U.S. Pat. The National Nuclear Security Administration says production of the weapon, known as the W76-2, has begun at its Pantex Plant in the Texas Panhandle , [NPR]
The weapon is a variant of the Navy's primary submarine-launched nuclear weapon, the W76-1. That warhead is a "strategic weapon," meaning it makes a very big boom. 100 kilotons, according to Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists, an arms control advocacy group.
The Energy Department would not provide details about the W76-2, but it's believed to have a yield of around 5 to 7 kilotons, Kristensen says. That smaller yield is probably created by removing or disabling the secondary stage of the W76-1. The secondary is designed to deliver a large thermonuclear blast triggered by a much smaller nuclear weapon known as the primary.
Last year the Trump administration made the case for the development of a smaller nuclear weapon that could be launched from a submarine. In a document known as the Nuclear Posture Review, the nuclear reactor could be given an advantage in a conflict. By using small, tactical nuclear weapons, the thinking goes, Russia could essentially scare NATO into halting a military operation. "[Moscow] mistakenly assesses that the threat of nuclear escalation or actual first use of nuclear weapons would serve to 'de-escalate' a conflict on favorable terms to Russia," the document says.
New, smaller warheads wants help balance Russian forces, the report claims.
However, Kristensen worries the new warhead could actually make nuclear war far more likely. For one thing, he says the W76-2 will be launched on the same Trident missile used to launch the much larger W76-1. Well, in that case … '"
And even if they did not wait, he says, it would not change the fact that the US would have used a nuclear weapon, however small, in a conflict. "A nuke is a nuke," he says. "Once it's used, the gloves are off."
The National Nuclear Security Administration says its first production unit is underway. It is on track to deliver to the Navy by October of this year.