On Monday the Sandia National Laboratories, a component of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), announced the U.S. had successfully tested the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s ability to carry and deploy the nuclear-capable B61-12 bomb. The test marked the first time the mock bomb was released from an aircraft’s internal bomb bay while traveling faster than the speed of sound.
Sandia National Laboratories said in a statement that a U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II completed the first test in the summer to prove the fighter’s ability to deploy the nuclear-capable bomb.
According to the press statement, on August 25, “An F-35A flying faster than the speed of sound dropped a B61-12 — containing non-nuclear and mock nuclear components — from about 10,500 feet above Tonopah Test Range,” in Nevada.
The B61 is an unguided nuclear bomb, that entered the U.S. service in 1968. The B61-12 is the most up-to-date variant of the nuclear weapon.
“We successfully executed this historic, first-ever F-35A flight test at Tonopah Test Range within the specified delivery criteria,” Tonopah Test Range range manager Brian Adkins said.
Sandia coordinated with Los Alamos National Laboratories, the NNSA, and the U.S. Air Force to carry out the F-35 bomb test. Sandia designs and engineers non-nuclear components of the nation’s nuclear stockpile, including the B61-12 bomb.
“We’re showing the B61-12’s larger compatibility and broader versatility for the country’s nuclear deterrent, and we’re doing it in the world of COVID-19,” said Steven Samuels, a manager with Sandia’s B61-12 Systems Team. “We’re not slowing down. We’re still moving forward with the B61-12 compatibility activities on different platforms.”
Sandia has previously tested the B61-12 on the Air Force’s B-2 Spirit bomber and on its F-15E Strike Eagle.
The pairing of the F-35 with the B61-12 bomb is part of the B61-12 Life Extension Program (LEP), which aims to extend the lifespan of the nuclear weapon which has been in service for over 50 years. The B61-12 LEP aims to extend the lifespan of the B-61 by another 20 years, according to the NNSA.
The B61-12’s upgrades include an improved tail kit to increase the unguided bomb’s accuracy. The bomb is also configured for a reduced nuclear yield.
In 2014, Air Force Magazine reported then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said the F-35 Block 4B variant is supposed to be capable of carrying two B61 bombs internally by 2024.
“The latest test is a critical piece in the F-35A and B61-12 program,” Samuels said. “Aboard the newest fighter, the B61-12 provides a strong piece of the overall nuclear deterrence strategy for our country and our allies.”
B61-12 program senior manager Christine Mitchell said, “Sandia National Labs, Los Alamos National Laboratory, NNSA and our Air Force partners are working diligently to ensure F-35A major milestones stay on track, despite the challenges presented by COVID-19.”
This article’s headline was updated to clarify the mock nature of the bomb deployed in the test.