F-35A Completes Nuclear Flight Test Milestone

An F-35A Lighting II carrying a B61-12 Joint Test Assembly sits on the flight line at Nellis AFB, Nevada, on Sept. 21.
Credit: U.S. Air Force

The U.S. Air Force’s F-35A is one step closer to becoming dual capable after two Lightning IIs dropped B61-12 test gravity bombs to finish the nuclear design certification process in September.

Aircraft must complete nuclear design certification and then nuclear operational certification to be able to operationally carry nuclear weapons. F-35As at Nellis AFB, Nevada, on Sept. 21 flew with the B-61-12 Joint Test Assemblies, and then released them from “operationally realistic flight envelopes” at Tonopah Test Range as part of the aircraft’s first Full Weapon System Demonstration. 

Data from the test is being analyzed by the Defense Department and the Department of Energy to make sure both the aircraft and the B61-12 JTAs performed correctly, according to an Air Force announcement. It marked the final flight test for the initial certification effort. 

“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,” said Lt. Col Daniel Jackson, Air Combat Command’s division chief for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, in the announcement. “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 Air Force and Department of Energy qualified the use of the B61-12 tail kit for the F-15E in June 2020, and it will be certified on F-16s, B-2s, B-21s and F/A-18E/F for Germany’s requirements.

While the period of performance for integrating the B61-12 on the F-35A ends in 2025, the Air Force said “no date has been released for full F-35A nuclear certification in support of real-world operations.” A 2019 selected acquisition report states dual capable certification is expected in 2023. 

The September test was a collaboration between the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, the F-35 Joint Program Office, Sandia National Labs and Air Combat Command. The 422d and 59th Test and Evaluation Squadrons flew the tests, with assistance from the 57th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, the 926th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and Bolt Aircraft Maintenance Unit.

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.