Stealthy Nuclear Punch: F-35A Achieves Early Certification for B61-12 Guided Bomb

NATO's F-35A aircraft have received nuclear certification for carrying an improved B61-12 nuclear bomb. The stealthy F-35A and precision-guided B61-12 enhance US and partner nuclear deterrence capabilities.

Must Read

Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

Five nations—Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Turkey—store B-61 thermonuclear weapons on their territory under NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement; the United States has sole responsibility for their control and, by extension, their arming code. With the possible exception of Turkey, the member states are obligated to contribute the fighter-bombers that could be assigned to the mission. Due to this rationale, they opted for the Lockheed-Martin F-35A as their combat aviation modernisation aircraft.

However, during order placement, this aircraft lacked certification to carry the B61-12, the most recent iteration of the B61. Ranged between 0.3 and 50 kilotons, the B61-12 can be operated in “guided” mode via a kit mounted on the rear. In “unguided” mode, it is dropped, taking advantage of gravity above the target. Thus, there is an interest surrounding the F-35A, an aircraft specifically engineered to evade radar detection.

In 2020, the US Air Force authorised contracts amounting to $900 million to initiate incorporating the B61-12 into the F-35A. Prior flight testing with earlier iterations of B61 bombs on F-35 aircraft has facilitated integrating the B61-12 bomb. The objective was to obtain certification for the delivery of the B61-12 by both the F-35A and F-35B aircraft by 2026 or 2027. Nevertheless, the program faced significant technical obstacles, such as the bomb’s dimensions and its ability to fit in the F-35’s internal weapons compartments.

In 2021, the Pentagon announced the completion of compatibility tests between the B61-12 and two F-35A aircraft at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada. The gathered data are being analysed to verify that everything functioned properly. Subsequently, it was specified that the preliminary nuclear certification of the F-35A would be issued only after that.

The Pentagon also stated that no date has been set for the full nuclear certification of the F-35A. The performance of these tests is important to the nuclear certification process and assures that the F-35A meets future deadlines.

According to Breaking Defense, this nuclear certification has now been achieved. On March 8, Russ Goemaere, the Joint Program Office “F-35” spokesman, confirmed this.

“The F-35A is the first 5th generation nuclear-capable aircraft (…) to achieve this status since the early 1990s. This F-35 nuclear certification effort is the result of over ten years of intense efforts provided by sixteen different government and industry structures,” Goemaere emphasised. “The F-35A achieved its nuclear certification earlier than expected, thus providing the United States and NATO with an essential capability,” he said.

This announcement mirrors what General Johan van Deventer, commander of the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s Air Combat Command, stated in November 2023. He added that an “initial certification” for the Dutch F-35A’s nuclear mission had recently been obtained following an “inspection” conducted by an American “team.”

However, at the time, the Pentagon declined to confirm that the F-35A was permitted to carry the B-61-12. This confirmation has been made.

Meanwhile, the B-61-12 bombs are also getting ready. A 1995 evaluation determined that the service life of the ageing B61 bomb family should be extended beyond 2025. The programme gained congressional approval and financing beginning with the fiscal year 2004 budget request. In 2004, an updated requirements description was completed for the B61-12 configuration. In 2011-2012, the program was restructured and moved onto the engineering phase.

The programme proceeded, with production engineering work heating up in the 2010s and a first production unit expected in the mid-2020s, according to the original plan.

The B61-12 life-extension process includes upgrading old B61-3, -4, -7, and -10 bombs to the new B61-12 type. The B61-12 has upgrades such as a guided tail kit for increased accuracy, a reinforced thermonuclear casing for ground penetration, and enhanced safety measures. It attempts to conserve money while modernising capabilities by updating current weapons rather than creating an entirely new design.

The life extension extends the B61 family’s service life into the 2060s or later. It supports the United States’ objective of maintaining a credible nuclear deterrence while awaiting potential future replacement systems.

Critics have raised concerns about the program’s high expenditures, which are anticipated to be more than $10 billion when integrated with aircraft such as the F-35.

As of 2023, the B61-12 life extension programme was going through the production engineering and integration testing phases, with the first production unit initially scheduled for 2022–2025.

When analysing how the B61-12 nuclear bomb and F-35 fighter plane could help dodge Russian air defence systems, it’s important to remember that these antagonistic systems are also fast developing in sophistication. The improved precision gives the B61-12 the capability to penetrate hardened and deeply buried sites. The F-35’s stealth features and cutting-edge electronic warfare capabilities enable it to penetrate Russian airspace unnoticed and engage targets while reducing the possibility of being intercepted by opposing air defence systems. However, both US and Russian systems are continuously evolving to tackle growing threats.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


More Articles Like This