Two major US defense initiatives recently came together as a US Air Force F-35A Lightning II dropped a mock refurbished B61-12 nuclear bomb for the first time. The test, which took place over Sandia National Laboratories’ Tonopah Test Range in Nevada on August 25, saw the 5th-generation fighter release the bomb from an internal bay while flying at supersonic speed, reports CNN News.
The F-35 has been garnering a lot of attention as it moves to full deployment after almost two decades of development. Its well-known qualities of stealth, advanced sensors, supersonic speed, and network-ability make it as much a command center as a fighter plane, but it is still first and foremost a weapon system designed to deliver ordnance on target.
The recent flight test mated the F-35 with a lesser known US weapons program, the B61-12 air-launched gravity nuclear bomb. Weighing in at 825 lb (374 kg) and with an explosive yield of between 0.3 and 50 kilotons, it’s the latest variant of the B61 family of bombs that was fielded in 1968. Since then, it has flown on the B-2A bomber, F-15 and F-16 fighters, and the Panavia Tornado.
However, the US stockpile of these nuclear bombs is aging and Sandia has been tasked with helping to extend their service life by 20 years while making them more secure and more reliable. Sandia provides non-nuclear component development and acts as technical integrator for the complete weapon to make sure it works on the intended platforms.
The life extension program includes 400 of the B61-12 bombs and involves refurbishment of parts, replacing fuses and batteries that are suffering from old age, adapting the bomb to new aircraft, and general technical upgrades.
Sandia says mock refurbished B61-12s have already flown on an F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet in March and a B-2 Spirit bomber in July. What made the F-35A test different is that not only was the aircraft equipped with a nuclear weapon system, but it is the first time that such a bomb was carried in an internal bay on a fighter jet. Normally, the bomb is carried on the outside mounted on a hard point, but the F-35 can carry the bomb or other weapons on the inside to maintain stealth, as well as drop them while flying supersonic.
The flight demonstration was conducted in partnership with the National Nuclear Security Administration, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the US Air Force.
“This was the first test to exercise all systems, including mechanical, electrical, communication and release between the B61-12 and the F-35A,” says Steven Samuels, a manager with Sandia’s B61-12 Systems Team. “The latest test is a critical piece in the F-35A and B61-12 program Aboard the newest fighter, the B61-12 provides a strong piece of the overall nuclear deterrence strategy for our country and our allies.”
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