The U.S. Air Force’s F-15E Strike Eagle multirole fighter is the first fighter aircraft deemed certified to deliver the B61 mod 12 nuclear gravity bomb, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration announced. The certification was announced following two flight tests earlier this year.
“The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) successfully completed two flight tests in March 2020 at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada for the B61-12 Life Extension Program (LEP),” the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration noted in a press release Monday.
“The success of these tests is a major milestone on the path to full rate production and the B61-12’s initial operation capability on the F-15E in the coming years,” Brig. Gen. Ty Neuman, the principal assistant deputy administrator for military application at the NNSA said. “Once delivered, this capability will underpin our nation’s deterrent and strengthen our NATO partnerships.”
The B61 mod 12, or B61-12, is an ongoing modernization program for the B61 nuclear gravity bomb and is designed to replace the existing variants of the weapon currently in the U.S. stockpile. According to the NNSA, the first production unit of the weapon is slated for completion in fiscal year 2022.
The B61 is currently among the U.S. nuclear weapons based overseas in U.S. allied states. B61 mod-3 and mod-4 weapons are thought to be based in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s nuclear sharing mission.
The mod 12 improvement on the B61 adds at least two important new capabilities to the long-serving gravity bomb, including a modest earth penetration capability as well as guidance through a new guided tail kit assembly. The latter improves the accuracy of the weapon considerably.
Like other variants, the B61 mod 12 is designed with a “dial-a-yield” capability, allowing operators to set the desired explosive power of the nuclear physics package. The presumed yield settings on the B61 mod 12 are 300 tons (the smallest yield of any weapon in the current U.S. nuclear stockpile), 1.5 kilotons, 10 kilotons, and 50 kilotons.
The improved precision of the weapon — combined with the ability for it to conduct a subsurface burst detonation — are meant to take advantage of these yields, the highest of which (50 kilotons) is considerably lower than the 400 kiloton setting on older B61 bombs (including the mod 11).
Over the course of its certification process, the B61 mod 12 will be certified for upcoming and existing aircraft, including the F-35A, F-16, PA-200 Tornado, B-2 Spirit, and the next-generation B-21 strategic bomber.