British Trident Subs to Field Enhanced U.S.-Made Warheads

bobbymike

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British Trident Subs to Field Enhanced U.S.-Made Warheads
Monday, April 4, 2011

The United Kingdom's nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines are to receive an enhanced version of a U.S.-manufactured nuclear warhead, the Federation of American Scientists said on Friday (see GSN, Feb. 7). There has been a long-held belief that the present nuclear warhead deployed on British Trident missile vessels is very much like the U.S. W-76 warhead used by the U.S. fleet of ballistic missile submarines, according to nuclear-weapon expert Hans Kristensen. "The first W-76-1 United Kingdom trials test was performed at WETL (Weapon Evaluation Test Laboratory), providing qualification data critical to the U.K. implementation of the W-76-1," according to a report last month from the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. Formal reports typically do not provide U.S. warhead names for the counterpart system carried by British vessels, instead using different descriptions. The Sandia document, though, breaks with tradition by using the U.S. warhead classification for the nuclear weapon deployed on British submarines.

Roughly 1,200 W-76-1 warheads are being built at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas. The warhead is an enhanced model of the W-76, which was built from 1978 until 1987. The government in London has acknowledged that the a re-entry body capable of carrying the W-76-1 is being attached to its submarine-launched ballistic missiles. However, it was not apparent until now which version of the warhead the submarines would carry -- the current model or the upgraded W-76-1. The Sandia document suggests the latter. The warhead enhancement increases the system's shelf-life by an additional three decades, until the end of the 2040s, for deployment on the the U.K. and U.S. nuclear-armed ballistic submarines. The extension coincides with the 2010 determination by the British Strategic Defense Review that "a replacement warhead is not required until at least the 2030s."

The integration of U.S.-developed W-76-1 warheads into the British nuclear deterrent brings additional skepticism to London's assertions that it fields an "independent" nuclear force, according to Kristensen. British submarine-deployed ballistic missiles are on loan from the U.S. Navy, the United States will provide the missile tubes for the country's planned replacement submarines, and the new reactors that will power the successor vessels indicate significant U.S. atomic input (Hans Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists, April 1). The enhanced W-76-1 warhead would not constitute a new system that would represent a breach of Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty rules, according to the London Guardian. However, the changes could exacerbate international friction as London and Washington have vowed to reduce the importance they place on their strategic deterrents, the newspaper reported.

"It is not a new weapon, but it gives an existing weapon a distinctive new capability -- hard target kill capability -- that will influence Russian and Chinese thinking on U.S. intentions, increasing concern about a possible first strike," stated Union of Concerned Scientists arms control expert Stephen Young. "It is a destabilizing move." The seeming integration of the W-76-1 into the British nuclear fleet produces questions on how many significant determinations on modernizing the nation's deterrent have already been made despite plans to delay the final decision on implementing the project until around 2016, according to the Guardian. The plan would replace each of the nation's four Vanguard-class submarines at an estimated cost of more than $30 billion (see GSN, March 15; Julian Borger, London Guardian, April 2). Meanwhile, British Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey last week suggested that France and the United Kingdom develop a shared nuclear deterrent, Agence France-Presse reported on Saturday.

Harvey's suggested received positive feedback from a group of French experts, according to the Guardian. Late last year, the two European powers signed an agreement that calls for them to test their respective nuclear arsenals at a simulation facility to be constructed in eastern France. Each side would still maintain separate strategic codes and would not share their nuclear information (see GSN, Jan. 10). "The U.K. needs to revisit the case in the long term for the U.K. maintaining a permanent 24-7 at-sea capability," Harvey said. "We pay an enormous premium to maintain this." The United Kingdom's current nuclear force posture calls for at least one nuclear-armed submarine to be on patrol at all times (see GSN, July 28, 2010). "It is quite feasible that we could continue with a permanent at-sea submarine patrol in conjunction with the French either with three British submarines as proposed to the current four," Harvey said.

Such a move could result in significant cost efficiencies for the United Kingdom while still allowing the country to preserve its independent command operations, the official said. "It is unlikely we would face circumstances in which Britain would be faced with an external nuclear threat that would not apply to the French national interest at the same time," he said. "It is quite possible for the French and British to work together on research and development of replacement submarines, so nearly halving the development costs." Harvey estimated that over 25 to 30 years the possible cost savings could amount to billions of dollars (Agence France-Presse/Spacewar.com, April 2). Elsewhere, one of the British nuclear-armed submarines last week experienced technical troubles that forced it to cut short a training drill and head back to its base of operations in Scotland, the Press Association reported on Sunday.

