Skip to main content

Related File Video Above: Air Force 4-Star Praises B61 mod 12 Nuclear Bomb Test

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

The Pentagon, Department of Energy and Air Force have taken a substantial step toward arming the now operational F-35A with an upgraded, highly-capable nuclear bomb.

While formal nuclear certification of the new B61-Mod 12 make take a little time as it comes in operational and design phases, the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration is announcing that its first production unit of the B61-12 Life Extension Program has been successfully completed, launching a new sphere of airborne nuclear attack possibilities.

B61-12

The weapon is a new variant of a nuclear bomb that first emerged in 1968, which includes increased safety and reliability along with a significantly streamlined mission envelope. 

The B61-12 consolidated the attack functionality of multiple previous B61s to include Mods 3,4,7 and 11. Each of these previous variants, which still exist, perform a specific attack function such as an earth penetrating strike, low or high-yield attack and area detonation capability. With the B61-12, all of these missions are integrated into a single, adjustable or tailorable nuclear weapon. This allows aircraft to tailor specific effects and carry more bomb possibilities on a single attack mission.

B61-12

A joint test assembly undergoes a flight test at Sandia National Laboratories’ Tonopah Test Range in Nevada.The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center received formal approval in late October 2018 to enter the production phase for the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb’s new guided tail-kit assembly, or TKA. The Air Force is responsible for the B61-12 TKA, joint integration of the bomb assembly and TKA into the “all-up-round” of the weapon, and its integration with aircraft.

Along with the F-35A, the weapon will arm the B-2 and emerging new B-21 Raider stealth bomber, offering low-yield, high-yield, bunker buster and above ground “area” attacks in a single bomb for crews. It is certainly by no means surprising that stealth bombers will operate with the weapon, but what would a nuclear-armed F-35 bring to a tactical equation in war?

A B-2 could certainly hold an enemy at risk of nuclear attack, yet it might not have the maneuverability and lower-altitude speed to bring the possibility of a nuclear strike more directly into an ongoing air combat war with enemy aircraft, maneuvering ground forces or newly arriving intelligence information with updated targets.

F-35

There are certainly a number of variables to consider, as a high-speed, lower altitude maneuvering nuclear threat such as that presented by an F-35, would introduce new dilemmas for an enemy. 

Perhaps target information changes quickly or enemy assets are on the move? A maneuvering, lower-altitude yet nuclear-capable F-35 brings an ability to hold more targets at risk under a wider range of tactical contingencies. 

F-35A Lightning

An F-35A Lightning II takes off to complete the final test exercise of the nuclear design certification process at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Sept. 21, 2021 . Test pilots flew to the Tonopah Test Range at Nellis AFB and released two B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies from operationally realistic flight envelopes. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus)

Perhaps ICBMs, which need to travel through space, are too easily detectable by enemy satellites and space sensors? 

Perhaps approaching ICBMs simply take too long as they need roughly 20-mins in the mid-course phase to cross between continents in many cases? 

Perhaps an enemy has well-evolved missile defenses? 

Added to this, perhaps a high-altitude stealthy bomber is unable to reach a maneuvering target for a low-yield nuclear strike, or lacks the speed to fight off enemy air-and-ground attacks should it be detected?

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

An F-35 could not only help protect a B-2 or B-21 by countering enemy air defenses and airborne fighter jets, but also use its proximity to the ground and speed to hold otherwise unreachable targets at risk. An F-35, armed with a B61-12 capable of earth penetrating nuclear strikes, might be able to release a highly precise and highly lethal low-yield targeted strike against enemy assets or facilities buried underground, without having to damage above ground infrastructure.

Low-yield nuclear attack, earth-penetrating strikes, above surface detonation and bunker-buster explosions will all now be woven into a single nuclear bomb for the Air Force, now that the new B61-12 weapon has been produced.

F-35A B61-12

A 461st FLTS F-35A releases an inert B61-12 in a test on November 25, 2019. (Photo: U.S. DoD/F-35 Joint Program Office)

The B61-12 is a modified nuclear weapon that builds upon and integrates more than 50-years of technology and development. It has been a multi-year modernization effort to engineer a single bomb variant able to perform a range of otherwise separated nuclear attack functions.

Historically, different variants of the weapon were needed for specific missions and blast effects, such as proximity above ground nuclear attack, earth penetrating nuclear strikes and both high-and-low yield strikes. The B61-12 Life Extension Program has successfully completed its first production unit, according to the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The B61-12 combines the Mod 3,4,7 and 11 into a single munition.

“The B61-12 will replace the B61-3, 4, and 7. The B61-12 LEP (Life Extension Program) refurbishes, reuses, or replaces all of the bomb’s nuclear or non-nuclear components to extend the service life by at least 20 years,” a statement from the NNSA says.

The new variant, based upon a bomb that first emerged in 1968, also reportedly increases safety and reliability resulting from more than nine years of collaborative efforts between the U.S. Air Force and the NNSA.

A consolidated and much improved weapon, which will drop from the B-2 and F-35A, will enable easy target, mission and blast-effects adjustments for pilots and bomb crews responding to new incoming intelligence information. Also, by virtue of multiple bombs consolidating into one, a platform such as the B-2 will be able to deploy with a much greater ordnance load and therefore operate with greater lethality, operational endurance and a much improved mission attack envelope.

Scientists explain that the B61 Mod 12 is engineered with a special “Tail Subassembly” to give the bomb increased accuracy, giving a new level of precision targeting using Inertial Navigation Systems.

File Related Video Report: B-2 Drops New B61-12 Nuclear Bomb

The B-2, which is armed with the B-61 carries multiple variants of the weapon to include the B61-7, an earth penetrating B61-11 and a B83-1 high-yield bunker buster weapons, Hans Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project, Federation of American Scientists, told me in a previous discussion about the B61-12.

“The main advantage of the B61-12 is that it packs all the gravity bomb capabilities against all the targeting scenarios into one bomb. That spans from very low-yield tactical “clean” use with low fallout to more dirty attacks against underground targets,” he said in an interview with Warrior last year.

While the B1 thermonuclear gravity bomb has origins in the 1960s, the latest variant is engineered as a low-to-medium yield weapon which has a “two stage” radiation implosion design, according to nuclearweaponsarchive.org

“With this program, we’re delivering a system to the Department of Defense that improves accuracy and reduces yield with no change in military characteristics, while also improving safety, security and reliability,” Jill Hruby, DOE Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and NNSA Administrator, said in a statement. “The work on the B61-12 will also ensure the warhead can be air-delivered on both current and future platforms to meet Department of Defense requirements.”

A low-yield variant gives commanders the possible ability to deter a potentially more limited or tactical nuclear strike, and an area-detonation above ground is able to exponentially increase the radius of destruction caused by a nuclear explosion. Bunker buster or earth penetrating nuclear weapons can both reach otherwise inaccessible targets and increase precision by virtue of limiting the blast radius within a more confined area underground. There might be scenarios where a Commander might wish to fully destroy an underground facility while leaving nearby above ground structures intact. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President