The Air Force has begun the very first steps in identifying its next generation of nuclear ballistic missiles, the commander of the service's nuclear forces told lawmakers today. Meanwhile, the integration of the B61 tactical nuclear bomb onto the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter may be delayed as the overall JSF program slips in schedule.
First off, the service is in the midst of preparing a capabilities-based assessment of what it will need from as many as 420 nuclear-armed ICBMs to replace the 40-year old Minuteman IIIs when they wear out, Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, chief of Air Force Global Strike Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee today. Once this is complete, the Air Force will further refine the capabilities it wants to see in its future nuclear forces and conduct an analysis of alternatives (AoA) for the weapons starting in fiscal year 2013, according to the general.
"The efforts that we're pursuing right now won't address policies, it will simply address what we see as capability requirements based on the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review," said Kowalski, referring to the Pentagon's document for how for nuclear forces will fit in the nation's 21st Century security policy.
The AoA will likely look at all options for completely replacing the Minuteman III or modifying the weapons to further extend their lives.
The whole process of identifying a potential replacement for the Minuteman III is expected to take until FY-14, added Maj. Gen. William Chambers, the service's assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration.
Chambers also told the committee that work integrating the B61 tactical nuclear bomb (largely deployed at air bases hosting F-16s and F-15Es in Europe) onto the F-35 may be delayed due to the roughly two year slip in the overall F-35 development program.
"The timeline for production and delivery for the F-35 is going to slip to the right, the amount of time is unknown but that will impact the delivery of that capability with the new B61 life-extended, B61 Mod 12, to" air allied bases in Europe, said Chambers. "Thorough planning is underway to cover any potential gap this slip may require."
The B61 has been a mainstay of the Air Force's tactical nuclear bomb arsenal for decades.
"Some portion" of the Air Force current fleet of F-16s and F-15E Strike Eagles that carry the B61 will "continue to conduct that mission until the F-35 is ready to deploy to Europe," said Chambers.
The two-star went on to say that while the overall JSF program is delayed by two years, certain elements such as work integrating the B61 onto the plane, may not slip by that long. He also noted that the software giving the plane the ability to carry the bomb is still scheduled to be added to the jet immediately after the end of the jet's development phase.
F-35 was originally slated to be ready to carry the tactical nuke by 2017.