F-35A Is Officially Certified For Nuclear Strike

The F-35A has been fully certified to carry the B61-12 thermonuclear bomb. Confirmation comes after we reported late last year that Dutch-operated F-35As had received “initial certification for the deterrence mission” — a reference to their ability to carry the same weapons.

F-35As being able to deliver nuclear strikes will add major credibility to NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture in Europe. The aircraft’s unique ability to pierce enemy air defense networks and defend itself on the way to its target will be a standing capability Russia has never had to deal with. The F-117 was capable of delivering nuclear strikes. It could have been called upon to do so, but that was not part of its normal mission purview, and the aircraft remained deeply classified during the tail end of the Cold War, complicating its use in such a role and its deterrence value. You can read more about this in our special feature here.

The F-35’s added survivability will complicate Moscow’s ability to defend against these strikes and whatever predictive modeling they have on the probability of those strikes succeeding will have to be adjusted accordingly. This capability can also be used in other theaters, including the Korean peninsula and the wider Pacific region, but there isn’t a similar standing tactical nuclear weapons delivery mission there as there is in Europe.

A spokesman from the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO), Russ Goemaere, said yesterday that the certification was achieved on October 12, according to a report from Breaking Defense. The milestone was achieved earlier than planned — the U.S. Air Force had previously announced that it aimed to have the F-35A certified to carry the B61-12 by January 2024.

It’s unclear, at this stage, whether a decision was made to bring the F-35’s nuclear certification forward. Whatever the case, in light of the increasing tensions between Russia and NATO, adding this capability to the alliance’s existing deterrence forces is a significant development.

“The F-35A is the first fifth-generation nuclear-capable aircraft ever, and the first new platform (fighter or bomber) to achieve this status since the early 1990s,” Goemaere said. “This F-35 nuclear certification effort culminates 10-plus years of intense effort across the nuclear enterprise, which consists of 16 different government and industry stakeholders,” Goemaere added.

The red tail of an inert B61-12 is visible inside the bomb bay of this F-35A during a flight test. U.S. Department of Defense

Contrary to some previous reports, the F-35A doesn’t require the Block 4 upgrade to use the B61-12. This is good news for the Joint Strike Fighter enterprise, amid ongoing delays and difficulties with Block 4 as well as the Technology Refresh-3 (TR-3) hardware and software suite on which this new standard relies.

We reported last November about a post on X from Johan van Deventer, the commander of the Dutch Air Combat Command, who stated that the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) had received “initial certification for the deterrence mission with the F-35.”

In response to that statement, The War Zone asked the U.S. Air Force for an update on the status of F-35A’s nuclear capability and whether operational certification had come early, as the Dutch tweet suggested. The Air Force did not respond.

Regardless, the F-35A taking on the mantle as NATO’s latest so-called Dual Capable Aircraft (DCA) was long planned.

The U.S. Air Force says it plans for all of its F-35As “to be in a nuclear-certified configuration in the future, independent of their assigned lot number.” However, while the individual aircraft may ultimately all become DCA-certified, it doesn’t mean that all will actually have a nuclear role. Only specifically designated squadrons will actually have the qualifications and infrastructure to fly nuclear strike missions, as well as access to the bombs themselves.

An F-35A carrying a B61-12 Joint Test Assembly sits on the flight line at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, on September 21, 2021. The bomb itself is not visible, but the jet also carries a pair of AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles in its weapons bays. U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus

One of the U.S. Air Force units that seemingly will have nuclear-roled F-35As is the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath in England. There have been increasing hints that the United Kingdom will host U.S.-owned tactical nuclear bombs again after the last examples were withdrawn from there in 2008. You can read all about the implications of this change here.

A map of current and former locations where B61 bombs are located in Europe under the NATO nuclear weapon sharing arrangements and a table breaking down estimated total bombs at each current site as of 2022. FAS

Generally, however, there remains much more secrecy about the status of the B61-12 bombs that will provide the F-35A’s nuclear payload.

