After Delays, the Navy Takes Delivery of First Improved Nuclear Warhead

An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches
An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Nebraska off the coast of California. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ronald Gutridge)

The first new nuclear warhead that is slated to improve the Navy's Trident II D5 Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile has finally rolled off the production line, according to a statement released Tuesday. The announcement comes more than a year late, after issues with a minor component caused delays and massive cost overruns.

The unit, called W88 Alt 370, is an update to the original W88 warhead, which has been in service since late 1988. The Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, noted that the project represents "more than 11 years of design, development, qualification, and component production."

This project is just one of many that are underway to modernize America's nuclear triad -- the three-pronged system consisting of strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The endeavor is scheduled to cost billions of dollars over the next two decades and has prompted some military leaders to re-examine the necessity of the long-standing system.

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The new warhead was designed to address aging issues with the original and replaced many internal components, including the parts responsible for triggering it, according to a prior statement on the program.

However, in September 2019, an NNSA official told Congress that an issue with a $5 electrical component would cause an 18-month delay to the program and cost millions to fix.

Charles Verdon, then-deputy administrator for defense programs at the NNSA, explained that the program initially went with off-the-shelf $5 capacitors for the new warheads, but they failed stress testing. He said the replacements would cost $75.

As a result, the first unit was completed earlier this month, not December 2019, as the agency planned in 2016.

However, NNSA officials seemed to ignore the delay and the technical issues the program encountered in their praise of the milestone.

Verdon, now the acting NNSA administrator, called the news "an impressive achievement" in a statement.

NNSA's federal program manager for the project, Jay Pape, said in a statement, "The W88 Alt 370 program continues to demonstrate that NNSA can execute our warhead modernization activities and fulfill our commitment to the U.S. Navy."

Verdon added that, as the agency continues to modernize the W88 warheads, "The successes and lessons learned from this program will bolster our future warhead activities to provide a safe, secure, and reliable deterrent."

The agency said that it "is prepared to ramp up production operations in support of the warhead program."

The current W88 warhead is deployed aboard the Navy's 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, which also are nearing the end of their operational life. The Navy is replacing them with at least 12 new Columbia-class submarines, the first of which is expected to be delivered in fiscal 2027.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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