Lindsay Wise / McClatchy News Service & Julian Borger / The Guardian – 2015-12-13 13:54:32
The $8 billion upgrade to the US B61 nuclear bomb has been widely condemned as an awful lot of money to spend on an obsolete weapon. As an old fashioned ‘dumb’ bomb it has no role in US or NATO nuclear doctrine, but the upgrade has gone ahead anyway, in large part as a result of lobbying by the nuclear weapons laboratories.
America’s Modernized Nuclear Arms Roil Diplomatic Waters
Lindsay Wise / McClatchy News Service
WASHINGTON (December 11, 2015) — US plans to build a precision-guided nuclear bomb already are raising hackles in Russia. With a new tail-kit to increase accuracy, the B61-12 will be an upgrade of a free-falling gravity bomb first built in the 1960s.
President Barack Obama asked Congress to allocate $643.3 million for the project for fiscal year 2016. The total cost of refurbishing the bombs could exceed $10 billion.
The hidden legacy of 70 years of atomic weaponry is 33,480 Americans dead. Will the nation’s new bombs backfire again? Read the full story
After the US successfully tested a non-nuclear version of the bomb in Nevada this summer, Russia’s deputy defense minister, Anatoly Antonov, decried the move as “irresponsible” and “openly provocative.”
A few months later, when a German TV station reported in September that the US would deploy the bomb in Germany, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov shot back that such a move “could alter the balance of power in Europe.”
“And without a doubt it would demand that Russia take necessary countermeasures to restore the strategic balance and parity,” Peskov said at a press conference.
It’s important what impression potential adversaries get about what the US is up to, said Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists, a national security group dedicated to preventing nuclear war.
“If they’re seeing us increasing the accuracy of our gravity bombs, will they conclude that we’re contemplating using nuclear weapons more readily in a conflict than otherwise?” Kristensen said. “It can have real significant implications for how nuclear weapon states perceive each other.”
Kristensen and other critics believe the B61-12 could violate the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, a pledge by the Obama administration that “life-extension programs” to modernize old nuclear weapons won’t result in new military capabilities.
“What they’re doing is taking a dumb bomb and turning it into a smart bomb and claiming that it’s not a new military capability,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director at Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a nonproliferation group. “It just doesn’t square with reality.”
Coghlan added that the B61-12’s improved accuracy and lower yield could make it easier to justify its use in the future, since smaller, more precise blasts mean less radioactive fallout. Russia has its own modernization programs, Coghlan points out. “The end result is an arms race.”
The controversy has attracted attention not only from US rivals, but also from observers in countries allied with the United States.
In Britain, The Guardian newspaper’s diplomatic editor Julian Borger, raised concerns similar to Coghlan’s in a recent article.
“In non-proliferation terms,” Borger wrote, “. . . the only thing worse than a useless bomb is a ‘usable’ bomb.”
“The great thing about nuclear weapons was that their use was supposed to be unthinkable and they were therefore a deterrent to contemplation of a new world war,” he added. “Once they become ‘thinkable’ we are in a different, and much more dangerous, universe.” [See complete story below â€“ EAW.]
On Oct. 20, the third and last development flight test of the B61-12 took place in Nevada. In announcing the test, the US National Nuclear Security Administration stressed that despite the new tail-kit assembly, the B61-12 is not GPS-guided and “will have no additional capabilities.”
The Pentagon also has stated that the B61-12’s capabilities are not new, and that its development simply will extend the life of an outdated weapon and make it safer.
Plus, its production will allow for the retirement of about half of the country’s remaining nuclear gravity bombs, including the B83, the only megaton class weapon remaining in the US nuclear stockpile.
The next thermonuclear warhead slated for modernization is the W-80, which would be converted for use in about 1,000 nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles.
The president’s 2016 budget requests $195 million for the project, up from $9.4 million the year before â€“ a 1,970 percent increase.
In an opinion column published Oct. 15 in The Washington Post, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry and Andy Weber, a former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, urged Obama to halt the development of the cruise missile. They also suggested a global ban on such weapons to prevent unintended escalation.
