The proposed W93 sea-launched warhead, the nuclear tip of planned next-generation U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles, will share technology with United Kingdom’s next nuclear weapon, Pentagon officials said Thursday.
W93 will “support a parallel Replacement Warhead Program in the United Kingdom whose nuclear deterrent plays an absolutely vital role in NATO’s overall defense posture,” Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, wrote in testimony prepared for a Thursday hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which builds all U.S. nuclear weapons, will develop and build the W93. The civilian agency unveiled the designation for the planned warhead in its preliminary 2021 budget request, saying it would begin “concept and Assessment Refinement activities” for W93 in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
“I think it’s wonderful that the U.K. is working on a new warhead at the same time, and I think we will have discussions and be able to share technologies,” Alan Shaffer, the Pentagon’s deputy under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said in a question and answer session Thursday at the annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit, hosted in Alexandria, Va., by Defense Daily affiliate publication, ExchangeMonitor.
Shaffer said W93 and its British counterpart “will be two independent, development systems.”
The United Kingdom has a purely sea-based nuclear arsenal, comprising nuclear-powered, ballistic-missile submarines. The entire U.K. nuclear-weapons program closely mirrors the sea-based leg of the U.S. arsenal, including the Lockheed Martin-built [LMT] Trident missiles carried by both countries’ boats.
According to The Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, which tracks global nuclear weapons programs, the U.K.’s Trident Holbrook nuclear warhead is “thought to be” a modified, U.S.-designed W76 warhead. W76 is the smaller of the U.S. Navy’s two submarine-launched, ballistic-missile warheads. The W88 is the larger of the pair.
As first reported on Tuesday by Defense Daily, W93 will begin life as a ballistic-missile warhead, but will be designed for rapid upgrades that would allow the Navy to quickly shift it to other types of sea-based weapons, according to a source familiar with the proposal for the weapon.
This person also said the weapon could be serviced somewhere other than the NNSA’s Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, which is currently the maintenance hub for all U.S. nuclear weapons. All weapons are serviced periodically, and less frequently receive what NNSA calls major alterations or life-extensions designed to greatly extend the service life of weapon components, or entire weapons.
W76 and W88 will remain viable for U.S. Trident missiles for decades, but the W93 will be designed for use throughout the entire service life of the eventual Trident successor that will be carried by the planned Columbia submarine fleet that will begin replacing Ohio-class ballistic missiles in 2031, and patrol global seas into the 2080s. General Dynamics Electric Boat will build the Columbia fleet, which will be powered by nuclear reactors designed and furnished as government equipment by the NNSA and its contractor, BWX Technologies [BWXT].