The first F-35A presented to Belgium at a ceremony in Texas on Dec. 10, 2023. (Lockheed Martin)

WASHINGTON | 9 March 2024 (IDN) — The F-35A Joint Strike Fighter has been operationally certified to carry the B61-12 thermonuclear gravity bomb, a spokesman for the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) tells Breaking Defense.

In a statement, JPO spokesman Russ Goemaere said the certification was achieved Oct. 12, months ahead of a pledge to NATO allies that the process would wrap by January 2024. Certain F-35As will now be capable of carrying the B61-12, officially making the stealth fighter a “dual-capable” aircraft that can carry both conventional and nuclear weapons.

The F-35A is the first 5th generation nuclear capable aircraft ever, and the first new platform (fighter or bomber) to achieve this status since the early 1990s. This F-35 Nuclear Certification effort culminates 10+ years of intense effort across the nuclear enterprise, which consists of 16 different government and industry stakeholders,” Goemaere said. “The F-35A achieved Nuclear Certification ahead of schedule, providing US and NATO with a critical capability that supports US extended deterrence commitments earlier than anticipated.​”

Responding to follow-up questions from Breaking Defense, Goemaere said US disclosure policy prohibits the release of information on dual-capable aircraft among NATO partners. According to analysis by the Federation of American Scientists, as of 2023 approximately 100 older variants of B61 bombs are housed by NATO allies Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey, who share the alliance’s nuclear strike mission. The first four nations are all planned F-35 operators, with the need to have a nuclear-capable aircraft a key reason for Germany signing onto the program.

The F-35A is certified to only carry the newer B61-12 variant, which will replace the older models. The certification additionally does not extend to the stealth jet’s sister variants, the short takeoff and vertical landing F-35B and carrier-launched F-35C. A delivery schedule of B61-12s to Europe is not clear, though Politico previously reported the bombs would be shipped out starting in December 2022.

“The F-35 is the world’s only 5th Generation multi-role stealth fighter, and in partnership with our customers, we continue to make advancements to ensure it stays ahead of threats,” F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the US Air Force Air Combat Command told Breaking Defense that “all F-35As in the Air Force inventory are expected to be in a nuclear certified configuration in the future, independent of their assigned lot number,” but declined to elaborate on operational details. Goemaere explained that “USAF F-35As at designated units only are both design and operationally certified to carry the B61-12.” READ MORE 

Photo: The first F-35A presented to Belgium at a ceremony in Texas on Dec. 10, 2023. (Lockheed Martin)