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F-35’s Nuclear-Capable Stealth: Redefining Fighter Jet Capabilities

The U.S. Air Force’s F-35A Lightning II stealth fighters have been certified for the delivery of B61-12 nuclear gravity bombs since October 12, 2023.

This certification, awarded months earlier than expected, allows F-35As to be considered “dual-capable” platforms for both conventional and nuclear warfare.

The F-35A is the first stealth fighter equipped with the necessary “N-wiring” to employ nuclear weapons.

The F-35A was intended to assume the tactical nuclear strike capability of the F-16 fighters it was meant to replace, but the implementation was associated with an extensive and expensive upgrade program known as Block 4.

The B61-12 capability, developed and tested for over a decade, has been certified for all F-35As in the Air Force’s inventory, but not older non-strategic bombs.

The F-35A offers a more survivable way to deliver its arsenal of tactical nuclear gravity bombs, thanks to its ability to penetrate enemy airspace at lower risk of detection in advance and coming under effective fire from ground-based air defense missiles.

It is also the second fighter (following the F-15E) to be specifically compatible with the B61-12, which has much greater precision and range than its predecessors.

A stealth fighter has significantly greater odds of reaching its target to deliver a gravity bomb and making it back to base than a non-stealth fighter, which will be detected from much further away.

The U.S. Air Force is unlikely to use tactical nukes against battlefield targets, but rather against enemy nuclear or chemical weapons facilities and command-and-control systems in retaliation for a nuclear attack or preemption of an imminent one.

The US already has non-nuclear bunker-buster weapons effective against hardened weapons facilities, so nukes might only be used when facing numerous possible WMD launchers that cannot be suppressed quickly using conventional strikes.

The F-35’s nuclear capability has sparked concerns from local groups, particularly in Vermont, who believe it will influence Russia and China’s nuclear targeting plans.

However, the Pentagon does not disclose which fighter squadrons are trained and equipped for nuclear delivery missions, so the F-35 does not present a novel risk in this regard.

The Air Force currently operates the B-2, a long-range nuclear-capable stealth bomber, and is rapidly moving forward with the production of its successor, the B-21 Raider. The service formerly operated F-117 Nighthawk jets capable of dropping B61 nukes, but the F-117 was never a fighter.

China may be studying a nuclear attack capability for its J-20 stealth fighters, while Russia’s Su-57 stealth fighter has limited production and operational usage.

The US shares 100 B61 tactical nuclear bombs with NATO allies. Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey.

All but Turkey are adopting F-35As for nuclear weapon delivery. A UK F-35 fighter wing is likely to be equipped for B61-12 delivery, a refurbishment of older B61s that improves their capabilities with maneuvering tail fins, spin-stabilizing rockets, and inertial and GPS guidance.

The B61-12 nuclear weapon has improved precision, making it more likely to knock out a hardened nuclear weapons facility with one hit. Its modest standoff range makes it more survivable for those carrying fighters, especially stealth fighters.

The B61-12 nuclear bomb can produce explosive yields as low as 0.3 kilotons or as great as 50 kilotons, with a yield of 15 kilotons compared to the Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima. A higher-yield B61-13 is under development and slated for limited production.

The US’s 230 B61 tactical nukes are fewer than its long-range strategic nuclear missiles and are not designed for easy standoff delivery. The tactical arsenal’s role is to deter other states from using their own tactical nukes, with Russia having over 1,800 non-strategic nukes.

The U.S. Air Force is unlikely to use tactical nukes against battlefield targets, but rather against enemy nuclear or chemical weapons facilities and command-and-control systems in retaliation for a nuclear attack or preemption of an imminent one.

The US already has non-nuclear bunker-buster weapons effective against hardened weapons facilities, so nukes might only be used when facing numerous possible WMD launchers that cannot be suppressed quickly using conventional strikes.

The F-35’s nuclear capability has sparked concerns from local groups, particularly in Vermont, who believe it will influence Russia and China’s nuclear targeting plans.

However, the Pentagon does not disclose which fighter squadrons are trained and equipped for nuclear delivery missions, so the F-35 does not present a novel risk in this regard.

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