Currently the German Luftwaffe has Panavia Tornados to deliver American nuclear bombs in case of war. The bombers are getting older and are currently modernized. The German Luftwaffe also has Eurofighter Typhoons which are said to not be able to deliver nuclear weapons. Why is that so? (Same goes for the F-35 and the F-22)

AFAIK all that's needed for an aircraft to deliver nuclear bombs is

  1. The ability to actually carry the bombs, which probably conform to some standard "form factor".
  2. Some special electronics for arming the bombs, which must be installed into the bomber - this probably also follows some standards.

Is that all? I seem to remember some special aerobatic maneuver the aircraft should be able to perform to allow the survival of the crew. Does that exist and is it a problem for modern fighter/bomber aircraft?

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    $\begingroup$ They also need to get away from the nuclear blast. Otherwise it's a suicide mission. That maneuver is a loop, not all aircraft can do it. $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Apr 26 '15 at 20:21
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    $\begingroup$ Also, by the point you're dropping nukes you have a fairly low life expectancy anyways. $\endgroup$ – cpast Apr 26 '15 at 22:17
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    $\begingroup$ For the F-22, it's that the standard US nuclear bomb (the B61) literally does not fit in the F-22 weapons bay. $\endgroup$ – cpast Apr 26 '15 at 22:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Smithers: Given that most airplanes capable of carrying nukes are not "stealth", that statement seems a little too "easy" to me. $\endgroup$ – DevSolar Apr 28 '15 at 6:57
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    $\begingroup$ @MartinSchröder It really, really depends. If it doesn't require modifying the physics package (the "nuclear bomb" part of a nuclear bomb), then maybe (it's still expensive to modify nuclear bombs, but it's doable and they're doing it for the F-35). If the size constraints rule out the current physics package, there's a chance it'd be cheaper to redesign and modify F-22s than to design a new nuclear bomb from scratch (nuclear bomb design is extremely complicated), and it's certain to be less controversial; the F-22 is likely what'd be modified there, if it had needed to carry them. $\endgroup$ – cpast Apr 28 '15 at 23:01

You are right in saying that's all that's needed, with the addition of a strategic or tactical need.

The need for a "special evasion" technique is only needed for aircraft dropping megaton range weapons in an air burst. Kiloton range weapons could be dropped from altitude with no special evasion required except a lot of speed. Sub-sonic aircraft would need to be "frisky" in their escape. Read about Tsar Bomba for a good example which demonstrates that even with the biggest bomb ever dropped, a relatively slow, lumbering aircraft can escape.

Even helicopters can drop nukes.

Most aircraft are only tasked to drop tactical, low yield weapons. The real madness is assigned to subs and missiles.

As the comment above says, I suspect that most crews dropping strategic weapons will not care much whether they survive or not.

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    $\begingroup$ The technical term for the maneuver in question is toss bombing $\endgroup$ – Mark Apr 26 '15 at 22:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark One possibility, but only if delivered at low level. Mid-high altitude is just a fast turn and run away. $\endgroup$ – Simon Apr 26 '15 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Antzi One reason I can think of immediately is that a bomb starts out with the same velocity as the bomber. The bomb isn't just going straight down, but also forwards. So, it's probably better to be moving the opposite direction as what the bomb is moving. I'm not sure how quickly drag will reduce the forward speed of the bomb, though. $\endgroup$ – reirab Apr 27 '15 at 4:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Simon Yes, but the lateral position of the detonation isn't. If you're trying to get away from the blast, it's usually better to move the opposite direction as the bomb rather than the same direction. $\endgroup$ – reirab Apr 27 '15 at 13:03
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    $\begingroup$ The toss bomb actually throws the bomb forward and UP which is something others have missed pointing out here, that coupled with the fact that most bombs dropped this way are also slightly retarded in free fall by a small parachute means that you have more time to get away then straight and level flight, and you can 'toss' the bomb further from your airplane. This tactic is ALSO used to avoid heavily defended locations, as the bomb continues on a upward/forward track and can travel a greater distance, potentially letting you toss from outside AA ranges. $\endgroup$ – Mark Apr 27 '15 at 22:43

Simon's answer discusses technical requirements to deploy nuclear weapons on an aircraft. However, there are less-technical requirements as well. Specifically, for reasons that should be fairly obvious, countries are very concerned that the aircraft carrying their nuclear weapons will not release an armed weapon when they aren't supposed to. At least for the US, just about anything involved with nuclear weapons has to be certified to ensure that it won't cause a nuclear accident. This involves lots of failsafes; for instance, an aircraft must have a locking system which is entirely separate from the release mechanism and which physically restrains the release mechanism, so that no failure in the release mechanism alone can result in release.

