US Air Force successfully tests nuclear gravity bomb in Nevada

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and United States Air Force announced on Tuesday that they had completed a third and final non-nuclear test of their new and improved B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb at a testing range in Nevada.

While the announcement comes against the backdrop of the weekend’s terror attacks in Paris, the test itself was actually conducted on October 20 at Tonopah Test Range, according to officials at the NNSA and USAF. The test was used to assess the weapon’s non-nuclear components, but the bomb itself contained no highly enriched uranium or plutonium.

“This demonstration of effective end-to-end system performance under representative delivery conditions marks another 2015 achievement in the development of the B61-12 Life Extension Program,” NNSA Deputy Administrator Madelyn Creedon said, calling the flight test “evidence” of “[our] commitment to our nation’s security and that of our allies and partners.”

During the test, an F-15E took from Nellis Air Force Base in southern Nevada released the B61-12 bomb and demonstrated it in “a realistic guided flight environment,” the joint NNSA and USAF announcement said. Initial reports were that everything went as planned, and that the telemetry, tracking, and video data were all collected without issue.

‘A lot of money to spend on an obsolete weapon’

The hardware featured in the flight test was co-designed by the Sandia National and Los Alamos National Laboratories, manufactured by the National Security Enterprise Plants, and attached to a tail-kit assembly designed by Boeing. While the tail-kit assembly guided the test unit, the NNSA and USAF noted that the actual nuclear weapons will not be guided by GPS.

The Life Extension Program launched in February 2012 as a way to extend the usability of older B61 nuclear weapons while making them safer and more reliable, officials said. The plan is to re-use or re-make existing components to replace and upgrade existing gravity bombs. Some critics have questioned the $8 billion program’s value, according to recent reports by the Guardian.

The program “has been widely condemned as an awful lot of money to spend on an obsolete weapon. As an old fashioned ‘dumb’ bomb it has no role in US or NATO nuclear doctrine, but the upgrade has gone ahead anyway, in large part as a result of lobbying by the nuclear weapons laboratories.”

The B61 upgrade replaces the previous, rigid tail with one that has moving fins, making it easier to accurately guide it to an intended target, the Guardian added. Adjustments to the yield of the bomb can also be made prior to launch, based on the intended target.


Feature Image: National Nuclear Security Administration/Nevada Site Office