The smart choice on the B61

With the debate over the omnibus spending bill wrapping up, one of the last questions may have been funding for the life extension program for the B61 nuclear-armed gravity bomb, since Senate appropriators made a significant cut in a program that the House fully funded. The Senate’s position should prevail, and here’s why.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), with support and money from the Pentagon, is proposing to spend some $10 billion to extend the life of roughly 400 B61s while consolidating the bomb’s four variants into one. While acknowledging that this is a good deal of money for a relatively small number of weapons, supporters state that the current approach is the “lowest cost option that meets military requirements.”  Claiming that it will be more expensive, they reject an alternative option that, while meeting military requirements except consolidation, would make fewer changes to the warhead.

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But that claim is based on a particular window of time, from now through roughly 2032, that includes a second life extension program for the alternate B61 approach, but not the second one for the preferred approach, which is also in the plans. Under the current approach, the planned life expectancy of the updated B61 will be only 20 years. In early planning, the NNSA considered a life extension of 30 years, but cut it to 20 years to save money. As a result, under the NNSA plans, the new B61 will undergo a second life extension starting in less than 10 years after the first one is complete.  The less expensive approach might only last ten years, so its next update would occur sooner, but both will require a second update to extend their life beyond 20 years.

So the lower cost of the preferred option results from picking a 20 year window in time.

Moreover, given the potential for future reductions in the number of B61 bombs, the second life extension program may involve fewer than 400 weapons, so spending less money now to update all 400 makes sense.  

The most prominent “use” for these weapons is in Europe, where some 200 are stored. But that “use” is entirely political, not military.  They are there to reassure a few countries—mainly some former states of the Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact—of the U.S. commitment to Europe. Most of the countries that host the weapons—Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands in particular—favor withdrawing the weapons as part of an arms control process with Russia. Germany is not procuring new fighter aircraft capable of carrying them and it is unclear whether other host nations will do so.

In that context, it is worth noting that the U.S. Air Force, whose highest priority is procuring the next fighter aircraft, the F-35, seems to be in no rush to make the plane capable of carrying the B61—plans to do so keep sliding further down the calendar. This reflects the decreasing role that nuclear weapons play in military planning.

Supporters of the $10 billion program argue that if the United States does not undertake this particular B61 update, U.S. allies will panic and pursue their own nuclear capability. One even implied in these pages that Turkey, a NATO alliance member since 1952, might seek nuclear weapons from China—a nonsensical proposition.  

The more likely outcome is that, within 10 years, there will be no further requirement for the bombs in Europe, and they can be withdrawn to the United States and possibly retired. Like several commanders-in-chief before him, President Obama has made reductions in Russian tactical nuclear weapons (where they have a large stockpile) a U.S. priority. The Senate, in passing the New START arms control agreement in 2010, agreed, calling on the president to push for just such reductions.

Given that distinct possibility, it does not make sense to invest $10 billion in a warhead that could be reduced in role and numbers, when a more cost effective approach, one that also meets primary military requirements, is available.

Young is a senior analyst and Washington representative in the Global Security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.