Actually complying with the requirements largely falls within a broadened version of "electronics to deal with the bomb" (it also has some additional mechanical stuff required, and certain preexisting parts may need additional failsafes added, but it's in the spirit of that question, and in any case it's not that expensive). However, certification and preparation of the Typhoon would involve US personnel learning lots of technical details of the plane, which Eurofighter would rather the US didn't (after all, they want to export Eurofighter). This isn't an issue for most munitions, because normally a country owns the weapons it deploys; nuclear weapons in Germany are different, because Germany is a non-nuclear weapons state that is forbidden from having nukes in peacetime under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Nukes in Germany are under US control, and Germany only gets to deploy them if the US lets them during a war, so US regulations apply, and the added requirement is "a nuclear weapons state lets you use their bombs." In addition, there's a requirement of "the government is willing to carry nukes;" if the German government decides they don't like the idea of carrying nukes in wartime, the plane won't get the needed modifications.

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    $\begingroup$ An example of an accident suspected of coming close to a detonation: 1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash $\endgroup$ – Andrew Grimm Apr 27 '15 at 3:53
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    $\begingroup$ The willingness of the german government to carry the nukes is difficult to gauge: All german foreign ministers since 1999 have publicly expressed their desire to remove these weapons from Germany. At the same time these governments have prepared lifetime extensions for the Tornados (current EOL is at least 2030). I believe most german politicians hope that this issue will go away when the current generation of nukes is EOLed - but now the USA are planning new nukes... $\endgroup$ – Martin Schröder Apr 27 '15 at 12:25

What neither of the other answers have touched on is the real reason why some aircraft can be used to deploy nuclear weapons and other can't.
And that is the special equipment needed on board these aircraft to carry, arm and and launch the weapons. Which is a big reason not just why some aircraft can and others can't deploy nuclear weapons but pretty much any weapon.

It's not as if you can just bolt a bomb or missile to an aircraft, you need the correct connectors/clamps to attach it to, you need the right electrical, mechanical, and/or electronic equipment to arm it, give it guidance information if applicable, things like that.
And in case of nuclear weapons there are safeguards built in that require a very special set of equipment to operate and enter launch codes (in the first generations of nuclear weapons it even required a crew member to crawl into the bomb bay of the aircraft in flight to insert the trigger mechanism into bomb by hand).

While the connectors on the launch rails have in part been standardised across fleets, there are still differences, and in guidance systems there are of course far more differences still (to launch an AMRAAM you of course will need different data to the missile than to launch a Harpoon for example).

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    $\begingroup$ That's what I mean with "special electronics for arming". $\endgroup$ – Martin Schröder Apr 27 '15 at 7:47
  • $\begingroup$ @MartinSchröder yes, you need those, and that means space and power for them. And with space at a premium that's often not installed. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Apr 27 '15 at 8:00
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    $\begingroup$ You forget to mention the software requirements, as well. Bomb Weights and shapes and flight times are all carefully combined to be dropped on target via the Aircrafts avionics, if they aren't setup correctly on the aircraft you won't hit what you aim at (though this is a minor issue with something as damaging as a Nuke). $\endgroup$ – Mark Apr 27 '15 at 19:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark true, though that's implicitly covered under "electronics". A lot of work has been done to make nuclear weapons rather accurate btw, in order to enable smaller warheads to take out heavily hardened targets. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Apr 27 '15 at 19:28

Primary requirements for delivery of Nuclear weapons beyonds the physical ability to transport the munition is the Arming and Fuzing capability. This extends to Authorization and control operations of the device, safety is integrated in each section and independently also.

For example control and authorization required interface via a PAL (Permissive Action Links) This is a physical device, combination lock or a electronic keypad-activated interlock.The intent is to prevent detonation without direct positive action instructing such.

Along with the ESD systems which are another set of safety systems the aircraft must be able to communicate and execute the require actions demanded of the bombs safety operations SOPS and systems.

That is the the only requirements to carry nuclear weapons and basically covered in the below areas. Due to their awesome power and demands of failsafe carriage n flawless detonation (else the enemy can utilize the undetonated weapon) additional delivery platform hardware is required as for smart weapons of conventional types.

Also regarding the F-35, the air force intends these to be dual capable and will work to ensure its compatibility with the BP61 replacing F15 & F16 in this assignment.


I can provide information from the operational side of things, although I cannot say much about the engineering side of hanging a nuclear weapon on the belly of an aircraft.

The A7E was a US naval light attack bomber capable of carrying up to four nuclear bombs under its wing. The bombs it could carry were the B28, B57, and the B61. They were tactical nukes in the kiloton range. The A7E has been retired, but replaced the A4 in Vietnam, and then served as the light attack delivery platform for the US Navy until finally being replaced by the FA-18 in the mid to late 1980's.

The idea of using a kiloton range nuclear device over conventional bombs was described to me at one point. Let's say you are going to war, no, that you are seriously going to go to war, then when you hit an airfield you want to disable it. If you have limited assets it might be considered that using a tactical nuke is the best alternative. One bomb, one aircraft, and if they make it to the target, a hole in the runway that will not be fixed quickly, and of course all without the messiness of a megaton range bomb.

