A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II successfully completed a series of flight tests in which it demonstrated the capacity of the B61-12, an upcoming nuclear bomb, to be dropped from an internal bomb bay at supersonic speed.
The test took place at Tonopah Test Range, 250 kilometers (160 miles) northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. It was carried out by Sandia National Laboratories (SNL), in charge of developing and testing the non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons for the United States.
While the flight happened on August 25, 2020, it was only revealed by the SNL on November 23, 2020.“The latest test is a critical piece in the F-35A and B61-12 program,” said Steven Samuels, a manager with Sandia’s B61-12 Systems Team. “Aboard the newest fighter, the B61-12 provides a strong piece of the overall nuclear deterrence strategy for our country and our allies.”
Maintaining the atomic stockpile
The B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb is the latest variant of the B61, which was introduced in the 1960s. It is not only critical for the United States nuclear deterrence as the main component of its nuclear arsenal, but also to some of its allies which are part of the NATO Nuclear Sharing agreement. A number of B61 are currently stored in several bases in Europe, namely in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey.
Coincidentally, all but Germany intended to operate the F-35A Lightning II. Turkey, however, was barred from acquiring the stealth fighter jet following its decision to procure the Russian S-400 air defense system. The U.S. authorities argued operating both weapon platforms conjointly could have compromised the aircraft.
The F-35A Lightning II is the third aircraft of the USAF to prove its capacity to operate the B61-12. Earlier this year, tests were also carried out from an F-15E Strike Eagle fighter and from a B-2 Spirit strategic bomber. This test was the first time the bomb was dropped from the internal bay of a fighter. Eventually, 480 B61-12 nuclear bombs should be delivered to the United States and its NATO allies.