NATO partners buying the F-35 want the Air Force to pick up the development tab to make the aircraft nuclear capable, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told the House Armed Services Committee Friday. In response to questions from Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), Welsh said the Air Force has “committed to making the F-35 dual-capable;” i.e., able to carry both conventional and nuclear weapons. “There is discussion ongoing” with NATO F-35 customers, who “don’t believe they can afford to do that with their own [F-35s] without our support,” he added. These countries are “responsible for paying the cost to integrate capability on their aircraft,” however, he said. Larsen wanted to know what USAF will do if NATO partners don’t replace their nuclear-capable aircraft in the 2020s and beyond. Welsh said the cost is “not insignificant,” but if some can’t afford it, “the other NATO nations that have those capabilities . . . will pick up the load.” Talks are underway, and “we do have the capacity to pick up the load,” Welsh reported. USAF requested $15.6 million in the Fiscal 2015 budget to refine F-35 dual-capable requirements. By 2024, the Block 4B aircraft is supposed to be capable of carrying two B61 nuclear shapes internally, according to budget documents. The B61 is also being modernized and given a life extension modification.
The U.S. supports “a stronger and more capable” European defense, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said during an Oct. 22 press conference in Brussels—but that defense should not duplicate the functions and capabilities of the NATO alliance.