With this latest milestone event, the Air Force has now completed the flight test portion of the nuclear design certification process for the latest B61 series weapon, which involved 10 test drops in total. Now that nuclear design certification has been wound up, the program moves into the nuclear operational certification phase, essentially clearing the aircraft and weapon for frontline service.
In the meantime, data gathered during the latest test at Tonopah will be assessed by the Department of Defense and Department of Energy, to ensure the B61-12 and the F-35A meet all performance requirements.
The Air Force says that no date has been set for full F-35A nuclear certification, at which point the jet will be determined able to deploy the B61-12 in support of real-world operations. The service does, however, note that the integration process is set to “remain on track for future timelines.”
Back in 2017, it was reported that the Air Force had set a goal of between 2020 and 2022 to introduce the B61-12 capability on the F-35A. However, the service has also said it does not expect to receive the first production B61-12s until 2022, meaning that the F-35As will likely have to wait until then, at least.
However, the B61-12 capability will only be realized by F-35A units that are earmarked for the nuclear mission, likely to be spearheaded by the current F-16C/D units deployed in Europe that will continue their DCA mission when they transition to the Lightning II.
Adaptations for that mission concern not only the hardware and software changes required on the jet itself to prosecute it, but also the appropriate training of aircrew and maintainers, plus various support and security infrastructure at the relevant bases.
The nuclear strike role will likely be performed not only by the U.S. Air Force but also by certain F-35A export customers within NATO, which could be provided with access to U.S.-owned nuclear bombs, as is currently the case for Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. Of these, all but Germany are buying F-35As.
Interestingly, the Air Force is also now pitching the nuclear-armed F-35A as a more strategic weapons-delivery platform, as well as being a tactical strike asset. This is likely the result of a few different factors. First, there is the increased accuracy of the B61-12, thanks to its precision-guidance system, combining the aforementioned INS package tail kit and rockets that give the weapon spin stabilization. This guidance also allows the weapon to be launched from dozens of miles away from its target area, increasing survivability. This, paired with the F-35A’s well-reported stealth attributes, allows for better-defended targets to be attacked. It also has a sizeable combat radius for a tactical fighter. Furthermore, unlike its forebears, the B61-12 is designed from the outset for carriage by strategic (bomber) and tactical (fighter) platforms.
Speaking to Air Force Magazine, meanwhile, Air Combat Command deputy director for strategic deterrence Lieutenant Colonel Douglas A. Kabel said, “It makes our potential adversaries think more about their game plan before launching it. [The F-35A] can get closer to, further inside a combat area that may otherwise be impossible for non-stealth assets.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Air Force is already developing tactics that would see the nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bomber work alongside the F-35A in contested airspace — using their respective attributes to defeat the air defenses of a potential peer or near-peer enemy.
“The B-2 bomber was the prominent nuclear-capable stealth aircraft,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jackson. “Adding ‘nuclear capable’ to a fifth-gen fighter that already brings several conventional-level capabilities to the table adds strategic-level implication to this jet.”
However, the B61-12 won’t just be carried by the F-35A. In June last year, it was announced that the B61-12 had been demonstrated as being fully compatible with the F-15E Strike Eagle, followed by the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber later the same month. Ultimately, the future B-21 Raider bombers will also be armed with the new bombs, and at least a portion of the F-16C/D fleet is also planned to carry them. As part of NATO nuclear sharing commitments, it seems likely that Germany will seek to add the B61-12 to its planned F/A-18E/Fs, as well.
Video of the F-15E Strike Eagle performing B61-12 development work over the Tonopah Test Range: