Earlier this week, an American F-15E Strike Eagle, a more advanced derivative of the venerable F-15 design, successfully dropped the latest modification to the B61 nuclear bomb design. The bomb in question was dropped over Sandia National Laboratories’ Tonopah test range in Nevada.
A spokesman for Sandia National Laboratories said ”The results speak for themselves, the tests met all requirements, both in performance and safety. It was delivered with precision accuracy; it worked, and it worked well.” Sandia is responsible for maintenance of the United States’ nuclear stockpile, and serviced the latest B61 variant, the Mod 12.
A neat video of the test, which happened at “nearly the speed of sound” is worth the watch.
B61 Mod 12
The B61 is one of two gravity bombs that the United States keeps as a part of their post-Cold War Enduring Stockpile of nuclear weapons. This particular B61 Mod 12 is the latest refurbishment to the class, and offers several advantages.
Unlike the larger and much more powerful B83 nuclear bomb (also a “dumb” or free-falling gravity munition), the B61 is much more accurate. While accuracy may not seem so important when talking about large-yield nuclear weapons, it is actually very important.
Thanks to improved accuracy, the B61’s nuclear yield can be much less than the larger B83. A smaller, more precise nuclear explosion has the added benefit of producing less nuclear fallout post-explosion and can give battlefield commanders more tactical flexibility. The B61 may end up eventually displacing the B83, thanks to its lower yield and more flexible operational capability.
The Mod 12’s higher accuracy is achieved thanks to a tail kit designed and built by Boeing. Though more accurate, the refurbishment program, aptly called the B61-12 Life Extension Program, suffered from public criticism due to a higher than anticipated price tag. One of the main points that lawmakers and the public took issue with was the necessity of refurbishing 1960s-era munitions—at an estimated cost of $28 million each.
Despite the criticisms, the B61 Mod 12 is here to stay. Once the refurbishment program is complete, the gravity bombs are estimated to be available for combat use for the next twenty years. Whether or not the cost is justified, don’t expect them to be slated for decommissioning any time soon.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer for the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.