The Department of Energy may need to start qualifying the W87 warhead for service aboard Ground Based Strategic Deterrent Missiles in roughly three years, the Air Force’s program director for the next-generation nuke launcher said Thursday.

The first test flights for the silo-based missiles that will replace Minuteman III will be in “three years or so, give or take,” and test versions of new launcher’s W87-0 variant “need to be ready to fly when we start testing,” Air Force Col. Jason Bartolomei, director of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) Systems Directorate, said in a webcast hosted by the Washington-based Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance.

The Air Force will replace 400 Minuteman III missiles with GBSD rockets starting in 2030. The service plans to buy more than 650 GBSD missiles, including test rockets and spares. Northrop Grumman [NOC] will design and build the first of these under a roughly nine-year, $13 billion engineering and manufacturing development contract awarded in September. 

“We’re going to be working really closely with Northrop Grumman over the next several weeks to really nail down that schedule, but it’s going to come much faster than people realize,” Bartolomei said.

The Air Force expects its share of the GBSD program to cost more than $100 billion into roughly the 2080s. Minuteman III incumbent Boeing [BA] dropped out of the competition to build GBSD last year, citing an insurmountable cost advantage for Northrop Grumman, which owns its own solid-rocket-motor propulsion business.

The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is preparing both W87-0 and W87-1 warheads for GBSD. W87-0 will be an existing W87 warhead, one of two types now used in the Minuteman III fleet. W87-1, a replacement for the Minuteman III’s W78 warhead, will be a newly manufactured copy of the W87-1 design, except with freshly cast plutonium-pit triggers. W87-0 will use existing pits.

A pit is the chunk of fissile material that begins a thermonuclear weapon’s ultra-destructive nuclear chain-reaction. 

The NNSA has acknowledged challenges with its program to rebuild a pit-production complex, and earlier this year, a senior official with the civilian nuclear-weapons steward said it “may be” that the agency will have the W87-0 warhead ready to go before the W87-1.

The NNSA is upgrading facilities at the Los Alamos National Laboratory to cast war-usable W87-1 pits starting in 2024, with an eye toward casting 30 pits annually in the desert by 2026. 

NNSA plans a separate pit plant planned for the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C., which is supposed to come online in 2030 and add 50 W87-1 pits annually. However, multiple agency-commissioned studies, and recently a Government Accountability Office, have cast doubt on the agency’s ability to produce its desired 80 pits a year by the start of the next decade.