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Nuclear Weapons Council Debating Expanding Scope of W88 Alt 370 

Senior Navy Admiral Says Refreshing High Explosive in Warhead Under Consideration

Todd Jacobson
NS&D Monitor

The Nuclear Weapons Council is currently examining expanding the scope of the W88 Alt 370, debating replacing
the conventional high explosive as part of an effort to replace the arming, fusing and firing mechanism on the
warhead, Navy Strategic Systems Programs Director Vice Adm. Terry Benedict said late last week. Speaking at
the Capitol Hill Club, Benedict confirmed that the NWC was considering the change in scope to the work on the
warhead, and he said on the sidelines of the speech that replacing the conventional high explosives while the
warhead was being worked on in conjunction with the Alt 370 program is a “practical mitigation strategy to sustain”
the warhead into the late 2030s. Currently, the warhead could need to be refurbished as soon as 2030, perhaps
as part of the first interoperable warhead (with the Air Force’s W78).

High explosives are typically replaced during full warhead refurbishments, but the Alt 370 as previously planned
involves limited work on the warhead. The Obama Administration requested $165.4 million for NNSA work on the
Alt 370 in Fiscal Year 2015, and expects a First Production Unit on the warhead to be completed by 2020.
Benedict said “refreshing” the high explosive alongside the arming, fusing and firing system work could save
money, and flight and ground qualification testing could be done at the same time. The replacement would not
involve insensitive high explosive, Benedict said. “It gives us more life on that asset,” Benedict said. “Eventually
you have to deal with it, either in a full blown life extension program or you know an IW [interoperable warhead]
concept, but it would give us more time.”

Cost a Big Question

Benedict did not say how many years replacing the high explosive now would save the Navy down the road, citing
classification concerns, and he also did not say how much such a move would cost. “There is a lot of cost pressure
right now,” he said. “It’s near-term cost versus long-term cost.” Hans Kristensen, the director of the Federation of
American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project, said that adding near-term costs to the Alt 370 could ultimately
doom the idea. “That’s obviously an issue,” he said. “Fine, they might save some money 10 to 15 years down the
road but the predominant issue right now is sort of the short-term costs of putting pressure on the military services
in terms of these very expensive programs.”

Kristensen said that because of the budgetary pressure on the NNSA and life extension programs, Congress
might only be willing to support increasing the cost of the W88 Alt 370 if there was a pressing issue. “Congress is
pretty weary right now with these crash fixes,” he said. “Gee, we’ve got to do double or triple the project because
now we can do it. I expect they will ask a lot of questions about how urgent is this fix.”

A Significant Blow to Interoperable Warhead Concept?

Kristensen also said the decision could ultimately have significant implications on the interoperable warhead
program. “That seems to push the interoperable warhead for the Navy further into the future,” he said. “It’ll be
interesting how that’ll play out. It’ll be harder to justify bringing in the W88 back for an IW-type LEP in the
timeframe they’ve laid out.” The Navy has been skeptical about the interoperable warhead idea, which would
create a warhead that would replace the W88 and the W78 warhead used on intercontinental ballistic missiles,
and Congress has also raised questions about the technical feasibility about the idea and the potential cost. This
year, the Administration deferred work on the first interoperable warhead, delaying a First Production Unit until
2030. “It brings further evidence to the big speculation, which is how dead or how alive is the IW idea,” Kristensen
said. “Because if they’re now beginning to fiddle with the warheads in ways that will delay that even further into
the future, that really puts a stake in the whole idea.”

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