ELI5: What does it mean for a bomber plane to be nuclear weapons capable? Is dropping nukes that different from dropping conventional bombs?

Read the Story

Show Top Comments

physically, kinda. Bombs are not ‘standard’, in that any bomb can fit into any mount point. Many will fit into most, but each needs their own specific mount point, and hookup (for sensors if guided, weight-appropriate release etc) so an aircraft needs an appropriate mount. Politically, VERY MUCH SO. Nuclear weapons are very strictly regulated, in their use. they need specific authorization codes, they need multi-person release authorization. So most of the time, the thing that makes them ‘nuclear weapon capable’, is the authentication gear to meet the multiple codes needed to release it, and to enable the weapon by turning off the failsafes.


To be “nuclear capable” an aircraft has to have a specific arming system installed that the operators can control in flight. It’s typically just an extra switch in the cockpit. Plus a whole bunch of other bits elsewhere that deactivate the nuclear failsafes. Mostly electronic.


I worked as a munitions loader on USAF fighters and bombers, and was responsible for converting the B1B, from a nuclear capable aircraft to a non nuclear aircraft (I did all the conversion work). In short, the only real difference is in the programming of certain computers and in some cases, hardware (such as wiring….it isnt replaced or removed, but cut/disconnected).


We have had air crashes with nuclear bombs and they didn’t go off because they are not armed in till just before release. If you could do it on pylons under wings and belly would you even want to and risk a accidentally release.


In the WW2 era the biggest bomber aircraft could carry 20,000 kg of bombs but they were designed to hold racks of bombs that individually weighed 500 to 1000 pounds. Early atomic bombs weighed 10,000 to 20,000 each so while a plane might be able to carry that weight in theory, in actuality the nuke might not fit. Bomb doors might not be big enough, dropping just 1 can cause balance issues, etc. Nuke capable used to be a distinction that the aircraft could handle very large/bulky bombs or sometimes just a single bomb. Later on it also meant they possessed specific nuke monitoring sensors