With the president-elect’s nominations for the positions of national security adviser and defense secretary announced, the Donald Trump’s team is expected to articulate its policy on nuclear arms issues.
As a Republican nominee, Donald Trump sharply criticized the US military's existing nuclear weapons programs. The New START Treaty is to provide arms control restrictions on Russia-US strategic offensive potentials till 2021, but nothing definite has so far been said by the president-elect’s team members about non-strategic potential – the B-61-12 life extension program (LEP). The issue threatens to become a bone of contention at the time Russia and NATO mull launching discussions on a new European arms control treaty that may become a milestone document in the history of the Old Continent.
The B61-12, the new US nuclear bomb intended to replace the B-61 deployed in Italy, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Turkey, was «officially authorized» in August by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). This agency is responsible for the military use of nuclear technology.
The weapon has entered the final development phase of the upgraded airborne nuclear bomb B61-12 prior to production. The B61-12, the cost of which is expected to run about $8 billion to $12 billion for 400 to 500 bombs, will begin to be mass-produced in fiscal 2020 to replace the B-61.
The B61-12 is widely believed to be a new weapon. Being a guided nuclear munition, it can hit targets far more precisely than its predecessors. The capability to penetrate below the surface has significant implications for the hardened targets within the B61-12’s reach.
The «dial-a-yield» technology, the explosive force can be adjusted before launch. It is designed to have four selectable explosive yields: 0.3 kilotons (kt.), 1.5 kt., 10 kt. and 50 kt. This combination of accuracy and low-yield make the B61-12 the most usable nuclear bomb 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 and later the LRS-B next-generation long-range bomber. The US Air Force says it does not predict when the squadron of F-35s will be combat-proven, but that it is probably during one of its overseas deployments at the beginning of 2017. The new bombs lower the nuclear threshold or make the launching of a nuclear attack against Russia more likely.
According to Rick Wayman, Director of Programs at Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, «the B61-12 is uniquely destabilizing». In his opinion, the B61-12 LEP is an «exhibit A of the second nuclear age – a new nuclear arms race for the 21st century». Mr. Wayman believes that the presence of B61, B61-12's predecessor, in five NATO countries, namely Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey, inflames tensions with Russia.
The upgrade makes Russia take retaliatory measures increasing the possibility of Europe plunging in the quagmire of arms race. 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 the 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 bleak.
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.
The program competes with resources needed for more important conventional forces and operations to fight the real terrorist threat, not the imaginary one, allegedly coming from Russia.
The need to deploy the weapon is widely questioned by US experts.
Around 200 B61 bombs are currently deployed in underground vaults at six bases in Italy, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey. About half of the munitions are earmarked for delivery by the national aircraft of these states – the parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 that forbids non-nuclear states from receiving nuclear weapons.
Article I of the NPT prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons from NWS (nuclear weapons states) to other states: «Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices». Article II requires NNWS (non-nuclear weapons states) not to receive nuclear weapons: «Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transfer or whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices».
Cancellation of the program would pave the way for the two great powers to revive launch arms control dialogue. It would also make possible the talks on arms control between Russia and NATO. It makes the stance taken by the US administration on the B61-12 program an issue of fundamental importance.