The Buzz

America's F-35 Stealth Fighter: The Ultimate Nuclear Bomber?

The Pentagon's accelerated development of a “nuclear-armed" F-35 Joint Strike Fighter attack envelope is of critical importance to a new sweeping strategic nuclear weapons modernization and development strategy aimed countering Russia, China and North Korea -- and addressing a much more serious global nuclear weapons threat environment.

Adding a nuclear-capable F-35 to the air portion of the nuclear triad – to supplement the existing B-2, B-52 and emerging B-21 – will bring a new dimension to US nuclear attack options and potentially place a new level of pressure upon potential adversaries.

Discussion of the F-35’s role in nuclear deterrence emerged recently during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Pentagon’s recently published Nuclear Posture Review.

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In written testimony, Defense Secretary James Mattis cited the F-35 as an indispensable element of US and NATO nuclear deterrence.

“Modernizing our dual-capable fighter bombers with next-generation F-35 fighter aircraft will maintain the strength of NATO’s deterrence posture and maintain our ability to forward deploy nuclear weapons, should the security situation demand it,” his testimony states.

Mattis also cited the emergence of the F-35 as a “nuclear delivery system” in the context of expressing grave concern that US nuclear weapons modernization has not, in recent years, kept pace with a fast-changing global threat environment.

“Nuclear delivery system development over the last eight years shows numerous advances by Russia, China, and North Korea versus the near absence of such activity by the United States, with competitors and adversaries’ developing 34 new systems as compared to only one for the U.S.—the F-35 aircraft,” Mattis said in written statements.

Officials with the Office of the Secretary of Defense confirmed to Warrior Maven that Mattis here is indeed referring to an emerging “nuclear variant” of the F-35. Multiple news reports, such as Business Insider, cite senior officials saying a nuclear-armed F-35 is slated to emerge in the early 2020s, if not sooner. The F-35 is equipped to carry the B-61 nuclear bomb, according to a report in Air Force Magazine.

It makes sense that the F-35 would increasingly be called upon to function as a key element of US nuclear deterrence strategy; in recent months, F-35s deployed to the Pacific theater to participate in military exercises over the Korean Peninsula. The weapons, ISR technolgoy and multi-role functions of the F-35 potentially provide a wide range of attack options should that be necessary in the region.

Utilizing speed, maneuverability and lower-altitude flight when compared to how a bomber such as a B-2 would operate, a nuclear-capable F-35 presents new threats to a potential adversary. In a tactical sense, it seems that a high-speed F-35, fortified by long-range sensors and targeting technologies, might be well positioned to identify and destroy mobile weapons launchers or other vital, yet slightly smaller on-the-move targets. As part of this equation, an F-35 might also be able to respond much more quickly, with low-yield nuclear weapons in the event that new intelligence information locating a new target emerges.

The F-35 recently completed a series of weapons separation tests and is currently able to be armed with the AIM-9X, AIM-120, AIM-132, GBU-12, JDAM, JSOW, SDB-1 and the Paveway IV, Lockheed Martin data states. While it is not yet clear exactly how a nuclear weapon might integrate onto the platform, the F-35 is configured to carry more than 3500 pounds of ordnance in stealth mode and over 18-thousand pounds uncontested.

While senior Pentagon leaders are understandably hesitant to discuss particular contingencies or attack scenarios, the NPR is quite clear that a more pro-active nuclear weapons posture is aimed at strengthening “deterrence.”

After analyzing the global threat calculus, the NPR calls for rapid inclusion of two additional nuclear weapons options – to include a sea-launched nuclear armed cruise missile.

“A nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile and the modification of a small number of existing submarine launched ballistic missile warheads to provide a low-yield option – will enhance deterrence by ensuring no adversary under any circumstances can perceive an advantage through limited nuclear escalation or other strategic attack,” Gen. Paul Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.

Senior Pentagon leaders stress that neither of these new nuclear weapons recommendations in the NPR require developing

new nuclear warheads or will result in increasing the size of the nuclear stockpile. NPR DoD advocates further stress that the addition of these weapons does align with US non-proliferation commitments.

​Mattis and other senior leaders seem aware that elements of the NPRs strategic approach may reflect a particular irony

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