The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has authorized the B61-12 warhead life-extension program (LEP) to enter the production-engineering phase – the final one prior to actual production.
Established by Congress in 2000, the NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy. While the Defense Department manages the delivery systems of the nuclear force, the agency has oversight over the development, maintenance and disposal of nuclear warheads.
The first production unit of the weapon is planned for fiscal year 2020. The LEP – a joint NNSA and United States Air Force (USAF) program – will add at least an additional 20 years to the life of the system.
The decision is part of the plan to modernize the US nuclear forces, which could cost $350-$450 billion over the next decade.
The $8 billion B61-12 LEP is probably the most expensive nuclear bomb program in US history.
On July 29, the Air Force released requests for proposals for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), which replaces the 1960s-era Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the Long Range Standoff (LRSO) weapon, which will replace the AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile.
It comes at a time when members of Congress have begun to question the modernization plan, in particular over the LRSO.
Both programs have come under fire from lawmakers and analysts who assert that the weapons are too costly, duplicative and could add to global instability.
The B61-12 LEP refurbishes both nuclear and non-nuclear components to extend the bomb’s service life while significantly improving the weapon’s characteristics. The modernization includes a new tail fin assembly for greater accuracy and would allow a lower nuclear yield in attacking targets. The B61-12 will have both air- and ground-burst capability. The capability to penetrate below the surface has significant implications for the types of targets that can be held at risk with the bomb.
A nuclear weapon that detonates after penetrating the earth more efficiently transmits its explosive energy to the ground, thus is more effective at destroying deeply buried targets for a given nuclear yield. The B61-12 is designed to have four selectable explosive yields: 0.3 kilotons (kt), 1.5 kt, 10 kt and 50 kt. According to the US National Academies’ study, the maximum destructive potential of the B61-12 against underground targets is equivalent to the capability of a surface-burst weapon with a yield of 750 kt to 1,250 kt.
The yield can be lowered as needed for any particular mission. In fact, the bomb’s explosive force can be reduced electronically through a dial-a-yield system accessed by a hatch on the bomb’s body.
Even at the lowest selective yield setting of only 0.3 kt, the ground-shock coupling of a B61-12 exploding a few meters underground would be equivalent to a surface-burst weapon with a yield of 4.5 kt to 7.5 kt.
A combination of its accuracy and low-yield makes the B61-12 the most dangerous nuclear warhead in America’s arsenal.
The smaller yields and better targeting can make the arms more tempting to use – even to use first, rather than in retaliation, knowing the radioactive fallout and collateral damage would be limited.
The B61-12 will initially be integrated with B-2, F-15E, F-16, and Tornado aircraft. From the 2020s, the weapon will also be integrated with, first, the F-35A bomber-fighter F-35, built on the technology of «stealth» (replacing the F-16) and later the LRS-B next-generation long-range bomber. The combination of a guided standoff nuclear bomb and a fifth-generation stealthy fighter-bomber will significantly enhance the military capability of NATO’s nuclear posture in Europe. The B61-12 will replace the existing B61-3, -4, -7, and -10 bomb designs. It is thought that approximately 480 B61-12s will be produced through the mid-2020s.
The implementation of the program runs contrary to President Obama’s stated pledge not to create any new nuclear weapons or ones with new military capabilities.
«The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads or pursue new military mission or new capabilities for nuclear weapons», he said on the release of Nuclear Posture Review, which, in turn, reads, «The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads. Life Extension Programs (LEPs) will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities».
American leading experts believe it to be nothing else but a new weapon.
Currently around 200 B61 bombs are deployed in underground vaults inside around 90 protective aircraft shelters at six bases in five NATO countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey). About half of the munitions are earmarked for delivery by national aircraft of these non-nuclear states, although they all are parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968.
Article I of the treaty prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons from nuclear-weapons states to other countries. Its Article II requires non-nuclear weapons states not to receive nuclear weapons.
Engaged in this nuclear sharing activity which completely destroyed the spirit of the treaty, the US and its NATO allies have no moral authority to convince other countries not to proliferate.
The shared deployment of these weapons is in large part designed to lock NATO allies into a nuclear weapon posture and weakens the credibility of their claims in international disarmament negotiations to be working towards disarmament.
The modernization of the US nuclear tactical weapons competes with resources needed for more important conventional forces and operations. Conventional forces are much more credible than tactical nuclear weapons in the fight against terrorists.
Deployment of B61-12 in Europe is comparable to a time bomb which may one day explode. The decision will inevitably spike tensions in the already strained relationship between NATO and Russia.
Moscow has already called the B61 program «irresponsible» and «openly provocative».
Russia considers US forward-based tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe to be an addition to the US strategic arsenal that is capable of striking deep into its territory. It will greatly complicate further arms control efforts with New Start Treaty expiring in 2021. The withdrawal of these weapons is a prerequisite for starting talks on reduction of tactical nuclear weapons. The US decision to implement the LEP makes such prospects dim at least.
NATO members to host the new weapon on their soil should realize that the move will automatically make them targets for possible pre-emptive or retaliatory attack. Countries that host foreign nuclear weapons don’t enhance their security. Withdrawing nuclear munitions would be a serious contribution to strategic stability and security in Europe.