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The W71 nuclear warhead
Warhead being lowered into the borehole

The W-71 nuclear warhead was a US thermonuclear warhead developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and deployed on the LIM-49A Spartan missile, a component of the Safeguard Program, an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense system briefly deployed by the US in the 1970s.

The W-71 warhead was designed to intercept incoming enemy warheads at long range, as far as 450 miles (720 km) from the launch point. The interception took place at such high altitudes, comparable to low earth orbit, where there is practically no air. At these altitudes, x-rays generated by the nuclear reactions can destroy incoming reentry vehicles at distances on the order of 10 miles (16 km), which made the problem of guiding the missile to the required accuracies much simpler than earlier designs that had lethal ranges of less than 1,000 feet (300 m).[1]

The W-71 warhead had a yield of around 5 megatons of TNT (21 PJ). The warhead package was roughly a cylinder, 42 inches (1.1 m) in diameter and 101 inches (2.6 m) long. The complete warhead weighed around 2,850 pounds (1,290 kg).[2] The W71 produced great amounts of x-rays, and needed to minimize fission output and debris to reduce the radar blackout effect that fission products and debris produce on anti-ballistic missile radar systems.[3][4]


The W71 design emerged in the mid-1960s as the result of studies of earlier high-altitude nuclear tests carried out before the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. A number of tests, especially those of Operation Fishbowl in 1962, demonstrated a number of previously poorly understood or underestimated effects. Among these was the behaviour of x-rays created during the explosion. These tended to react with the atmosphere within a few tens of meters at low altitudes (see rope trick effect). At high altitudes, lacking an atmosphere to interact with, the mean free path of the x-rays could be on the order of tens of kilometers.[5]

This presented a new method of attacking enemy nuclear reentry vehicles (RVs) while still at long range from their targets. X-rays hitting the warhead's outermost layer will react by heating a thin layer of the material so rapidly that shock waves develop that can cause the heat shield material on the outside of the RV to separate or flake off. The RV would then break up during reentry.[6] The major advantage of this attack is that it takes place over long distances, as great as 30 kilometres (19 mi), which covers the majority of the threat tube containing the warhead and the various radar decoys and clutter material that accompanies it. Previously the ABM had to approach within less than 800 feet (240 m) of the warhead to damage it through neutron heating, which presented a serious problem attempting to locate the warhead within a threat tube that was typically at least a kilometer across and about ten long.[5]

Bell received a contract to begin conversion of the earlier LIM-49 Nike Zeus missile for the extended range role in March 1965. The result was the Zeus EX, or DM-15X2, which used the original Zeus' first stage as the second stage along with a new first stage to offer much greater range. The design was renamed Spartan in January 1967, keeping the original LIM-49 designation. Tests of the new missile stated in April 1970 from Meck Island, part of the Kwajalein Test Range that had been set up to test the earlier Nike Zeus system. Because of a perceived need to rapidly deploy the system, the team took a "do it once, do it right" approach in which the original test items were designed to be the production models.[5]

The warhead for Spartan was designed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), drawing on previous experience from Operation Plowshare. A nuclear explosion at high altitude has the disadvantage of creating a significant amount of electronic noise and an effect known as nuclear blackout that blinds radars over a large area. Some of these effects are due to the fission fragments being released by the explosion, so care was taken to design the bomb to be "clean" to reduce these effects. Project Plowshares had previously explored the design of such clean bombs as part of an effort to use nuclear explosives for civilian uses where the production of long-lived radionuclides had to be minimized.

To maximize the production of x-rays, the W-71 is reported to have used a gold tamper,[citation needed] rather than the usual depleted uranium or lead. The lining normally serves the primary purpose of capturing x-ray energy within the bomb casing while the primary is exploding and triggering the secondary. For this purpose, most any high-z metal will work, and depleted uranium is often used because the neutrons released by the secondary will cause fission in this material and add a significant amount of energy to the total explosive release. In this case the increase in blast energy would have no effect as there is little or no atmosphere to carry that energy, so this reaction is of little value. The use of gold maximizes the production of x-rays as gold efficiently radiates thermal x-rays (see Moseley's law).[7] This efficient release of x-rays when heated is the same reason that inertial confinement fusion experiments like the National Ignition Facility use gold-covered targets. In Congressional testimony on potential dismantling of the W71, a DOE official described the warhead as "a gold mine".[8]

Another advantage of using a gold tamper and lining is that neutron capture events generally form Au-198 which has a half life of 2.697 days and beta decay energy of 0.41 MeV,[9] which is in the hard x-ray to gamma ray spectrum. This helps reduce the nuclear blackout effects.[dubious ]


Under good conditions, the W-71 warhead had a lethal exo-atmospheric radius as much as 30 miles (48 km),[10] although it was later stated to be 12 miles (19 km) against "soft" targets, and as little as 4 miles (6.4 km) miles against hardened warheads.[11]

Production & service history[edit]

Thirty to 39,[12] units were produced between 1974 and 1975. The weapons went into service, but were then taken right back out of service in 1975 and the warheads stored until 1992 when they were dismantled. The short service life of the W-71-Spartan and Safeguard Program in general, is believed to have been partly tied to it largely becoming obsolete with the development of Soviet offensive MIRV (Multiple independent re-entry vehicles) warheads, that unlike MRVs (multiple re-entry vehicles), can create a substantial spacing distance between each warhead once they arrive in space - and therefore would require at least about one Spartan missile launch to intercept each MIRV warhead. Fatally though, as the cost of the Spartan missile interceptor and an enemy ICBM were roughly the same, an adversary could afford to simply overwhelm the ABM system by adding ICBMs with MIRV warheads to its nuclear arsenal.

