The Trump administration, in a closely held memo to lawmakers this spring, justified developing the first new U.S. atomic weapon since the Cold War by citing vulnerabilities and risks in the current nuclear arsenal that are rarely or never acknowledged in public.
In an unclassified five-page white paper sent to Congress in May, the Pentagon and the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, affirm a point they have long minimized: the dangers of land-based missiles ready to launch minutes after a warning of enemy attack.
They also discuss threats to U.S. nuclear missile submarines that have previously been depicted as all but undetectable. They say, too, that a new class of ballistic missile submarines lacks the firepower of its predecessors, creating a need for a lighter and more powerful type of warhead — in addition to the two existing types. As for the current two sets of warheads, they say they have too few of the most destructive kind and too many of the less forceful variety — and excessively rely on the latter.
The document, which was obtained by CQ Roll Call and has not previously been disclosed, makes the fullest case yet for the $14 billion W93 submarine-launched atomic warhead program and its MK7 reentry vehicle, which would cost several hundred million more dollars.
In the document, officials said the W93 warhead must be funded, starting in fiscal 2021, because of what it described as perils and vulnerabilities in the Navy’s inventory of sub-launched weapons, as well as in the Air Force’s land-based missiles and bombers. These arguments are rarely, if ever, aired in public and atomic arms experts question the validity of some of the points.
The new W93 warhead “will enhance operational effectiveness and mitigate a variety of risks that are present in the current force,” said the document, titled, “W93/MK7 Navy Warhead — Developing Modern Capabilities to Address Current and Future Threats.”
Essential or excessive?
The key to the W93 program's fate will be whether these arguments are convincing to whoever wins the 2020 presidential election and to the next Congress.
At stake are not just billions of dollars but also the world’s balance of military power and possibly America’s ability to talk other nations out of acquiring their first nuclear weapons.
The decision on whether to design and build the W93 is part of a larger debate about a planned $1 trillion upgrade of the U.S. nuclear arsenal of aircraft, subs, missiles, bombs and warheads.
Often lost in abstract debates over U.S. nuclear weapons is how much firepower they represent. Just one of America’s 14 Ohio-class submarines — a fraction of the total U.S. nuclear force at sea, on land and in the air — could deliver explosive power nearly 10 times that of all the bombs dropped in World War II, including the two atomic ones. If just that one sub’s weapons were used, the blast and consequent climate changes would kill scores of millions of people, studies show.
The Armed Services committees have endorsed launching the W93 warhead program in fiscal 2021. But the House’s Energy-Water spending bill would provide no funding for the president’s $53 million request to begin design work in the coming fiscal year, due to what House appropriators call NNSA’s management challenges. Senate appropriators have yet to weigh in.
On Tuesday, the House Rules Committee rejected for consideration an amendment to a package of spending bills by Michael R. Turner of Ohio, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, to restore the House Appropriations cut.
“As I have repeatedly said, there is no time to waste when updating the nuclear triad,” Turner told CQ Roll Call in a statement.
But critics say a new atomic weapon, coupled with the administration’s avowed aversion to arms control, could make nonproliferation harder to achieve.
Under the administration’s current plan, it will have gone from planning to upgrade, life-extend or replace five warheads in 2018 to nine today, despite the fact that the NNSA has had trouble staying on schedule and on budget on most of its major programs.
“There is already more than enough redundancy built into the U.S. nuclear arsenal,” said Kingston Reif, an expert on atomic arms at the Arms Control Association. “A third submarine-launched warhead at an estimated cost of at least $14 billion would be unnecessary excess on top of excess.”
Rare critique of Air Force arsenal
The W93 program was only briefly mentioned in hearings earlier this year and has received just passing scrutiny in the press.
The new warhead would be produced in the mid-2030s. It would be launched from subs on Trident missiles. The United Kingdom would cooperate with the U.S. government on the planned development program.
The budget white paper justifying the W93 program makes several noteworthy statements that go far beyond U.S. officials’ previous public pronouncements — or even clash with the official line.
First, the document said the W93 “provides a technical hedge” against the risk that the current Navy warheads might have a hardware snafu.
What’s more, it said, relying instead on either Air Force bombers or land-based missiles poses problems — a highly unusual critique from national security officials.
“Hedging with bomber weapons would reduce responsiveness, while hedging with fixed intercontinental ballistic missiles would increase reliance on a launch under attack posture,” it said.
That last reference is to the fact that America’s Minuteman III ICBMs are maintained in a state of readiness to launch within minutes of a presidential command, which would be triggered by a report of an enemy missile attack — a “use them or lose them” posture that is driven by a fear that enemy ballistic missiles could target the ICBMs themselves.
Critics, including former Defense Secretary William Perry, have said this posture is dangerous, because it requires a president to decide quickly in a pressure-packed situation.
What’s more, Perry and others have said, the attack warning could be false — but once the ICBMs are launched, they cannot be returned to their silos.
U.S. forces received incorrect warnings three times between 1979 and 1995, though the mistakes were discovered in time. The Soviet government also had false alarms during the Cold War that were caught in time.
Defense Department officials have regularly minimized the gravity of this issue. Now they are using a concern over the launch-on-warning posture to justify a new nuclear weapon.
For the future Air Force nuclear arsenal, Minuteman III ICBMs are being replaced by the $85 billion Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. And B-52 and B-2 bombers are being supplanted by squadrons of B-21 Raiders for $97 billion. The cost of updating Air Force warheads adds another $20 billion or more to the tally.
However, it is not clear that these costly new systems or the planned modes of operating them will address the weaknesses sketched in the budget document.
A Pentagon spokesman said the Air Force programs are not risky.
