This event was the first release of the most representative B61-12 test asset from an operationally-representative F-35A.
Two F-35A Lightning II aircraft recently released B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies (JTAs, mock weapons without nuclear materials but fitted with sensors and instrumentation to assess performance) during the F-35A’s first Full Weapon System Demonstration, completing the final flight test exercise of the nuclear design certification process.
As explained by 1st Lt Lindsey Heflin, 53rd Wing, in the article F-35A completes milestone 5th Gen fighter test with refurbished B61-12 nuclear gravity bombs, the 422d and 59th Test and Evaluation Squadrons based at Nellis Air Force Base (AFB) 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 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 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 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.
Aimed to consolidate and replace most of the previous B61 variants, the B61-12 is the latest iteration of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb which entered service 50 years ago. Over the decades numerous modifications have been made to increase safety and reliability.
The B61-12 is critical to sustaining the US airdelivered nuclear deterrent capability. The B61-12 first production unit (FPU) will occur in FY 2022. The bomb will be approximately 12 feet long and weigh approximately 825 pounds. It will be air-delivered in either ballistic gravity or guided drop modes and is being certified for delivery on current strategic (B-2A) and dual capable aircraft (F-15E, F-16C/D & MLU, PA-200 Tornado) as well as future aircraft platforms (F-35, B-21).
Photo credit: Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus / U.S. Air Force