The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center received approval to enter the production phase for the B61-12 nuclear bomb’s upgraded tail-fin assembly. The new phase, approved in late October, will involve testing that will more closely match operational conditions, the Air Force said in a news release this week. It follows nearly a year of testing with a perfect record on 31 dummy drops, according to the Air Force. This development effort brought the first-ever digital interface to the B61 family of weapons and demonstrated the B61-12 TKA’s compatibility with the Air Force’s B-2 and F-15 aircraft. The program falls under the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. The department is the umbrella organization for the nation’s military and civilian nuclear infrastructure.
The B61-12 is the planned modernized version of the B61 air-dropped nuclear weapon that has been in use with upgrades since the 1968. The new variant is intended to improve nuclear capabilities of the US Air Force and allied nations. The bomb can be air-launched by current aircraft such as B-2A, F-15E, F-16C/D, F-16 MLU, and PA-200, as well as future aircraft platforms such as F-35 and B-21. The first production unit of the B61-12 nuclear bomb is expected to be completed by March 2020. It is a thermonuclear “dial-a-yield” device which can be set for explosive yields ranging from a tactical 0.3 kilotons for battlefield use, up to 340 kilotons for strategic targets. The version being upgraded will have GPS guidance and can be mounted on most standard fighters and bombers with the U.S. and allied nations such as NATO members.
The new variant development is part of the B61-12 Life Extension Programme (LEP), which is a joint effort between the US Air Force and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The programme will overhaul and replace the ageing non-nuclear components such as fuses and batteries of the existing B61 bomb variants B61-3, B61-4, B61-7, and B61-10. A total of 400 bombs are expected to be refitted at an estimated cost of $7.6bn. The programme will extend the B61 bomb’s service life by 20 years, while increasing safety, security and reliability. The weapon entered its production engineering phase in June 2016 and its first system qualification test flight was conducted from the US Air Force’s F-16C Fighting Falcon aircraft in March 2017. Two non-nuclear system qualification flight tests of the bomb were completed in July 2018. The B61-12 non-nuclear test bomb assembly was released by a B-2A Spirit Bomber during the tests.
The most dangerous nuclear bomb in America’s arsenal may be the new B61-12. Much has been written about the B61-12, most of which has focused on its enormous cost. And for good reason—it is the most expensive nuclear bomb project ever. In terms of sheer destructive capability, the B61-12 is nowhere near America’s most dangerous nuclear weapon. Indeed, the bomb has a maximum yield of just 50-kilotons, the equivalent of 50,000 tons of TNT. By contrast, the B83 nuclear bomb has a maximum yield of 1.2 megatons (1,200 kilotons). What makes the B61-12 bomb the most dangerous nuclear weapon in America’s arsenal is its usability. This usability derives from a combination of its accuracy and low-yield. In practical terms,a lower-yield and more accurate bomb can therefore be used without having to fear the mass, indiscriminate killing of civilians through explosive force or radioactive fallout.