Military

W88 nuclear warhead modernized with "brain" transplant

W88 nuclear warhead modernized...
W88 warhead undergoing drop test
W88 warhead undergoing drop test
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W88 warhead undergoing drop test
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W88 warhead undergoing drop test

A key component of the US nuclear deterrent has reached a major milestone as production of the first upgraded W88 Alt 370 nuclear warhead is completed. Developed by Sandia National Laboratories, the Kansas City National Security Campus, the Y-12 National Security Complex, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Pantex, the upgraded warhead gets an improved arming mechanism, or “brain”, as part of the program to extend its service life.

Entering service in 1989, the 475-kiloton-yield W88 fusion warhead is the mainstay of the US Trident II nuclear missile submarine fleet, which forms one third of the American nuclear defense triad. However, this Cold War weapon is over 30 years old and badly in need of refurbishment and modernization.

Much of the updating effort involves replacing materials that have deteriorated over the years, including the nuclear elements, the explosives needed to implode the fission detonator, and the polymer foam that holds the hydrogen isotopes that fuels the main explosion. In addition, many of the components need upgrading to keep pace with multiple advances.

A key system is the Arming, Fuzing, and Firing (AF&F) system that Dolores Sanchez, senior manager of the W88 Alteration 370 for Sandia, describes as the “brains of the warhead.” In fact, it's much more than that. The AF&F is the difference between the W88 being a nuclear weapon and a radioactive lump of iron.

The AF&F assembly is the system that receives and confirms the GO code from the US President, then reconfigures the bomb's mechanism so it's possible for it to nuclear detonate and unlocks the firing system. However, the warhead still remains inert until the missile it sits atop is launched. The AF&F then confirms that the launch was authorized and analyzes factors like acceleration and time of flight to make sure the warhead isn't fully armed until it's a safe distance away from the submarine and on course to its target.

According to Sandia, the first production unit of the W88 Alt 370 was assembled by Kansas City National Security Campus in May and was then sent to Pantex for insertion of explosives and final assembly in early July before being shipped to the US Navy. Along with the AF&F assembly, the upgrade included radar, communication, guidance and other safety and security components.

The upgrade included inert versions of the warhead being used for tests, including flight, impact, vibration, drop, extreme temperature, and massive electrical impulse tests.

Source: Sandia National Laboratories

4 comments
4 comments
bwana4swahili
Whoopee, just the world needs! Let's spend some of this ridiculous military budget to something of real value. The world DOES NOT need more destructive weapons!!
mdale
Absabloodylutely right what sort of human stupidity even requires nuclear weapons, we have enough problems with pandemics and the environment without these clowns playing with toys that has no right to even exist utter human stupidity at the highest level !
mystixa
These aren't more destructive weapons. These would be less accident prone weapons, and as such would be less destructive overall. We can wish away history, but nuclear weapons do exist and there is nothing any country can do about that fact. No set of people has the influence to rid the world of nuclear weapons from every country that has or might have them. Any country having them makes it necessary in many minds for others to have them. ..and since being discovery their creation is easy enough to figure out that any determined nation state will aquire them. The only alternative given the facts is to keep them and not use them, as we have done since 1945.
christopher
New Brain? That's the computer, right? When's the last time you heard of *any* modern computer that's secure?
They've just removed what was one of the safest components of the entire arsenal - the old non-networked, legacy, time-tested arming system, and replaced it with a sketchy hackable transplant. Yay.