The US Air Force F-35A stealth fighter just took a big step toward being able to drop nuclear bombs

An F-35A Lighting II carrying a B61-12 Joint Test Assembly sits on the flight line at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Sept. 21, 2021
An F-35A Lighting II carrying a B61-12 Joint Test Assembly sits on the flight line at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Sept. 21, 2021. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus
  • The F-35A stealth fighter recently moved closer to being able to carry nuclear bombs and conduct nuclear strikes.
  • The Air Force said this week that the fighter dropped mock nuclear bombs in recent testing, part of the nuclear certification process.
  • Stealth aircraft have the ability to penetrate adversary defenses to deliver devastating strikes.
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The US Air Force F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter moved a step closer to being able to carry nuclear weapons and conduct nuclear strike operations with a recent milestone test, the service reported this week.

Two fifth-generation F-35A stealth fighter jets released B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies, non-nuclear mock-ups of a nuclear bomb, at the Tonopah Test Range, which is part of the much larger Nevada Test and Training Range that has been used in the past for nuclear weapons testing.

The full weapon system demonstration carried out by the Air Force on Sept. 21 with the F-35A was the final flight test exercise of the nuclear design certification process, one of two phases in the nuclear certification process.

The second phase is the nuclear operational certification, which will be completed at a later date.

An F-35A Lightning II takes off to complete the final test exercise of the nuclear design certification process at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Sept. 21, 2021
An F-35A Lightning II takes off to complete the final test exercise of the nuclear design certification process at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Sept. 21, 2021. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus

The Air Force described the recent testing as “the first release of the most representative B61-12 test asset from an operationally-representative F-35A.”

The B61-12 is the newest variant in the B61 family of nuclear gravity bombs, a roughly 800-pound (363kg) weapon with a presumed variable yield system that can increase the explosive yield up to about 50 kilotons of TNT. The Air Force expects to receive the first production in 2022.

“The B61 series weapons are tactical gravity nuclear weapons that can be used on Dual Capable Aircraft like the F-15E and F-16C/D,” Lt. Col. Daniel Jackson, the division chief at Headquarters ACC Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration, said in a statement.

“Having a 5th Generation DCA fighter aircraft with this capability brings an entirely new strategic-level capability that strengthens our nation’s nuclear deterrence mission,” he said.

Airman 1st Class Javier Farcia-Bustos waits for an F-35A pilot assigned to the 442nd Test and Evaluation Squadron to complete pre-flight checks on the flight line at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Sept. 21, 2021
Airman 1st Class Javier Farcia-Bustos waits for an F-35A pilot assigned to the 442nd Test and Evaluation Squadron to complete pre-flight checks on the flight line at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Sept. 21, 2021. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus

Not all F-35As, the conventional take-off and landing variant of the fifth-generation fighter, will be armed with nuclear weapons though. Once the fighter jet achieves full nuclear certification, only units tasked with a nuclear mission will have F-35As able to be configured for nuclear strike operations.

The US Air Force already operates the stealth B-2 Spirit bomber, but the addition of a nuclear-capable stealth fighter gives the service a boost in capability, Air Force officials have said.

“It makes our potential adversaries think more about their game plan before launching it,” Air Combat Command deputy director for strategic deterrence Lt. Col. Douglas A. Kabel told Air Force Magazine. “It can get closer to, further inside a combat area that may otherwise be impossible for non-stealth assets.”

Although the recent testing in Nevada, which involved the 422d and 59th Test and Evaluation Squadrons, as well as Air Force personnel from the 57th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, 926th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, and Bolt Aircraft Maintenance Unit, moved the F-35A closer to a nuclear strike role, it remains unclear at this time when the fighter will become fully nuclear certified.