The submarine-launched, nuclear-armed Trident II D5 ballistic missile will live to fight another day. In fact, the class of missiles will serve quite a while as the Pentagon is now finalizing a Life-Extension Program for the weapon which will ensure its reliability and use well into the 2040s.
“The W76-1 LEP was completed under budget and ahead of schedule, strengthening the Nation’s safety and security by extending the warhead’s service life from 20 years to 60 years,” The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration 2021 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan—Biennial Plan Summary stated.
In service for decades, often tested and repeatedly upgraded, the three-stage Trident II D5 ballistic missile can travel a nominal range of 4,000 nautical miles and carry multiple independently targeted reentry bodies, according to Navy and Lockheed information.
In recent years, the Navy has been working with Lockheed on a number of key technical upgrades to both modernize and sustain the nuclear weapon. Some of these are ongoing, and others have made sufficient progress, laying the foundation for next-stage sustainment efforts, Navy officials have told The National Interest. These have included work on the weapon’s electronic modules and refinements of the missile’s Mk-6 guidance system.
Hans Kristensen of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told The National Interest last year that the D5LE variant increases precision and targeting by using two stars for navigation instead of one. “This provides more flexibility with regard to the submarine’s precise position.”
At some point in coming decades, the Trident II D5 will need to be replaced with a new weapon, yet this service extension program for the existing missile will help afford developers the necessary time and developmental trajectory to explore the question. Certainly, the aim is to ensure that a credible, potentially catastrophic, second strike threat exists to prevent any kind of major nuclear attack on America. U.S. Navy ballistic missile submarines, armed with Tridents, quietly and secretly patrol the dark depths of the undersea to hold potential adversaries at risk, operating within potential striking range of high-threat targets such as major cities to guarantee a massively destructive response in the event of nuclear attack.
“The Trident II D5 is also single purpose. While it can carry different types of reentry bodies (W76s & W88s), it has one single purpose - strategic nuclear deterrence with assured second strike capability. It’s not tactical. It’s not conventional. So its sole purpose, that is the missile, is to carry reentry bodies,” John Daniels, Public Affairs Officer for the Navy’s Strategic Systems Programs told The National Interest last year.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.