Imminent House Vote on New Low-Yield Nuclear Weapon: House Should Approve Blumenauer Amendment

Statement by Lisbeth Gronlund, senior scientist and co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists

Published May 22, 2018

WASHINGTON (May 22, 2018)—As part of the FY19 National Defense Authorization Bill, the House of Representatives will weigh in as early as today on the Trump administration’s new “low-yield” nuclear weapon for submarine-launched Trident missiles—the so-called W76-2. 


The W76-2 warheads, with a reported yield of 6.5 kilotons, would replace some of the existing W76 warheads currently deployed on Trident missiles, which have a yield of 100 kilotons. Producing this warhead by modifying an existing one is relatively straightforward and inexpensive: the budget includes $88 million for work on the W76-2—with $23 million going to the DoD and $65 million going to DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). If Congress approves this funding, the new warhead could be deployed during this presidential term.


As early as this afternoon, the House will vote on an amendment by Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR 3rd District) to fence half of the funding for the W76-2 warhead until the Secretary of Defense submits a report assessing (1) the program's impacts on strategic stability, (2) options to reduce the risk of miscalculation because adversaries would not be able to distinguish between a Trident missile carrying a low-yield warhead and one carrying several high-yield warheads (as is currently the case), and (3) options to preserve the survivability and the second-strike capability of Trident submarines. That last point reflects concerns that launching a missile with a low-yield warhead could reveal the location of the Trident submarine and make it more vulnerable to attack. 


Below is a statement by Lisbeth Gronlund, senior scientist and co-director of UCS’s Global Security Program:


“The United States must fully assess the potential consequences of deploying this new warhead before plowing ahead, and Representative Blumenauer’s amendment requires the Department of Defense to answer key questions before deployment. The House should pass the amendment—while the budget for the new low-yield Trident warhead is small, the ramifications are large. 


“By deploying any new nuclear warhead, the United States will demonstrate to the world that it is not interested in ramping down nuclear competition. By deploying thisnew warhead, which is explicitly designed to be used in the context of a regional conventional conflict and adds to its existing low-yield nuclear capabilities, the United States will make clear that it regards these weapons as usable and has an increased interest in ‘nuclear war-fighting.’


“There is no sensible reason for adding another low-yield option to the US arsenal. The United States already deploys low-yield nuclear bombs and air-launched cruise missiles that have variable yields ranging from 0.3 kilotons (1/50 of the yield of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima) to 170 kilotons, including 100 bombs at US airbases in five NATO countries—Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.


“The ultimate rationale the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review gives for the low-yield Trident warhead is that it “will help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities.” To argue that the current arsenal is inadequate for deterrence but will become adequate if we add a few low-yield Trident warheads is absurd.


“In addition, using this new warhead could cause real military problems. As Blumenauer’s amendment notes, Russia would have no way to distinguish between a Trident missile armed with a W76-2 warhead and one armed with several high-yield warheads. Moreover, a launch could reveal the location of the Trident submarine, making it vulnerable to attack.”