Upgraded W88 nuclear warhead gets an improved, redesigned ‘brains’

Sandia National Laboratories and its nuclear security enterprise partners recently completed the first production unit of a weapon assembly responsible for key operations of the improved W88 Alteration 370 warhead, or W88 Alt 370. The upgraded warhead gets an improved arming mechanism, or “brain,” as part of the program to extend its service life.

The W88 nuclear warhead entered the stockpile in late 1988 and is deployed on the Navy’s Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile system onboard Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. The weapon is over 30 years old, and several updates were required to address aging issues and to maintain its current state of readiness.

The W88 Alt 370 to modernize the warhead primarily included an updated arming, fuzing, and firing, known as AF&F, assembly, and a refresh of the conventional high explosive. In addition, more than a dozen major components needed to be refreshed and requalified because of changes in technologies.

The arming, fuzing, and firing assembly is the brains of the warhead,said Dolores Sanchez, senior manager of the W88 Alteration 370 for Sandia. “It looks for the correct code and the correct environmental signals that will unlock the system, and it also ensures that it’s an authorized flight. In short, it makes sure it always works when we want it to and never when we don’t.”

Along with the AF&F assembly, the upgrade includes radar, communication, guidance, adds a lightning arrestor connector, and other key safety and security components. The assembly underwent an extensive set of tests to ensure it always works when authorized and never otherwise. The full-system W88 Alt 370 went through similar rigorous testing to ensure its reliability and safety. Impact, vibration, drops, extreme temperatures, and massive electrical impulses are just some of the tests conducted to show the AF&F assembly will operate as intended.

The first production unit of the W88 Alt 370 was assembled by Kansas City National Security Campus at the end of May. The first fully operable unit was then received the next day at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas. That shipment was followed quickly by the completion of the system-level first production unit for the W88 Alt 370 at Pantex in early July.

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