WASHINGTON: The very last American nuclear warhead has entered production.
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced Thursday that it has completed the first production unit of the B61-12, an updated version of the warhead used on weapons dropped by fighters and bombers.
The NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency located within the Ministry of Energy. While the Department of Defense oversees the development of delivery systems for America’s nuclear arsenal – planes, ships, and missiles – the NNSA is responsible for producing the actual nuclear charge.
Currently, there are four variants of B61 in the nuclear stock: the 3, 4, 7 and 11. The B61-12 design will replace all four of them. While not technically a “new” warhead, the design replaces or renovates all nuclear and non-nuclear parts of the bomb. The improved variant will be carried by US F-15, F-16 and B-2 aircraft, as well as aircraft from NATO member countries.
The NNSA expects full-scale production from May 2022, with production completed in FY 2026. The total cost of the program is estimated [PDF] to $ 8.4 billion.
The agency is involved in a complete overhaul of America’s nuclear warhead stockpile. The B61-12 represents the second warhead to have its first production unit deployed in the past six months. In July, the W88 Alt 370, used on the Trident II D5 submarine-launched missile, entered production. Both designs were delayed due to an issue with the standard electrode capacitors used in both warheads.
Further first production unit schedules for the modernized arsenal are planned for fiscal year 2025 for the W80-4 cruise missile warhead and FY30 for the W87-1 ICBM warhead.
“With that [B61-12] program, we are delivering to the Department of Defense a system that improves accuracy and reduces performance without changing military characteristics, while improving safety, security and reliability, ”said NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby, in a press release. “Work on the B61-12 will also ensure that the warhead can be delivered by air to current and future platforms to meet Department of Defense requirements.”