Earlier this month, the United States Air Force–in conjunction with the National Nuclear Security Agency–dropped an inert B61-12 nuclear bomb over the Tonopah Test Range as part of an ongoing Life Extension Program (LEP).
Designed and fielded in the 1960s as a tactical nuclear weapon, the B61 measures 11 ft 8 inches long, has a diameter of 13 inches, and weighs approximately 700 pounds. The casing of the bomb is streamlined, optimized for exterior carriage aboard aircraft capable of supersonic flight.
For nuclear weapons, an LEP basically consists of efforts made to repair and upgrade components to make sure they retain their ability to meet designated requirements. Short form? Even though the triggers, warheads, and circuitry sit idle for decades, they still need to retain the ability to create a mushroom cloud and scorched earth when employed.
Such a program allows old warheads to be stored and maintained safely, providing a credible nuclear deterrent without necessitating new detonation tests or producing all new weapons. The scope of the B61 LEP will improve the overall accuracy and reliability of the bomb with its upgraded design and reconditioned interior components.
For the B61-12 unit being tested, the newly-designed bomb casing is mated to a tail-kit assembly designed by Boeing–much like those in use in the JDAM family of precision guided munitions (PGMs). This test is the first of three development flight tests, with two additional drops scheduled for later this year.
(Photo courtesy of NNSA/U.S. Air Force)