“Collectively, the Triad seeks to ensure that no adversary believes it could launch a strategic attack that eliminates the U.S. ability to respond and inflict unacceptable damage — for any reason, under any circumstances,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Uriah Orland.
Purported Navy ‘imbalance’
The budget document said two-thirds of America’s deployed nuclear warheads are on subs, making it the one leg of the so-called nuclear triad “where we can least afford risk,” it said.
However, officials argued in the document, there is plenty of risk.
The first danger is relying too much on one type of sub-launched warhead, they said.
The Navy has about 1,900 atomic weapons, according to Hans Kristensen, a leading analyst on nuclear weaponry with the Federation of American Scientists. The exact numbers of warheads are classified.
More than 1,500 of the Navy's nukes — the overwhelming majority — are W76 warheads, (up to 50 of the W76s are new, lower-yield versions), he said. The overwhelming majority of the W76 warheads that predominate in the Navy arsenal have a yield of approximately 90 kilotons. That is about six times the power in a single warhead of the Hiroshima bomb.
Yet that is not enough force in all war scenarios, the budget document suggested.
In addition to the W76s, the Navy possesses a much smaller store of W88s — fewer than 400. Each of these has a more massive clout than the W76s — some 455 kilotons, according to the scientific federation. That is 30 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb.
The budget document bemoaned the Navy’s excessive reliance on less destructive W76s and called for a higher-yield alternative in the form of the W93.
To make sure there is a more powerful option in greater numbers and to guard against the possibility of an unspecified technical problem in either of the two existing naval warheads (especially in the more numerous W76s), a third option is required, the officials argued.
The “imbalance” must be addressed, they wrote, so the subs can “hold all targets in current plans at risk.”
Worries about Navy’s main warhead
An NNSA spokeswoman, asked if there is any reason to expect a technical problem in the current inventory of naval warheads, said: “Maximum effort continues to be applied by both DoD and NNSA to minimize the chance of any significant technical problems with the W76. However, because of our dependence on the W76, prudence calls for us to have risk mitigation in place.”
The W76s that are the cause of such concern have just completed a $3.5 billion life extension program that would keep them operational into the mid-2040s, according to an unclassified Pentagon report this year called “Nuclear Matters 2020.”
The W88, meanwhile, will not need to be replaced or undergo a life extension until the mid-2030s, the report said. Those W88s are undergoing a $2.6 billion upgrade to improve the detonation system.
Moreover, either or both the current naval warheads could undergo a life extension in the 2030s or 2040s that would make them last for many more years, experts said.
Such life extensions would cost billions, but not as much as a new type of warhead, they said. And the W93 will almost certainly require costly new plutonium cores called pits, they add, though the administration spokespersons said that is not a given.
Less powerful new ‘boomers’
The over-reliance on lower-yield W76 warheads is not the only weak point of the Navy’s atomic arsenal, the paper said.
The Navy is planning to replace its 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile subs — known as boomers — starting in 2031 with a new $98 billion Columbia class of a dozen subs that are now starting to be built.
Despite the price tag, the Columbia class will lack the Ohio class’s firepower. Besides the Columbia class comprising two fewer subs, each sub will have fewer missile tubes than the Ohio class, a more than one-third reduction in missile tubes across the boomer fleet.
Up to now, the Navy brass has called the reduction in missile tubes an acceptable risk.
But the budget document revealed that the less powerful Columbia class has now become an argument for the new W93 warheads.
The W93 is supposed to be a relatively lighter-weight warhead, which means a Trident missile can carry the W93 farther and hit a wider range of targets, the paper argued.
Because the Navy will be capable of launching fewer warheads from the Columbia subs, the document said, it must have enough lightweight, high-yield warheads to reach sufficient targets with adequate firepower.
The paper discusses still other vulnerabilities that are rarely aired.
Because the lighter W93 warhead gives the missiles greater range, the subs can stay farther away from enemy anti-submarine weapons, the officials said.
The argument is at odds with the longstanding official depiction of boomer subs as virtually undetectable and, so, essentially invulnerable.
Critics are skeptical about the argument.
They said the subs were able to perform their deterrence patrols during the Cold War, when Soviet attack submarines posed a virtually globe-spanning threat.
The boomers, experts add, operate thousands of miles away from their targets, which has previously kept them largely out of harm’s way.
“There’s no indication that Russia’s current or foreseeable attack submarine fleet has the capability to take on the U.S. boomers on the open oceans — China even less so,” said Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists.
Next president’s call
Once W93s are produced, officials will decide which of the current warheads should be taken out of the deployed inventory and in what numbers, the white paper said.
Officials have said publicly that the W93’s introduction would not increase the inventory of deployed warheads. But neither the document nor government spokespersons who were asked about it would forswear the possibility of increasing the total stockpile, which includes backups. An increase in the total stockpile could make it harder to convince other countries to scale back their own atomic weapons programs, arms control advocates worry.
Officials have been reluctant in testimony and interviews to call the W93 a new weapon. But the document makes clear that it would be new. One section of the paper is even titled, “Why Do We Need a New Weapon?”
What’s more, it would be strikingly advanced in multiple ways, the administration paper said. Besides its lighter weight, it would also be safer to store and better able to evade enemy missile defenses, the paper suggested. The weapon will not require explosive nuclear tests, it added.
The debate over whether to embark on a new nuclear capability will stretch into the next administration.
Prior to the Trump administration's advocacy for the W93, the last effort to design a new atomic weapon was the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, which Congress nixed during George W. Bush’s administration.
When the Pentagon sought in 2009 to revive that program early in the Obama administration, one of the most influential voices against it was reportedly Joe Biden, then the vice president, who is soon to be this year's Democratic nominee for president.