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The Air Force is preparing to arm its F-35A with a nuclear bomb attack capability, adding yet another stealth aircraft to the world of possibility when it comes to the Pentagon’s nuclear deterrence posture.
Certainly the B-2 is nuclear capable, as it has been testing and preparing with the upgraded B61-12 nuclear bomb, and now the Air Force is doing test runs with the F-35 in preparation to certify the stealth fighter to carry nuclear weapons.
Many aircraft can carry nuclear weapons, to include the B-52 and even some fighter jets such as the F-15E and F-16C/D, yet arming a stealthy 5th-generation aircraft with air dropped nuclear weapons capability introduces new, potentially unprecedented variables. An Air Force statement said two F-35As released B61-12 Joint Tests Assemblies as part of a final flight test exercise to certify the aircraft to carry nuclear weapons.
Nuclear certification, according to the Air Force description, is broken up into two phases including nuclear design and a nuclear operational certification.
“This test is considered the graduation flight test exercise for the F-35A nuclear design certification and concludes on-aircraft testing for the initial nuclear certification effort. The test data received from this event is currently under analysis and review by the Department of Defense and Department of Energy to ensure the F-35A and B61-12 JTAs performed correctly throughout all phases of the operation,” the Air Force press statement explains.
Nuclear Armed F-35
A nuclear armed F-35 certainly introduces a few yet-to-exist dynamics when it comes to nuclear deterrence strategy in a number of respects. The speed of an F-35A, especially if it is operating in the vicinity of a conflict area, could deliver a nuclear response to any kind of first strike faster or in a more immediate fashion, shortening the response curve.
Should the U.S. unexpectedly come under nuclear attack, for example, a nuclear-armed F-35 might be in a position to retaliate in a fast and impactful way more more immediately, whereas an ICBM can take up to a half hour to transit through space en route to a target.
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.
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Essentially, a nuclear-armed F-35 could transition from a conventional air-to-air or air-to-ground engagement into a nuclear attack should combat conditions and circumstances change quickly. While these recent developments represent a large step forward toward deploying a nuclear armed F-35A, the plan to arm the 5th-generation jet with nuclear weapons goes back several years to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review as part of an integrated plan to strengthen the U.S. nuclear deterrence posture.
B61-12 Nuclear Bomb
While certainly the B61 nuclear bomb, and all its different variants, have existed now for many years, the upgraded B61-12 nuclear bomb improves accuracy, integrates various attack options into a single bomb and changes the strategic landscape with regard to nuclear weapons mission possibilities
The B61-12 adds substantial new levels of precision targeting and consolidates several different kinds of attack options into a single weapon. Instead of needing separate variants of the weapon for different functions, the B61-12 by itself allows for earth-penetrating attacks, low-yield strikes, high-yield attacks, above surface detonation and bunker-buster options.
For example, 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. 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.
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.
Air Force officials describe this, in part, by referring to the upgraded B61-12 as having an “All Up Round.”
An “earth penetrating” nuclear attack certainly introduces new tactical options for commanders who may want to destroy underground bunkers, ammunition storage areas of protected command and control centers without wanting to inflict catastrophic damage across a large civilian area.
Streamlining, upgrading different nuclear bomb variants into a single weapon brings a host of advantages, to include the ability for a weapons-carrying aircraft such as a B-52 or B-2 to arm itself with a greater number of bombs. Pilots could tailor bombs to a particular threat circumstance or mission requirement without having to travel with a much larger, heavier arsenal. This would prove useful in the event that some kind of multi-faceted or large-scale nuclear attack became necessary and the offensive force needed to drop multiple bombs of the same variety as well as some with different or alternative explosive configurations.
“A nuclear weapon that detonates after penetrating the earth more efficiently transmits its explosive energy to the ground, thus is more effective at destroying deeply buried targets for a given nuclear yield. A detonation above ground, in contrast, results in a larger fraction of the explosive energy bouncing off the surface,” Kristensen explained.
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