It was a small, obscure-sounding item in the 2020 defense budget—a mere $19.6 million to procure W76-2 warheads, a sum which could pay for just one quarter of a single F-35A stealth fighter.
But it, along with a select few other items including plans for a Space Force and border wall funding, generated such controversy that Senate Republicans and House Democrats spent three additional months hashing out a compromise defense budget after striking an initial deal this summer.
Ultimately, the House conceded on most of its defense policy priorities—meaning funding will continue flowing to deploy the W76-2 nuclear warheads manufactured by the Pantex plant in Texas.
The W76-2 is a less powerful variant of the W76-1 warhead deployed on 13.5-meter-tall Trident II ballistic missiles deployed on the U.S. Navy’s Ohio-class submarines. Whereas the four 90- or 100-kiloton independently reentering warheads carried on a standard Trident each explode with six times the force of the Little Boy uranium bomb that killed over 60,000 Japanese at Hiroshima, the 5 to 7 kiloton W76-2 has an explosive yield a third or half that of the Hiroshima blast.
The difference reflects that the W76 is a strategic weapon designed to obliterate hardened nuclear missile silos and annihilate large populated areas in an apocalyptic nuclear war—and more pointedly, to deter foes from initiating such a war—while the W76-2 is a tactical nuclear weapon designed to hit individual military bases and formations on the battlefield.
The W76-2 has been championed by officials such as former Defense Secretary James Mattis as a means to give the U.S. military an additional too with which to retaliate rapidly and proportionally to the tactical nuclear weapons possessed by Russia.