The most controversial nuclear bomb ever planned for the U.S. arsenal – some say the most dangerous, too – has received the go-ahead from the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. The B61-12 – the nation’s first guided, or “smart” nuclear bomb – has completed a four-year development and testing phase and is now in production engineering, the final phase before full-scale production slated for 2020.
The announcement comes in the face of repeated warnings from civilian experts and some former high-ranking military officers that the bomb, which will be carried by fighter jets, could tempt use during a conflict because of its precision. The bomb pairs high accuracy with explosive force that can be regulated.
The B61-12 program has thrived on the political and economic clout of defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin Corp., as documented in an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting last year.
The B61-12 – at $11 billion for about 400 bombs the most expensive U.S. nuclear bomb ever – illustrates the extraordinary power of the atomic wing of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the “military industrial complex,” which has now rebranded itself the “nuclear enterprise.” The bomb lies at the heart of an ongoing modernization of America’s nuclear arms, projected to cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years.
This guided nuclear bomb is likely to replace older B61 bombs stockpiled in five European countries, including Turkey, which has an estimated 50 B61s stored at its Incirlik air base. The potential vulnerability of the site has raised questions about U.S. policy regarding storing nuclear weapons abroad.
Gen. James Cartwright, the retired commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, told PBS NewsHour last November that the new capabilities of the B61-12 could tempt its use. “If I can drive down the yield, drive down, therefore, the likelihood of fallout, etc., does that make it more usable in the eyes of some – some president or national security decision-making process? And the answer is, it likely could be more usable.”
Using “Dial-a-yield” technology, the bomb’s explosive force can be adjusted before launch from a high of 50,000 tons of TNT equivalent to a low of 300 tons—that’s 98 percent smaller than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima 70 years ago.
Mathew McKenzie, nuclear program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council: “What we are seeing today lies somewhere between parallel efforts to refurbish Cold War arsenals and the emergence of a new arms competition fueled by enhancements to existing weapons or production of new or significantly modified types. These enhancements are being developed without nuclear test explosions.”
A November, 2015 Guardian article noted – 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. Once they become ‘thinkable’ we are in a different, and much more dangerous, universe.
It is a universe in which former vice president Dick Cheney has apparently lived for some time. Cheney commissioned a Pentagon study to find out how many tactical nuclear weapons it would take to kill a division of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. The answer was apparently 17. In his own memoir, Colin Powell, then chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recalled being ordered by Cheney to carry out the assessment against Powell’s own better judgment.
Slamming the US testing of its nuclear bomb as “irresponsible” and “openly provocative,” Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov suggested that the move is meant to complement Washington’s surging military activities across Europe.
“The special feature of the conducted test was the fact that the F-15E fighter-bomber was used as a carrier for a nuclear weapon. This gives grounds to believe that the test was conducted in order to examine the possibility of using the B61-12 atomic bomb by NATO fighter-bombers stationed in Europe,” he added.
Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev stated in June 2015 that NATO’s surging military campaign in Eastern Europe made it evident that the US missile shield was actually always intended against Russia and China.