Opposition to B61 threatens nuclear reductions, deterrence

President Obama pledged that so long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States will retain a safe, secure, and effective deterrent. Leading up to New START, recommendations of the Strategic Posture Commission and the Nuclear Posture Review have helped to shape a remarkable shared bipartisan and bicameral understanding of the technical requirements for modernizing the U.S. nuclear enterprise.

Unfortunately, the road to a sustainable deterrent is now threatened by misguided cuts to the life extension program (LEP) to the B61 nuclear bomb.  As the only deployed gravity bomb and the only bomb envisioned for the future stockpile, the B61 represents a unique and valuable strategic asset.  The Department of Defense calls it “the cornerstone of long term US extended deterrence to our allies.”  The program also represents a critical first step in future modernization efforts.

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The Obama administration has laid out a reasonable strategy for the future, a prudent path for consolidating the stockpile from twelve weapon types to five. This future “3+2” force would consist of three missile warheads, one (B61) gravity bomb, and one cruise missile.

In June, Senate Appropriations slashed the B61 LEP on the supposition there were less costly alternatives. Appropriators were apparently unaware that the Nuclear Weapons Council exhaustively examined the alternatives and rejected them as too costly, riskier, and inadequate to the military mission.  Both House and Senate Armed Services committees authorized funding at or above the president's request of $537 million, as did House Appropriations.

Costing $10 billion over ten years, the New York Times in May editorialized on the B61’s apparent "profligacy." But the more profligate course would be to accept Senate Appropriations cuts—squandering a billion dollars already spent, failing to address the underlying problem, and allowing delays to further compound cost. Sequestration already contributed to the program’s slipping behind schedule; additional delays will make things worse.

Opponents of modernization impede President’ Obama’s goal of a smaller stockpile with fewer types of nuclear weapons. Failure to complete the B61 LEP will require the U.S. to keep rather than retire the large B83 (the only megaton-class weapon in the stockpile), and maintain four B61 variants instead of one. A smaller force of refurbished bombs will decrease risk, increase safety, enhance deterrence, and enable substantial reductions of both weapons and quantity of nuclear material.

Planned updates to the bomb’s tailkit have been criticized on the grounds it creates "new" capabilities. In fact, updates would merely bring non-nuclear components up to late-20th century standards—e.g., replacing vacuum tubes with modern circuits, and replacing an analog-only interface with one compatible with digital aircraft (such as the F-35, soon to be America’s only nuclear-capable fighter).  The obsolete and expensive parachute also needs to be replaced with smart bomb-like guidance. Greater accuracy permits a lower yield, which in turn significantly reduces the amount of nuclear material and increases safety.

Others allege that the B61's mission is limited to Europe and that stationing B61s there no longer makes sense. In fact, NATO reaffirmed the utility of forward-deployed weapons in 2010 and 2012.  The capability, however, transcends Europe.  Among others, it reassures Pacific allies, especially after the retirement of the nuclear-armed Tomahawk missile. High profile flights of B61-capable bombers to South Korea in early 2013 helped to defuse tensions with Pyongyang and satisfy Seoul’s desire for tangible and visible demonstrations of extended deterrence.

Most notably, in his revised nuclear employment guidance from June 2013, President Obama specifically reaffirmed the military requirement for forward-deployable weapons.

Allies from Riyadh to Ankara to Tokyo are watching. The Defense Department warns that "Failure to fully fund the B61 LEP will be viewed by NATO and other allies as a weakening of the overall US extended deterrence commitment, potentially prompting certain allies to pursue their own nuclear program." Turkey is exploring new relationships with China. Rumored to have funded Pakistan’s nuclear program, the Saudis maintain nuclear-capable ballistic missiles purchased from China. Japan and South Korea each have robust nuclear technical expertise; failures of US leadership must not tempt them to exercise it.

The small Senate minority which opposes modernization must face stubborn facts and heed the warnings of Strategic Command, the Secretaries of Defense and of Energy, and larger bipartisan and bicameral consensus. In September, four past commanders of Strategic Command jointly wrote to Senate Appropriators to express their grave concern about proposed cuts to the B61. In November, Secretaries Hagel (Defense) and Moniz (Energy) wrote to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) urging her to release her funding block. 

Now Congress must act.  The B61 is vetted and ready. Its completion is necessary to meet deterrence requirements, assure allies, stem further proliferation, and allow prudent reductions to the stockpile.

Karako is the director of the Center for the Study of American Democracy at Kenyon College, and a former fellow with the House Armed Services Committee.