Inside the Most Expensive Nuclear Bomb Ever Made
September 2, 2015
Len Ackland and Burt Hubbard / Mother Jones & Reveal
Engineers at the US nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico have spent the past few years designing and testing the B61-12, a high-tech addition to our nation's atomic arsenal. Unlike the free-fall gravity bombs it will replace, the B61-12 is a guided nuclear bomb. America's new 12-foot nuclear bomb looks more like a trim missile than a weapon of mass destruction.
Inside the Most Expensive Nuclear Bomb Ever Made
Could America's latest atomic weapon ignite a new arms race?
Len Ackland and Burt Hubbard / Mother Jones (September/October 2015 issue)
ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico -- Engineers at the United States' nuclear weapons lab in Albuquerque, New Mexico, have spent  the past few years designing and testing the B61-12, a high-tech addition to our nation's atomic arsenal. Unlike the free-fall gravity bombs it will replace, the B61-12 is a guided nuclear bomb. A new tail kit assembly, made by Boeing, enables the bomb to hit targets far more precisely than its predecessors.
Using "Dial-a-yield" technology, the bomb's explosive force can be adjusted before launch from a high of 50,000 tons of TNT equivalent to a low of 300 tons -- that's 98 percent smaller than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima 70 years ago.
Despite these innovations, the government doesn't consider the B61-12 to be a new weapon but simply an upgrade. In the past, Congress has rejected funding for similar weapons, reasoning that more accurate, less powerful bombs were more likely to be used.
In 2010, the Obama administration announced  that it would not make any nuclear weapons with new capabilities. The White House and Pentagon insist that the B61-12 won't violate that pledge.
The B61-12 could be deployed by the new generation of F-35 fighter jets, a prospect that worries Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists. "If the Russians put out a guided nuclear bomb on a stealthy fighter that could sneak through air defenses, would that add to the perception here that they were lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons?" he asks. "Absolutely."
So far, most of the criticism of B61-12 has focused on its price tag. Once full production commences in 2020, the program will cost more than $11 billion for about 400 to 480 bombs -- more than double the original estimate, making it the most expensive nuclear bomb ever built.
This story comes from our friends at Reveal . Read more of their coverage of the B61-12  and national security .
Obama Pledged to Reduce Nuclear Arsenal,
Then Came This Weapon
Len Ackland and Burt Hubbard / Reveal
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (July 14, 2015) -- Standing next to a 12-foot nuclear bomb that looks more like a trim missile than a weapon of mass destruction, engineer Phil Hoover exudes pride. "I feel a real sense of accomplishment," he said.
But as Hoover knows, looks can be deceiving. He and fellow engineers at Sandia National Laboratories have spent the past few years designing, building and testing the top-secret electronic and mechanical innards of the sophisticated B61-12.
Later, when nuclear explosives are added at the federal Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, the bomb will have a maximum explosive force equivalent to 50,000 tons of TNT -- more than three times more powerful than the US atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, 70 years ago this August that killed more than 130,000 people.
The US government doesn't consider the B61-12 to be new -- simply an upgrade of an existing weapon. But some contend that it is far more than that.
Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert at the nonpartisan Federation of American Scientists in Washington, is resolute that the bomb violates a 2010 Obama administration pledge not to produce nuclear weapons with new military capabilities.
"We do not have a nuclear guided bomb in our arsenal today," Kristensen said. "It is a new weapon."
Kristensen's organization was formed in 1945 by nuclear scientists who wanted to prevent nuclear war. And it's not the maximum force of the B61-12 that worries him the most on that front.
Instead, he says he fears that the bomb's greater accuracy, coupled with the way its explosive force can be reduced electronically through a dial-a-yield system accessed by a hatch on the bomb's body, increases the risk that a president might consider it tame enough for a future conflict.
Congress shared similar concerns in rejecting other so-called low-intensity nuclear weapons in the past. But most of the national criticism of this bomb has focused on its price tag. After it goes into full production in 2020, taxpayers will have spent about $11 billion to build 400 B61-12 bombs. That sum is more than double the original estimate, making it the most expensive nuclear bomb ever.
