Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor Vol. 26 No. 11
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Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor
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March 17, 2022

New W93 deets but no pit updates in NNSA’s latest unclassified stockpile stewardship report

By ExchangeMonitor

A new submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead will be ready for production around 2029, and the National Nuclear Security Administration still hasn’t missed deliveries to the military because of COVID, according to the agency’s latest annual unclassified progress report.

Notionally, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) will produce the final proof-of-concept model, or first production unit, of the submarine-launched W93 warhead between 2034 and 2036, according to the agency’s fiscal year 2022 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, released Wednesday afternoon.

That’s not too different from the best guess the NNSA made in 2020 about the arrival of a weapon then known as the Next Navy Warhead. In its 2020 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, the agency penciled in a first-production-unit date of 2034 for that weapon.

In the latest stockpile plan, NNSA dribbled out a few new summary details about W93.

“Anchored on previously tested nuclear components, the W93 will incorporate modern technologies to improve safety, security, and flexibility to address future threats,” the NNSA wrote. “It will be designed for ease of manufacturing, maintenance, and certification. All of its key nuclear components will be based on currently deployed and previously tested nuclear designs, as well as extensive stockpile component and materials experience.”

When NNSA and the Pentagon lifted the veil on W93 in early 2020, someone familiar with internal government discussions about the weapon suggested that its design might be leveraged for future sea-based weapons, and that it might be serviceable outside of the NNSA’s Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas: the central service-center for all U.S. nuclear weapons, deployed or not. Los Alamos National Laboratory manages development of W93.

Also in the latest Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, the NNSA said that it “has not missed any deliverables to its DoD [Department of Defense] partners and customers during the COVID-19 pandemic,” which as of Thursday was about a month into its third year.

However, a senior NNSA official said in February that the W80-4 air-launched cruise missile warhead — also notionally the basis for the future sea-launched cruise missile called for in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review — could be delayed because of COVID’s effect on the nuclear-weapons supply chain.

Finally, the NNSA said in Wednesday’s report that it still expects to produce 30 plutonium pits a year at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in fiscal year 2026. The agency did not say when the Savannah River Site might start making 50 more pits a year. The agency acknowledged last year that the site in South Carolina could not hit that level of output by 2030 as the military requires — 2035, or maybe a few years earlier was more like it, NNSA said at the time.

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