Jeffrey LewisW76 Problems Seem Overblown

Greetings from the Lufthansa Senators Lounge in Frankfurt.

I’ve been struggling with how to describe Ralph Vartabedian’s story in the Los Angeles Times about the W76 Life Extension Program. On one hand, Vartabedian (with some help from POGO) dug out some really embarrassing information the W76 Life Extension Program. On the other hand, Vartabedian uses the problem to make a larger point about the state of stockpile stewardship, which I think is misleading.

Despite claims to the contrary by NNSA in February, the first (and only) refurbished W76 is apparently still sitting in pieces at Pantex:

In February, the department’s National Nuclear Security Administration announced that the “first refurbished W76 nuclear warhead had been accepted into the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile by the Navy.”

But no delivery was ever made. The warhead is in pieces inside a production cell at the Energy Department’s Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas, according to an engineer at the facility.


B&W Pantex, the private company that operates the plant, was still awaiting delivery of a classified part from another facility and cannot assemble the warhead, the engineer said.

Navy spokesman Lt. Clay Doss told The Times on Thursday: “We have not received delivery of any refurbished W76 warheads. The answer is none.”

That is embarrassing for NNSA, which had fired off an awfully rah rah! press release celebrating “another great example of the unsurpassed expertise throughout NNSA’s national security enterprise.” (Really? Which is the other example?)

Now, that’s embarrassing. But Vartabedian engages in a little bait-and-switch. The “classified part,” according to NNSA spokesman Damien LaVera, is the arming, firing and fuzing (AF&F) system.

That is not an issue with the physics package, although Vartabedian devotes the bulk of his article (952 of the 1133 words by my count) to reprising old concerns about FOGBANK, which is part of the physics package. Vartabedian also describes FOGBANK as a “classified component” — which the casual reader is sure to conflate with the “classified part,” aka the AF&F system.

This is basically the same thing that General Kevin Chilton tried to pull with the vacuum tube hokum (It all knits together, Elaine) — using a problem with a non-nuclear component to cast aspersions on the success of the Stockpile Stewardship Program which is, for all practical purposes, about our ability to sustain the nuclear explosive package without yield testing.


  1. Smith (History)

    I didn’t get the sense that Vartabedian was poo-poo’ing the stewardship program – it seemed like he was exposing the NNSA’s inability to deliver on-time, on-budget, and be honest about their abilities to do so. I would argue that – for the general public – the distinction between whether or not the component was part of the physics package is irrelevant; what is relevant is that the NNSA lied about the deliverables, and that there are obvious problems within the organization.

    Knowing nothing of the author’s background, I cannot say that he’s not a critic of the stockpile stewardship program. Given the composition of the article, though, I would think he would have been more specific in railing against the program if his intention was to criticize it.

  2. Allen Thomson (History)

    > arming, firing and fuzing (AF&F) system.

    SAFF in my day, the S being for Safety. Anyway, as far as I know, the “another facility” would be Sandia.

    These, incidentally, were the units that someone shipped to Taiwan a while ago, mistakenly thinking they were helicopter parts.

  3. Anon

    “I’ve been struggling with how to describe Ralph Vartabedian’s story in the Los Angeles Times about the W76 Life Extension Program.”

    It’s nothing more than my unqualified opinion, but I would await the availability of more facts.

  4. George William Herbert (History)

    I thought that what was shipped to Taiwan by mistake was just the radar fuze, not the whole W76 SAFF system. However, I could be mistaken, I was focusing on some other research at the time.

  5. Allen Thomson (History)

    > I thought that what was shipped to Taiwan by mistake was just the radar fuze

    You could be right. The reportage sounded to me like it was the SAFF system, but the details were kind of fuzzy.