To Kristensen and others, if President Barack Obama's pledge was serious, the bomb shouldn't exist at any price.
How the B61-12 entered the US arsenal of weapons is a tale of the extraordinary influence of the "nuclear enterprise," as the nuclear weapons complex has rebranded itself in recent years. Its story lies at the heart of the national debate over the ongoing modernization of America's nuclear weapons, a program projected to cost $348 billion over the next decade.
This enterprise encompasses defense contractors, including the subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp. that runs the Sandia labs for the government, as well as the US Department of Energy and the nuclear weapons-oriented wings of the US military -- particularly the Air Force and Navy. With abundant jobs and dollars at stake, the nuclear enterprise is backed by politicians of all stripes.
A review of several thousands of pages of congressional testimony, federal budgets and audit reports, plus an analysis of lobbying and campaign contribution data, shows that the four defense contractors running the two New Mexico nuclear weapons labs, Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratory, enjoy a particularly symbiotic relationship with Congress.
That relationship begins with money.
Since 1998, these four contractors have contributed more than $20 million to congressional campaigns around the nation. Last year alone, they spent almost $18 million lobbying Washington to ensure that funding for nuclear weapons projects continues even as nuclear stockpiles shrink.
Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said the outlay is a bargain considering what's at stake for the contractors.
"It's an insignificant cost of doing business relative to the potential income from these contracts," she said.
In arid, impoverished New Mexico, the nuclear weapons enterprise thrives on particularly close connections between business interests and politicians, doors revolving in both directions and successful efforts to minimize oversight of corporate behavior.
Republican Heather Wilson left Congress in January 2009 after a decade as a New Mexico congresswoman. She had lost her bid to jump up to the Senate seat vacated by her mentor, Pete Domenici.
After losing, she set up a consulting business and, within days of leaving office, Wilson -- an Air Force veteran – was consulting mainly for the two New Mexico weapons labs.
Over the next two years, Wilson was paid more than $400,000 by Lockheed's Sandia Corp. and the consortium of contractors running the Los Alamos lab -- to help them extend and expand federal contracts and get more business, according to the first of two scathing inspector general reports.
Eventually, the contractors were forced to reimburse the government for the federal funds they used to pay Wilson for her advocacy work.
Asked about the significance of that outcome, the Lockheed communications office responded to Reveal via email: "With regards to the inspector general's report, Sandia has cooperated with the Inspector General's review and will continue to do so." Wilson declined to comment.
Wilson's support for the labs persisted after she left the consulting business in early 2012 and ran for the Senate again. When the Obama administration cut funding for a Los Alamos lab project, Wilson told the Albuquerque Journal: "Not only is this bad for our country and its national security, it's bad for New Mexico and our economy."
For New Mexico, the second-poorest state after Mississippi, nuclear weapons and military bases are undeniably a lifeblood. Out of the $27.5 billion in federal dollars poured into the state in 2013, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study, about $5 billion went to Los Alamos, Sandia and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nuclear weapons waste facility east of Carlsbad, where accidents last year exposed dozens of workers to radiation.
Billions more were spent on the state's four main military bases. The city of Alamogordo, next to Holloman Air Force Base and the Army's White Sands Missile Range -- home of the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was tested in July 1945 -- benefits from $450 million a year in military spending, according to the local chamber of commerce.
The labs and bases, and the defense contractors that run or contract with them, also are an integral part of New Mexico's economic fabric. Los Alamos, Sandia and White Sands are three of the state's top 10 employers, together providing about 24,000 jobs.
New Mexico politicians helping the labs has a long history in the state, said local political analyst Joe Monahan. It dates back to World War II and the development of the first nuclear bomb under Los Alamos Director J. Robert Oppenheimer.
"The economic impact is the driver of the politics," Monahan said.
The Engineers behind the Weapons
At Sandia labs today, engineers such as Hoover and his boss Jim Handrock, director of weapons system engineering, populate the well-paid professional ranks. They turn ideas into weapons.
