The OT-marked jet was captured taking off from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, last month.
A topic that is often being talked about for the U.S. Air Force is the modernization of the tactical nuclear capabilities. Every now and then, the government releases some updates about the new B61-12 that is being developed and tested as a replacement for all the older variants of the nuclear weapon. The service, in fact, is putting great emphasis on the use of Dual Capable Aircraft like the F-15E, the F-16C and the F-35A as part of the nuclear triad.
Although testing is currently focused on the newer B61-12, it appears that activities with the older variants are still ongoing. Aviation photographer Joseph Albergo captured in May the F-16CM Block 42, serial 88-0499, while taking off from Nellis Air Force Base with two (obviously inert) B61 bombs under its wings during normal flight operations. Based on the general shape and the tail fins, the bombs appear to be an older variant such as the Mod 3, 4 or 10.
The aircraft in this rare shot appears to be assigned to the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, which is highly involved in the testing of the US Air Force nuclear weapons. While we cannot be certain, the aircraft might have been launching for a test mission over Tonopah Test Range, where most of these tests are being conducted.
As we reported, the B61 entered service 50 years ago and has undergone a Life-Extention Program (LEP) to consolidate and replace four legacy bomb variants, the B61 -3, -4, -7, and -11 mods, into the B61-12. The refurbished B61-12 will become the only remaining gravity delivered nuke in the inventory, carrying a low-yield nuclear warhead with four yield options and delivered in either ballistic or guided-gravity drop modes, thanks to a new Boeing-built tail assembly that includes an Inertial Navigation System (INS) precision-guidance package and two spin rocket motors.
While the integration of the new B61-12 bomb has been completed on the F-15E Strike Eagle and the B-2A Spirit, the integration on the F-35A is expected to be completed this year, while it appears to be still ongoing on the F-16C. Obviously, considering the sensitivity of the program, we can’t know for sure if the mission performed by the aircraft in the photo is related to the integration activities or it is “simply” one of the usual missions to verify the evaluate the suitability and readiness of the weapon.
Nevertheless, this photo is something that we don’t get to see every day, especially if we consider that the older B61 variants are already being replaced and, in future, similar photos might see the F-16 loaded with two more recent B61-12 bombs.
Thank you very much to Joseph Albergo for sending us the photo you can find in this article. Make sure you follow him on Instagram @windy_city_spotter.