The problem is that other states wouldn’t have any way of knowing if a cruise missile that had just been launched had a conventional warhead or a nuclear warhead until it detonated, Perry and Weber wrote.
“Some have argued that a new nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile is needed to allow future presidents the ‘flexibility’ to engage Russia or China in limited nuclear war,” they added. “That is Cold War thinking, and it is dangerous. Such ‘tactical’ use of nuclear weapons would be a grave mistake.”
America’s New, More ‘Usable,’ Nuclear Bomb in Europe
Julian Borger / The Guardian
LONDON (November 10, 2015) — The $8 billion upgrade to the US B61 nuclear bomb has been widely condemned as an awful lot of money to spend on an obsolete weapon. As an old fashioned ‘dumb’ bomb it has no role in US or NATO nuclear doctrine, but the upgrade has gone ahead anyway, in large part as a result of lobbying by the nuclear weapons laboratories.
In non-proliferation terms however the only thing worse than a useless bomb is a ‘usable’ bomb. Apart from the stratospheric price, the most controversial element of the B61 upgrade is the replacement of the existing rigid tail with one that has moving fins that will make the bomb smarter and allow it to be guided more accurately to a target. Furthermore, the yield can be adjusted before launch, according to the target.
The modifications are at the centre of a row between anti-proliferation advocates and the government over whether the new improved B61-12 bomb is in fact a new weapon, and therefore a violation of President Obama’s undertaking not to make new nuclear weapons. His administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review said life extension upgrades to the US arsenal would “not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.”
The issue has a particular significance for Europe where a stockpile of 180 B61’s is held in six bases in five countries. If there is no change in that deployment by the time the upgraded B61-12’s enter the stockpile in 2024, many of them will be flown out to the bases in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey.
The row has had a semantic tone, revolving on what the definition of ‘new’ is, but arguably the only definition that counts is whether the generals and officials responsible for dropping bombs, view its role in a different light as a result of its refurbishment.
Referring to the B61-12’s enhanced accuracy on a recent PBS Newshour television programme, the former head of US Strategic Command, General James Cartwright, made this striking remark:
If I can drive down the yield, drive down, therefore, the likelihood of fallout, etc, does that make it more usable in the eyes of some — some president or national security decision-making process? And the answer is, it likely could be more usable.
In general, it is not a good thing to see the words ‘nuclear bomb’ and ‘usable’ anywhere near each other. Yet they seem to share space in the minds of some of America’s military leaders, as Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, points out.
Cartwright’s confirmation follows General Norton Schwartz, the former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, who in 2014 assessed that the increased accuracy would have implications for how the military thinks about using the B61. “Without a doubt. Improved accuracy and lower yield is a desired military capability. Without a question,” he said.
The great thing about nuclear weapons was that their use was supposed to be unthinkable and they were therefore a deterrent to contemplation of a new world war. Once they become ‘thinkable’ we are in a different, and much more dangerous, universe.
It is a universe in which former vice president Dick Cheney has apparently lived for some time. The new biography of George H W Bush has served as a reminder that in the run-up to the first Gulf War, Cheney commissioned a Pentagon study to find out how many tactical nuclear weapons it would take to kill a division of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. The answer was apparently 17.
In his own memoir, Colin Powell, then chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recalled being ordered by Cheney to carry out the assessment against Powell’s own better judgment. As related in Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of US Nuclear Weapons since 1940, edited by Stephen Schwartz:
While planning strategy prior to the Gulf, Powell told Secretary of Defence Dick Cheney, ” Let’s not even think about nukes. You know we’re not going to let that genie loose.” Replied Cheney, ” of course not. But take a look to be thorough.”
Powell did and discovered that to “do serious damage to just one armoured division dispersed in the desert would require a considerable number of small tactical nuclear weapons. I showed this analysis to Cheney and then had it destroyed.”
That assessment may have been trashed, but the spirit behind it clearly lives on in the US military mindset and on the right of the US political spectrum — a disturbing and volatile mix.
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