The most powerful missile in the United States nuclear arsenal is about to get a new warhead. A $65 million low-yield nuclear weapon design touted by the Trump Administration since 2018 just went into production in the home of American weapons: Texas.
New designs were tasked by the administration after the 2018 nuclear posture review found that the National Nuclear Security Agency could not update or maintain its stock of nuclear weapons with the budget it had. The $65 million design was appropriated from the Department of Energy, the parent agency of the National Nuclear Security Agency. It will be based on the current design of the Navy’s W76-1 warhead, which is currently on the Trident II D5 nuclear missile and is intended to be fired via submarine.
“NNSA is on track to complete the W76-2 Initial Operational Capability warhead quantity and deliver the units to the Navy by the end of Fiscal Year 2019,” an agency spokesman said.
Two factors allow for the warhead’s quick production time: first, it’s based on the current warhead for the Trident II D5 and second, the nuclear weapon is smaller than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, which would be today considered a yield nuclear weapon. The two had a yield of 15 and 20 kilotons, respectively. By today’s standard, a low-yield nuke could be upwards of 50-100 kilotons.
The result of a “low-yield” nuclear weapon.
The U.S. military has roughly 1,000 low-yield nukes in its 4,400-plus nuclear arsenal. Activists worry that an increase in new, low-yield weapons will only increase the likelihood of one of them being used in a tactical move, as some consider the weapons a “less powerful nuclear option.”
A big issue with having two levels of nuclear force is that the target of the potentially low-yield nuclear strike doesn’t know if the attack is low-yield or high-yield until it’s too late – and will likely just respond in kind. Trident II D5 missiles are the most powerful in the nuclear triad and also the most reliable weapon system ever built. More than that, it can deliver multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, which means any Trident launch will likely be seen as an all-out attack on multiple targets, prompting an all-out nuclear response.
Which your mom might be able to teach you to survive.