Nuclear specifications come to them from the two national security physics labs -- Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. They marry those specifications to Pentagon military requirements and design bombs and missile warheads to carry nuclear explosives.
The secrecy of the work is so high that no outside cellphones may be brought into the building, even by Sandia's public affairs escort. Hoover and Handrock take off their badges before being photographed.
National security is their mantra, a value that gained urgency following recent criticism by the National Nuclear Security Administration that Sandia experienced 190 "security incidents" in fiscal year 2014 and the agency's proposed $577,500 fine for Sandia's earlier mishandling of classified information.
"We need to make sure that should the president of the United States choose to use the weapons, they will always work, but they will never work in any other situation," Handrock said.
He joined Sandia labs in 1987 after earning his doctorate in mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois. He has been with the company ever since -- first in its small California lab and then in Albuquerque -- aside from a several-month special assignment with an Air Force general in Washington in 2008-09.
When Sandia hired Handrock, it was run by a Western Electric Co. subsidiary. He got a new employer in 1993, when Martin Marietta Corp. acquired Sandia Corp. Two years later, Lockheed Corp. and Martin Marietta merged to form the nation's largest defense contractor.
Similarly influential and powerful companies run New Mexico's other nuclear facilities. Bechtel Corp., URS Corp. and The Babcock & Wilcox Co. partner with the University of California, Berkeley to operate Los Alamos. URS and Babcock & Wilcox, along with Areva Inc. North America, an offshoot of a large French nuclear company, also manage the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
Those four contractors and Areva are heavy hitters in Washington, with a combined 164 lobbyists at their disposal -- 70 percent of them former members of Congress, congressional aides or federal officials, according to Reveal's analysis of Center for Responsive Politics data.
"An army of lobbyists is great," the center's Krumholz said. "But an army of insiders who know how to navigate the halls of power, can socialize with politicians on weekends and ultimately play the system like a violin is so much better."
Lockheed said it simply needs to get its perspectives across to federal officials.
"We routinely communicate our point of view with members of Congress and customers who oversee our programs as well as leaders of congressional districts where Lockheed Martin has a significant business presence," the company said in its emailed response.
Come campaign season, the contractors remember the New Mexico delegation. In the past two decades, the contractors' political action committees have donated $430,000 to the state's senators and members of Congress. Hundreds of company officials chipped in another $350,000. Wilson received more than $250,000 of that between 1998 and 2012, the year she ran for the Senate again -- and lost again.
New Mexico Senators Advocate for Labs
New Mexico's current senators are Democrats Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich. Contributions to their campaigns from defense contractors and company officials fall far short of Wilson's -- less than $100,000 each since 1998. Nonetheless, the two play important roles, sitting on subcommittees that determine funding and policy for the nuclear labs.
Both voted for a December budget bill that funds the labs even though it also waters down campaign finance controls and Wall Street reforms they had embraced.
"Udall and Heinrich are both incredibly liberal in their own way on some issues," said New Mexico-based political analyst Heath Haussamen. "But they still have to balance that with what people in New Mexico want as far as those jobs and research."
Jennifer Talhelm, Udall's spokeswoman, described the budget vote as difficult, given the conflicting priorities
"There's no question that the labs are a major portion of the economy, especially in Albuquerque and northern New Mexico," she said. "They employ thousands of people."
She said Udall also has been a strong supporter of the B-61 bomb program both because of the jobs it brings to New Mexico and its role in national security, though she emphasized that he does not get involved in contract funding decisions.
"You could say he is a big part of why the B-61 program still exists," Talhelm said.
Heinrich, while a congressman from 2009 to 2013, routinely pressed the Obama administration and Republican leaders to spare the labs from budget cuts and government shutdowns. After he joined the Senate in 2013, he advocated for the extension of a Sandia Corp. federal contract during confirmation hearings for a new energy secretary, Ernest Moniz.
"It is now almost a certainty that the current contract will need to be extended further," Heinrich wrote in a question submitted to the nominee. "This protracted uncertainty, is beginning to impact Sandia's leadership and ability to fill key management positions."
In an email to Reveal, Heinrich's office said the senator is committed to making sure the labs get full funding.