The HMS Vengeance "has suffered a mechanical defect resulting in a reduction in propulsion," a British Defense Ministry spokesman said. "She is returning to Faslane under her own power. She is still at sea." The official said the situation is "not nuclear related" (Matthew Holehouse, Press Association, April 3). The vessel came into contact with seaborne junk on Thursday near Ireland, according to the Scottish Daily Record. "Something was sucked into her propulsion system," according to a spokesman. The submarine reached the Faslane naval base on Sunday (Ben Spencer, Daily Record, April 4).
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Bolding mine - Really, China and Russia will think the US/Britain are developing a first strike capability? Did this guys watch stop in 1983 or so? .
 

starviking

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"The integration of U.S.-developed W-76-1 warheads into the British nuclear deterrent brings additional skepticism to London's assertions that it fields an "independent" nuclear force, according to Kristensen."

The thing that gets me is the flawed logic in these releases. If we can fire our missile off when we want to, with functional warheads, then our deterrent is independent. Nothing put out in this press release suggests we can't do that.
 

bmdefiant

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starviking said:
"The integration of U.S.-developed W-76-1 warheads into the British nuclear deterrent brings additional skepticism to London's assertions that it fields an "independent" nuclear force, according to Kristensen."

The thing that gets me is the flawed logic in these releases. If we can fire our missile off when we want to, with functional warheads, then our deterrent is independent. Nothing put out in this press release suggests we can't do that.

Exactly...just because the UK utilises the cost savings of US developed warheads (as well as other technologies) does not mean that the UK devolves permission on its independent nuclear force. I see no problem with this and indeed welcome the UK/US as well as France sharing as much as possible such SSBN technology there reducing the cost to the nation that can be spent elsewhere..
 

zen

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Theres a deeper issue here, in that we do not know how much of this developed warheads development was done in the UK. What we do know is the UK did fund some development effort and sub critical tests (Krakatoa) which supposedly impressed their US counterparts with what could be done by 'young guns' working with very little cash.
That was supposedly part of a parallel effort on the RRW.

So how different is is this W-76-1 from the W-76?

Note how its refered to as not breaching the NPT, yet is described as 'enhanced'. I submit that the more enhanced the thing is the less like W-76 its likely to be and is a game of pretending its a developed warhead when its rather more like a new one.

And where could such an effort be done outside of US scrutiny and hence outside of revealing it to the world..........?
 

bobbymike

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U.S. Nuke Technology to Make British Trident Missile More Accurate
Thursday, April 7, 2011

A U.S.-manufactured nuclear weapon's improved firing mechanism is expected to increase the targeting accuracy and effectiveness of the United Kingdom's submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the London Guardian reported on Wednesday (see GSN, April 4). The apparent planned incorporation of the W-76-1 warhead into the British nuclear deterrent was revealed in a March report by the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. Testing of the warhead technology has been successful, the report said. Production of the enhanced warhead is under way at the Pantex Plant in Texas. Defense insiders acknowledged the firing device for the W-76-1 would give the British nuclear-armed submarine fleet enhanced capabilities. The British Defense Ministry has been cagey in the past about publicly discussing moves to incorporate U.S. nuclear-weapon technology into the nation's strategic deterrent, which is comprised of four Vanguard-class submarines that carry Trident missiles.

The ministry said the U.S.-developed arming device is a "non-nuclear part" within the re-entry vehicle that carries the warhead while the weapons themselves were designed and manufactured entirely by the United Kingdom. The Vanguard vessels are developed in-country while the Trident missiles are on loan from the United States. Sources with the U.S. Navy say the enhanced W-76-1 firing system would increase the Trident missiles' precision targeting capabilities. That assertion is quietly accepted by British defense insiders, according to the Guardian. These views indicate "a significant improvement of the military capability of the weapon," Federation of American Scientists nuclear weapons expert Hans Kristensen said. "The fuse upgrade appears to be modernization through the back door." The Sandia report findings "underline the extent to which the U.K.'s nuclear weapons program is fully integrated with the U.S. program, reinforcing our technical, political and financial nuclear dependency and a fuzzy, at best, notion of being an independent nuclear power," Bradford University Trident expert Nick Ritchie said.

The W-76-1 firing mechanism, once incorporated into the Trident missile, would give the United Kingdom the ability to attack such difficult targets as underground bunkers, Ritchie said. The U.S. technology would increase the warhead's shelf-life by three decades, he added. The new warhead is a particularly delicate matter for London, as the issue could be used by non-nuclear nations to accuse the United Kingdom of acquiring new strike capabilities in contrast to stated disarmament goals. The British coalition government is divided over the future of the nation's nuclear deterrent. A final decision on modernizing the Trident fleet by replacing each of the submarines is not expected until around 2016 (Richard Norton-Taylor, London Guardian, April 6).
 

bobbymike

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April 6, 2011: Britain will also use the W76-1 upgrade to the older W76 nuclear warhead, as older generations of nuclear warheads are updated, before they become dysfunctional from old age. Previous to this, Britain had used its own nuclear weapons designs for these warheads, although the current British SLBM (sea-launched ballistic missile) warhead is believed to be similar to the American W76, but with some different features (like selectable yield, or how big a nuclear explosion there will be). The W76 is the standard nuclear weapon used on ballistic missiles carried by American SSBNs (nuclear powered subs carrying ballistic missiles). At the moment, the U.S. is in the process of producing 1,200 W76-1 warheads.

