WASHINGTON — COVID-19-related delays at the Department of Energy and its vendors might delay refurbishment of a warhead intended for next-generation nuclear-tipped air-launched cruise missiles, the acting head of the National Nuclear Security Administration said Wednesday in congressional testimony.
“So there’s no near-term impacts with that but there could be a schedule adjustment,” Charles Verdon, the acting administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said in response to questions from Sen. John Hoeven (R-S.D.) during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations energy and water development subcommittee. “But we have a lot of margin if we have to do that.”
In its 2022 budget request, released in late May, the NNSA said it would manufacture the first production unit W80-4 warhead by fiscal year 2025. The warhead is for the Long Range Standoff weapon being made by Raytheon. First production units, in NNSA parlance, are test articles that are torn down and analyzed to demonstrate a weapon is ready for mass production.
The Air Force wants to deploy the Long Range Standoff beginning in 2030 or so. The NNSA’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California is the design agency for W80-4.
Based on the weapon’s classified Weapons Design and Cost Report report, the NNSA estimates W80-4 will cost about $11.2 billion over the roughly 12 years running 2019 through 2031. The Air Force plans to buy about 1,000 Long Range Standoff Weapon missiles, the non-profit Federation of American Scientists estimates.
For fiscal year 2022, NNSA requested about $1.1 billion for W80-4 in fiscal year 2022, up around 8% compared with the 2021 appropriation of $1 billion or so. The agency also seeks $10 million for a W80-4 ALT-SLCM program, which would help mate a variant of the air-launched warhead with a planned low-yield, sea-launched cruise missile authorized by Congress at the request of the Donald Trump administration but not yet built.
Editor’s note, 06/24/2021, 8:32 a.m. Eastern time. The story was corrected to show that only the W80-4 warhead may be delayed for COVID-19-related reasons.