"The labs also strengthen New Mexico's economy by providing high-paying, high-skilled technology jobs in our state and Senator Heinrich will always fight to protect their missions," the statement said.
Another New Mexico lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján, formed a congressional caucus with three other representatives in 2012 specifically to look out for the interests of the national labs. He has received $32,000 in donations since 2008 from the contractors' PACs and company officials. Luján's office did not respond to requests for comment.
The contractors and labs gain influence and access in other ways as well.
Pete Lyons, a top science adviser to Domenici when he was senator in the mid-1990s, came from the Los Alamos lab, where he was an associate director of various programs. Lyons initially was kept on the Los Alamos payroll and assigned to Domenici as a congressional fellow, according to the news release published when he was named a top Energy Department official.
The Los Alamos lab provided the last two science advisers to New Mexico's governor, too. Current Gov. Susana Martinez's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Haussamen, the analyst, said such cozy business-political arrangements are not unusual in New Mexico. "Our state ethics laws are weaker than the federal ones. It's easier to move back and forth between jobs on the state level."
Energy Department Faces Congressional Criticism
At Sandia, sand-colored office buildings and an array of laboratories and test facilities dot a 22-square-mile area of Kirtland Air Force Base. Most are identified only by numbers. Building 898 is an exception, its big silver letters spelling out: Pete V. Domenici National Security Innovation Center.
Domenici was a patron of the New Mexico weapons labs and renowned as the Senate's strongest champion of nuclear weapons for more than three decades, until his 2009 retirement.
His support was crucial in the 1990s after the Cold War ended and the United States and Russia focused on reducing their huge nuclear weapons arsenals.
At the time, many analysts -- including Ash Carter, then an assistant secretary of defense and now the secretary -- challenged the need for the traditional triad of nuclear weapons delivery systems, which relies on airplanes, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarines. Many considered nuclear-armed submarines, invulnerable when launched, sufficient to deter the Russians or anyone else from launching a first strike.
During the Cold War, the weapons labs had designed and engineered new nuclear bomb and warhead models almost as fast as Detroit released new car models. After the 1992 US moratorium on explosive nuclear testing, they were instructed to shift their focus to keeping weapons in the nuclear stockpile reliable.
The change at the labs was just one challenge for the Energy Department, which had been reeling since the 1980s from charges that it was mismanaging the nuclear weapons complex -- highlighted by the extraordinary FBI raid on the Rocky Flats plutonium bomb factory near Denver in 1989.
Congressional criticism grew as the department closed production plants, shrank its bureaucracy and cut jobs.
In 1999, in the wake of a well-publicized but ultimately unsubstantiated security breach at Los Alamos, Domenici championed a bill to create a new agency to oversee nuclear plants and labs: the National Nuclear Security Administration. An independent agency would give the nuclear enterprise more autonomy.
Domenici tangled with then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, a Democrat and former New Mexico congressman, over the department's role. Richardson, who would become New Mexico's governor four years later, argued that the Energy Department was addressing its problems and that a new agency was unnecessary.
In the end, a compromise was reached. The new agency became semiautonomous, with its own bureaucracy but Energy Department oversight.
Domenici declined to comment. Robert Alvarez, then a senior policy adviser to Richardson, told Reveal that even though Domenici succeeded in establishing the national nuclear agency, "it didn't work out so well for Domenici, because he had an archenemy running the House energy and water subcommittee -- David Hobson."
Hobson was a conservative Ohio Republican who shot down several nuclear weapons enterprise proposals before leaving office. "He didn't have any (Department of Energy) facilities in his backyard, and he was basically being fiscally responsible," Alvarez said.
Foreshadowing the current B61-12 program, the national nuclear agency proposed new warheads and a new plant at Los Alamos to replace Rocky Flats, the by-then-closed bomb factory near Denver. Hobson led a congressional charge that at first seemed to derail the proposal.
"We cannot advocate for nuclear nonproliferation around the globe and pursue more usable nuclear options here at home," he said in August 2004.
But Hobson's concerns proved no match for the nuclear enterprise.
