The Air Force just hit a major milestone with the US military’s upgraded, highly precise nuclear bomb

A Sandia National Laboratories engineer performs a final diagnostics check on a data recorder for an impact test on the nose assembly of a mock B61-12. Sandia Labs/Randy Montoya
  • The Air Force hit a major milestone with its B61-12 nuclear weapon in October.
  • The weapon is slated to replace four older variants of the B61 nuclear bomb, which was introduced in the 1960s.
  • The new weapon will have more capabilities, and some critics have said it will trigger an arms race.

The Air Force said earlier this month that the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center was granted permission in October to start production of the new guided tail-kit assembly for the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb – a weapon the military hopes will replace older nuclear bombs for a range of missions.

“This marks the completion of a highly successful development effort for the tail kit,” Col. Dustin Ziegler, the director for air-delivered capabilities at the AFNWC, said in an Air Force release.

The AFNWC got approval to conclude the engineering and manufacturing-development phase of the tail-kit assembly after passing an Air Force review.

The decision to enter the next phase, known as Milestone C, marked the end of developmental flight tests. The program office said it had finished the 27-month test program in 11 months with 100% success on all of the 31 bomb drops it conducted, according to the release.

Nuclear gravity bomb b61 12 target drop test 2015 10 20 nnsa

“The flight tests demonstrated the system works very well in its intended environment,” Col. Paul Rounsavall, AFNWC senior materiel leader for the B61-12 TKA at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, said in the release. “This development effort brought the first-ever digital interface to the B61 family of weapons and demonstrated the B61-12 TKA’s compatibility with the Air Force’s B-2 and F-15 aircraft.”

“In addition, the TKA achieved greater than five times its required performance during developmental testing and is ready to start initial operational test and evaluation,” Rounsavall added.

Ziegler said the accelerated schedule and other efforts to mitigate risk led to a savings of more than $US280 million in development costs.

During the production phase, the testing environment will more closely match real-world environments.

The AFNWC is based at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico and is responsible for coordinating all aspects of nuclear materiel management for Air Force Materiel Command. It has about 1,100 personnel assigned to 18 locations worldwide, including Kirtland and Eglin and Ramstein in Germany, the US military’s largest base outside the US.

Deterrent or arms race?

B61 nuclear bomb
An inert training version of a B61 in an underground Weapons Storage and Security System vault at Volkel Air Base, Netherlands. An access panel on the warhead is open, showing the interface for actions such as PAL (safety/arming) and variable yield setting. USAF

The B61-12 is the latest version of the B61 nuclear weapon that was introduced in the 1960s. The program is supposed to supplant four B61 variants – B61-3, B61-4, B61-7, and B61-10 – by overhauling and replacing their non-nuclear components and extending the B61’s service life.

The B61-12 would fill a number of functions – including earth-penetrating attacks, low-yield and high-yield attacks, above surface detonation, and bunker-buster options – with one weapon.

“The main advantage of the B61-12 is that it packs all the gravity bomb capabilities against all the targeting scenarios into one bomb. That spans from very low-yield tactical ‘clean’ use with low fallout to more dirty attacks against underground targets,” Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told Warrior Maven earlier this year.

The B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb

Development engineering for the B61-12 began in early 2012, with the first development flight test in summer 2015, when the weapon was dropped from an F-15E fighter.

The first production unit in the B61’s life extension program is scheduled to be finished in 2020, with the full production run completed by 2025. Current plans are to certify it on the B-2 Spirit and the F-15E and F-16 fighters, as well as the F-35 fighter and the B-21 Raider bomber.

Critics have said the B61’s cost is exorbitant and that its development will trigger an arms race, as other nuclear-armed countries, namely Russia, seek to deploy more and newer weapons to counter it.

Retired Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz, who was Air Force chief of staff from 2008 to 2012, argued in 2014 that the weapon would have a “stabilizing” effect, telling Kristensen that its improved capabilities would increase its deterrence effect because adversaries would be more convinced the US was willing to use nuclear weapons if necessary.