The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) still plans to produce the first copy of a refurbished Navy submarine warhead in 2021, and the first copy of a refurbished nuclear gravity bomb for the Air Force in 2022, a senior official with the civilian nuclear-weapon agency said Wednesday.
Those were the new dates, announced in February, for the first production units [FPU] of both the W88 Alt-370 submarine-launched ballistic-missile warhead and the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb, as the refurbished weapons will be known.
“They’re still on those new dates,” Charles Verdon, NNSA deputy administrator for defense programs, said during a video conference with reporters and the public.
An FPU is a proof-of-concept article that NNSA personnel disassemble and examine to prove that both the design and the factory — which for nuclear weapons is NNSA’s Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas — are ready for mass production.
The NNSA pushed the FPU dates on both weapons back by more than a year after acknowledging, in 2019, that commercial capacitors stockpiled for the refurbishments of an estimated 350 warheads and 460 bombs probably would not last 30 or so years in the field. The estimates come from the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists.
The NNSA deciding to scrap the off-the-shelf capacitors it had stockpiled and has since selected replacement units the agency believes will increase the combined cost of the refurbishments by $850 million.
The replacement capacitors “have passed the test that gives us confidence that they work, meet requirements, and will continue to work for the 20-30 year system life time,” the NNSA spokesperson said Thursday.
Capacitors store electrical charges needed to power certain weapon components. The NNSA has not identified which components need the new capacitors, but the agency spokesperson did say Thursday that three W88 Alt-370 components and six B61-12 components need them.
All the components that need new capacitors also have to be rebuilt to work seamlessly with the systems. The NNSA has not yet achieved an FPU for the three replacement parts for W88 Alt-370, but the work is “ahead of schedule,” the spokesperson said. Meanwhile, the agency had already completed an FPU for one of the six B61-12 components that require the new capacitors, at deadline.
The W88 is the larger of the Navy’s two submarine-launched, ballistic-missile warheads. The Alt-370 will refurbish the weapon’s conventional high explosives, which trigger its nuclear detonation, and replace other components of its detonation system.
The B61-12 is a homogenzied version of four previous iterations of the only deployed U.S. nuclear gravity bomb, including one legacy version with moderate earth-penetrating capability. The Air Force eventually will carry the weapon aboard the B-2 bomber, the F-35A, the F-15E and, later, on the planned B-21 Raider bomber being developed by Northrop Grumman [NOC].