Defense Contractors Assail Oversight Agency
Eventually, the national nuclear agency came under fire from the defense contractors, which claimed that it was stifling and nitpicking by, for instance, micromanaging lab decisions.
The Energy Department's inspector general, Gregory Friedman, laid out the problems to a House oversight committee in September 2012. The lab directors complained that "the effectiveness and efficiency of their operations" were being impeded, he told the committee.
"The heart of these assertions," he continued, "is that oversight of contractors has been excessive, overly prescriptive and burdensome."
Three months later, Tom Udall -- the New Mexico senator -- co-sponsored an amendment to the defense budget with Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., to create a 12-member congressional advisory panel to overhaul lab oversight. Jennifer Talhelm, Udall's spokeswoman, said he wanted to address what he considered legitimate concerns about oversight.
The measure passed as part of the defense spending bill, the piece of legislation most lobbied by Lockheed that year. Half of the panel members eventually appointed by Congress had connections to the nuclear labs.
One of the panel's co-chairmen was the former chairman of Lockheed, and its other co-chairman was on the board of Babcock & Wilcox. Heather Wilson was appointed, too, even as the audits scrutinizing her consulting work continued.
Others included a former Los Alamos executive director, a member of the Sandia Corp. board and a former California congresswoman, Ellen Tauscher, a member of the Los Alamos Board of Governors.
As the panel deliberated over the next year and a half, Lockheed and Babcock & Wilcox together spent $16 million lobbying the federal government and donated $3 million to members of Congress.
The panel's report, issued late last year, blasted the national nuclear agency, calling it dysfunctional because, among other things, it lacked "proven management practices." It said the agency's oversight of the labs had generated "misunderstanding, distrust, and frustration." The report called for the Energy Department to reduce the agency's lab audits, inspections and general oversight.
Energy Department officials did not respond to requests for information on whether any changes have occurred.
Inspector General's Second Audit
While that panel was finishing up its report, a second special audit of Wilson's contract work by the inspector general delved into the question of whether taxpayer dollars had been used illegally for lobbying. In outlining its findings, the audit offered a rare behind-the-scenes look at pressure from Lockheed and Sandia officials to get their federal contract extended without an open bidding process.
In September 2012, the Sandia labs' federal contract had been set to expire, and the Energy Department already had signaled that it would open it for bids.
Three years earlier, the audit found, a team of Lockheed and Sandia officials had come up with a detailed plan that included enlisting the New Mexico congressional delegation to pressure then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu to extend the contract by lobbying the chairmen and members of key committees.
One memo advised Sandia officials to tell members of the New Mexico delegation to contact Chu directly and let him know that they expect "a contract extension and will follow the matter with personal interest," the inspector general wrote.
Another memo described a meeting with the national nuclear agency administrator. It said the administrator told company officials that he "has no problem interfacing with Congress and committees on the matter of a Sandia contract extension."
Other documents showed that one Lockheed official had sent a memo to Chu saying the company wanted the contract extended under the "same terms and conditions," and another official recommended "if the answer was not in the affirmative, then Lockheed Martin/Sandia should seriously consider initiating some heavy Congressional support."
Sandia also hired two former employees of the National Nuclear Security Administration as consultants, at least one of whom previously had oversight authority at the lab, according to the full version of the inspector general's internal report. Their names were redacted from the report, released to The Center for Public Integrity earlier this month.
The investigation also unearthed notes from a meeting during which Wilson's firm advised that "Lockheed Martin should aggressively lobby Congress, but keep a low profile."
The contract, giving Sandia Corp. control of an annual lab budget of about $2.4 billion, was extended four times, initially for a year and then twice more for three months each. Finally, in March 2014, it was extended for two more years with the possibility of a third year.
The approach was nothing new: The inspector general unearthed an earlier Sandia Corp. memo that said similar tactics had been used in 2003 to secure a no-bid extension.
The inspector general's report also exposed details of the relationship between the labs and New Mexico politicians, noting that the delegation routinely received legislative wish lists from Sandia.
