US is building first new nuclear warhead in decades

‘The W93 will also incorporate modern technologies to improve safety, security, and flexibility to address future threats,’ energy department agency says

Gustaf Kilander
Washington DC
Friday 19 April 2024 15:44 BST
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The United States is building its first new nuclear warhead in decades but will do so without nuclear testing, according to energy department officials on Wednesday.

The warhead, known as the W93, is set to be used on ballistic missiles launched from submarines. It is being built using funds, $19.8bn, requested by the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) for the 2025 fiscal year, energy secretary Jennifer Granholm and NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby told the Senate Armed Services Committee, according to The Washington Times.

The warhead is in its early design stages at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the main site for the Manhattan Project which built the first nuclear bombs during World War II.

Production on the warhead is set to begin in the middle of the next decade, the officials testified.

The issue of updating its nuclear capabilities is a top priority for the Pentagon and the nuclear-armed submarines are central to the US nuclear forces. Other parts of the strategic capabilities include bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

View of the entrance of Los Alamos National Lab: National Security Science in Los Alamos, New Mexico, on February 20, 2024. (AFP via Getty Images)

“The W93 is a new program of record being established to meet requirements set by the [Department of Defense],” the NNSA states on its site.

“The Navy’s ballistic missile submarine force is the most survivable leg of the Triad and is currently equipped with two warhead types: the W76 and W88. These warheads provide approximately two-thirds of the total U.S. deployed force. The W93 will reduce current over-reliance on the W76 system and will allow the US to keep pace with future adversary threats.”

“All W93 key nuclear components will be based on currently deployed and/or previously tested nuclear designs, as well as extensive stockpile component and materials experience,” the NNSA adds.

“However, the W93 will also incorporate modern technologies to improve safety, security, and flexibility to address future threats and will be designed for ease of manufacturing, maintenance, and certification.”

The W93 will be manufactured to be lighter than the W76 and the W88 warheads, meaning its range will be expanded. The nuclear forces used on submarines will be made smaller to fit the 12 Columbia class missile boats, sized down from the 14 Ohio class submarines.

Energy secretary Jennifer Granholm (pictured) told Congress on Wednesday that the new warhead is set to be used on ballistic missiles launched from submarines (Getty Images)

The energy department will also update five current warheads using funding from a $2.84bn request, the officials said. Those warheads include the B61, a nuclear gravity bomb dropped from planes. The updated version will be finished by 2025.

“The W93 is a new warhead program based on existing designs that will not require new underground nuclear explosive testing,” Ms Granholm and Ms Hruby said.

The W89 and W92 were cancelled following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, The Washington Times noted.

“The W93 will meet DoD requirements to enhance operational effectiveness of the U.S. ballistic missile submarine force,” the officials added.

The Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina will produce plutonium pits for the new warhead, requested by now-retired Admiral Charles Richard in late 2020.

It will be built with help from the UK, which will also use the weapon. Admiral Richard had warned of nuclear developments in China, which has doubled its stockpile of nuclear warheads.

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