Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2014
Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris report in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that the Obama administration has approved development of a new nuclear warhead, the latest version of the B61 known as the B61-12.* If completed, it is to be used in future nuclear war planning involving gravity bombs.
The B61-12 is a 50-kiloton hydrogen bomb, 3.3 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb that incinerated seven square miles and 140,000 people in 1945. All else being equal, the new B61 could demolish 23 square miles, an area equivalent to the Island of Manhattan. In the bunker mentality of today’s nuclear war planning, this is called a “low yield” nuclear warhead.
The B61 has been a steady 50-year-old jobs program for the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Bomb builders there have engineered 15 different versions of this warhead since 1963.
Five B61 versions are still in the stockpile: the B61-3, -4, -10 and (340 kiloton) -7; and the B61-11 “earth-penetrating” bomb (400 kilotons). The administration is planning to retire three of these and convert the B61-4 into the B61-12.
Of the roughly 820 B61s still in use today — 500 of which are versions -3, -4, and -10 — the Bulletin says only 300 are deployed at bases with B61-capable aircraft.
About 250 B61-7 and 50 B61-11 bombs are stored at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and 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.
At a cost of about $12.2 billion (up from $4 billion in 2010, and $8 billion in 2012), the B61-12 is probably, the authors note, the most expensive nuclear bomb program in US history. At approximately $25 million apiece, and weighing 700 pounds, each one is estimated to cost more to produce than if it were made of solid gold ($14.6 million).
Approximately 180 of the B61 Mods 3 and 4 are still deployed at six bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, the United States being the only state in the world to deploy nuclear weapons offshore.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, 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.”+
Even the US’s European Command (EUCOM) has given up “advocating for maintaining nuclear weapons in Europe,” the authors report, and EUCOM leaders told an oversight task force in 2008 there would be “no military downside to the unilateral withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Europe.” The task force review quoted one senior US military official saying “… they have no military value.”
According to Blechman and Rumbaugh, former Secretary of Defense “Colin Powell favored abandoning them in the 1990s when he was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” and other “prominent critics … have long argued that the military rationale for keeping nuclear weapons in Europe is an anachronism.” — JL
* “The B61 family of nuclear bombs,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 2, 2014
+ “Bombs Away: The Case for Phasing Out US Tactical Nukes in Europe,” Foreign Affairs, July/Aug. 2014.