"Specifically, each year the New Mexico Congressional Delegation requested that SNL (Sandia National Laboratories) provide them with information on ongoing and future national security and science research," the report said. "Included in this package was a ‘Next Steps' or ‘What Could Congress Do' section, which sometimes included funding requests or expressed an opinion on a Congressional matter."
This, the inspector general said, could be construed as using federal funds for lobbying activity.
After the audit's release in November, Wilson issued a statement denying that she lobbied any federal officials to extend the contract and called the report wrong.
Sandia Corp. said it took "these allegations seriously" and was confident it could work out the issues with the Energy Department.
But in its email to Reveal, the Lockheed communications department said such efforts are part of its job. "Sandia routinely provides the New Mexico delegation with information concerning the labs," it responded. "As a federally funded research and development center, an aspect of Sandia's performance of its mission encompasses providing information to the federal government including Congress."
Initially, the inspector general's report stirred up some public furor, recalled political analyst Joe Monahan, but it quickly died down.
"There is a long leash on this stuff because, again, money talks," he said. "You're talking about billions of dollars, thousands of employees, and no one wants to see the egg crack."
US, Russia Agree to Reduce Stockpile
The nuclear weapons enterprise has had plenty at stake in recent years.
In Prague in 2009, Obama called for the elimination of nuclear weapons. A year later, he and Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty calling for each country to reduce its deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 by 2018, down from estimates of more than 1,900 for the United States and more than 2,400 for Russia.
Ratification of the treaty required a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate, which followed in December 2010 after considerable debate and negotiation. Defense hawks and their allies exacted a price for the treaty vote: an Obama administration agreement to support $85 billion in nuclear weapons modernization over a decade.
That number has more than quadrupled since to $348 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Other studies say the cost of nuclear weapons could top $1 trillion over the next 30 years, not counting hundreds of billions of dollars for related projects, such as the cleanup of former nuclear weapons production sites.
Sandia and Los Alamos benefited greatly from the Capitol Hill bargaining. Ten of the 19 modernization capital projects approved by the national nuclear agency and 15 of the 36 proposed capital projects for the nuclear security system are based at the two labs, according to the Government Accountability Office.
The B61-12 bomb's Life Extension Program at Sandia is among those projects. This year, the $643 million for that program accounts for more than a third of Sandia's $1.8 billion Energy Department budget.
"It's the largest nuclear weapons program we have going on at Sandia currently," said Jim Handrock, the lab's weapons systems director.
But the program hasn't experienced perfectly smooth sailing in Congress.
A 2012 Pentagon study concluded that the B61-12 bombs would cost $10.4 billion for development and production, excluding at least $1 billion for the new tail kit, more than double the national nuclear agency's original estimate.
That overrun influenced the Senate Appropriations Committee's vote the following year to chop by one-third the Obama administration's $537 million budget request for fiscal year 2014, over strong objections from committee member Udall.
House-Senate negotiations on the omnibus budget bill at the end of 2013 restored the full amount for the B61-12. Udall trumpeted the outcome.
"I'm also very pleased that we were able to reverse an attempt to cut funding for the B61" Life Extension Program, his news release said. "A cut would have harmed our effort to keep our nuclear weapons stockpile safe and secure, and it would have put jobs at risk at our national labs."
Concern over Bomb's Capabilities
The bomb's name, B61-12, reflects its position as the 12th model of what the government calls a family of bombs. It is descended from the first US hydrogen bomb tested in the Marshall Islands in 1952, which used a plutonium bomb to detonate a thermonuclear explosion 520 times more powerful than the plutonium bomb tested seven years earlier at the remote Trinity Site south of Albuquerque.
Today's stockpile contains five B61 models, including three tactical versions intended for short-range warfighting. The new B61-12 will consolidate those three models and one more highly explosive strategic bomb, using the nuclear package from one of the existing models.
Unlike the free-fall gravity bombs it will replace, the B61-12 will be a guided nuclear bomb. Its new Boeing Co. tail kit assembly enables the bomb to hit targets precisely. Using dial-a-yield technology, the bomb's explosive force can be adjusted before flight from an estimated high of 50,000 tons of TNT equivalent force to a low of 300 tons.
