Nearly every warhead type in the United States nuclear stockpile will be life-extended or retired in the next two decades. The National Nuclear Security Administration has proposed a 25-year plan to remodel nuclear warheads, called “three-plus-two,” that also would reduce warhead variants from a total of seven to five. However, assessments are still in the process of determining whether the plan is feasible and affordable. The development of this strategy highlights the need to modernize America’s aging nuclear warheads, to assure their effectiveness in deterring future threats.
When the warheads were first designed, they were intended to be used on particular delivery systems. The three-plus-two strategy aims to change this by creating interoperable ballistic missile warheads that would be shared between delivery systems. If ongoing studies conclude that interoperable warheads are achievable and reasonably priced by 2015, the first of its kind would be ready in about 2025 and named the IW-1. This model would replace W78 and W88 warheads, and would be shared by Minuteman III and Trident II missiles. Two designs would also replace W87 and W76 warheads at later dates.
Interoperable warheads may provide benefits that current warheads lack. For instance, maintenance costs might decrease since three designs would require upkeep instead of four. The overall resiliency of deterrence could also be enhanced since more back-up options would be available in the case of technological failure. Furthermore, the creation of the first interoperable warhead may lead to a better understanding of how to apply the same cost-effective concept to other parts of the nuclear triad.
Not all stakeholders support this plan, though. According to the Government Accountability Office, the U.S. Navy is hesitant to fully engage because it is reluctant to change the W88 warhead design. Don Cook, the leader of the energy department’s weapons program, also criticized the strategy, arguing that W78 and W88 warheads could remain in use for roughly another 15 years. While this seems like a long time, practitioners need a wide timeframe to research, develop, and test new nuclear warheads to overcome expected and unforeseeable obstacles, such as budget cuts, program failures, technological surprises, and policy shifts.
U.S. policymakers have tried to implement warhead modernization for years. In 2004 the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program aimed to create a new warhead design that would require less maintenance in the future. Congress denied funding for the program in 2008 and the Obama Administration halted work on the program in 2009. If the three-plus-two approach fails like the RRW program, the U.S. will have to make some serious decisions, like whether to continue maintaining enough warheads in its stockpile to replace those that fail and/or generate another strategy for future consideration.
Nuclear-weapon delivery systems would be ineffective without the powerful warheads they carry. Studying and implementing ways to develop more efficient warheads is necessary to decrease future maintenance costs in a shrinking defense budget and sustain the credibility of the strategic triad. Three-plus-two represents an ambitious approach in that it pushes researchers to consider whether one type of warhead can be used on multiple delivery systems – something that has not been considered before. For now, we will wait for summer 2015 to see whether interoperable warheads are in fact possible and carry a reasonable price-tag.
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