The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is slated to be armed with the B61 nuclear bomb as early as 2020, but could carry the weapon sooner, a general said.
The stealthy fifth-generation fighter made by Lockheed Martin Corp. is set to be fitted with the B61-12 Mod gravity bomb -- the latest variant -- sometime between 2020 and 2022, Air Force Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus told Military.com during a recent interview at the Pentagon.
If the weapon is needed sooner, the schedule could be quickened, according to Pleus, a former F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot who directs the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program's integration office for the service.
"It would definitely be possible," he said.
The F-35 was designed with a requirement to carry the nuclear payload -- and in 2015 flew with the device to measure its vibration in the aircraft's weapons bay. The same year, the B61-12 conducted its third and final developmental test flight aboard an F-15E. But the F-35 hasn't yet actually flown with the device to simulate launch, Pleus said.
"There has been no testing of B61 simulators, none of the nuclear certification required," he said, referring to the Joint Strike Fighter integration efforts.
But the program office is scrutinizing the manufacturing process so the weapon can eventually be integrated onto the aircraft, Pleus said.
"Along the lines, as you build all the parts, all those things have to go through a very rigorous set of quality assurance to have the capability that you can build, that you can use a nuclear weapon on board," he said.
Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the Joint Program Office's executive officer, testified before Congress last March that nuclear certification planning efforts -- part of the F-35 Block 4 modernization program -- had been initiated to equip the aircraft with the nuclear bomb.
"This past summer a series of test flights were conducted to assess the vibration, acoustic, and thermal environments of the F-35A weapons bay with the B61-12 weapon," Bogdan said before a House Armed Services Committee hearing.
Arming the F-35 with the nuclear bomb will require some extra training for pilots, but nothing out of the ordinary from their usual regimen, Pleus said.
It's unclear whether or how the program might be impacted by President-elect Donald Trump's calls for the U.S. to "expand its nuclear capability." Trump has previously said the U.S. would "outmatch" rivals in a nuclear arms race, but has also described the global proliferation of nuclear weapons as a threat to national security.
Under the Obama administration, the Air Force has pushed to upgrade its nuclear arsenal in part by acquiring new intercontinental ballistic missiles and new nuclear cruise missiles. Critics say additional nuclear modernization is unnecessary because of the potential of programs like the F-35.
"The U.S. military currently fields a safe, secure and effective nuclear force that provides a robust deterrent, and it has plans to modernize that force," said Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
On the European front especially, "It does not need a numerical increase or new nuclear weapons," Pifer wrote in Politico Magazine last month, also discussing North Korea, Russia, China and other emerging nuclear threats.
In making the case, Pifer also referenced the stealth fighter: "The NATO alliance, however, has already decided what it requires: Proceed with the ongoing modernization of the U.S. B61 nuclear gravity bomb and deployment of the F-35, whose stealth capabilities will make it a formidable delivery system.
"There is no need, then, for a new U.S. nuclear weapon in Europe," he said.
Editors note: This story has been updated to clarify Gen. Pleus's comments regarding flight, training and simulation of the B61-12 bomb.