Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor Vol. 26 No. 31
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Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor
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August 04, 2022

Two-year delay for first W80-4 warhead, but NNSA says will still deliver on-time to Air Force

By Dan Leone

The National Nuclear Security Administration now expects to produce the proof-of-concept article for the refurbished W80 nuclear cruise-missile warhead by the end of fiscal year 2027, roughly two years later than planned.

The semiautonomous Department of Energy nuclear weapons agency will turn out the W80-4 first production unit by Sept. 30, 2027 instead of some time in fiscal year 2025, which ends Sept. 30, 2025, an agency spokesperson in Washington told the Exchange Monitor Wednesday.

The Nuclear Weapons Council, the joint DOE-Pentagon body that coordinates procurement of nuclear weapons, delivery vehicles and carrier craft, approved the new date in June, around three years after the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) own independent cost estimator called a 2025 first production unit “highly unlikely.”

W80-4 will be designed to tip the Air Force’s planned Long Range Standoff (LRSO) Weapon cruise missile, which Raytheon is building. The Air Force planned to deploy the missile starting in 2030 or so. LRSO will replace the Boeing-built AGM-86. Boeing’s B-52H will be the first aircraft to carry LRSO, which eventually will fly aboard the B-21 Raider bomber that Northrop Grumman is building.

NNSA’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California is in charge of W80-4, which will be a refurbishment of the W80-1 warhead now carried by the Boeing-built cruise missile.

In an email Wednesday, an NNSA spokesperson told the Exchange Monitor that W80-4’s 2027 first production unit “continues to support the U.S. Air Force’s scheduled LRSO initial and final operational capability dates.” NNSA now estimates it will finish production of W80-4 in fiscal year 2031, the spokesperson said.

In January 2019, about a year before the COVID-19 pandemic, NNSA’s Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation office, which is not part of the W80-4 program office, estimated that the warhead’s first production unit would probably be in fiscal year 2026 instead of fiscal year 2025.

Around two years later, in June 2021, the NNSA testified to Congress that complications arising from the pandemic might delay W80-4. In May, NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby testified that there were “a handful of components” that would not be ready in time to crank out the first W80-4 in fiscal year 2025.

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