Pentagon Misses Warhead Retirement Deadline

Retirement of the W62 warhead, seen here at Warren Air Force Base, has been been delayed.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The Pentagon has missed the deadline set by the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review for the retirement of the W62 nuclear warhead.

Retirement of the warhead, which arms a portion of the 450 U.S. Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, was scheduled for completion in Fiscal Year 2009, which ended on September 30th.

But the Department of Defense has been unable to confirm the warhead has been retired, saying instead earlier today: “The retirement of the W62 is progressing toward completion.”

The 2001 Nuclear Posture Review decided that, “the W62 will be retired by the end of Fiscal Year 2009.”  The schedule was later reaffirmed by government officials and budget documents. But the February 2009 NNSA budget for Fiscal Year 2010 did not report a retirement but a reduction in “W62 Stockpile Systems” – meaning the warhead was still in the Department of Defense stockpile, adding that a final annual assessment report and dismantlement activities will be accomplished in FY2010.

Offloading of the W62 from the Minuteman force has been underway for the past several years. First deployed in 1970, the W62 has a yield of 170 kilotons and is the oldest and least safe warhead in the U.S. stockpile. It is being replaced on the Minuteman III by the 310-kiloton W87 warhead previously deployed on the MX/Peacekeeper missile.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

One thought on “Pentagon Misses Warhead Retirement Deadline

  1. On a somewhat different note: The BBC writes today of a study which suggests that a high-altitude nuclear detonation (done by, say Iran or DPRK), could cause an EMP powerful enough to disrupt regional, possibly world economy for years by knocking out powergrids, appliances etc. Is this correct? Can EMP be this disruptive? Do yields/designs of nukes determine the size og EMPs?

    Reply: In theory, yes, and EMP or High-Altitude EMP (HEMP) has been part of U.S. and Russian nuclear strike planning for decades. Some also believe China might also use it in a war. But in recent years some people have warned about scenarios ranging from DPRK, Iran, or terrorist organizations using EMP against the United States or its allies to disrupt critical electronic infrastructure. An EMP Commission has even been established by Congress in 2001.

    HEMP threat scenarios depend on several factors, such as delivery vehicle, nuclear yield, and motivation. It would probably require detonation of a large thermonuclear warhead very high above Kansas to cause country-wide disruption in the United States. Neither “rogue states” nor terrorist organizations have such capabilities or seem likely to get the in the foreseeable future. But smaller less optimal scenarios could also cause local disruptive effects, if carried out effectively. See here for recent assessment.

    As always in these matters, it is always possible to construct frightening worst-case scenarios. It is much harder to assess how realistic the threat is and what to do about it. The debate has become highly politicized, and some warn that while EMP in principle is serious the capability is being simplified and the threat overblown. See for example the assessment by Stephen Younger, the former director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, in his book The Bomb:

    “Since an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is generated in the upper atmosphere and projected downward, the affected area is quite large, potentially encompassing an entire country. However, the consequences of such an attack are limited to electronics (people and structures are not affected), and there is considerable debate within the scientific community about the sensitivity of electronics to a given type of pulse. Contrary to media reports, it is not true that an EMP attack from a typical strategic weapon would completely shut down the electronics within a country. First, the effect is statistical in nature – some systems will not notice the pulse at all while identical counterparts will be affected. Second, the most likely effect from an EMP attack is “upset” rather than destruction, that is, a temporary scrambling of the memory of a computer or the frequency of a communication device, something that is easily corrected by rebooting or resetting the device. (Upset can, however, have catastrophic consequences if the computer is the flight controller of an aircraft or another time-critical system.) Third, the EMP output from a typical device is degraded by several design issues so that few, if any, weapons currently deployed in military stockpiles will produce the maximum possible effect. Of all the nuclear effects, EMP seems the most prone to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.”

    My recommendation is to keep a cool head, be skeptical of worst-case scenarios, and as questions. HK

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