, ships and missiles — the NNSA is in charge of producing the actual nuclear payload.
The W88 warhead is one of two designs used aboard the Trident II D5 submarine launched ballistic missile. While the core design has been deployed since 1988, the Alt 370 modernization effort updates the “arming, fuzing, and firing subsystem; improves surety; replaces the conventional high explosive and associated materials; and incorporates a lightning arrestor connector, trainers, flight test assemblies, and associated handling gear,” per an NNSA announcement.
If that sounds like almost a full redesign of the warhead rather than just a modernization process, you’re not alone. While the NNSA and DoD have been careful to stress that the Alt 370 and other warhead modernization programs are not new weapons, members of the nonproliferation community have argued that technicality — asserting that given how much of the components are being swapped out, the results are new weapons.
Program costs are estimated by NNSA to be $2.8 billion over the life of the program, with production concluding in fiscal 2026. That price tag makes the reason for the delay in today’s announcement ironic.
Delivery of the first production unit was originally scheduled in the first quarter of fiscal year 2020, but a year delay was added to the program after the discovery of an issue with off-the-shelf electrode capacitors used in the system. Replacing those part — which cost as little as $5 on the open market — on the W88 ended up costing an extra $180 million.
Learning how to handle off-the-shelf components for highly sensitive nuclear warheads is a challenge NNSA is working to get a handle on. During the Cold War, roughly 70 percent of NNSA warhead parts were made in-house; officials have said that number is now effectively flipped, with the agency relying largely on commercial technologies.
Other first production unit timelines for the modernized arsenal are slated as fiscal 2022 for the B61-12 gravity bomb, 2025 for the W80-4 cruise missile warhead, 2030 for the W87-1 ICBM warhead.
“This accomplishment is the culmination of over a decade of work, featuring contributions from several sites within the NNSA Nuclear Security Enterprise, members of the NNSA federal workforce, and members of the DoD,” said Charles Verdon, acting NNSA head, in a statement.
“The W88 Alt 370 is a crucial part of Nation’s strategy for the sea-based leg of the nuclear triad, and a testament to the Enterprise’s ability to execute major modernization programs. As we continue to modernize the stockpile, the successes and lessons learned from this program will bolster our future warhead activities to provide a safe, secure, and reliable deterrent.”