F-15E Strike Eagle Spotted Flying With An Inert B61-12 Nuclear Bomb Out Of Nellis AFB

The precision-guided upgrade of the B61 tactical nuclear bomb has had a troubled and very expensive past.

Kris Trajano

Exercise Red Flag is underway with the U.S. and some of its tightest allies fighting a mock air war over the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) in southern Nevada. Either in conjunction with the exercise or independent of it, there is a lot of testing currently going on over the same area. Case in point, this test F-15E Strike Eagle assigned to Eglin Air Force Base carrying an inert version of America's newest variant of its long-running B61 series of nuclear bombs, the precision-guided B61-12. 

The jet was snapped by aviation photographer Kris Trajano on Tuesday, March 10th, 2020. The F-15E was followed by a pair of F-16s that were landing just before the first Red Flag launch of the day. It isn't uncommon for various test, training, and tactics development missions to be executed in the space between the two daily Red Flag mass launches and recoveries. Still, it is interesting to see the B61-12 hanging on an F-15E coming into Nellis. Much of the test and evaluation work for the USAF's nuclear weapons delivery systems occurs on the Tonopah Test Range in the northern reaches of the NTTR. Nearby Tonopah Test Range Airport also supports those activities under certain circumstances. 

It isn't clear why the F-15E is carrying the weapon into Nellis. It appears to be a full-up guided round, but an inert one that lacks a nuclear warhead for testing purposes. The aircraft could be set to run another drop test on the Tonopah Test Range, or it's possible, but less likely, that deployment of the weapon could be folded into an upcoming Red Flag mission. America's NATO allies Germany, Italy, and Spain are the only foreign players taking part in this Red Flag, so an operational test of the weapon that will be the lynchpin of the Alliance's nuclear deterrent in Europe would make some sense, especially this late in its development. It's not unheard of for B61 deployment tactics development and training to occur out of Nellis, either. 

Kris Trajano

As for the B61-12 program, which is seen as an essential upgrade to the Air Force's only tactical nuclear gravity bomb, it has been mired in cost overruns and other issues. All said, the bombs will be worth over twice their weight in gold, literally, once they are operational. The F-15E, along with the F-16 and B-2, are the Air Force's delivery systems for this weapon. 

The Air Force's F-35As will acquire this capability in the future, as well. The 412th Test Wing at Edwards noted that it "advanced strategic capabilities [for the F-35] like Dual-Capable Aircraft" in a round-up of its accomplishments during 2019. "Dual-capable" in this context refers to the ability to carry both conventional and nuclear weapons. In 2017, Military.com had reported that the B61-12 might be integrated into the F-35A as early as 2020, but when The War Zone reached out to the 412th Test Wing for an update earlier this year, the unit's public affairs office said it could not "provide a response at this time due to operational security reasons."

The updated B61-12's ability to make precision strikes greatly increases its versatility, regardless of the plane carrying it, and the ways in which it could be employed during an actual nuclear strike. You can read all about the weapon and its developmental state here and here. Once the B61-12 is fully operational, it will be forward-deployed, including to Europe, where some of America's NATO partners could be tasked with delivering a portion of the weapons during an all-out conflict. 

USAF

Inert B61-12 on an F-15E. 

Clearly, some form of advanced B61-12 testing is underway out of Nellis. Hopefully, this will involve ironing out some of the weapon's kinks so that it can be made operational. Regardless, it's always interesting seeing a tactical fighter carrying a weapon type that is intended to be far more destructive than anything else in the jet's air-to-ground arsenal. 

It's fascinating just how much destructive power can be packed inside the B61's svelte, 700-pound frame. The B61-12 has a so-called "dial-a-yield" warhead with various settings, the highest of which is a 50 kiloton yield. This is a little over twice the power of the Fat Man bomb, a substantially larger weapon overall, which the United States dropped on Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

Thanks to Kris Trajano for sharing his shot. Make sure to follow him on Instagram under Saltraphoto.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com