November 15, 2017

Flight tests help qualify nuclear bomb for U.S., NATO aircraft

Leah Bryant
Kirtland AFB, N.M.

The Air Force recently completed a series of initial tests to qualify a nuclear gravity bomb for multiple U.S. and NATO aircraft.

The B61-12, the follow-on to the family of B61 nuclear gravity bombs, is a key component of the U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy. Employed by a variety of U.S. and NATO aircraft, the B61-12 will also support extended deterrence commitments with U.S. allies and partners. 

“This is the first major Air Force nuclear warhead modernization effort since the mid-1980s,” said Col. Dustin Ziegler, Air Delivered Capabilities director for the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland. “It is a major effort for AFNWC, paving the way for future nuclear modernization programs like the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent and the Long Range Standoff weapon.”

The testing program is a cooperative effort between the AFNWC and the National Nuclear Security Administration. The NNSA is performing a life extension program on the aging family of B61 nuclear bombs, while the Air Force, with Boeing as the primary contractor, is developing a guided tail-kit assembly, or TKA.

The TKA will be paired with the life-extended B61 to produce the B61-12. The B61-12 will include improved safety, security, and reliability from the legacy variants. The first weapon qualification flight test was flown in March by an F-16, demonstrating the weapon’s use with current fighter aircraft.

“We have an aggressive test schedule to drop 26 unarmed bombs in less than a year, from both F-15E and B-2 aircraft,” said Col. Paul Rounsavall, AFNWC B61-12 senior materiel leader at Eglin AFB, Florida.  “We are off to a great start.”  

Last week, three F-15E aircraft dropped unarmed B61-12s under different flight conditions, demonstrating the aircraft capability to employ the weapon. In July and August, F-15E aircraft dropped a total of four unarmed B61-12s.

“These tests showed the great teamwork provided by AFNWC’s government and contractor team, in overcoming multiple challenges to provide proof of the tail-kit’s reliability,” Rounsavall said.

“The F-15E has been the workhorse platform during development of the B61-12, with continual development of its software interface,” said Col. Tim Bailey, F-15 system program manager.  “It will continue to be the primary testing platform for qualification and reliability testing.

In June, the B61-12 was carried on a B-2 aircraft during a flight test, to demonstrate that the B-2 software integrating the guided B61-12 was on track, Rounsavall said.

“This test was a significant step in our program to integrate the B61-12, the first guided nuclear gravity bomb, onto the B-2 aircraft, and gave us confidence that we are on track to field this capability to Air Force Global Strike Command,” said Col. Bill Patrick, B-2 system program manager. “I’m very proud of our combined B-2 team and their hard work at providing the war fighter with the tools they need to provide an effective and reliable nuclear deterrent.”

“With first production planned for early in fiscal year 2020, we still have challenges ahead, but the interagency team, and all the multiple Air Force participants, have proven up to the task,” Ziegler said. “The program has really energized the entire U.S. nuclear complex, and I’m excited about the future as we continue to modernize the U.S. capability to meet the deterrent needs of the 21st century.” 

Several Air Force units have contributed to the testing program, including the B-2 program office at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio; the F-15 program office at Robins AFB, Ga., and Wright-Patterson AFB; the F-16 program office at Hill AFB, Utah; and multiple developmental and operational test squadrons from Eglin AFB, Fla.; Edwards AFB, Calif.; Barksdale AFB, La.; Nellis AFB, Nev.; and Whiteman AFB, Mo.

“The B61-12 design is proving to be solid, and we anticipate great results over the next several years of testing,” Ziegler said.
Headquartered at Kirtland AFB, the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center is responsible for synchronizing all aspects of nuclear materiel management on behalf of Air Force Materiel Command in direct support of Air Force Global Strike Command. The center has about 1,100 personnel assigned to 17 locations worldwide, including Eglin AFB; Hanscom AFB, Mass.; Hill AFB, Utah; Tinker AFB, Okla.; and Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

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