Late last week, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the U.S. Air Force announced two successful “end to end” non-nuclear system qualification flight tests aboard B-2 Spirits for the newest nuclear bomb to enter into the American arsenal, the B61-12 gravity bomb.

These tests are intended to determine how effectively the bombs can be loaded onto aircraft and deployed using existing methodologies and procedures. Incorporating this new bomb design into existing processes is important for multiple reasons: specialized training for specific weapons systems would dramatically increase the overall cost of the platform’s introduction, and because the B61-12 gravity bomb is slated to slowly replace America’s existing stockpile of B61 nuclear bomb variants, it’s important that the new bombs blend seamlessly into the force. It will take time to transition the old platforms into new ones, and in the meantime, the whole family of B61 bombs needs to be able to play well with one another.

“These qualification flight tests demonstrate the B61-12 design meets system requirements and illustrate the continued progress of the B61-12 life extension program to meet national security requirements” said Brig. Gen. Michael Lutton, NNSA’s Principal Assistant Deputy Administrator for Military Application. “The achievement is also a testament to the dedication of our workforce and the enduring partnership between NNSA and the U.S. Air Force.”

The non-nuclear tests involved dropping the new bomb platform from America’s heavy payload stealth bomber, the B-2 Spirit. The bomb itself, comprised of a NNSA main assembly and a U.S Air Force tail kit for stability throughout the fall, involved the full suite procedures required for a tactical nuclear strike — from mounting the weapon in the bomber’s internal weapons bay to discharging it over the target zone at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada. The B-2 involved in the June 9th test hailed from the 419th Test & Evaluation Squadron out of Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Despite rising concerns about the growing expense related to the B61-12 program, these new platforms are expected to enter service within the next two years, phasing out existing B61-3, -4, -7, and -10 bombs by 2025. The last legacy bombs to remain in the arsenal will be the B83-1 and B61-11 gravity bomb, both of which possess superior penetration capabilities intended to access and destroy bunkers and other underground facilities.

“The B83-1 and B61-11 gravity bombs can hold at risk a variety of protected targets,” reads the 2018 latest Nuclear Posture Review. “As a result, both will be retained in the stockpile, at least until there is sufficient confidence in the B61-12 gravity bomb that will be available in 2020.”

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The real question is, what role would such a nuclear bomb play in future conflicts and just how powerful is it?

Neither answer is particularly easy to come by. The U.S. government has been tight lipped about the payload capacity of the new B61-12, but then, pinning a specific figure to the weapon may not be appropriate. While it appears the weapon will have a maximum yield of 50 kilotons, it seems likely that it will offer the ability to choose the yield of the detonation, limiting the nuclear reaction that takes place within the warhead based on circumstance.

Thus far, the bomb has been dropped from multiple air frames, including the F-15 and B-2 Spirit, but that in itself raises some questions about the value of this “dumb” bomb. Unlike nuclear missiles, the B61 family of bombs are simply dropped over their targets the old-fashioned way, using a tail section for stability and offering no further propulsion or navigation.

A B61-12 gravity bomb drop test in 2015. | DOE

With America looking to maintain its reliance on the B-52 Stratofortress as integral to the airborne portion of the nuclear triad, it’s hard to imagine a conflict that could see these bombs being dropped from the aging platform at all. The Air Force acknowledges that the B-52 is too slow and lacks the stealth to fly into contested airspace (where such a bomb would almost certainly be used), and the B-2 is currently slated for retirement once the new B-21 Raider enters service.

There are plans underway to mount the new nuclear bomb on the F-35, though thus far, they have not entirely come to fruition, meaning currently, America has a new old fashioned bomb that really only works in old fashioned aircraft — nudging some to question the value of the program that has been estimated to cost north of $8 billion dollars.

Of course, the bomb will eventually find its way into or onto the most advanced aircraft in the U.S. military, but with other nuclear weapons in development (including cruise missiles that could be safely fired from the B-52), it’s likely that the debate over whether or not America needs to invest billions into new nuclear bombs will continue to rage on for years to come.

Featured image: The B-2A Spirit flies over the Utah Testing and Training Range in 2003 at Hill Air Force Base. | U.S. Air Force photo/Photo by Bobbie Garcia