The $8 billion upgrade to the US B61 nuclear bomb has been widely condemned as an awful lot of money to spend on an obsolete weapon. As an old fashioned ‘dumb’ bomb it has no role in US or NATO nuclear doctrine, but the upgrade has gone ahead anyway, in large part as a result of lobbying by the nuclear weapons laboratories.
In non-proliferation terms however the only thing worse than a useless bomb is a ‘usable’ bomb. 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. Furthermore, the yield can be adjusted before launch, according to the target.
Referring to the B61-12’s enhanced accuracy on a recent PBS Newshour television programme, the former head of US Strategic Command, General James Cartwright, made this striking remark:
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.
In general, it is not a good thing to see the words ‘nuclear bomb’ and ‘usable’ anywhere near each other. Yet they seem to share space in the minds of some of America’s military leaders, as Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, points out.
Cartwright’s confirmation follows General Norton Schwartz, the former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, who in 2014 assessed that the increased accuracy would have implications for how the military thinks about using the B61. “Without a doubt. Improved accuracy and lower yield is a desired military capability. Without a question,” he said.
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. The new biography of George H W Bush has served as a reminder that in the run-up to the first Gulf War, 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.
That assessment may have been trashed, but the spirit behind it clearly lives on in the US military mindset and on the right of the US political spectrum – a disturbing and volatile mix.
Read more at America’s new, more ‘usable’, nuclear bomb in Europe