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F-35A completes final flight test with B61-12 guided nuclear bomb

F-35A with guided B61-12 nuclear bomb
An F-35A Lighting II carrying a B61-12 Joint Test Assembly sits on the flight line at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Sept. 21, 2021. Photo: US Air Force

Two US Air Force F-35A Lightning II aircraft recently released test versions of the B61-12 guided nuclear bomb during the aircraft’s first full weapon system demonstration.

The event marked the final flight test exercise of the nuclear design certification process.

“The B61 series weapons are tactical gravity nuclear weapons that can be used on dual capable aircraft like the F-15E and F-16C/D,” said Lt. Col Daniel Jackson, division chief, Headquarters ACC Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration. “Having a 5th Generation DCA fighter aircraft with this capability brings an entirely new strategic-level capability that strengthens our nation’s nuclear deterrence mission.”

The nuclear certification is broken into two phases: nuclear design certification and 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 Department of Defense and Department of Energy will now analyze and review test data received from this event to ensure the F-35A and B61-12 JTAs performed correctly throughout all phases of the operation.

The final test flight took place after the F-35A became the first aircraft to release the B61 from an internal bomb bay at supersonic speed in late 2020.

The 422d and 59th Test and Evaluation Squadrons led Air Combat Command’s portion of the test effort, with Airmen from the 57th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, 926th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and Bolt Aircraft Maintenance Unit leading all maintenance efforts. Once airborne, test pilots flew to the Tonopah Test Range and released two B61-12 JTAs from operationally realistic flight envelopes. This event was the first release of the most representative B61-12 test asset from an operationally-representative F-35A.

“The B-2 bomber was the prominent nuclear capable stealth aircraft,” said Jackson. “Adding ‘nuclear capable’ to a 5th-Gen fighter that already brings several conventional-level capabilities to the table adds strategic-level implication to this jet.”

No date has been released for full F-35A nuclear certification in support of real-world operations. The successful completion of this test covers a critical part of the nuclear certification process and ensures the F-35A will remain on track for future timelines.

Not all aircraft will become nuclear-capable upon full certification in support of real-world operations. Only those units with a nuclear mission will be given the hardware and manpower necessary to configure and maintain nuclear capable F-35s.

The test event was led by a collaborative effort between the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, F-35 Joint Program Office, Sandia National Labs and several HQ ACC staff directorates.