Earlier this week, an American F-15E Strike Eagle, a more advanced derivative of the venerable F-15 design, successfully launched the latest design modification for the B61 nuclear bomb. The bomb in question was dropped on Sandia National Laboratories’ Tonopah test range in Nevada.
A Sandia National Laboratories spokesperson said: “The results speak for themselves, the tests met all the requirements, both in performance and safety. It was delivered accurately, it worked and it worked well. ” Sandia is responsible for maintaining the United States nuclear arsenal, and serviced the latest variant of the B61, the Mod 12.
Crisp video of the test, which occurred at “almost the speed of sound” is worth watching.
B61 Mod 12
The B61 is one of two gravity bombs that the United States maintains as part of its post-Cold War nuclear weapons arsenal. This particular B61 Mod 12 is the latest revamp in the class, and it offers several perks.
Unlike the larger and much more powerful B83 nuclear bomb (also a “dumb” or free-fall gravity round), the B61 is much more accurate. Although precision may not seem all that important when it comes to high performance nuclear weapons, it is actually very important.
Thanks to improved precision, the nuclear efficiency of the B61 can be much lower than that of the larger B83. A smaller, more accurate nuclear blast has the added benefit of producing less post-blast fallout and can give battlefield commanders more tactical flexibility. The B61 may end up displacing the B83, thanks to its lower performance and more flexible operating capabilities.
The Mod 12’s greater precision is achieved thanks to a tail kit designed and built by Boeing. Although more precise, the restoration program, aptly named the B61-12 Life Extension Program, suffered criticism from the public due to a higher price than anticipated. One of the main points that legislators and the public disagreed with was the need to renew ammunition from the 1960s era, at an estimated cost of $ 28 million each.
The B61 Mod 12 is also scheduled for compatibility certification with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the B-2 bomber, and the F-16.
Despite the criticism, the B61 Mod 12 is here to stay. Once the restoration program is complete, it is estimated that the gravity pumps will be available for use in combat for the next twenty years. Whether the cost is justified or not, don’t expect them to be scheduled for removal anytime soon.
Caleb Larson is an advocacy writer for The National Interest. He has a master’s degree in public policy and covers US and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture. This article first appeared in June 2020.