War Is Boring
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War Is Boring

Can Israel’s Stealth Fighters Really Carry Nukes?

Good reasons to doubt so

The F-35 stealth fighters that America is selling to Israel will be capable of carrying nuclear weapons, according to Israeli media.

If Israeli F-35s can carry nukes, or if the ever-inventive Israeli defense industry can modify them to do so, then Israel could possess an atomic strike plane able to penetrate Iranian air defenses in the event of full-scale war.

Israel wants to deploy 19 F-35s in 2017 … and more later. Tehran is sure to strongly object to its rival possessing any nuclear-capable stealth fighters.

But the story, as reported in Israeli media, might be total nonsense. One problem is that the F-35, as originally designed, should only be compatible with the B-61 atomic bomb, America’s standard small nuke. Israel won’t even admit to possessing nuclear weapons at all. But it does—and they probably aren’t B-61s.

“Changing the internal wiring and engineering of the plane to accommodate a different warhead could be done, but not without significant challenges,” James Lewis, communications director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told War is Boring. “Especially for a plane that’s had the extensive engineering challenges that have been the hallmark of the F-35 program.”

And if the U.S. confirmed that Israel were modifying the F-35 to accommodate Israeli nukes, there certainly would be significant diplomatic repercussions—and perhaps restrictions on American-supplied spare parts. That could quickly render Israel’s F-35s unflyable.

While nuclear-armed Israeli F-35s are questionable, the Dutch government has said that its F-35s will be nuclear-capable. The Netherlands is not a nuclear power, but the Dutch are “widely understood to host about two dozen U.S. B-61 gravity bombs at the Volkel air base,” according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

F-35s. U.S. Air Force photo

With tensions between a newly assertive Russia and the West over Ukraine, nuclear-armed tactical aircraft in Europe suddenly don’t seem like such a Cold War relic.

But not everyone is happy the F-35s are being configured for nukes. The money spent to make it a nuclear bomb-dropper would be better spent developing the Air Force’s proposed Long-Range Strike Bomber, former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz said last January.

The U.S. Air Force plans to configure the late-model Block 4A and 4B F-35s to drop the B-61 no later than 2022. But the Congressional Budget Office estimated this could cost more than $350 million. Congress already turned down the Air Force’s request for development money for this year.

In the meantime, the Israeli air force has given its F-35s the nickname Adir, meaning “awesome.” Though some critics would dispute how awesome the F-35 really is, for Israel, a stealthy nuclear-capable strike aircraft would be pretty awesome indeed.

And potentially very, very controversial.

We’ve published a new book all about the F-35. You can follow Michael Peck on Twitter at @Mipeck1 or on Facebook. Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.




From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics, exploring how and why we fight above, on and below an angry world

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War Is Boring

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