An F-35A Dropped An Inert B61-12 Nuclear Bomb During Supersonic Flight For The First Time

An F-35A Lightning II opens its bomb bay doors and drops a mock B61-12 at Sandia National Laboratories’ Tonopah Test Range. (Screenshot from Sandia National Laboratories’ video)

The test with the B61-12 is also the first F-35A Dual Capable Aircraft test to be shown in an unclassified video.

Just a few months after the first photos of the F-35 testing the B61-12 nuclear bomb in 2019 for the F-35A Dual Capable Aircraft (DCA) program were released, the Sandia National Laboratories announced that the F-35 dropped for the first time an inert B61-12 nuclear bomb from its internal bomb bay during supersonic flight. According to the press release, the test took place on Aug. 25, 2020 at about 10,500 ft above the Tonopah Test Range, with the inert bomb hitting the target area after a 42 seconds-flight.

The test was the first performed by Sandia, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the U.S. Air Force over the Tonopah Test Range with the F-35A and the first of a testing series that will conclude with full-weapon systems demonstrations designed to increase confidence the bomb will always work when needed and never under any other circumstances. Sandia oversees the design and engineering for the non-nuclear components of the United States’ nuclear stockpile, including the new B61-12, and of the integration of the complete weapon on the aircraft.

“We successfully executed this historic, first-ever F-35A flight test at Tonopah Test Range within the specified delivery criteria,” said Brian Adkins, range manager at TTR. “The success of this test, as with all other weapons evaluations, is only possible through the detailed planning, combined with full collaboration between TTR and the program engineers, and the execution of the test evolution by the field operators and recovery specialists in the combined team of Sandia and TTR’s operations and maintenance subcontractor, Navarro Research and Engineering. With the multiple phases and operational activities a test involves, the team at TTR is diligent to integrate safety and security into all segments to ensure proper precautions are implemented for mission success.”

The inert B61-12 nuclear bomb as seen while the two spin rocket motors are firing during the descent. You can see the contrails forming a helical shape as the bomb starts to spin on its longitudinal axis. (Screenshot from Sandia National Laboratories’ video)

Earlier this year, the team completed a B61-12 full-weapon system demonstration with the F-15E Strike Eagle and the B-2A Spirit, completing the integration of the bomb aboard the two aircraft. Differently than the Strike Eagle, the F-35 transports its B61-12 internally, and according to Sandia’s previous press releases, it seems that the F-15E did not attempt a supersonic drop of the bomb, simply stating that the aircraft was flying “near Mach 1” in at least two tests at 1’000 ft and 25’000 ft. Steven Samuels, a manager with Sandia’s B61-12 Systems Team, confirmed that the F-35 test was the first demonstration of a fully instrumented B61-12 release from an internal bomb bay on a fighter and the first such release at speeds of Mach 1 or greater.

The F-35A DCA, according to public information, should achieve the nuclear certification in January 2023, pretty much in line with earlier reports that scheduled the completion of the integration works between 2020 and 2022. Regarding the delivery of the new weapon, the B61-12 could be first delivered to the U.S. Air Force starting from 2022, after significant delays were caused by some faulty electrical components. Around 480 bombs will reportedly be upgraded to the new configuration.

As already explained in a previous article here at The Aviationist:

“The B61-12 represent the latest LEP (Life-Extention Program) upgrade to the B61 line of nuclear weapons that has already been extensively tested with the F-15E Strike Eagles of the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron,back in 2015.

The Life Extension Program or LEP, will replace the B61 -3, -4, -7, and -10 mods, with the -12 that, along with the B83, will become the only remaining gravity delivered nukes in the inventory.

“The B61-12 gravity bomb ensures the current capability for the air-delivered leg of the U.S. strategic nuclear triad well into the future for both bombers and dual-capable aircraft supporting NATO,” said Paul Waugh, AFNWC’s Air-Delivered Capabilities director in a U.S. Air Force release dated Apr. 13 (more or less when the world learned about the first use of the famous MOAB in Afghanistan). The B61-12 will be compatible with the B-2A, B-21, F-15E, F-16C/D, F-16 MLU, F-35 and PA-200 aircraft.

The LEP increases the B61’s accuracy so much that it will have the same capability against hardened targets as the much more powerful weapons it is replacing.”

Here below you can find the video released by Sandia. After the bomb drop at the beginning of the video, you can also see, at about the 30 seconds mark, the spin rocket motors firing to improve stability during the bomb’s descent. If you can’t see the embedded video below, here’s the link to the declassified footage.


About Stefano D'Urso
Stefano D'Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he's also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.