NBC Weapons: Forgotten Secrets

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NUCLEAR, BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL WEAPONS

June 4, 2009: American efforts to refurbish their elderly W76 nuclear warheads are being held up by difficulties in manufacturing several components. The warheads were originally manufactured over 25 years 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 two years ago that the nuclear weapons industry proposed a new warhead design for the navy's sea-launched Trident D5 ballistic missiles. This would involve replacing 3,000 W76 warheads that currently equip 336 missiles. That project would cost about $100 billion. The navy preferred to refurbish the W76s, and save a lot of money.

 The navy also wanted to build more nuclear submarines, and that was going to be expensive. That includes both Virginia class SSN attack subs, and replacements for the current Ohio class ballistic missile boats. Since the Ohios are expected to serve into the 2020s (they entered service in the 1980s and 90s), the more immediate need is for more Virginias. These 7,800 ton boats cost over $2 billion each. The navy wants at least fifty of them, to replace the aging Los Angeles class boats. The navy needs subs more than it needs new warheads. But the companies and organizations that build and maintain nuclear warheads want the work. Which is more essential? 

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's 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, this warhead 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 fifteen years. 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 agreed to get try and get each of their warhead inventories down to 2,000 or fewer.

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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