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US Unveils Upgraded Sub-Launched Nuclear Warhead

The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) unveiled this week the upgraded W88/Mk5 submarine-launched nuclear warhead.

Called W88 Alt 370, the latest iteration of the strategic warhead took 11 years of development for its first unit to roll off the production line, NNSA revealed in a statement.

The upgraded warhead was originally scheduled to complete production in December 2019. However, it was delayed due to reported component issues and cost overruns.

W88 Alt 370
W88 Alt 370 arming, fuzing, and firing assembly. Image: National Nuclear Security Administration

Three-Decade Old

The first W88 was inducted into the service in late 1988 and since then 400 of such warheads have been deployed on Navy’s Trident II D5 Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) system, carried onboard Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines.

W88 is a miniaturized thermonuclear warhead, which weighs less than 800 pounds(363 kilograms). The warhead is hardened against nuclear effects and has enhanced safety features. It was designed for a higher yield and increased accuracy for an effective strike against “hard targets.”

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W88 warhead
Shipping container for the W88 warhead. Image: National Nuclear Security Administration

After more than two decades of service, the need to refurbish the aging warhead was felt in 2009 and thus the W88 Alt 370 program came into existence.

Under the program, the warhead’s “arming, fuzing, and firing subsystem” were replaced and a “lightning arrestor connector” was added to it. The warhead’s “high explosives” have also been refreshed to enhance the warhead’s safety and support its “future life extension program options.”

Sea-Based Leg of Nuclear Triad

“The W88 Alt 370 is a crucial part of Nation’s strategy for the sea-based leg of the nuclear triad, and a testament to the Enterprise’s ability to execute major modernization programs,” said Dr. Charles Verdon, Acting NNSA Administrator.

“As we continue to modernize the stockpile, the successes and lessons learned from this program will bolster our future warhead activities to provide a safe, secure, and reliable deterrent.”

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