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.
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.