Upgrading these older warheads has not been easy. For example, American efforts to refurbish the elderly W76 nuclear warheads was held up by difficulties in manufacturing several components. The warheads were originally manufactured three decades ago. Since that time, it was discovered that the necessary details, for manufacturing some of the unique components, has been lost. One of those items, a chemical codenamed Fogbank, could not be created with surviving documents. This problem was eventually overcome, but then similar problems were discovered with some other components. This sort of thing was largely the result of manufacturing details being so highly classified. Normally, manufacturing details for older items can afford to be a little vague, because unclassified components have lots of similar items either still in production, or many people and documents you can consult to quickly reconstruct the needed materials and process details. Not so with classified components for nuclear weapons.

It was four years ago that the nuclear weapons industry proposed a new warhead design for the navy's sea-launched Trident D5 ballistic missiles. This involved replacing 3,000 W76 warheads that currently equip 336 missiles. That would cost about $100 billion. The navy preferred to refurbish the W76s, and save a lot of money, rather than coming up with a new design.

The case for a new warhead is that this would provide a nuclear weapon that is more reliable, less likely to go off by accident, cheaper to maintain and more difficult to use if one is stolen by terrorists. The navy insisted that the current W76 warheads, produced between 1972 and 1987, were adequate. The W76s are old, but like any piece of expensive machinery, they are carefully maintained. Parts wear out and are replaced. It was components that don't wear out quickly that caused the problem with the refurbishment. These items have been out of production for over two decades.

Most importantly, the W76 has been tested. So we are sure that a W76 will explode when ordered to. Because of a 1992 treaty, nuclear weapons may no longer be tested, even underground. The new warhead would have to be "tested" via simulation. That is not a major obstacle. Simulation of complex systems is now quite common, and reliable. It's one of those unseen technologies that make life so much better for everyone. The nuclear weapons designers, however, believe they have discovered several flaws in the W76 design, things that could be eliminated with a new warhead, even one that will never actually be detonated. One of the flaws is apparently the difficulty of reviving the manufacture of key W76 components like the mysterious Fogbank chemical.

Times have been tough for the nuclear weapons crowd since the Cold War ended in 1991. Since then, several treaties have been signed that reduce the American nuclear arsenal. Thus it is bad politics to try and get lots of money for new warheads. This is especially true because most people would like for there to be even fewer warheads. It's the old debate over "how many warheads do you need to get the job done." The U.S. currently has 7,000 nuclear warheads. There are another 8,000 out there (most of them Russian).

Over 15,000 warheads have been taken out of service in the last two decades. The U.S. and Russia had so many because both nations had developed tactics that included attempting to knock each others land based missile silos out of action. Any exchange of that many warheads, even if only ten percent of them actually went off, would have destroyed Eurasia and North America. Those tactics are no longer popular, thus you only need a few hundred warheads to pose a credible nuclear threat. The U.S. and Russia have since agreed to get each of their warhead inventories down to less than 2,000.

As a result of all this, getting $100 billion for a new generation of warheads was not going to happen. The decision was made to refurbish. Then along came, or didn't, Fogbank and other components that were more difficult to recreate than expected.

Maintaining existing warheads costs over a billion dollars a year, with or without crises like lost manufacturing knowledge. That includes money needed for maintaining and upgrading facilities, as well as work on the warheads themselves, and research and development of maintenance requirements and techniques. Nukes are still a big business. But they are not likely to get a lot bigger. A new treaty is proposed that will reduce the nuclear arsenal even further.
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Bolding mine - these articles worry me. We have been dangerously neglecting the weapons labs and nuclear weapons infrastructure. We continue to see evidence of loss of key manufacturing expertise. Will we always be able to "pick up the pieces" and figure out how to do things that we haven't done in 20 years?

Of course I would have liked to see and still would like to see a robust nuclear weapon RDT&E program that eventually produces new warheads, even a family of warheads from 10Kt up to 1Mt. I would have warhead rapid prototyping and theoretical work on advanced concepts.

Our nuclear labs would stay on the cutting edge of all things nuclear. Next step triad modernization.
 

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