Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2016-2017
The Obama administration has approved, and Congress in January 2014 fully funded, production of a new thermonuclear warhead under a program dubbed “Life Extension”—the latest version of the B61 known as the B61-12. If completed, it is to be used in war plans involving gravity bombs, as Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris reported in the May 2, 2014 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
The $537 million 2014 authorization is only a down-payment on the new B61. With a projected cost of $12.2 billion (up from $4 billion in 2010, and $8 billion in 2012), the authors note, the B61-12 is probably the most expensive nuclear bomb in US history. At approximately $25 million apiece, and weighing 700 pounds, each one is estimated to cost more than if it were made of solid gold ($14.6 million).
Reportedly a 300-to-500 kiloton “variable yield” thermonuclear device, the B61-12 will have 24 to 40 times the destructive power of the bomb that turned seven square miles of Hiroshima into powder and ash in 1945. Yet in the jargon of today’s nuclear war planners, the B61 is called a “low yield” nuclear weapon.
For 50 years the B61 has been a reliable federal jobs program for the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which has engineered 15 different versions. Five B61 types are still in the US arsenal: the B61-3, -4, -10 and -7; along with the B61-11 “earth-penetrating” bomb. The administration has announced plans to retire three of these and “convert” the B61-4 into the B61-12.
Of the roughly 820 B61s still in use today, the Bulletin reports, 300 are kept at bases with B61-capable aircraft, “including 184 B61s deployed in Europe.” About 250 B61-7 and 50 B61-11 bombs are stored at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.
The B61-12 has been in an engineering phase since 2013, and the first production bombs are set to roll out in 2020. About 480 could be built through the mid-2020s.
The US Air Force ‘s B61-3s and -4s are deployed at European NATO bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, and Turkey—the United States being the only state in the world to deploy its nuclear weapons in other countries.
In their July/Aug. 2014 Foreign Affairs article “Bombs Away: The Case for Phasing Out US Tactical Nukes in Europe,” Barry Blechman and Russell Rumbaugh point out that “One NATO exercise in 1962 estimated that 10-15 million German civilians would be killed in a tactical nuclear exchange.” This self-destructiveness of nuclear war plans helps explain why the US European Command (EUCOM) has given up “advocating for maintaining nuclear weapons in Europe,” the authors report. EUCOM leaders told an oversight task force in 2008 there would be “no military downside to the unilateral withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Europe.” Indeed, “prominent critics … have long argued that the military rationale for keeping nuclear weapons in Europe is an anachronism,” they wrote. In its 2012 posture review, NATO’s ministers pledged to work for a world without nuclear weapons.
In “The Problem With NATO’s Nukes,” in the Feb. 9, 2016 Foreign Affairs, Richard Sokolsky and Gordon Adams report that Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has called the B61s “redundant,” and that Gen. Colin Powell favored eliminating them in the 1990s when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Rush to Deploy Before Critics Kill Program
Opposition to the rebuild program is gaining depth and breadth in the US and Europe. US Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., tried to curtail the program in 2013. In 2010, five of the US’s NATO partners (Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Norway) asked that the B61s be permanently removed from Europe. In Germany, every major political party has been forced by popular demands to formally call for the permanent withdrawal of the 20 bombs still in Germany.
Major US allies in Europe and high-level European politicians have said that the B61s are “militarily useless.” In a widely published op/ed in 2010, former NATO secretary-general Willy Claes and three senior Belgian politicians wrote, “The US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe have lost all military importance.”
Another reason for the push to deploy rather than retire is that Germany is planning to replace its fleet of Tornado jet fighter/bombers. The enormous expense of building in a B61-12 capacity for the new replacement jet is not lost on the German parliament.
As Der Spiegel online reported Dec. 9, 2016: “By becoming a signatory to the Non-Proliferaton Treaty in 1975, the Germans committed ‘not to receive the transfer of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly.’
“During negotiations over German reunification in 1990, then-Chancellor Kohl also affirmed Germany’s ‘renunciation’ of the manufacture, possession and control of nuclear weapons.’”