In mid-April, the NNSA said that in conjunction with the US Air Force, it had completed the first qualification flight test of B61-12 gravity nuclear bomb on March 14 at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada.”

Four months later, and just as concerns over North Korea’s provocative launches have send shockwaves across global markets – again – the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced another successful flight test of B61-12 gravity nuclear bombs in Nevada. The second qualification flight test for the nuclear bomb was carried out by the NNSA and the US Air Force.

According to the NNSA press release, two B61-12 gravity bombs (without a nuclear warhead) were dropped from F-15 fighter jets on August 8 at Tonopah Test Range in Nevada, and were designed to test the “non-nuclear functions and the aircraft’s capability to deliver the weapon.” These tests are part of a series over the next three years to qualify the B61-12 for service. As we noted at the time, the first qualification flight test occurred in March.

“The B61-12 life extension program is progressing on schedule to meet national security requirements,” said Phil Calbos, acting NNSA deputy administrator for Defense Programs. “These realistic flight qualification tests validate the design of the B61-12 when it comes to system performance.”

According to the editor-in-chief of National Defense magazine, Igor Korotchenko, the second test of the nuclear bomb could indicate that Washington is speeding up its rearmament program. “The fact of the test of this modification of the nuclear bomb indicates that the US continues an accelerated rearmament program of its tactical nuclear arsenal in Europe, as well as that both Washington and Brussels are considering the scenario of a limited nuclear war in Europe,” he said.

Furthermore, as RT reminds us, the test comes two months after Politico reported that US senators were pushing legislation to compel President Donald Trump to take steps to develop new missiles which would be “the first steps to jettisoning what is known as the INF treaty.” Moscow said that such a move would be “ridiculous” and would damage America itself as well as its European allies.  In July, Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, suggested bypassing the milestone treaty that bans the testing, production and possession of land-based intermediate-range missiles by both Moscow and Washington. He urged the White House to “facilitate the transfer of cruise missile technology to our (American) allies,” explaining that “only the US and Russia have signed this treaty. No other country did.”

After the announcement of the plans to upgrade the B61 nuclear weapon, Russia expressed its concerns that the move could destabilize global security. “This means that the armaments threshold could in theory have been lowered, which of course will destabilize the situation to a certain extent,”said the deputy head of Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Sergey Ryabkov, in August 2016.  The program, started under President Obama means that over the next 30 years Washington could spend up to $1 trillion to modernize the US nuclear arsenal. Shortly after his election, president Trump called for the US to “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” though he criticized the Obama administration’s costly modernization program during the election campaign.

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The latest test was the second in a series that will be conducted over the next three years to qualify the B61-12 for service. Three successful development flight tests were conducted in 2015.

“This demonstration of effective end-to-end system performance in a realistic ballistic flight environment marks another on-time achievement for the B61-12 Life Extension Program,” said Brig. Gen. Michael Lutton, NNSA’s principal assistant deputy administrator for military application. “The successful test provides critical qualification data to validate that the baseline design meets military requirements. It reflects the nation’s continued commitment to our national security and that of our allies and partners.”

“The flight test included hardware designed by Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories, manufactured by the Nuclear Security Enterprise plants, and mated to the tail-kit assembly section, designed by the Boeing Company under contract with the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center,” the NNSA statement said.

The B61-12 consolidates and replaces four B61 bomb variants in the nation’s nuclear arsenal. The first production unit is scheduled to be completed by March 2020.

The original B61 gravity bomb is the mainstay of the Air Force’s nuclear arsenal and one of the legs of the so-called nuclear triad, along with the intercontinental ballistic missiles deployed from either ground-based silos or oceangoing submarines. The B61 nuclear gravity bomb, deployed from U.S. Air Force and NATO bases, has almost 50 years of service, “making it the oldest and most versatile weapon in the enduring U.S. stockpile.” Numerous modifications have been made to improve the B61’s safety, security, and reliability since the first B61 entered service in 1968, and four B61 variants remain in the stockpile: the 3, 4, 7, and 11. However, the aging weapon system requires a life extension to continue deterring potential adversaries and reassuring our allies and partners of our security commitments to them.

The B61-12 LEP will refurbish, reuse, or replace all of the bomb’s nuclear and non-nuclear components to extend the service life of the B61 by at least 20 years, “and to improve the bomb’s safety,  effectiveness, and security” according to the NNSA. The B61-12 first production unit will occur in FY 2020. The bomb will be approximately 12 feet long and weigh approximately 825 pounds. The bomb will be air-delivered in either ballistic gravity or guided drop modes, and is being certified for delivery on current strategic (B-2A) and dual capable aircraft (F-15E, F-16C/D & MLU, PA-200) as well as future aircraft platforms (F-35, B-21).

President Trump has endorsed the ambitious and expensive plan to modernize the US nuclear triad, begun under his predecessor.

The August test of the B61-12 was the second in a series with the final design review due in September 2018 and the first production unit scheduled for completion by March 2020. Once the bomb is authorized for use in 2020, the US plans to deploy some 180 of the B61-12 precision-guided thermonuclear bombs to five European countries as follows:

  • Belgium – 20;
  • Germany -20;
  • Italy – 70;
  • Netherlands – 20;
  • Turkey -50;

… although in light of the recent deterioration in relations between Washington and Ankara, it will likely consider reassessing the Turkish deployment.

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