What Makes an Aircraft "Nuclear Capable"?

Kaylee Everhart

Updated Friday, October 20, 2023 at 10:37 PM CDT

What Makes an Aircraft "Nuclear Capable"?

In the world of military aviation, the term "nuclear capable" is often used to describe certain aircraft. But what exactly does it mean for an aircraft to be nuclear capable? Is it just about the ability to drop bombs? In this article, we will delve into the intricacies of what makes an aircraft nuclear capable and explore the various factors involved.

The Ability to Drop Nuclear Bombs:

When an aircraft is referred to as nuclear capable, it means that it has the capability to carry and deliver nuclear bombs. However, it's important to note that not all aircraft are equipped to handle nuclear weapons. The process of carrying and deploying a nuclear bomb requires specific equipment, hardpoints, and systems that are designed to handle the unique characteristics of these weapons.

Hardpoints and Equipment:

Just like any other type of ammunition, nuclear bombs require specific hardpoints on the aircraft for attachment. These hardpoints are not universal and vary depending on the type of weapon being carried. For example, an aircraft may need a LAU-118 missile launcher to use a specific type of missile. These hardpoints are intricately connected to the aircraft's electronics, radar warning system, and launch computer, ensuring seamless communication and compatibility with the nuclear weapon.

Weight and Monitoring:

Nuclear bombs are significantly heavier than conventional weapons. For instance, the current nuclear missile used by the USAF, the AGM-86, weighs approximately 3,150 pounds. This weight difference necessitates stronger hardpoints and specialized systems to monitor, diagnose, arm, and launch the bomb. The aircraft must be equipped with the right data, equipment, and monitoring systems to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the nuclear weapon.

Security Measures:

In addition to the technical requirements, there are also security measures in place to ensure the safe and controlled use of nuclear weapons. One such measure is the Permission Action Link (PAL). The PAL system adds an extra layer of security by requiring authorization from the command loop before a nuclear bomb can be detonated. This ensures that the final authority lies with the command, making it a deliberate and controlled decision to use a nuclear weapon.

The Changing Role of Aircraft:

It is worth noting that the role of aircraft in nuclear warfare has evolved over time. With the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the delivery of nuclear weapons via aircraft has become less common. The use of aircraft for precision strikes, SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses), and other tactical operations has taken precedence. However, nuclear capability is still an important aspect for certain aircraft, as it provides a deterrent and strategic option in case of extreme circumstances.

In summary, an aircraft being described as "nuclear capable" means that it has the ability to carry and deliver nuclear bombs. This capability goes beyond simply dropping bombs and requires specific equipment, hardpoints, and systems to handle the unique characteristics of nuclear weapons. The weight, monitoring, and security measures associated with nuclear bombs make them distinct from conventional weapons. While the role of aircraft in nuclear warfare has diminished, nuclear capability remains an important aspect for certain aircraft, ensuring a strategic option in extreme scenarios.

Noticed an error or an aspect of this article that requires correction? Please provide the article link and reach out to us. We appreciate your feedback and will address the issue promptly.

Check out our latest stories