The United States Air Force has sent out a request for information (RIF) to industry partners with the goal of building a next-generation reentry vehicle (NGRV) to carry its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) nuclear warheads.
Because most intermediate and long-range ICBMs leave Earth’s atmosphere on the way to their targets, the vehicle that carries the warheads through the atmosphere and back to Earth is critical for success.
Currently, the country’s aging fleet of ICBMs carries the MK21 reentry vehicle atop the Minuteman III missile, which is already being upgraded by manufacturer Lockheed Martin to a new MK21A. If taken all the way from concept to construction, the newly proposed NGRV is expected to begin full-scale development in the fiscal year 2026.
Aging Reentry Vehicle Design is Ready for an Upgrade
In 2019, the U.S. Air Force asked its partner Lockheed-Martin to begin upgrading their aging nuclear weapons fleet with the goal of transitioning the entire lot of the country’s ICBMs to the new MK21A reentry vehicle by 2029. That reentry vehicle, which is designed to carry the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent’s W87-1 warhead, underwent its first real-world tests in 2022. Unfortunately, the test ended in failure after only 11 seconds when the warhead exploded in the atmosphere.
Now, it appears the military branch, which is responsible for the bulk of the country’s ICBM arsenal, is looking to push beyond the upgrades of the MK21A by soliciting a newer, specially designed reentry vehicle with at least a few notable features.
Details on the Classified NGRV are Sparse
At this point, very little is known about the proposed project as most of the details are classified. However, in the recently published RIF, the Air Force stipulated that they are looking for an NGRV that boasts “enhancements in accuracy, lethality, and survivability.”
While the current MK21A upgrade is designed to carry a single warhead on each ICBM, there is some speculation that the NGRV being sought may include a design with multiple independent warheads, often referred to as a Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle or MIRV.
Similarly, the new NGRV may include a single warhead model that offers increased maneuverability once it reenters the Earth’s atmosphere. Sometimes referred to as a Maneuverable Reentry Vehicle, or MARV, such a warhead design would meet the publically acknowledged goal of “enhanced accuracy.”
More Lethal Reentry Vehicle Expected to Begin Advanced Design Phase in 2026
While little unclassified information is available about the viability of the new reentry vehicle, the RIF offers a few more insights. For example, they state that “any RV performance attributes, goals, or requirements listed in the RFI are intended to solicit initial interest, capabilities, and background from the industrial base to determine viability.”
This is not an uncommon practice when the government is looking into advanced concepts and wants to determine how viable they are for their primary contractors to design, build and produce. In fact, the request for information makes sure to point out that the Air Force is specifically not accepting any full-blown proposals for its NGRV system and is only looking for information at this time.
In that same RIF, they go even further, noting that “Responders are advised that the U.S. Government will not pay for any information or administrative costs incurred in response to this RFI; all costs associated with responding to this RFI will be solely at the interested party’s expense.”
Finally, the RIF also notes that the government “intends to award a contract(s) in FY26 (Fiscal Year).” So one way or another, it looks like a new, more accurate, and more lethal nuclear warhead reentry vehicle is not too far away.