Proof-test "Cannikin"[edit]

Prior to the W71 test, a calibration test known as Milrow of Operation Mandrel was conducted in 1969. Despite political and pressure group opposition to both tests, and in particular the full yield W71, coming from then US Senator Mike Gravel[13][14][15] and the nascent Greenpeace,[16] a Supreme Court decision led to the test shot getting the go-ahead,[17] and a W71 prototype was successfully tested on 6 November 1971 in Project CANNIKIN of Operation Grommet in the world's largest underground nuclear test, on Amchitka Island in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska. The second highest yield underground test known, occurred in 1973, when the USSR tested a 4 Mt device 392

The W71 was lowered 6,150 feet (1,870 m) down a 90 inches (2.3 m) diameter borehole into a man-made cavern 52 feet (16 m) in diameter. A 264 feet (80 m) long instrumentation system monitored the detonation. The full yield test was conducted at 11:00am local time November 6, 1971 and resulted in a vertical ground motion of more than 15 feet (4.6 m) at a distance of 2,000 feet (610 m) from the borehole, equivalent to an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 on the Richter scale. A mile (1.6 km) wide and 40 feet (12 m) deep crater formed two days later.

Film of the test has been declassified and can be seen in the third of the Atomic Journeys documentaries Welcome To Ground Zero.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "W-71 warhead information at Globalsecurity.org "...the design of the warhead for Spartan, the interceptor used in the upper tier of the U. S. Safeguard Anti- Ballistic Missile (ABM) system. Spartan missiles were to engage clouds of reentry vehicles and decoys above the atmosphere and destroy incoming warheads with a burst of high- energy x rays...The Spartan warhead had high yield, produced copious amounts of x rays, and minimized fission output and debris to prevent blackout of ABM radar systems. Livermore also developed and first tested the warhead technology for the second- tier interceptor, the Sprint missile"". 
  2. ^ Allbombs.html entry on W71 at nuclearweaponarchive.org, Accessed June 6, 2007
  3. ^ "Accomplishments in the 1970s: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory". Archived from the original on 2005-02-17. Retrieved 2006-10-09. 
  4. ^ "W-71 warhead information at Globalsecurity.org "...The Spartan warhead had high yield, produced copious amounts of x rays, and minimized fission output and debris to prevent blackout of ABM radar systems"". 
  5. ^ a b c Bell Labs (October 1975). ABM Research and Development at Bell Laboratories, Project History (PDF) (Technical report). 
  6. ^ Garvin, Richard; Bethe, Hans (March 1968). "Anti-Ballistic-Missile Systems" (PDF). Scientific American. Vol. 218 no. 3. pp. 21–31. Bibcode:1968SciAm.218c..21G. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0368-21. Retrieved 13 December 2014. 
  7. ^ Sublette, Carey. "4.4 Elements of Thermonuclear Weapon Design". Nuclear Weapons Archive.  |contribution= ignored (help)
  8. ^ Schwartz, Stephen (2011). Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940. Brookings Institution. p. 332. 
  9. ^ "1.6 Cobalt Bombs and other Salted Bombs, Nuclear Weapons Archive, Carey Sublette.". 
  10. ^ M. Todd Bennett (ed), "National Security Policy, 1969–1972", 2011, p. 41.
  11. ^ Bennett 2011, p. 54.
  12. ^ Wm. Robert Johnston, "Multimegaton Weapons", 6 April 2009.
  13. ^ Gravel, Mike (1969-07-31). "Risks in Alaska Tests" (fee required). The New York Times. Letters to the Editor. Retrieved 2007-12-30. 
  14. ^ Richard D. Lyons (1971-08-23). "Underground A-Test Is Still Set For Aleutians but Is Not Final" (fee required). The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-30. 
  15. ^ "Witnesses Oppose Aleutian H-Blast" (fee required). The New York Times. 1971-05-30. Retrieved 2007-12-30. 
  16. ^ "The Amchitka Bomb Goes Off". Time. 1971-11-15. Retrieved 2006-10-09. 
  17. ^ "W-71 warhead information at Globalsecurity.org "...the Supreme Court ruled by a 4- 3 margin that the test could take place. On November 6, 1971, at 6: 30 a. m. in Amchitka, the go-ahead came from the White House on a telephone hotline"". 

External links[edit]