The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is frequently touted as the most advanced fighter ever to take to the skies, and soon it will be certified to carry nuclear bombs.
Like all fifth generation fighters, the F-35 is a stealth platform designed to avoid detection and engagement from air defense systems. As a result, the aircraft must carry its weapons payload internally, in the belly of the aircraft, rather than on external pylons like we've all come to expect on fourth generation jets like F-16 Fighting Falcon or the F/A-18 Super Hornet.
External pylons allow fighters to carry far more ordnance into a fight than the F-35 can internally (and indeed, even the F-35 has external pylons that can be used when detection is not a concern).
The F-35 goes nuclear
While most people tend to think of heavy payload bombers like the B-2 Spirit and B-52 Stratofortress when talking about the airborne leg of America's nuclear triad, the role of dual-purpose "nuclear fighters" has long been a part of the strategy. Currently, both the F-15E Strike Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon fill the role of "nuclear fighter" in America's stable, alongside their aforementioned nuclear bomber sister platforms.
Americans' nuclear triad, for those who aren't aware, is comprised of nuclear ICBMs on the ground, nuclear missile subs in the water, and nuclear-capable aircraft in the air. The premise of maintaining this triad is simple: by keeping America's nuclear weapons dispersed and utilizing multiple forms of delivery, it makes it all but impossible to stop American from launching a nuclear counter-attack against an aggressive state that started lobbing nukes America's way. In other words, America's nuclear triad is the backbone of Uncle Sam's part in the "mutually assured destruction" doctrine.
For now, the "nuclear" title is going to remain with the F-15s and F-16s, but the U.S. intends to certify the F-35 for nuclear duty by 2023 and it will likely carry that title well beyond the retirement dates for its two nuclear predecessors.
But before it can be certified, the Air Force needs to test the F-35's ability to deploy these weapons thoroughly, and that's where these incredible new photos come in. Ever since last June, the F-35 Joint Program Office has been overseeing drops of inert B61-12 nuclear bombs. These bombs have already seen testing with the F-15E, and will soon replace a number of older nuclear bomb variants.
These bombs may be inert, but they are designed to look and act like the real thing, giving the Pentagon all the information it needs to assess the F-35's capabilities as a nuclear strike platform.
These tests are all being conducted with an F-35A, which is the standard takeoff and landing variant of the platform utilized primarily by the United States Air Force. The Navy's F-35Cs are designed to take off and land on the deck of aircraft carriers, and the F-35B employed by the Marine Corps can take off on extremely short runways and even land vertically on the decks of ships. At least to date, it appears that the Pentagon has no intentions of mounting nuclear weapons in the F-35B or C variants.