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Key resources: nuclear weapons ban, plutonium pit production

December 28, 2017

Bulletin 241: The US Navy is sinking the "Interoperable" warhead

Dear friends --

As has been clear for some years, the sole near-term stockpile "need" for plutonium warhead core ("pit") manufacture derives from the schedule and required quantities of the first so-called "Interoperable Warhead" (IW-1), currently slated to enter full-scale production in 2031. (For those who are interested, the proposed schedule and estimated budget -- $18.6 billion in then-year dollars -- for IW-1 can be found on pages 8-35 and 8-36 in the National Nuclear Security Administration's [NNSA's] Fiscal Year 2018 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan [SSMP].)

Under Obama, three new "interoperable" nuclear warheads were proposed to replace existing warheads on ground-and sea-launched ballistic missiles between now and about 2050. These three new warheads were the "3" in the Obama "3+2" stockpile modernization plan, now estimated to cost $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years (not including environmental cleanup).

The (largely lab-driven) quest for "interoperable" warheads turns out to be more aspirational than fully realistic, leading some government analysts to satirically call the Obama scheme the "6+2 plan" (instead of "3+2"), emphasizing what are likely irreconcilable differences between the Navy and Air Force versions of the "same" warhead. (The two warheads and reentry bodies which the IW-1 is supposed to replace have different sizes, shapes, masses, guidance systems, centers of gravity, moments of inertia, trajectories, and missile systems -- just a few differences!) The fiscal difference between three new warheads and six new warheads (or warhead variants) would be large -- tens of billions of dollars, not counting construction and operation of a new pit factory (and other factories) which would easily cost another $10 billion or even more, depending on what is counted.

With these high stakes in mind, please watch this video clip from the May 25, 2017 House Armed Services Strategic Forces hearing, particularly the response of Vice Admiral Terry Benedict to Rep. Garamendi's questions. It is an important exchange. As the admiral said, "The Navy does not have a requirement for a third reentry body." We sent this clip before (Bulletin 237) but only hinted then at what it meant.

We have reasons to think the new administration is moving away from IW-1.

Reflecting on this, we are guessing that President Obama didn't kill this proposed new warhead (despite its many technical problems, its huge out-year cost, constant opposition to it by the Navy, and the workload crisis expected in the warhead complex in the 2020s) because:

a) IW-1 was a long-term commitment of his administration to the nuclear weapons industry, cancellation of which could have made Democrats look "weak on defense" going into the 2016 election, costing votes and campaign contributions (that is, the Administration feared it would be blackmailed by the nuclear weapons industry and its political sponsors and operatives);
b) IW-1 is one of only two new warhead projects to be led by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), raising questions about the funding of that laboratory; which is
c) In California, a true-blue Democratic state.

We are curious to see how IW-1 will be handled in the Trump Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), expected in January.

With the Navy effectively out of the IW-1 picture for now, the US Air Force's Minuteman IIIs -- or their new-missile replacements in what is now called the "Ground Based Strategic Deterrent" (GBSD) -- may get a warhead life extension program (LEP) for the older of their two warheads (the W78), rather than an IW-1 replacement for the W78.

There is a better option: the so-called "GBSD" could be retired. We and many others (such as former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former STRATCOM Commander and Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs James Cartwright) believe the GBSD detracts from, rather than adds to, US and world security. Discussion of this must wait for another day.

The point is that "IW-1" -- the LEP -- is disappearing into a study of itself. Sort of like the Cheshire Cat, if such a benign image can be associated with nuclear weapons.

Let's make this a little less abstract.

Without going into too many details, here is the Minuteman III system in an animated video (2:17) from Northrup Grumman. Excellent photos of the missile's components including warheads can be found here.

Explosive yields of the two MMIII warheads (W78 and W87) are in the 300-475 kiloton range, depending on the warhead and its configuration (in the case of the W87) -- that is, 20 to 32 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. This is a qualitatively different weapon, in its operating principles as well as its effects, than the "small" atomic bombs used on Japan and in Operation Crossroads (video). Most people have no idea of this.

Unlike at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the area of mass fire from such an explosion would be much greater than that of severe blast damage, were such a weapon used on a city. In the deeply-researched "City on Fire," Lynn Eden explains this in detail, using familiar landmarks in Washington, DC. (This essay and other materials can be found at the important Nuclear Darkness web site, which includes a nuclear firestorm simulator as well as up-to-date treatment of "nuclear winter" phenomena.)

A talk given by Dr. Ted Postol (MIT, emeritus) at Harvard College in early 2016 contains excellent slides on thermonuclear weapons effects in an urban area as prelude to his main points: "How the US Nuclear Weapons Modernization Program Is Increasing the Chances of Accidental Nuclear War with Russia," Postol, Harvard College Peace Action, Feb 25, 2016 (audio file of Ted Postol's presentation; longer version of the talk).

With this background we are now in a position to grasp the reality and meaning of a "plutonium pit." We are talking about the fissile core of ONE thermonuclear weapon. ONE such weapon is capable of utterly destroying an entire city, if not a whole country once the full economic, social, and political toll comes due.

More soon,


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