Congress Could Blow Billions on Obsolete Tactical Nukes
Redundant bombs get precision-guidance upgrade
The B61 is an old bomb.
It’s the United States’ primary — though obsolete—tactical nuclear weapon. First produced in 1968, the B61 has been in service a decade longer than originally planned.
In December, the Senate passed the $557 billion National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2015. For its part, the National Nuclear Security Administration gets $2.7 billion to modernize the B61 and extend its lifespan.
Except the U.S. doesn’t need them.
The NNSA will need more money in the future. Three years ago, the NNSA launched a modernization program to keep the weapon system viable for another two or three decades.
Besides extending its lifespan, the program includes several key upgrades. First, the B61 is an unguided gravity bomb that tumbles through the air along a simple ballistic trajectory. It can also float towards the ground with a parachute. The upgraded B61 will fall quite differently.
It will have a modern electronics and radar system, and a new Air Force-provided tail kit with controllable fins. In other words, it’s becoming a precision-guided nuke.
An upgraded B61 “allows the obsolete and prohibitively expensive parachute system to be replaced, and will result in a more accurate system,” Madelyn Creedon, the assistant secretary of defense for global strategic affairs, testified in 2013 to the House Armed Services Committee.
“The improved accuracy will allow the B61–12 to achieve the same military effects of today’s highest yield versions,” Creedon added.
The implication is that a more accurate B61 means the U.S. can justify reducing its nuclear stockpile. But there are no public plans to tie the B61 program to any reductions in America’s nuclear arsenal.
The upgrades are not cheap. Including the $2.7 billion for 2015, the NNSA estimates it needs $8 billion to get the job done. An independent Pentagon assessment puts the cost at more like $10 billion. With 200 B61s in the U.S. stockpile, the cost is roughly $29 million to upgrade each bomb.
That’s more than their weight in gold.
The 11-foot-long, 700-pound B61 is light enough for a high-speed fighter jet. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be able to carry two of them. Like many other tactical nuclear weapons from the Cold War era, the B61 is a variable yield bomb that explodes with a force of 0.3 to 340 kilotons, depending on the mission requirement.
Tactical nuclear weapons such as the B61 were the American answer to one of the Cold War’s central strategic dilemmas. How could a budget-starved NATO skeleton force defend Western Europe from waves of Soviet armored columns?
Eric Schlosser described in his sweeping history of nuclear weapons how “the small U.S. Army contingent in Western Europe served on the front line as a ‘trip wire,’ a ‘plate glass wall.’”
To offset the numerical disparity between the two sides, NATO would “replace manpower with technology, use low-yield, tactical atomic weapons against the advancing Soviet troops, and bring the ‘battle back to the battlefield.’”
The U.S. kept tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, and planned to deploy them in huge numbers against enemy troop concentrations, command and control centers—and nuclear weapon sites.
But with the end of the Cold War—and the slim chance of seeing Russian armor roaring across Germany—the B61 no longer has a clear purpose.
Russia’s new doctrine deliberately avoids conventional conflict, preferring instead to wage a limited hybrid war. The B61 also hardly contributes to our nuclear deterrent because—unlike the missiles in the strategic nuclear triad—the B61 cannot get through Russian or Chinese air defenses without a fight.
The U.S. still keeps the B61 deployed on NATO bases in Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and Turkey. Germany and the Netherlands have long-established domestic anti-nuclear movements. But to be fair, pressure from other allies could explain the B61’s continued existence.
By keeping tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, the U.S. demonstrates its continued commitment to the alliance. It also serves as a domestic make-work project for the aging nuclear workforce, and the program funnels billions of dollars into congressional districts across the country.
During an April 2010 meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations, a questioner asked Gen. James Cartwright—then the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs—whether there were any missions that only the B61 could do.
“No,” Cartwright responded.
A transcript noted scattered laughter. Whatever the B61 does, there’s strategic nuclear warheads in U.S. arsenals that can do it, too.