And that's where the debate over the B61-12 moves beyond cost overruns, zeroing in on the granular details of its capabilities.
Congress rejected funding for similar nuclear weapons at least twice during the past 25 years, saying enhanced precision coupled with less force would lead to less collateral damage -- such as radiation fallout that could harm allies -- and thus a greater likelihood that the military would recommend that the president use the weapons.
Obama, following the lead of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, laid out the role of nuclear weapons in US strategy in an April 2010 document entitled the "Nuclear Posture Review Report." It stated that the fundamental role of nuclear forces is to deter nuclear attack.
"Indeed, as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States will sustain safe, secure, and effective nuclear forces," the review said. "These nuclear forces will continue to play an essential role in deterring potential adversaries and reassuring allies and partners around the world."
Obama pledged that the United States would produce no new nuclear warheads and that life extension programs of existing weapons would not provide "new military capabilities."
Officials from the Obama administration, Pentagon and Energy Department continue to argue that the B61-12 stays within the bounds of that pledge by modernizing an aging family of bombs and in the process ensuring a reliable nuclear arsenal to scare off adversaries.
Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, then the commander of the US Strategic Command, testified about the B61-12 program at an October 2013 congressional subcommittee hearing.
"This consolidation offers opportunities for cost savings and significant stockpile reductions while maintaining US national security objectives and extended deterrence commitments," Kehler said.
After that hearing, subcommittee member Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., submitted a written question to Assistant Secretary of Defense Madelyn R. Creedon, who also had testified at the hearing. He noted that the administration had pledged to add no new nuclear weapon capabilities.
"Specifically on the B61, the lower yield is being compensated by higher accuracy provided by a new tailkit … would this provide new capability?" Cooper asked.
Creedon responded in writing that "the B61-12 tail-kit assembly (TKA) does not provide a new capability to the weapon. The TKA simply improves the reliability of the bomb."
Today, Cooper indicates he was satisfied with that response.
"Ms. Creedon is a dedicated public servant who testifies before our subcommittee in both public and classified hearings," he told Reveal in an email. "The transition of the B-61 from a gravity bomb to one with a tail kit should make it a more reliable weapon without changing its basic nature."
Back at Sandia, engineer Phil Hoover is the one in charge of integrating the tail kit instruments with those inside the footwide weapon's body, which includes more than 30 major components such as radar along with thousands of other parts.
"The tail kit provides the ability to get more accuracy," he said. "We're reducing the potential for collateral damage." This kind of guided system, he continued, is "consistent with our digital aircraft today."
High on the list of aircraft that could carry the bomb is Lockheed's new F-35 fighter jet. This stealth plane, designed to evade radar, is a $400 billion weapon delivery system that has been plagued by technical problems and cost overruns.
The idea of stealth fighters carrying B61-12 nuclear bombs worries some outside experts, including Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists.
"If the Russians put out a guided nuclear bomb on a stealthy fighter that could sneak through air defenses, would that add to the perception here that they were lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons?" he asked. "Absolutely."
Hoover said questions about warfighting scenarios involving the B61-12 are not his purview.
"It's something the Air Force and the warfighters should address," he said. "It's really not for us to comment on."
Hoover referred Reveal to the US Strategic Command, or STRATCOM, a command of the Defense Department that is in charge of nuclear weapons. After requesting written questions, STRATCOM referred Reveal to the Air Force.
Maj. Kelley Jeter, an Air Force spokeswoman, declined Reveal's interview request but agreed to answer questions via email. Asked what effect stealth fighter jets carrying low-yield B61-12 nuclear bombs would have on an adversary during a conflict, she responded:
"To effectively deter potential adversaries, the weapons and platforms fielded by the Air Force must credibly provide options for the President to demonstrate US resolve and support deterrence options for the President to deal with emerging crises."
But, she added, "the B61-12 will not provide new military capabilities."
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Sheela Kamath and Nikki Frick.
Len Ackland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Burt Hubbard can be reached at email@example.com.
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