The Air Force’s F-35A variant should still be certified to carry a pair of B61-12 bombs by fiscal year 2026 and the first flight test of a non-nuclear W87-0 warhead mockup should still fly on a Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) missile in December 2023, the head of Air Force Global Strike Command said Thursday.

And the missile might have a catchier name by the time of the scheduled test flight, Gen. Anthony Cotton told attendees of an online forum hosted by the Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance. 

Asked when the replacement for Minuteman III might get a name comparable with its predecessor’s, Cotton said Air Force had already picked out a handle for the GBSD. 

“It’s in between my ears right now,” Cotton said, adding that a formal announcement would follow, once the Secretary of Defense signs off on the service’s choice. 

GBSD, to be built by Northrop Grumman [NOC], is scheduled to replace the Boeing [BA] made Minuteman III fleet starting in 2030 or so. The first GBSD missiles will use the W87-0, a Minuteman III warhead to be adapted for the new rockets in a test flight still scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base late in calendar year 2023.

GBSD will cost more than $250 billion over its decades-long deployment, the Air Force has said. In addition to W87-0 warheads, the missile eventually will carry W87-1 warheads: newly manufactured copies of the W87 design, but with a brand new plutonium pit to be cast at factories planned for the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory and Savannah River Site.

Meanwhile, Cotton said the schedule for certifying Air Force F-35s to internally carry a pair of B61-12 gravity bombs is laying flat. That, for now, signals a suspension of the schedule creep disclosed earlier this year in the service’s budget request, which pushed certification out to 2026 from 2025

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) in November finished the first war-ready copy of B61-12, which will homogenize four existing versions of the bomb and arrive with what the Air Force has described as modest earth-penetrating and standoff capabilities, the latter thanks to a guided tail kit from Boeing that will allow the weapon to maneuver a little after it’s dropped from a carrier plane. 

The NNSA plans to start mass production of B61-12 in May, depending on when the agency certifies that the proof-of-concept article produced in November meets military requirements. With the tail kit, B61-12 will cost roughly $12 billion, Pentagon and NNSA budget documents show. The refurbed weapon will be good for another 20 years, NNSA estimates.

B61-12 carrier craft will eventually include the B-2 bomber, the planned B-21, the F-15, F-16, F-35, and the German-made PA-200, according to the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center.