Why the modernization of the B61 nuclear bomb is absolutely necessary


A program to modernize the B61 nuclear bomb – the main nuclear munition of the bomber leg of the US nuclear triad – is underway. Predictably, the left – both Congressional Democrat and their friends in pro-unilateral-disarmament organizations (ACA, Ploughshares, the CLW, etc.) oppose this vital program (and all other US military modernization programs) and are spreading lies about it. Let me set the record straight, then.

The B61 warhead is the main nuclear weapon used both by the air leg of the US strategic triad (consisting of bombers, ICBMs, submarines) and by US and NATO theater strike aircraft. It has one, albeit very important, purpose: to provide nuclear deterrence.

The B61 does this in two ways, not just one. Half of these bombs are based in the US and attributed to B-2 and B-52 strategic bombers, thus providing a global nuclear umbrella for the US and all of its allies around the world. But the other half of the B61 bomb inventory (numbering 400 warheads in total) is deployed in Europe, providing a continous, visible tactical nuclear deterrent to America’s 29 European allies, present right there on European soil. Nothing builds American allies’ confidence in that deterrent, and in America’s credibility as its provider, better than the physical presence of US tactical weapons in Europe, the need for which was recently reaffirmed by NATO at its latest summit. NATO has also stated that nuclear deterrence is a “core competency” of the Alliance and that it will remain a nuclear-armed alliance “as long as nuclear weapons exist.”

The B61 warhead thus serves both to deter any aggressor, and reassure any ally, globally, and on a regional scale to provide a tactical nuclear deterrent in Europe against any aggressor – most likely Russia – who might attack America’s allies there. The B61 could also be deployed to the Asia-Pacific to reassure America’s allies there and to deter North Korea and China if need be. Indeed, over 70% of South Koreans WANT US tactical nuclear weapons to be brought back to the Korean Peninsula.

The B61 is therefore a weapon that the military and America’s allies want and need.

(BTW, anti-defense activists and organizations love to admonish us defense conservatives not to fund weapon programs that “the military doesn’t want” when a DOD official expresses doubts about a weapon program, but hypocritically, they NEVER listen to the military’s leaders when they express full support for a weapon – be it the B61 bomb or the Next Generation Bomber.)

At a recent hearing before the House Strategic Forces Subcomittee led by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), four Obama administration officials (yes, Obama admin officials) very strongly underlined the importance of the B61 modernization program and the above-mentioned reasons for pursuing it. These officials were: Gen. C. Robert Kehler, the commander of the US Strategic Command; Madelyn Creedon, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategic Affairs; Donald L. Cook, Deputy Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration; and Paul J. Hommert, Director of Sandia National Laboratories.

You can read this excellent article by Bill Gertz, summarizing accurately their testimonies, here. They were all very outspoken about the need for modernizing this crucial warhead. General Kehler’s remarks deserve to be quoted in full here, however. The general said:

“Our requirement to deter nuclear attack is a military mission. This B-61 weapon arms the B-2. It will arm the future long-range strike platform. It arms the dual-capable aircraft that are forward stationed in Europe as well as those of our NATO allies.

It’s about deterring; it’s about assuring our allies of our extended deterrent commitment to them and from a military standpoint it’s about being able to offer the president a series of options that include nuclear options in extreme circumstances.

Equipping current and future nuclear bombers is a “necessary and crucial component of the triad and arming that force is a top priority.”

And the general is absolutely right. Even the best bombers, ICBMs, or SLBMs in the world won’t do you much good if you don’t have any nuclear warheads for them to deliver. The bomber (and theater strike aircraft) fleet’s principal nuclear bomb is the B61.

And the cost? The Ploughshares Fund falsely claims the B61 is a “nuclear budget buster.” That is a blatant lie. According to the Gertz article, modernizing those 400 B61 bombs will cost only $8.1 bn over 11 years. That is just $737 mn per year. Less than a billion dollars. Less than one sixth of one percent of the military budget.

Cancelling the modernization program of this bomb – or of America’s nuclear arsenal in general – would thus do absolutely nothing to help the military pay for the huge budget cuts mandated by the sequester ($55 bn per year), or America to cope with its budget woes.

Because the military is not the source of these woes. Entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) are. They account for over 60% of the entire federal budget.

THESE are the real budget busters.

The US urgently needs to modernize its B61 nuclear bombs – and, for that matter, all other warheads in its arsenal, as well as all three classes of delivery systems – ICBMs, submarines, and bombers. Failure to do so would mean de facto unilateral disarmament – and invite a nuclear first strike on the US or its allies by Russia or China.


