Air-Minded: Special Weapons & Fighters

The Navy reportedly wants to add nuclear bomb-carrying capability to its version of the F-35 fighter, the F-35C. The weapon mentioned in the linked article is the B61 gravity nuclear bomb, designed in the 1960s and long out of production. For some reason this disturbs me.

In the 1950s and 60s, you’d occasionally hear about Air Force fighters modified to carry tactical nukes, euphemistically referred to as “special weapons.” I had the impression carrying nukes on tactical aircraft was the exception rather than the rule, probably because it was only ever mentioned in connection with certain aircraft like the F-84 Thunderstreak or F-105 Thunderchief. Somewhere along the line I formed the vague notion that after Vietnam, with the exception of the F-111, this was no longer a thing.

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F-84 tactical nuclear bomb delivery profile

Since I began volunteering at Pima Air & Space Museum and writing about aviation and historical aircraft, I’ve learned nuclear capability is the rule, not the exception. Almost all USAF fighter/bombers from the early 1950s on have been capable of carrying nuclear weapons like the B61; Navy fighter/attack jets too.

In the 1950s, with the advent of nuclear deterrence and the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, each military service tried to carve out its own nuclear niche; that’s where the sweet, sweet budget money was. The Air Force and Navy emerged the victors: the two services have a lock on the nation’s strategic “nuclear triad,” the combination of long-range bombers and land- and submarine-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Air Force and Navy have a near-monopoly on tactical nuclear weapons as well; i.e., the kind that can be delivered by aircraft and cruise missiles.

During the 1950s the Army tried to get its foot in the door with nuclear artillery shells, but as far as I know that program is long dead. My guess is that today, the Army and Marines have only small nuclear weapons programs, most likely a role in delivering “suitcase nukes.”

I have a feeling we’re going to hear more about tactical aircraft and special weapons as we enter a new cold war with China and the remnants of the Soviet Union. Sadly, that’s one genie that’s never going to go back into its bottle.

© 2015, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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