America’s modernized nuclear arms roil diplomatic waters

U.S. plans to build a precision-guided nuclear bomb already are raising hackles in Russia.

With a new tail-kit to increase accuracy, the B61-12 will be an upgrade of a free-falling gravity bomb first built in the 1960s.

President Barack Obama asked Congress to allocate $643.3 million for the project for fiscal year 2016. The total cost of refurbishing the bombs could exceed $10 billion.

After the U.S. successfully tested a non-nuclear version of the bomb in Nevada this summer, Russia’s deputy defense minister, Anatoly Antonov, decried the move as “irresponsible” and “openly provocative.”

A few months later, when a German TV station reported in September that the U.S. would deploy the bomb in Germany, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov shot back that such a move “could alter the balance of power in Europe.”

“And without a doubt it would demand that Russia take necessary countermeasures to restore the strategic balance and parity,” Peskov said at a press conference.

It’s important what impression potential adversaries get about what the U.S. is up to, said Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists, a national security group dedicated to preventing nuclear war.

“If they’re seeing us increasing the accuracy of our gravity bombs, will they conclude that we’re contemplating using nuclear weapons more readily in a conflict than otherwise?” Kristensen said. “It can have real significant implications for how nuclear weapon states perceive each other.”

Kristensen and other critics believe the B61-12 could violate the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, a pledge by the Obama administration that “life-extension programs” to modernize old nuclear weapons won’t result in new military capabilities.

“What they’re doing is taking a dumb bomb and turning it into a smart bomb and claiming that it’s not a new military capability,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director at Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a nonproliferation group. “It just doesn’t square with reality.”

Coghlan added that the B61-12’s improved accuracy and lower yield could make it easier to justify its use in the future, since smaller, more precise blasts mean less radioactive fallout.

Russia has its own modernization programs, Coghlan points out. “The end result is an arms race.”

The controversy has attracted attention not only from U.S. rivals, but also from observers in countries allied with the United States.

In Britain, The Guardian newspaper’s diplomatic editor Julian Borger, raised concerns similar to Coghlan’s in a recent article.

“In non-proliferation terms,” Borger wrote, “. . . the only thing worse than a useless bomb is a ‘usable’ bomb.”

“The great thing about nuclear weapons was that their use was supposed to be unthinkable and they were therefore a deterrent to contemplation of a new world war,” he added. “Once they become ‘thinkable’ we are in a different, and much more dangerous, universe.”

On Oct. 20, the third and last development flight test of the B61-12 took place in Nevada.

In announcing the test, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration stressed that despite the new tail-kit assembly, the B61-12 is not GPS guided and “will have no additional capabilities.”

The Pentagon also has stated that the B61-12’s capabilities are not new, and that its development simply will extend the life of an outdated weapon and make it safer.

Plus, its production will allow for the retirement of about half of the country’s remaining nuclear gravity bombs, including the B83, the only megaton class weapon remaining in the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

The next thermonuclear warhead slated for modernization is the W-80, which would be converted for use in about 1,000 nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles.

The president’s 2016 budget requests $195 million for the project, up from $9.4 million the year before – a 1,970 percent increase.

In an opinion column published Oct. 15 in The Washington Post, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry and Andy Weber, a former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, urged Obama to halt the development of the cruise missile.

They also suggested a global ban on such weapons to prevent unintended escalation.

The problem is that other states wouldn’t have any way of knowing if a cruise missile that had just been launched had a conventional warhead or a nuclear warhead until it detonated, Perry and Weber wrote.

“Some have argued that a new nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile is needed to allow future presidents the ‘flexibility’ to engage Russia or China in limited nuclear war,” they added.

“That is Cold War thinking, and it is dangerous. Such ‘tactical’ use of nuclear weapons would be a grave mistake.”

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise