What does nuclear certification of F-35A mean?

China Military Online
Li Jiayao
2024-03-29 21:50:51

The picture shows F-35A fighter in training with two B61-12 nuclear bombs.

According to reports, the US Air Force announced that the F-35A fighters have been certificated to carry nuclear weapons, marking that they have emerged as the globally inaugural fifth-generation aircraft and stealth fighters with nuclear strike capability. Closely following that, the US declared the commencement of full rate production for the F-35.

To enhance tactical nuclear strike capability

The US used to mainly employ fourth-generation aircraft, such as F-16 and F-15E fighters, as well as the same generation of aircraft from other NATO member states to conduct tactical nuclear delivery missions involving B61 series nuclear bombs. However, overhead bombing is mandatory for the deployment of this type of nuclear bomb. Under existing technical conditions, the above fourth-generation aircraft would be intercepted by the advanced air defense systems and fifth-generation aircraft from the opponent, and probably be shot down before approaching the targets. With strong stealth ability and penetrating power, the F-35A can intensify the defensive hurdles for the opponent when being used to fulfill such tasks.

Besides, the performance of the B61-12 nuclear bombs carried with the F-35A can be enhanced. The B61-12 nuclear bomb is the first model to offer precise guidance functionality in this series, with an asserted strike precision range of below 10 meters. This enables it to strike hardening underground targets against nuclear weapons, such as campaign or strategic level underground commanding centers.

Furthermore, the nuclear certification of F-35A signifies that the US military will not be confined to delivering nuclear bombs by strategic bombers as previously. In tandem with this, the B61-12 nuclear bombs featuring a low yield and relatively small environmental implication reduce the threshold for nuclear weapons use theoretically. Notably, the F-35A capable of installing both nuclear and conventional bombs might lead to erroneous judgments of the opponent, thus augmenting the risk of nuclear conflicts.

Focusing on European missions

The US Air Force indicated that not all F-35As have obtained the nuclear certification and not all certified aircraft will be involved in nuclear strikes, only specially designated squadrons are qualified to perform such missions.

The F-35As mainly target European nuclear missions at the current stage. Based on the nuclear weapons sharing arrangements between NATO member states, the fighters of the US and certified European countries are allowed to launch strikes against target countries with the B61 series nuclear bombs, which have been deployed by the US in many European countries. In the wake of the nuclear certification of F-35A, the US made clear its commitment to provide extended nuclear deterrence, tantamount to nuclear protection to the European member states of NATO.

Analysts pointed out that from a technical point of view, the US is more likely to deploy B-2 or future B-21 strategic bombers when using nuclear weapons in the Pacific, as they feature longer ranges, larger payloads and more diversified nuclear strike approaches. However, it does not rule out the possibility of the US deploying F-35A in the Pacific for nuclear deterrence in the future.

Deficiency to alter nuclear balance among major powers

Upon the announcement of the F-35A's nuclear certification, the US Department of Defense approved the full rate production of these weapons. It is learnt that Lockheed Martin has built thousands of F-35s for the US Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and their overseas customers.

Analysts said that the US plans to equip only a small portion of F-35As with nuclear bombs mainly out of symbolic and deterrent considerations. Generally, the F-35A's nuclear certification will not shift the nuclear balance between the US and other nuclear powers. As a tactical nuclear weapon, the B61 nuclear bomb carried with the fighter shows a noticeable shortfall in performance indicators compared to the strategic nuclear weapons deployed by the US.

In addition, the full rate production of the F-35 does not necessarily mean that its delivery will be gradually accelerated, as there are some technical challenges that need to be addressed urgently. Among them, two key problems around the F-35 with TR-3 version software and the F135 engine upgrade program repeatedly affected the normal delivery of F-35.

Some US experts have also questioned the application of F-35A in nuclear strike missions. Hans Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, remarked that if a conflict reaches the level where nuclear weapons are deemed necessary, the US military should choose to use strategic bombers rather than F-35As for executing nuclear strike operations.

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