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.
The modifications are at the centre of a row between anti-proliferation advocates and the government over whether the new improved B61-12 bomb is in fact a new weapon, and therefore a violation of President Obama’s undertaking not to make new nuclear weapons. His administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review said life extension upgrades to the US arsenal would “not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.”
The issue has a particular significance for Europe where a stockpile of 180 B61’s is held in six bases in five countries. If there is no change in that deployment by the time the upgraded B61-12’s enter the stockpile in 2024, many of them will be flown out to the bases in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey.
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