UPDATE: Speaking recently for interviews with Agence France-Presse (who repeated their blatant lies uncritically), anti-nuclear activist Kingston Reif falsely claimed that the B61 upgrade is “unaffordable, unworkable, and unnecessary”, while ACA’s Tom Collina falsely claims that the B61 upgrade will impede arms reduction talks with Russia and cause Moscow to deploy new, more powerful, tactical nukes in Europe or elsewhere.

Their claims are blatant lies. Here’s why:

1) The truth is the exact opposite of what Kingston Reif and Tom Collina claim: the upgrade of the B61 is absolutely necessary, well affordable, and very much workable. It is affordable because even if it ultimately costs $10 bn, that’s just $732 million over the next 11 years (the duration of the works). That’s peanuts.

It is absolutely necessary, because while the US has removed thousands of tactical nukes from Europe, Russia still retains 4,000 tactical nukes (and a wide range of delivery systems for them) on the continent. Not only that, but Russia has reserved to itself the right to use nuclear weapons first, even against a non-nuclear state, and has threatened to use, or aim, its nuclear weapons against European countries at least 15 different times during the past 6 years. It is now growing and modernizing its nuclear arsenal (including the tactical portion, with new Iskander missiles and Su-34 tactical jets).

It would be utterly foolish, and indeed suicidal, to unilaterally disarm (by not modernizing the B61) in the face of such an aggressive potential adversary. In addition, the B61 is also needed to equip the bomber force for strategic deterrence and is also needed to deter China and North Korea in Asia. As General Bob Kehler, the commander of STRATCOM, has said, the B61 is the only US nuclear bomb that can serve both strategic and tactical deterrence purposes. (Nonetheless, the Obama administration is wrong to retire the B83 strategic bomb, the most powerful bomb in the US arsenal.)

2) Upgrading the B61 will NOT undermine prospects for further arms control treaties with Russia in any way, because there are already ZERO prospects for further such agreements. Immediately after Obama proposed a new round of nuclear arms cuts with Russia in June in Berlin, Moscow immediately rejected that proposal and continues to reject it (and to grow and modernize its nuclear arsenal). There is ZERO chance of any such treaty.

3) And that’s actually good, because all arms control treaties signed to date by the US have done nothing but dramatically REDUCE the security of the US and all of its allies while emboldening America’s enemies. Over twenty years of continually cutting and refusing to modernize the US nuclear arsenal have utterly failed to convince other states to give up their nukes, to stop them from modernizing their arsenals, or even to prevent the emergence of new nuclear powers. In fact, since 1991, while the US has cut its nuclear arsenal by 75%, two new states have joined the nuclear club: Pakistan in 1998 and North Korea in 2006. Two new entrants are well on their way: Iran and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has already bought nuclear weapons in Pakistan which are ready for delivery.

Arms control treaties have resulted in ONLY the US (and for a while, Russia) significantly cutting its nuclear arsenal. They do nothing but gravely UNDERMINE US and allied security. This is especially true of the New START treaty, which obligates ONLY the US (not Russia) to cut its nuclear arsenal. God forbid that Obama have any opportunity to sign more treaties like that!

Arms control treaties serve NO purpose but to hog-tie and disarm the West unilaterally. As Ronald Reagan rightly said, “We honor our arms control treaty obligations. Those who wish to do us harm don’t.”

In addition, Russia is blatantly violating the INF Treaty by testing intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which is prohibited by the treaty. Why rush to sign another pact with a country that flagrantly violates every arms reduction treaty it signs?

4) It is absolutely necessary to fully modernize the entire US nuclear arsenal in the face of the nuclear threats from Russia, but also China, North Korea, and Iran. This might prove expensive – but nowhere near as costly as allowing a nuclear attack on the US to be conducted successfully. Since 1945, US nuclear weapons have completely prevented any nuclear attack on the US or any of its allies – without any failure. No other weapon type has a record that even comes close. That alone makes investing in nuclear weapons and their modernization worthwhile.

The ancient military strategist Sun Tzu said that “To win 100 battles is not the acme of skill; to subdue the enemy without fighting is.” The corrollary to Sun Tzu’s saying is that weapons which prevent wars are worth a million times more than weapons which are actually used in wars.

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  1. Just checked out your site, now I have a better understanding and respect for your extensive knowledge in this area of defense.

    1. Thanks, Jan! Hope you’ve enjoyed and will continue to enjoy visiting my site – and reading my articles there and on CDN.

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