My experience with these payloads was as a loading officer and a delivery pilot. During my tenure at the squadron, which was 3 years, we only dropped one practice nuke, and this was done start-to-finish from the deck of the carrier. The A7E was loaded under the deck, brought up on the elevator, the pilot got in, took a catapult shot, delivered the bomb, and came back to take a three wire. By the way there were no "practice nukes," and every nuke we handled was the real one. It was a mindset.

Really, the only requirement that I saw from a loading officer or pilots perspective, was that you can hang the bomb under my wing. If you hung it, I could arm it. I do not remember any special cockpit procedures, except wear your eye patch. Other than that, you want the bomb on target, and so you want a platform that can deliver it, not too worried about it getting home though. Most bombing platforms today have that sort of technology. The point about arming is a good point, and I am not completely sure about my cockpit procedures. It was a long time ago, and anyway things have changed. My guess is that there were no special arming requirements, a pulse of electricity was delivered to the station under the wing, which activated the release. No other bombs had any special arming considerations. Essentially, a charge was initiated and a boot kicked the ordinance off the wing.

Why can some tactical jets carry such a weapon and others can't? I am not sure about this, but some of the considerations are payload weight and physical constraints of the delivery aircraft, e.g. wing size, bomb bay size, etc. There are also characteristics of the bomb as it departs the aircraft. If it has aerodynamic modes (because it is flying) where it comes back up to the aircraft and collides then it will not be allowed under the wing. So I would speculate it has more to do with airframe aerodynamics and physical constraints, and less to do with electronics and arming.

I also was on the standing mission planning team aboard the ship that considered the strategic and tactical issues the pilot would face in a given delivery. Don't want to talk about the sort of intelligence we were given to make our decisions. There wasn't any thing out of the ordinary for the mission planning folder that would be handed to the pilot when the time came. Just a bombing mission planned in advance and reviewed by the upper echelon.

I will make this comment. In the A7E we were given a packet which included a kneeboard chart, the navigation charts for the low level, and an eye patch. Don't remember much else in it that concerned me. The chart gave me the path in, the path out, and the location of the carrier to come back to. We always joked about coming back to the carrier, as if it was going to be where it said it was. Also we had ways of entering the airspace of the ship without radio communications so you wouldn't get shot down as a threat. That too worried us as pilots. But the eye patch? So I asked about that. Here is what I was told:

Your route to target will be deconflicted with other targets, i.e. other tactical nukes going off at different locations and times in your forward hemisphere before your own delivery. On the chance that one does goes off at the wrong time we have provided you with an eye patch. Put the eye patch on before feet dry, and if you find yourself blind, take it off and fly with the redundant eye to your target and deliver your weapon. See you when you get home.

Okay. I get it, we are really serious about this! This brings up the last point I wanted to make. We always delivered our nukes in a manner that was different than conventional bombs. It was about getting away from the blast zone as quickly as possible, and in particular the electro-magnetic pulse, which would render us virtually helpless. The electronic fuel transfer switches would be fried and the available fuel left in the various tanks wouldn't get you very far. Not to mention all the navigation systems and such that would be inoperable. At the time I was flying missions we used the loft and the laydown deliveries, which purportedly allowed us to survive the detonation. The loft was at 3 miles, pull up into an Immelman with 1 G. After completing the Immelman depart back to the ship. The laydown was delivered at 200 to 500 feet, above the power lines crisscrossing a country, as fast as you could go, with an exit straight away from the target. Still, that fast and low, hard to see the target. This helps to isolate you from threats inbound and outbound. Each delivery had its benefits and risks.


US Army had a special type of nuclear explosive, they called: 'Demolition weapon', or something like, its power was in the range of kilotons, had a weight of around 60 kg (133 pounds), and was discontinued by 1950. So, you can drop a nuclear weapon, if you have it, from any two seat ultralight airplane, and escape if you fly high enough. Plutonium can be obtained from a homemade reactor not bigger than a metal grain silo, they had one like this in the Barcelona University. Fighting airplanes' technology is to ultralight aircraft what Formula 1 cars technology is to mopeds, it's hard to imagine that the aerial nuclear war procedures and capabilities are known to anybody out some restricted military audiences, and the features and performances of airplanes able to carry and launch nuclear weaponry can be watched at air shows and specialized publications, the USSR said that most of the technology information they got from the free world came from open access and purchase publications, probably, no government will sell a military technology to a third party if they don't have in reserve at home something better, it would be silly selling a technology that someone could use against you, as the experience is that big changes in government's lines are a true possibility

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    $\begingroup$ Not if surviving is part of your plan. Of course, nearly any size airplane could be designed to carry a nuclear bomb (though dropping it would be suicide for many of them, especially the ultralights you mention,) but I think the OP was asking primarily about why military aircraft are designated as being able to carry nuclear weapons or not. As the other answers have stated, this comes down to needing the proper safety mechanisms and the capacity to carry the form factor of the bomb(s) to which you have access. $\endgroup$ – reirab May 2 '15 at 22:18

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