The US National Nuclear Security Administration has announced that the Air Force had successfully flight tested the B61-12 guided bomb. Two qualification tests took place on August 8 at Tonopah Test Range in Nevada. The non-nuclear test assemblies, which were dropped from an F-15E based at Nellis Air Force Base, evaluated the weapon’s non-nuclear functions and the aircraft’s capability to deliver the weapon. It’s hardly a coincidence that the information was made public only now as tensions are running high because of North Korean recent tests, with some missiles flying over Japan.
The original B61 gravity bomb is the mainstay of the Air Force’s nuclear arsenal. Numerous upgrades have been made to improve it. The B61-12 will replace other B61modifications. Moving fins will make the bomb smarter and allow it to be guided more accurately to a target. Furthermore, a yield of 0.3 to 340 kilotons in its various modes can be adjusted before launch, according to the target.
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. 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. Existing US nuclear bombs have circular error probabilities (CEP) of between 110-170 meters. The B61-12’s CEP is just 30 meters. A combination of its accuracy and low-yield makes the B61-12 the most dangerous nuclear warhead in America’s arsenal.
There is a plethora of conventional weapons to counter the North Korean threat but using low yield variable nukes is a great temptation. General James Cartwright, the former commander of US Strategic Command and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that the increased accuracy of the new guided B61-12 nuclear bomb could make the weapon “more useable”.
This month, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, confirmed that as part of the Pentagon's ongoing nuclear posture review, it is looking at a new generation of low-yield "mini-nukes" in order to ensure that the threat from America's nuclear arsenal remains credible.
The first production of the bomb is scheduled for March 2020. The bomb will be air-delivered in either ballistic gravity or guided drop modes, and is being certified for delivery on current strategic (B-2A) and dual capable aircraft (F-15E, F-16C/D & MLU, PA-200) as well as future aircraft platforms (F-35, B-21). Once the bomb is authorized for use in 2020, the US plans to deploy some 180 of the B61-12 precision-guided thermonuclear bombs to European NATO allies, including the U.K, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy.
It’s important to note that the US plans to arm tactical aviation in Europe with modernized B61-12 guided warheads will virtually nullify all the benefits of the INF Treaty from the point of view of Russia’s security. The aircraft could fly from bases in Lithuania, Estonia and Poland to Russia’s largest cities in 15-20 minutes – not that much longer than the flight time of the missiles scuttled by the INF treaty. The United States is the only nuclear power to deploy atomic weapons abroad. Poland wants to join the US NATO allies that have American nuclear weapons on their territories. Tactical nuclear weapons are not covered by any international treaty.
Now the plans of the new weapon deployment go beyond Europe to encompass the Asia Pacific. For instance, the North Korean missile tests made the main opposition Liberty Korea Party put forward the idea of bringing back US tactical nuclear weapons pulled out in 1991. On August 16, the party adopted a demand for the redeployment of US tactical nuclear arms as its official party line during a general meeting of its lawmakers. Leaders from the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan have argued in favor of producing tactical nuclear weapons for self-defense purposes.
During the election campaign, US president Donald Trump put forward the idea that more countries, such as Japan, South Korea, may need to develop their own nuclear weapons.
The deployment of such weapons in South Korea or Japan would pose a threat to Russia’s Far East to make Moscow take appropriate steps to respond. The US forward-based tactical nuclear weapons in the Asia Pacific will be considered by Russia as an addition to the American strategic arsenal that is capable of striking deep into its territory. Moscow will certainly take steps to counter the threat. The deployment will also greatly complicate further arms control efforts with the New START Treaty expiring in 2021.
The North Korean threat may be used as a pretext for deploying nukes in Asia-Pacific. The danger of arms race in the region is looming. And there is one more thing to remember. Allowing deploying nukes on its soil or going nuclear turns a country into a target for a nuclear strike. Nobody with foreign nukes on its territory has ever enhanced its national security.