NBC Weapons: W76 Forever

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NUCLEAR, BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL WEAPONS

April 6, 2011: Britain will also use the W76-1 upgrade to the older W76 nuclear warhead, as older generations of nuclear warheads are updated, before they become dysfunctional from old age. Previous to this, Britain had used its own nuclear weapons designs for these warheads, although the current British SLBM (sea-launched ballistic missile) warhead is believed to be similar to the American W76, but with some different features (like selectable yield, or how big a nuclear explosion there will be). The W76 is the standard nuclear weapon used on ballistic missiles carried by American SSBNs (nuclear powered subs carrying ballistic missiles). At the moment, the U.S. is in the process of producing 1,200 W76-1 warheads.

Upgrading these older warheads has not been easy. For example, American efforts to refurbish the elderly W76 nuclear warheads was held up by difficulties in manufacturing several components. The warheads were originally manufactured three decades ago. Since that time, it was discovered that the necessary details, for manufacturing some of the unique components, has been lost. One of those items, a chemical codenamed Fogbank, could not be created with surviving documents. This problem was eventually overcome, but then similar problems were discovered with some other components. This sort of thing was largely the result of manufacturing details being so highly classified. Normally, manufacturing details for older items can afford to be a little vague, because unclassified components have lots of similar items either still in production, or many people and documents you can consult to quickly reconstruct the needed materials and process details. Not so with classified components for nuclear weapons.

It was four years ago that the nuclear weapons industry proposed a new warhead design for the navy's sea-launched Trident D5 ballistic missiles. This involved replacing 3,000 W76 warheads that currently equip 336 missiles. That would cost about $100 billion. The navy preferred to refurbish the W76s, and save a lot of money, rather than coming up with a new design.

The case for a new warhead is that this would provide a nuclear weapon that is more reliable, less likely to go off by accident, cheaper to maintain and more difficult to use if one is stolen by terrorists. The navy insisted that the current W76 warheads, produced between 1972 and 1987, were adequate. The W76s are old, but like any piece of expensive machinery, they are carefully maintained. Parts wear out and are replaced. It was components that don't wear out quickly that caused the problem with the refurbishment. These items have been out of production for over two decades.

Most importantly, the W76 has been tested. So we are sure that a W76 will explode when ordered to. Because of a 1992 treaty, nuclear weapons may no longer be tested, even underground. The new warhead would have to be "tested" via simulation. That is not a major obstacle. Simulation of complex systems is now quite common, and reliable. It's one of those unseen technologies that make life so much better for everyone. The nuclear weapons designers, however, believe they have discovered several flaws in the W76 design, things that could be eliminated with a new warhead, even one that will never actually be detonated. One of the flaws is apparently the difficulty of reviving the manufacture of key W76 components like the mysterious Fogbank chemical.

Times have been tough for the nuclear weapons crowd since the Cold War ended in 1991. Since then, several treaties have been signed that reduce the American nuclear arsenal. Thus it is bad politics to try and get lots of money for new warheads. This is especially true because most people would like for there to be even fewer warheads. It's the old debate over "how many warheads do you need to get the job done." The U.S. currently has 7,000 nuclear warheads. There are another 8,000 out there (most of them Russian).

Over 15,000 warheads have been taken out of service in the last two decades. The U.S. and Russia had so many because both nations had developed tactics that included attempting to knock each others land based missile silos out of action. Any exchange of that many warheads, even if only ten percent of them actually went off, would have destroyed Eurasia and North America. Those tactics are no longer popular, thus you only need a few hundred warheads to pose a credible nuclear threat. The U.S. and Russia have since agreed to get each of their warhead inventories down to less than 2,000.

As a result of all this, getting $100 billion for a new generation of warheads was not going to happen. The decision was made to refurbish. Then along came, or didn't, Fogbank and other components that were more difficult to recreate than expected.

Maintaining existing warheads costs over a billion dollars a year, with or without crises like lost manufacturing knowledge. That includes money needed for maintaining and upgrading facilities, as well as work on the warheads themselves, and research and development of maintenance requirements and techniques. Nukes are still a big business. But they are not likely to get a lot bigger. A new treaty is proposed that will reduce the nuclear arsenal even further.

 


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