The failed coup in Turkey has thrown that country into a very high state of tension. What makes the stakes even higher is that according to the Federation of American Scientists, the United States military has about 50 “special stores” stored at Incirlik Air Base, bout 25% of the total stockpile in Europe. Those “special stores” are B61 gravity bombs.
The B61 is America’s primary tactical nuclear weapon that can be carried by just about all of the U.S. military’s attack aircraft, from Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers to the Air Force’s B-2 Spirit bombers. NATO aircraft like the Tornado flown by the Royal Air Force, Luftwaffe, and Italian Air Force can also carry it.
The bomb first entered service 50 years ago, and weighs about 700 pounds – slightly smaller than the M117 bomb often used by the B-52 Stratofortress for “grid square removal.” It features a “dial-a-yield” capability – setting the weapons to deliver as much as 340 kilotons (depending on the version), about 20 times the power of the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. The United States produced over 1300 of these weapons. The B61 can be set with a variety of fuse options, but the most common delivery is a lob-toss method, using a parachute to delay its fall.
Since its introduction into service, the B61’s received upgrades to keep up with the times. The proposed B61 Mod 12 would give it a tail-guidance kit similar to that of the Joint Direct Attack Munition. The B61 Mod 12 has a yield of up to 50 kilotons, about one-seventh of earlier versions. Then again, when GPS guidance puts a nuke within 20 feet of its aiming point, 50 kilotons will be more than enough to deal with most targets. So far, plans are for about 500 B61s to be upgraded to the Mod 12 standard.
The B61 became the basis for a number of other warheads in American service. The B83,a strategic nuclear weapon with a yield of up to 1.2 megatons, is one derivative. The AGM-69 Short-Range Attack Missile’s W69 warhead was also based on the B61. So were the W80 warheads used on the BGM-109 Tomahawk, AGM-86 Air-Launched Cruise Missile, and the AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missile. The W84 warhead used on the Ground-Launched Cruise Missile was also a variant of the B61 by way of the W80. The W85 used on the MGM-31C Pershing II was another derivative of the B61, and after the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed, the W85s were recycled into B61 Mod 10 gravity bomb.
The B61 Mod 12 will have a design life of nearly 20 years – meaning this bomb will likely serve until 2035, around the time the B-52 will be ready to retire.