The United States has officially started to produce a new low-yield nuclear warhead following President Donald Trump’s order last year to equip the Pentagon with tactical weapons that could be used in more realistic combat scenarios.
The US National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) confirmed Monday that the first production unit of the W76-2 warhead was in production at the Pantax Plant in Texas and would be delivered to the military by the end of 2019 fiscal year.
“NNSA is on track to complete the W76-2 Initial Operational Capability warhead quantity and deliver the units to the Navy by the end of Fiscal Year 2019,” an agency spokesman was quoted as saying by Defense News website.
The spokesman said the units that the agency was bound to deliver this year were the initial operational capability (IOC) versions. He declined to reveal the total number.
The so-called Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which Washington revealed last year, included three notable changes to the US nuclear policy: Development of a low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), development of a new sea-launched cruise missile and increased plutonium pit production over the next decade.
This is part of the US government estimate that plans for modernizing and maintaining the country’s nuclear arsenal will cost nearly $500 billion over the next decade.
Upon revealing the NPR, the Trump administration emphasized that it was mainly designed to counter Russia and China as the two most imminent threats to US national security.
The new nuclear device is based on the W76-1 warhead the US Navy has long been using to arm its Trident ballistic missiles.
According to the report, the warhead is designed to be smaller than the nuclear bomb the US detonated at Hiroshima, Japan, during Second World War.
The weapon’s production has been faced with strong criticism from nonproliferation advocates and Democrats in Congress, who argue that all nuclear weapons are strategic by nature and not tactical.
Experts have warned that a low-yield nuclear weapon is still very powerful, considering that the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima killed between 60,000 and 80,000 people.
Military experts have also warned against using low-yield and high-yield warheads on the same missiles, arguing that it “creates a situation where an adversary doesn’t know which system is being used and therefore reacts as if the larger warhead has been launched,” the report said.
The NNSA announcement drew fire from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
ICAN researcher Stuart Casey-Maslen warned that the “low-yield US Trident [will] make first use more likely” by the Trump administration.