Upgraded Nuclear Weapon Passes F-15 Test

July/August 2020

The F-15E Strike Eagle became the first aircraft to be certified to deliver the B61-12 nuclear bomb design, after two test flights at the Nevada Tonopah Test Range in March. The tests were run at two different altitudes, one at approximately 1,000 feet and the other around 25,000 feet. Both tests successfully hit the target.

The B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb is the product of a life extension program by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and will replace earlier variants of the weapon. The F-15E was the first aircraft to be fitted with the design, but the Pentagon plans to certify F-16 fighters and B-2 bombers, as well as NATO aircraft as part of the nuclear sharing arrangement with the United States. The NNSA, a semiautonomous agency in the Energy Department, is also planning to certify the B61-12 on the F-35 aircraft within the next decade.

The B61 first entered service in 1968. The B61-12 life extension program is one of five major NNSA modernization programs and is projected to cost $8 billion. The NNSA is expected to produce 400 to 500 B61-12 warheads.

The first production unit of the upgraded weapons system had been scheduled for completion in March 2020, but last year was delayed until 2022. (See ACT, November 2019.) At a House Armed Services Committee hearing in September 2019, Charles Verdon, deputy administrator for NNSA defense programs, attributed the delay to issues with off-the-shelf parts used in the weapon. Although the system is designed to remain in service for 20 to 30 years, stress testing raised concerns that certain components of the design would fail before reaching a three-decade lifespan.—MACKENZIE KNIGHT