Several years ago, the Pentagon was clear that it would develop the F-35A as a nuclear bomb attack platform, which significantly helps the Pentagon’s strategic deterrence strategy by adding new tactical and operational possibilities for war commanders.
The introduction or integration of nuclear weapons into any platform is of course likely to generate thoughtful discussion, as nobody wants to lower the threshold to nuclear war or any use of nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, there are several key variables to consider here such as the additional flexibility this development affords to the Pentagon’s deterrence posture, the kind of weapons it could carry, and the prospect of further deterring any potential use of tactical nuclear weapons.
The prospect introduces a certain critical question: should the Pentagon contemplate the possibility of some kind of limited, low-yield tactical nuclear response in the event of an attack? Some argue that any use of nuclear weapons, on any scale, should prompt a massive retaliation of full force. Sending such a message, the thinking extends, would prevent a potential adversary from contemplating any use of nuclear weapons of any level.
However, proponents argue that adding variable yield, lower yield, or tactical nuclear weapons options to the U.S. arsenal enhanced the depth and effectiveness of any deterrence posture simply by giving commanders a wider envelope of options to consider. It adds layers, depth, and flexibility to any assurance of nuclear counterattack, thus deepening or enhancing the deterrence posture.
This was the thinking several years ago when former Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress that the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons might help bring Russia back to the negotiating table after violating the INF Treaty. At that time and in years since, the Pentagon has successfully added a lower-yield variant of the Trident IID5 nuclear-capable, submarine-launched ballistic missile. Plans for a lower-yield sub-launched cruise missile were later canceled.
F-35 to carry B-61 Mod 12 Nuclear Bomb
This led to the critical question of the kinds of nuclear weapons the F-35A could carry, as the possibility would introduce an entirely new sphere of tactical possibilities for a commander. The F-35A will soon fly with the upgraded B-61 Mod 12 nuclear bomb. This variant, in existence now for many years, integrates the operational capacity of several legacy long-term B-61 bomb variants into a single munition. Specifically, an F-35A pilot carrying a B-61 Mod 12 will not need to use different bombs to achieve various battlefield effects such as a proximity fuse, penetrating, bunker-buster nuclear bomb variant, or point-detonate with adjustable yield or destructive power.
Such versatility could present a new range of complications for an adversary who faces a multi-faceted threat. A B-61 Mod 12, which has already been successfully tested from an Air Force B-2, could introduce various nuclear threats. Should there be a need to limit or streamline destructive power, a lower-yield variant could be dropped. Should there be a need to explode an underground facility without damaging the surrounding surface with a tactical nuclear weapon, the B-61 Mod 12 could accomplish this also. Should there be a tactical need to attack with a point-detonate nuclear weapon, that option is available with the B-61 Mod 12 as well. Finally, should there be a need to detonate a nuclear bomb just above the surface of the ground to achieve a specific, sought-after explosive impact, the modernized B-61 Mod 12 could make that happen.
There is also the advantage of maneuverability and access. While certainly a stealth bomber such as the B-2 or B-21, or a large nuclear-capable bomber such as the B-52 can introduce the threat of nuclear weapons. Yet these aircraft would of course have trouble maneuvering in close proximity to ground targets in highly-contested threat areas.
A stealthy platform like a B-2 would rely upon its stealth properties and altitude to elude detection, yet might lack the vectoring ability and speed to introduce a lower-altitude tactical nuclear threat. An F-35, by contrast, could use stealth, speed, and maneuverability to hold otherwise unreachable targets at risk of some kind of nuclear attack.
This changes the deterrence equation in a clear and measurable way, as it speaks to the strategy rationale upon which the Pentagon arms the F-35A with nuclear weapons. The hope is that such a possibility will, as it pertains to other nuclear weapons, function as a deterrent and therefore help ensure there is no use of nuclear weapons in any circumstances.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.