Thunder and Lightning

Efforts to give the F-35 joint strike fighter the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons appear to be gaining more attention. While the F-35 has an operational requirement to be dual-capable—that is, the ability to deliver either conventional or nuclear weapons—this capacity is destined for the first block upgrade after the aircraft’s current developmental stage and is not yet funded, according to an internal Air Force acquisition memo we’ve seen. But Maj. Gen. Donald Alston, the Air Staff’s point man for nuclear matters, said the issue is being worked. “We have a cooperative effort underway to move the F-35 into nuclear capability,” he said April 22 at a National Institute for Public Policy conference in Arlington, Va. The partner nations involved in the F-35’s development are a part of this effort, he said. Speaking two days later at a National Defense University Foundation breakfast on Capitol Hill, Alston said his comment was meant to show that the Air Force is doing its part to support the Defense Department’s extended nuclear deterrent to NATO and other allies—a mission that last year’s Schlesinger nuclear task force warned should not be neglected. In fact, the task force wrote in its December 2008 phase 2 report that DOD “must ensure that the dual-capable F-35 remains on schedule.” (Full task force report; caution, large file.) Air Force F-35s will eventually replace USAF dual-capable F-16s in Europe that support NATO.