F-35s Certified to Launch Stealthy Nuclear Strikes: Why Russia, China and North Korea Are Worried

The F-35 fifth generation fighter was on March 9 confirmed to be officially certified to carry B61-12 nuclear gravity bombs, marking the first time a Western multirole stealth fighter has been able to employ nuclear weapons. Spokesman for the F-35 Joint Program Office Russ Goemaere stated regarding this milestone in the fighter program: “The F-35A is the first 5th generation nuclear capable aircraft ever, and the first new platform (fighter or bomber) to achieve this status since the early 1990s,” adding that the development provided not only the U.S but all of NATO bloc with a “critical capability” and supported the America’s “extended deterrence commitments.” Only the F-35A deployed by the U.S. Air Force have been certified, with the F-35B and F-35C with special aircraft carrier landing capabilities deployed by the Marine Corps and Navy respectively not yet able to use nuclear warheads. Goemaere’s comments on the F-35’s new capability, and what they meant for NATO more broadly, highlighted the fact that the United States intends to allow F-35s deployed by Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy to use American nuclear warheads under controversial nuclear sharing agreements, with B61-12s deployed in all four European countries to support this capability. 

Although the F-35’s predecessor the much larger twin engine F-22 fighter was previously pitched to the U.S. Air Force as a nuclear strike fighter, the class’ shallow weapons bays prevented it from carrying larger diameter warheads such as the B61. Furthermore, the F-22’s very low availability rates, its particularly short range and other wide ranging performance issues precluded it from serving as an effective nuclear strike fighter, with the costly aircraft now consigned to an early retirement after 75 percent of planned production was cancelled. America’s first stealth fighter the F-117 was designed from the outset for nuclear delivery, but was notably incapable of air to air combat, had a very poor flight performance, and suffered from extremely high maintenance requirements which limited its utility. A further benefit of using the F-35 for nuclear delivery is that it is much more widely deployed, with over 1000 having been built, while its widespread service provides options for more clients to be offered nuclear sharing agreements in future. The wide range of bases hosting the aircraft, which are set to expand including in the near future to Finland on Russia’s borders, provides the United States with many more options for launching nuclear strikes. 

The equipping of F-35s with nuclear weapons is expected to cause considerable concern for potential targets of American attacks. The very widespread deployments of the aircraft, and highly concealable nature of the B61-12 within its internal weapons bays, meaning any of the hundreds of aircraft stationed across the world could be carrying a nuclear bomb. The potential fallout from nuclear strikes using F-35s was highlighted in November by New York based media outlet These include frequent deployments up to the borders of potential adversaries, from the East China Sea and Korean Peninsula to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. A late 2023 report by Newsweek highlighted regarding the new B61-13, a higher yield counterpart to the B61-12 set to soon be certified for the new fighter, that it would allow a single F-35 to kill over 310,000 inhabitants of the Russian capital Moscow in a single strike. Should the bomb be dropped on central St Petersburg, which is more densely populated, the death toll would rise to over 360,000. Similar figures could be expected for other major population centres, and figures in the same order of magnitude for the B61-12. B61 bombs have maximum yields several times as high as those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S. Army Air Force in 1945, and when combined with the stealth capabilities of the F-35 allow the U.S. Air Force to hold population centres of potential adversaries seriously at risk. This threat is expected to only continue to grow as wide ranging issues with the F-35 are gradually resolved, as numbers in service increase, and as tensions are only set to continue to rise.