B61-11 earth-penetrating weapon tested for first time in seven years

Sandia tests units pulled at random from stockpile
Sandia pulls random units from the stockpile for tests. Units also are dropped from aircraft at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada for flight tests.

The nuclear package, removed prior to the tests, is studied separately by the design laboratory, either Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore national laboratory.

Lab surveillance tests study the nonnuclear components under different conditions. Environments are more controlled so engineers can closely measure how components function. Other laboratory tests examine components and materials for signs of aging by repeatedly subjecting them to a wide range of conditions.

As flight test preparations moved forward 20 November, a radio on a table in the room crackled with updates: the explosives were wired; the test team pulled back to a control facility 5,000 feet away to arm the firing system remotely; the final countdown of 5-4-3-2-1 began. A camera that had been focused on the weapon panned down to the target at T minus 30 seconds to capture the B61 slamming through the concrete.

The release notes that an unimaginable amount of detail and work goes into getting as much information as possible out of the tests. This test involved a series of calibration tests and qualifying reviews beforehand, along with dozens of people from Sandia, as well as researchers from Los Alamos who fielded components on the weapon and personnel who helped set up and monitor the test.

After the test, the radio continued to snap out updates: no fires — a possibility from burning rocket fuel debris; no debris from the weapon around the target; levels of toxic gas from the burning rocket propellant at zero; in short, everything at the scene indicated the test was safe.

“Boring is good,” commented Johannes.

The area was declared safe about fifteen minutes after the test, and technicians began moving cables and cleaning up the site. Later, two large cranes moved the target so technicians could excavate the B61 in preparation for disassembly at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, where it was built. Data from the test will be used to update the annual assessment of the nation’s stockpile for President Barack Obama.

Correction: The article’s title is inaccurate. It is not the first B61 test in seven years, but, rather, it is the first rocket-driven impact test of the nonnuclear components in seven years. There have been numerous tests of other kinds since the last such impact test. As the article notes, Sandia’s annual surveillance program for each weapon type consists of flight tests, lab tests, and component and material tests.