US Air Force F-35A Completes Key Milestone with Release of B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies (JTAs)

The F-35A Lightning II is one step closer to becoming the next Air Force aircraft, and first 5th Generation platform, to achieve compatibility with the refurbished B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb, the F-35 Joint Program Office announced on October 04. Taking off from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, two F-35As recently executed a Full Weapon System Demonstration, considered the ‘graduation’ flight test exercise for achieving nuclear certification from an air-delivered platform. This event was the culmination of years of planning and lead-up flight test activities, and involved numerous organizations across the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Energy (DOE). Pilots from the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, part of the Air Force’s 53rd Test and Evaluation Group, conducted two separate drops of high-fidelity, non-nuclear mock B61-12s at Sandia National Laboratories’ Tonopah Test Range, located 160 miles from Nellis.

Sandia is the design and engineering lab for non-nuclear components of the nation’s nuclear stockpile, including the B61-12. In addition to non-nuclear component development, Sandia serves as the technical integrator for the complete weapon, assuring the system meets requirements as a full-weapon system. During the Aug. 25 flight test, 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. The inert B61-12 struck the desert floor in the designated target area about 42 seconds later. Coordination between Sandia, Los Alamos, NNSA and the Air Force made the flight test possible, and initial data shows that all systems and interfaces between the refurbished bomb and the F-35A worked as expected.

Flight Tests Demo B61-12 Compatibility with F-35A Fighter Jet
An F-35A Joint Strike Fighter opens its bomb bay doors and drops a mock B61-12 at Sandia’s Tonopah Test Range. During compatibility trials carried out during the summer by Sandia National Laboratories. (Sandia photo)

Unlike previous fighter jets, the F-35A carries the bomb internally. The recent flight test was the first demonstration of a fully instrumented B61-12 release from an internal bomb bay on a fighter and the first such release at speeds of Mach 1 or greater. The jets released the inert weapons at varying altitudes and airspeeds, clearing the desired flight envelope in which the F-35A plans to operate. The flights marked the last of 10 guided releases of B61-12 test assets on F-35A. While the F-35A is not yet fully certified to conduct real world nuclear operations, the successful completion of Full Weapon System Demonstration concludes on-aircraft testing for F-35A’s initial nuclear certification effort. Officials from DoD and DOE can now begin technical analysis of the test data, with the goal of ensuring that all test requirements were met, and that the B61-12 performs reliably and safely on F-35A in all phases of operation.

B61-12 capability on F-35A also marks another significant achievement for the F-35 Joint Program Office and Lockheed Martin, as it becomes the first weapon to complete development and integration during F-35’s modernization phase. The F-35A will eventually play a critical role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nuclear deterrence mission. The completion of this demonstration event keeps the F-35A on track to meet specific need dates for deploying the capability overseas. The B61 entered service five decades ago and has undergone a life extension program to consolidate and replace four legacy bomb variants into the B61-12. The 12-foot, 825-pound bomb is designed to be delivered from the air in either ballistic or guided-gravity drop modes using a Boeing-built tailkit. In addition to the F-35A, the B61-12 bomb will also be certified to fly on the F-15E, B-2, F-16C/D, F-16 MLU, PA-200, and B-21.

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