Air Force Successfully Tested Secret New Stealth Missile With Mock Nuke, Reports Reveal

A B-52 launched a classified stealth missile with a mock nuclear warhead.

America's nuclear weapons are aging and the Pentagon plans to spend more than $600 billion to keep the potentially world-ending weapons in fighting shape. One of these massive investments paid off in 2022 when the Air Force successfully tested a new secret stealth missile armed with a dummy version of a novel nuclear warhead, government reports have revealed.


As first reported by Air & Space Forces Magazine, the Air Force conducted nine successful tests of the classified Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) missile in 2022. One of those tests used a mock version of the new W80-4 nuclear warhead. Many details of the missile are classified and what precious little we’ve just learned comes from the Pentagon’s Selected Acquisition Reports for 2022, an National Nuclear Security Administration report on nukes, and a report from Sandia National Labs.

Altogether, the three reports paint a picture of a military spending billions to upgrade decades-old technology to keep America’s nuclear weapons viable. Both the LRSO and  W80-4 nuclear warheads are replacements for aging weapons systems. The LRSO is a replacement for the AGM-86, an air-to-ground missile first produced in 1980. Raytheon is building the missile and details about it are scarce, but the Air Force is pitching it as a stealthy and long range upgrade to the older missile.


The W80-4 is better known because it’s an upgrade of the existing W80 nuclear warheads that are being upgraded and retrofitted to work with the new missile. It’s part of what the Pentagon has called a “life extension program” for older nuclear warheads. First produced in the 1970s, these older nukes have been adapted and redesigned several times since. The originals were all dismantled.

Throughout the Cold War, America built a lot of new nuclear weapons. Once it ended, it scrapped the plans for the new stuff because the old seemed to work just fine. But China’s new nuclear weapons and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have reignited Cold War fears and anxieties. One of those fears is that America’s nuclear arsenal is outdated and falling apart.

There’s some truth to that. The Pentagon’s nuclear forces only stopped using floppy disks in computers in 2019. But some of the old tech is still solid. The LRSO and mock nuke were fired from a B-52, a sturdy and reliable bomber first manufactured in the 1950s. The missiles are, in fact, designed to work with this decades-old bomber.

The B-52 is such a dependable workhorse for the Air Force that it’s repeatedly turned to the boneyard, a kind of graveyard for old aircraft, for parts. It’s even repaired whole airframes found in the boneyard and gotten them to fly. The B-52s aren’t immune to updates however. The Air Force is currently in the process of replacing all the engines in the old bombers with Rolls Royce engines

So, in 2022, the Air Force successfully tested a new secret stealth missile from the belly of a plane first made in the 1950s using an updated version of a nuclear warhead first made in the 1970s. 

“The LRSO and W80-4 Life Extension Program joint test teams completed the first powered flight test of a LRSO Cruise Missile with W80-4 Warhead released from a B-52 aircraft,” the NNSA report said. “The missile successfully released from the aircraft, powered its engine, and executed all in-flight maneuvers. A Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) team developed the warhead test asset, an Environmental Test Unit. The Environmental Test Unit successfully executed all pre- arm/pre-release criteria and collected environmental data for the duration of the flight. This is a significant milestone for the joint program and first collection of representative LRSO free flight data, used to populate the W80-4 STS, define environmental specifications, inform design decisions, and validate computational models.”

Over on the SNL’s web page is a picture of the mock nuclear warhead called the “Environmental Test Unit 1.” According to SNL, it did extensive testing to make sure the warhead was in fighting shape. “Testing included multiple temperatures and a telemetry system to capture internal and external environments,” the report said, below a picture of a frost covered warhead.

The test showed off the Pentagon’s ability to make the old work with the new while still, somehow, spending billions of dollars in the process. All to ensure America can launch a nuclear weapon at a moment’s notice.