It remained uncertain Monday whether Los Alamos National Laboratory or Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory would design the proposed, sea-based W93 warhead after the directors of each lab declined to say whether his shop would own responsibility for the weapon.

Asked which of the two nuclear weapons design labs would handle the proposed W93 warhead, if Congress approves it, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Director William Goldsmith said, “good question.”

Thomas Mason, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory since November 2018, was similarly evasive.

“There’s always competition,” Mason said from the same dais where he and Goldstein spoke alongside Sandia National Laboratories Deputy Director Dori Ellis during a panel discussion at the ExchangeMonitor’s annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit in Alexandria, Va.

Mason later joked that Los Alamos, which designed the Navy’s current W76-1, W7-2 and W88 submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads, was the “Los Alamos Naval Laboratory.” He also told the Weapons Complex Morning Briefing, in a brief interview from the Summit floor, that it was his job to make sure Los Alamos won the competition to design W93.

Los Alamos is the design agency for the NNSA’s current ongoing nuclear weapon refurbishments — B61-12 and W88 Alt 370 — while  Livermore is the design agency for the two major refurbishments planned after that — the W80-4 cruise missile warhead and the W87-1 intercontinental ballistic missile warhead.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is requesting a so-far unspecified amount of funding in fiscal year 2021 to begin “concept and Assessment Refinement activities” for W93.

The proposed warhead is based off of a design that was tested at full yield before the U.S. pulled the plug on full-up nuclear explosive tests in the 1990s, Charles Verdon, the agency’s deputy director for defense programs, said here Monday. Verdon spoke on a morning panel, before Mason, Goldstein and Ellis took the stage. He was not in the audience during the lab directors’ talk.

W93 would notionally begin its life as the nuclear-armed tip of the next-generation submarine launched ballistic missile that eventually will replace the Trident II D5 and be carried aboard future Columbia-class submarines that are slated to patrol global seas from the 2030s through the 2080s.

Someone with knowledge of the proposed weapon said the W93 could be rapidly upgraded for use on other sea-based delivery vehicles, and that the weapon could be serviced at locations other than the NNSA’s Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas. Each of the 12 planned Columbia boats would have 16 missile tubes with one missile each.

In its 2020 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, the NNSA estimated the civilian agency’s share of the W93 work at roughly $14 billion, with a notional first-production date of 2034.


Editor’s note: the story was corrected to say that the W93 would begin life as a ballistic missile warhead.