F-35 nuke-strike certification rattles Russia, China, North Korea

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On March 9, it was validated that the F-35 fifth-generation fighter jet is now officially equipped to carry the B61-12 nuclear gravity bombs. This significant advancement means it’s the first time such a capability has been made possible for a Western multirole stealth fighter.  

Photo credit: Reddit

Russ Goemaere, the spokesperson for the F-35 Joint Program Office, elucidated the significance of this progression in the fighter program: “This milestone sees the F-35A becoming the first 5th-generation nuclear-capable aircraft in history, and the first new platform (fighter or bomber) to achieve this status since the early 1990s.” He continued to underscore how this development not only fortifies U.S. military capabilities but also strengthens the entire NATO bloc, providing a “critical capability” and reinforcing America’s “extended deterrence commitments”.  

For now, only the F-35A operated by the U.S. Air Force has achieved certification, leaving the F-35B and F-35C—operated by the Marine Corps and Navy, respectively—with their unique aircraft carrier landing abilities, incapable of using nuclear warheads.  

Goemaere underscored the potential benefits of this new capacity for NATO, pointing out U.S. plans to equip F-35s used by certain European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy to operate American nuclear warheads. These nations currently house B61-12s to accommodate this feature under often-debated nuclear-sharing agreements.  

The shortcomings of the F-35’s predecessor, the considerably larger twin-engine F-22 fighter, are evident in comparison. Initially considered a nuclear strike fighter for the U.S. Air Force, its performance was limited by having shallow weapons bays which prevented it from carrying larger diameter warheads like the B61.  

Moreover, the high price, very low availability, limited range, and numerous other performance issues made the F-22 less suitable for nuclear strike fighter duties. Consequently, the expensive aircraft is heading towards an early retirement after 75 percent of its projected production was canceled.  

Photo credit: USAF

Despite having been conceived for nuclear delivery, America’s pioneer stealth fighter, the F-117, was purely deficient in air-to-air combat, suffered from low flight performance, and had crippling high maintenance demands which restricted its utility.  

One significant advantage of using the F-35 for nuclear deployment is its vast deployment occurrences; with over a thousand built, this breadth of service opens the possibility of more future nuclear sharing agreements.  

With a broad array of bases housing these aircraft, including future expansion plans, the U.S. has more options available for launching nuclear strikes.  

Photo credit: USAF

The decision to arm F-35s with nuclear weaponry will likely create apprehension among potential targets of U.S. aggression. The far-reaching deployments of these aircraft, combined with the innate concealment of the B61-12 inside its internal weapons bays, substantiates the threat of any of the hundreds of these jet fighters stationed worldwide carrying a nuclear bomb.  

The possible implications of using F-35s for nuclear strikes were underlined in a report by a New York media house in November, detailing frequent deployments in the vicinity of potential adversaries, from the East China Sea and Korean Peninsula to Eastern Europe and the Middle East.  

Newsweek emphasized the destructive power of the new B61-13, which is a higher yield counterpart to the B61-12 and is expected to be soon certified for the new fighter. It reported that a single F-35 could potentially annihilate over 310,000 residents of Moscow, the capital of Russia, in one sweep. The fatalities could escalate to over 360,000 if the bomb were to be dropped in the densely populated central St Petersburg.  

Photo credit: Defense Here

We can anticipate comparable damage levels for other densely inhabited areas using the B61-12. The maximum yields of the B61 bombs surpassed those of bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S. Army Air Force in 1945. Combined with the stealth capabilities of the F-35, they enable the U.S. Air Force to threaten population centers of possible adversaries.  

This threat is likely to persist and even escalate as the F-35’s ongoing issues are gradually rectified, as more jets enter service, and particularly as international tensions show no signs of easing.

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