The Department of Energy and the Pentagon plan deploy W87-0 warheads, without new plutonium pit cores, on some Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) missiles, potentially buying the civilian agency more time to get a pair of planned pit factories up and running.

DoE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) confirmed the plan Thursday through a spokesperson. The agency’s 2021 budget request includes a footnote that says some W87-0 warheads, one of two types deployed on legacy Minuteman III silo-based missiles, will be qualified and deployed on the successor GBSD fleet.

Ultimately, GBSD will use W87-1 warheads containing brand new pits cast by the NNSA in planned factories at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C. However, the agency faces tremendous pressure to ramp up pit production to a target of 80 a year by 2030. 

NNSA’s own studies have shown that the agency is not likely to hit 80 pits annually until the early or mid-2030s. Putting some W87-0 warheads aboard GBSD could ease the pressure on NNSA’s construction projects at a time when the agency is also juggling novel nuclear weapons life-extension programs, and addressing a capacity crunch in its non-nuclear assembly factory in Kansas City. That factory, and the entire complex, are facing demand from the Defense Department unequaled since the end of the Cold War some 30 years ago.

In the last two years or so, the NNSA has moved away from the idea of fitting GBSD with an interoperable warhead design, one that would have shared components with a future Navy warhead, and embraced the W87-1: an adaptation of the existing W87-0 that would eventually replace Minuteman III’s other warhead, the W78.

The Air Force’s GBSD schedule is firmly in the driver’s seat when it comes to the W87 demand schedule, and so the NNSA has insisted that it will complete, commission, and ramp up its split-state pit complex in time to start sinking W87-1-armed GBSD missiles into silos beginning around 2030.

But quietly, the agency always had an eye on a backstop — as some industry watchers have always believed it must have.

The NNSA’s 2020 budget request, for example, mentions “GBSD feasibility studies” for a minor alteration of the W87 called Alt-360.

Meanwhile, the NNSA’s 2021 budget request seeks billions of dollars to keep the agency’s proposed pit program on track. The agency plans to start making 10 pits a year in 2024 at Los Alamos, ramping up to 30 a year there by 2026. The agency plans to bring online in 2030 the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility, to be built out of a partially completed plutonium recycling plant. That facility is on the hook to cast 50 pits a year, starting next decade. 

The Air Force plans to buy more than 600 GBSD missiles and deploy 400 of them in silos to replace Minuteman III at a rate of one-for-one. Northrop Grumman [NOC] looks like a lock to win the roughly $25 billion contract to build and deploy the missiles. The Air Force says it plans to award that GBSD Engineering and Manufacturing Development contract as soon as July, and at least by September.