The F-35 may soon carry one of the US's most polarizing nuclear weapons
The Air Force designed the F-35A with nuclear capability in mind, and a new report indicates that the Joint Strike Fighter may carry nuclear weapons sooner than expected.
The Air Force originally planned to integrate nuclear weapons in the F-35 between 2020-2022, but Air Force Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus told Defensetech.org that "it would definitely be possible," to hasten the deployment of B-61 nuclear gravity bombs on the F-35 should the need for it arise.
As it stands, the B-61's "military utility is practically nil," wrote General James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2012. The B-61s "do not have assigned missions as part of any war plan and remain deployed today only for political reasons within the NATO alliance," Cartwright continued.
Lockheed Martin's F-35A aircraft displays its weapons load-out at Edwards Air Force Base in California. | Lockheed Martin photo by Matt Short
Currently among fighter jets, only the F-15E and F-16C carry the B-61. Neither of these planes can penetrate contested enemy airspace, so they could only drop the gravity bomb on an area unprotected by air defenses.
The F-35, a polarizing defense project in its own right, could change that with its stealth capabilities. However, President-elect Trump has voiced concerns about the F-35 project while simultaneously stressing that the US needs to "expand its nuclear capability."
Immediately this lead to talk of a new nuclear arms race, much to the horror of nuclear experts and non-proliferation advocates. The fact is that Russia and the US already have more nuclear weapons than necessary to meet their strategic needs.
Additionally, nuclear modernization is due to cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming decades, and around a trillion dollars in total.
But not only do experts find nuclear expansion costly and unnecessary, they also find it dangerous.
The US has 180 B-61 nuclear bombs stationed in five bases throughout Europe. Russian intelligence services monitor deployments of fighter jets across Europe, and the fact that the F-15E and F-16C regularly deploy to these bases could lead to a catastrophic misinterpretation.
Kingston Reif, the director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association, told Business Insider that the US "should be seeking to strengthen the dividing line between nuclear and conventional weapons, not blur that line."
F-35s, with their excellent stealth attributes, taking off from European bases that may or may not house the B-61s (it would be extremely difficult for Russia to know) and flying near Russia's borders could put Moscow on high alert. This could even potentially spook the Kremlin into launching an attack on the US.
A frontal view of four B-61 nuclear free-fall bombs on a bomb cart at Barksdale Air Force Base. | Department of Defense photo by SSGT Phil Schmitten
Furthermore, the B-61s are low-yield bombs, meaning they don't pack much of a punch. In the event of an actual nuclear conflict, "the likely hood is that we're going to use the big bombs, and not the little bombs,"Laicie Heely of the nonpartisan Stimpson Center think tank points out.
So while the F-35 may provide a stealthy, sleek new delivery method for nuclear bombs, they may destabilize already fraught relations between the world's two greatest nuclear powers — Russia and the US.
"There can be no winners in a nuclear war and that as long as each side has nuclear weapons, strategic stability will remain central to their bilateral relations," Reif said of US-Russian relations.