The US military is spending $1 trillion on something it hopes to never use
A fighter jet dropped an unarmed “nuclear gravity bomb” at a Nevada test range last month.
The nuke, called the B61-12, is a new weapon costing around $8.1 billion, but this pricey new bomb is actually less than 1% of a $1 trillion push to keep the US nuclear arsenal up-to-date. Officials also say the program will actually help reduce the number of nukes in the world.
That sounds like a wonderful goal, but it could be fueling the next nuclear arms race, one expert tells Tech Insider.
A fresh START
In 2010, President Barack Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New START treaty, which bound Russia and the United States to having just 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads each by 2018.
Around that time, the US had nearly 2,000 deployed warheads, while Russia had an estimated 2,600, according to the Arms Control Association. In order to hit that goal, the US is bringing some of its nukes back to be dismantled or put into storage (where they will no longer be considered “deployed”). Still other nuclear bombs are going through a “life extension program” that refurbishes and upgrades their aging components.
One is the B61-12 “gravity bomb” — a fancy term that just means falling through the air without guidance systems. With some spare parts of other bombs and a tail fin upgrade, the B61-12 will replace (and retire) at least four other models of nuclear bombs once it’s completed. The military also claims this will cut the total number of nuclear gravity bombs by “a factor of two.”
Similar to how some people might consolidate their debt into one lower bill, the strategy is meant to reduce the number of nuclear bombs and their destructive power, while still maintaining a “technical” edge. Further, upgraded bombs like the B61-12 will be able to fit onto next-generation aircraft like the F-35 Lightning.
But the upgrades are not without its critics.
“Apart from the stratospheric price, the most controversial element of the B61 upgrade is the replacement of the existing rigid tail with one that has moving fins that will make the bomb smarter and allow it to be guided more accurately to a target,” Julian Borger wrote in The Guardian.
Here’s a clip that shows the fins spinning up a B61-12 bomb:
The B61-12 program is also drastically over budget. Now estimated to cost between $8 and $10 billion, the government initially pegged its budget at around $1 to $2 billion, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
Francie Israeli, a spokesperson for the National Nuclear Security Administration, told Tech Insider that unforeseen technical issues, budget fluctuations, and other uncertainties can result in “substantial cost range changes.”
Still, the new gravity bomb is just one of many nukes the US has in its arsenal, which includes land- and submarine-launched warheads. About 200 of the air-dropped versions are positioned in Europe with US and NATO forces, which are a mix-and-match of different versions of the B61.
A new kind of arms race
In a successful test of the B61-12 in October, an Air Force F-15E fighter dropped the weapon onto a target in the desert with near pinpoint accuracy — a drastic improvement, since America’s top generals argued in 2004 that accuracy shouldn’t be expected from a nuclear bomb simply dropping from the sky.
In the past, nuclear doctrine was such that weapons needed to have larger yields to make up for their inaccuracy. Now that won’t be the case.
Though the US and Russia will likely reduce their number of nuclear weapons, experts say a smaller number of more technologically-advanced bombs could arguably be more dangerous, especially in eastern Europe.
“Moscow has predictably classified work on the new modification as a threat and an arms race,” Nikolai Sokov, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told Tech Insider in an email.
In Sokov’s view, upgrading a bomb like the B61-12 probably doesn’t alarm the Russians all that much, but it could be used as an excuse for new Russian military moves that might spook former Soviet states such as Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, which joined NATO after they regained independence at the end of the Cold War.
This could mean Russian submarines armed with cruise missiles might patrol the Baltic Sea, or short-range ballistic missile systems could be placed near Poland — something threatened quite frequently by Moscow that NATO has countered with Patriot missile defense systems.
“They keep up constant pressure just to show they have influence,” Rokas Masiulis, Lithuania’s energy minister, told The New York Times of Russian naval exercises in the Baltic Sea. “It is all part of the general atmosphere of provocation and rising tensions in the region.”
A gloomy future
Russia shows off its Iskander missiles at a victory parade in 2010.
While the US simultaneously modernizes and reduces its nuclear stockpile, Sokov tells Tech Insider it’s safe to say Russia is probably doing something similar in response.
But the key difference, he says, is that the Kremlin has invested considerable time and effort in long-range conventional weapons that are highly precise — non-nuclear bombs that are more usable — which Russia has already fired against targets in Syria.
“The future, I believe, looks pretty gloomy. I see modern conventional weapons used in Russian policy toward NATO as an overt or a covert threat,” Sokov said.
He noted that some allied countries may lobby for NATO nukes to be moved closer to Russia, which would trigger a response from Moscow.
“We are looking at a combined nuclear-conventional arms race in Europe in the near future,” Sokov told Tech Insider, “which will likely continue for an extended period of time.”
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Despite its advertisement as a low-yield, lower-risk alternative to existing missile models, the recently tested B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb presents several risks that may in fact elevate the threat of nuclear use and encourage proliferation.
Successful testing of the missile has now created a clear pathway for production engineering to begin in 2016, and with that, the United States is now poised to acquire 480 bombs total by the 2020-2024 period.
Washington argues that the development of an enhanced B61 gravity bomb is an important facet of the broader nuclear modernization efforts required to protect itself and its Western allies from threats like Russia and Iran. Other countries, especially non-nuclear states, underscore the hypocrisy of a nuclear modernization effort given President Obama’s stated commitment towards disarmament and nonproliferation.
In reality, both of these arguments have merit — though the debate is, in practice, fruitless. The United States will modernize its nuclear arsenal regardless of opposition, and the advent of the B61-12 brings with it a series of geopolitical opportunities and risks that are intrinsic to its own technical characteristics.
The B61-12 presents a highly potent addition to the Pentagon’s nuclear cache.
As with all gravity bombs, the device will be configured to drop from stealth jets in free-fall over a given target — a deployment mechanism that has henceforth led to relative inaccuracy. However, the B61-12 avoids these traditional pitfalls due to a precision-guided tail kit modification that consumed the majority of the overall development cost.
This makes the new B61s the most precise nuclear gravity weapons ever conceived — providing the U.S. with an accuracy of within 30 meters.
Under the shell of a B61-12, unparalleled precision is combined with notable versatility. The bomb will be capable of serving as both a strategic and a tactical nuclear weapon — suitable for large area targets like cities as well as on the battlefield — and will boast a scalable yield between .3-50 kilotons.
In short, the B61-12 allows the U.S. and its NATO allies to strike targets with incredible precision and accuracy across a wide span of circumstances — in turn establishing a more controlled blast range. Together, these unique characteristics not only endow the United States with a more formidable nuclear capability, but also the key opportunity of lower radiation yields and, as a result, much fewer unintended casualties.
By removing a great deal of uncertainty from the equation, B61-12s will enhance the U.S. nuclear deterrent and create a greater incentive for opposing actors to think before moving against Washington’s interests.
Iskander (NATO designation SS-26 Stone) short-range ballistic missile: Details