As of 2023, the Federation of American Scientists assessed that there were likely around 100 of the ‘legacy’ B61-3 and B61-4 bombs deployed in Europe, where they are available for the U.S. Air Force as well as certain allied air forces, under a NATO nuclear sharing agreement arrangement.

A Weapons Storage and Security System vault of the type used at NATO airbases in Europe, seen here in the raised position holding an older B61 variant. Public Domain/WikiCommons

Ultimately, it’s planned for these older bombs to be replaced by the much-improved B61-12, although the status of this effort remains a closely guarded secret. The aforementioned Dutch, as well as Belgium, Germany, and Italy, are all currently operating DCAs in Europe and are expected to continue the mission in the future using F-35As. In the case of Germany, the nuclear capability of the aircraft was a central driver behind its being acquired in the first place. Deployment of the B61-12 in Europe is an issue that we have also discussed in the past.

The big question surrounds the timeline for when the new bombs will arrive in Europe.

An inert B61-12 nuclear bomb. Sandia National Laboratories

In an October 2022 story, Politico, citing “a U.S. diplomatic cable and two people familiar with the issue,” reported that the arrival of the B61-12 in Europe had previously been slated for spring 2023, but had instead been moved forward to December 2022.

In a tweet yesterday, Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said: “Now that the F-35A has passed nuclear design certification for the B61-12, USAFE will start its nuclear operational certification training for the nuclear-tasked units in Europe. Once they pass that certification, they’ll be able to receive the B61-12.”

One possible indicator of the B61-12 being fielded in Europe could again come from the Dutch. The RNLAF has said it expects to declare full operational capability with its F-35As in early 2024. This declaration means the fighter can carry out all of the missions previously assigned to Dutch F-16s — including the DCA mission. Logically, such a milestone would be reached once those B61-12s are available.

A B-2A Spirit bomber assigned to the 509th Bomb Wing, a Royal Netherlands Air Force F-35A, and a U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagle assigned to the 48th Fighter Wing, conduct aerial operations in support of Bomber Task Force Europe 20-2 over the North Sea March 18, 2020. U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Matthew Plew

What we do know about the B61-12 relates, above all, to its capabilities, including a new guidance package based on an inertial navigation system (INS) and a precision guidance tail kit. Measuring 12 feet long and weighing 825 pounds, the B61-12, notoriously, costs more than its weight in gold. At the same time, it’s not an entirely new weapon, with each example also including refurbished components from earlier B61-3, -4, -7, and -10 variants. You can read more about the entire B61 family here.

While nuclear-tasked F-35As will only be able to carry B61-12s, wherever they are based, a somewhat different situation faces some of the other DCA types operated by NATO in Europe, which won’t be able to make full use of the new weapon’s capabilities.

In 2022, the U.S. Air Force confirmed to The War Zone that there were no plans for U.S. Air Force or NATO F-16 fighters or German or Italian Panavia Tornado strike jets to be able to leverage the precision-guidance tail kit that is a signature part of the B61-12. At that time, the requirement was only to integrate that particular functionality on U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle combat jets (also based in Europe) and B-2A Spirit stealth bombers, as well as the service’s forthcoming B-21 Raider stealth bombers — in addition to nuclear-tasked U.S. Air Force and NATO F-35As.

U.S. Air Force personnel load a test version of the B61-12 onto a B-2A Spirit bomber. U.S. Air Force

This makes the nuclear tasking of DCA F-35As in Europe all the more important since they will be able to use the B61-12 to the full extent of its capabilities.

Aside from that, the F-35A becoming the first stealth fighter to be certified to carry a nuclear weapon of any kind is a big deal. But with the changing strategic environment in Europe, it seems likely that the news will be seen — especially in Moscow — in terms of NATO’s increasingly strained relationship with Russia. The situation has even prompted officials in Poland to say they want to join NATO’s nuclear weapons-sharing program. Were that to happen, the F-35A would be the obvious delivery platform candidate.

Regardless of when the B61-12 arrives in Europe, the U.S. Air Force, and nuclear-sharing allies that fly the F-35A, are now officially in possession of a stealth fighter with a unique ability to penetrate enemy air defenses and to do so with a nuclear payload.

Contact the author: thomas@thewarzone.com