Emblem of the project W76-2
In accordance with previous decisions, the Pentagon began the deployment of the latest thermonuclear warheads of reduced power W76 Mod. 2 (W76-2). Trident II missiles with such military equipment were recently loaded onto one of the U.S. Navy submarines. Now she is on patrol routes. It is expected that in the near future, other warheads will receive other SSBN American fleet, and this will affect the international military-political situation.
From plans to practice
The development of a promising thermonuclear warhead for SLBMs was announced in February 2018 in the new US Nuclear Policy Review. The creation of such a product was associated with the specifics of the situation in the world. It was supposed to be a response to new characteristic threats from some states.
Already in February 2019, the Pantex plant (Texas) completed the assembly of the first W76 Mod. 2. At the same time, the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) stated that the production of such weapons gathering pace, and before the end of the current financial year, new warheads will reach the initial operational readiness stage. Exact production rates, plans, etc. not called. It was mentioned that the release of new weapons will continue until 2024.
On January 29, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) released new W76-2 progress data from its own sources. It also provides some estimates that have not yet received official confirmation or refutation.
FAS reports that at the end of last year, the first warhead of a new type arrived at the Kings Bay Naval Base (Georgia). They were mounted on Trident II SLBMs and loaded onto the USS Tennessee nuclear submarine (SSBN-734). Then, a ship with promising weapons went on combat alert to the designated areas of the Atlantic Ocean.
The FAS suggests that over the past year, the industry managed to produce about 50 W76-2 products. Moreover, not all of them are involved in the current duty. According to the Federation, the USS Tennessee (SSBN-734) nuclear submarine carries only one or two missiles with new military equipment. The remaining 18-19 Trident II products on board have old warheads - W76-1 or W88.
The new W76-2 thermonuclear warhead is a slightly redesigned version of the existing W76-1 product. The modern project provides for relatively simple and inexpensive measures to extend the resource and change the characteristics.
The W76 warheads available in the military were mass-produced from 1978 to 1987. A total of 3400 such products were manufactured in two versions, the W76 Mod. 0 and W76 Mod. 1. In the future, measures were taken to extend the resource. The basic version of the warhead has a capacity of 100 kt TNT, modification W76-1 - 90 kt. Charges are mounted in Mk 4 or Mk 4A warheads. The latter are used on Trident II missiles, which are in service with the US and British Navy.
The promising W76-2 warhead is made by reworking the existing W76-1 product. Instrumentation charge is replaced by modern components. In addition, a power reduction is carried out. Due to the special tactical role, this parameter is limited to 5-7 ct. After such an upgrade, the Mk 4 / W76-2 warhead remains fully compatible with Trident II SLBMs and the U.S. Navy SSBN can be used with them. With the exception of the warhead explosion power, all the characteristics of the updated strike complex remain unchanged.
According to the 2018 US Nuclear Policy Review, the W76-2 project was designed to respond to new challenges from third countries. The main reason for its appearance is called the recent actions of Russia, China and other countries in the field of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.
A few years ago, Russia revised its defense doctrine and changed the principles of the use of nuclear weapons. According to the United States, this led to a decrease in the threshold of use, which significantly changes the balance of forces and can affect the military-political situation in the world. In response to Russia's actions, Washington launched several new projects, including modernization of cash warheads according to the modern project W76-2.
The main feature of the product is W76 Mod. 2 is the reduced power of detonation while maintaining all other characteristics and compatibility with the standard carrier. Due to this, it is proposed to obtain new opportunities that more fully correspond to modern challenges.
According to the NNSA, the main objective of submarines with Trident II missiles and warheads W76-2 will be the expansion of capabilities to deter a potential enemy. Scenarios are possible in which the enemy organizes a low-power nuclear strike. In this case, the response by the US as a full-fledged nuclear missile strike is considered inappropriate and redundant. As a result of this, nuclear forces need some new means combining the basic qualities of tactical and strategic weapons.
It is for this purpose that the warhead W76-2 was developed. It should guarantee the possibility of a symmetrical response to a low-power nuclear attack. It is believed that such a response will stop the probable enemy and prevent a new blow from his side. Such a strategy is called "escalation for de-escalation" and enjoys some popularity among the military and political leadership of the United States. Willingness to such scenarios is considered an effective deterrence measure.
The formal reason for creating the product is W76 Mod. 2 became the actions of Moscow. Moreover, the Russian authorities have repeatedly said that the change in the defense doctrine is not connected with aggressive intentions. In addition, it was noted that it is the new low-power charge of the American development that is the very factor that lowers the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons and leads to serious risks.
As you can see, the United States did not heed the Russian statements and continued the work already begun. Their result was the appearance of serial warheads and their deployment on a submarine overlooking combat duty. The obvious conclusions about Washington’s plans and intentions follow from this.
Escalation or de-escalation?
Promising thermonuclear warhead W76 Mod. 2 is proposed as a special tool for some specific situations. The concept of a low-power retaliatory strike is proposed, which does not provoke a further exchange of warheads.
However, this concept has long been criticized for a number of reasons. First of all, the very possibility of a limited exchange of strikes without further escalation of the conflict raises doubts - regardless of the type and parameters of the weapons and means used. Nuclear weapons are a last resort and their use should provoke an appropriate response.
The installation of warheads of limited power on full-fledged SLBMs leads to great risks. A likely adversary or third countries will be able to identify the fact of a missile launch, but determining its combat equipment is not possible until the warhead is undermined by the target. Accordingly, the adversary will expect the worst case scenario, expect a high power strike - and act accordingly. All this also leads to rapid escalation and does not allow to keep the conflict in the initial stages.
It is unlikely that the US military and political leadership does not understand all the risks associated with the creation and deployment of new low-power thermonuclear weapons. However, the production of W76-2 products has been launched, and the first such samples have already gone on duty with the carrier submarine. It is expected that in the near future, combat duty with new thermonuclear charges will carry several submarines.
Thus, hiding behind dubious rhetoric and ambiguous concepts, the United States created and put into operation a new type of strategic weapon for solving special tasks. How effective such a tool will be in solving the stated problems is a big question. However, it is obvious that the appearance of this tool will not improve the strategic situation in the world and will not increase overall security.