USAF F-35As complete final nuclear bomb flight test

Operating from Nellis Air Force Base (AFB), Nevada, on September 21 two US Air Force (USAF) Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II aircraft released the B61-12 joint test assemblies (JTAs). This was during the F-35A’s first full weapon system demonstration.

This test flight completed the final exercise of the nuclear design certification for the F-35A. This event was the first release of the most representative B61-12 from an operationally representative F-35A. 

F-35A Lightning
USAF F-35A Lightning II on Nellis AFB with the bomb bay door open. USAF/Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus

The test flight was led by the 422nd and 59th Test and Evaluation Squadrons of Air Combat Command. After departing Nellis AFB test pilots flew the aircraft towards Tonopah test range, and each released two of the B61-12 JTAs from the aircraft. The aircraft were flown in configuration relevant to realistic operational flight envelopes.

Lt Col Daniel Jackson, Headquarters ACC Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration division chief said: "The B61 series weapons are tactical gravity nuclear weapons that can be used on Dual Capable Aircraft like the F-15E (Strike Eagle) and F-16C/D (Fighting Falcon), having a fifth-generation DCA fighter aircraft with this capability brings an entirely new strategic-level capability that strengthens our nation’s nuclear deterrence mission." 

"The B-2 bomber was the most prominent nuclear capable stealth aircraft, adding ‘nuclear capable’ to a 5th-gen fighter that already brings several conventional-level capabilities to the table adds strategic-level implication to this jet.” Jackson concluded. 

F-35A Lightning
F-35A Lightning II pilot assigned to the 442nd Test and Evaluation Squadron completes pre-flight checks. USAF/Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus

The nuclear certification is split into two phases: nuclear design certification and nuclear operational certification. This flight test was part of the F-35A nuclear design certification and concluded testing for initial nuclear certification for the F-35A. The results from the test flight are currently undergoing analysis by the US Department of Defence and Department of Energy to determine if the F-35A and B61-12 JTAs both performed suitability throughout every phase of the testing operation.

There is still no date that has been released for the F-35A to be fully nuclear certified within real world operations but if this this test fight is successful, it ensures that the F-35A remains on track for future timelines and a critical part of the nuclear certification process is complete.

Not all USAF F-35A units will be given nuclear capable aircraft. Those that will receive nuclear capable F-35As will be provided with the additional hardware and personnel to perform nuclear missions with the F-35A.