Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2016
According to the National Nuclear Security Administration, the so-called “life extension program” for the US Air Forcce’s B61 thermonuclear gravity bomb—its new name is B61-12—is not building a new nuclear bomb, but merely altering existing versions known as the B61-3, -4, -7, -10, and -11.
Now undergoing what’s called the “development engineering” phase, the B61-12s are scheduled to be put to use at six NATO air bases in Europe as early as 2020.
In spite of widespread and repeated calls for the permanent removal of these Cold War-era bombs (from the peace movement, from parliamentarians in NATO countries, and even from the governments of Belgium and Germany), 180-200 of the new bombs—out of a total of 400-500 planned by the US Air Force—are scheduled to replace the older B61versions now deployed in Belgium, Germany, The Netherlands, Turkey and two bases in Italy.
Critics of deployment of US nuclear weapons in Europe point out that similar US weapons have already been removed from US bases in South Korea and from England.
Although the United States has promised not to build or deploy new nuclear weapons, Hans M. Kristensen, a Fellow with the Federation of American Scientists, and Matthew McKinzie, the nuclear program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, report that “The capability of the new B61-12 nuclear bomb seems to continue to expand, from a simple life-extension of an existing bomb, to the first US guided nuclear gravity bomb, to a nuclear earth-penetrator with increased accuracy.”
Last January, Kristensen and McKinzie wrote that a Sandia National Laboratories video made available by the New York Times “shows the new B61-12 penetrating completely underground.” (See: https://fas.org/blogs/security/2016/01/b61-12_earth-penetration; a longer version of the video is available at the Los Alamos Study Group web site, lasg.org.)
“Given that the length of the B61-12 is about three-and-a-half meters, and that the Sandia video shows the bomb disappearing completely beneath the surface of the Nevada desert, it appears the B61-12 will be able to achieve enhanced ground-shock coupling against underground targets in soil….”
Kristensen warned two years ago that “the upgrades to the B61 may be in violation of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review that states the life extension programs for nuclear munitions can ‘not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities,’” according to Michael Hoffman, writing for DefenseTech.org.
In January 2014, Hoffman wrote that Kristensen asked former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz “if the B61-12 upgrade would allow the Air Force to use it against new target sets and offer new capabilities.”
“It would have both effects,” Schwartz told Kristensen at the January conference.
International legal scholars also argue that the deployment of US nuclear warheads outside US territory (as well as any future replacement of current B61s) violates the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty which forbids transfer of nuclear weapons to other states.