Jeffrey Lewis

A Steal at $10 Billion

The United States is building a nuclear bomb that costs more than its weight in solid gold. Why?


The Bomb. You know exactly what I mean, right? Funny thing is, most of them aren’t “bombs” at all. Of the 5,000 or so nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile as of 2010, probably less than a third are “bombs” in the sense of things one might drop from an airplane. The United States has just two “bomb” designs in the arsenal: the B83 and B61.

There is now a furious debate about whether the United States needs to modernize the B61, which dates to Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, making it the oldest design left in the stockpile. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, recently revealed that the cost of the program to extend the bomb’s life has more than doubled: Modernizing the approximately 400 B61 gravity bombs in the stockpile will cost $10 billion. That is billions with a “B.” In case you were wondering, it would be less expensive to build solid-gold replicas of each of the 700-pound B61s, even at near-record gold prices.

In the current budgetary environment, costing more than your weight in gold is not a happy place. How did this happen?

Since the early 1960s, the United States has produced 11 variants of the B61 (formally called “mods” for “modifications”), plus two missile warheads based on the same design. Today, the United States has four flavors of B61 left over from the Cold War: the B61 Mods 3, 4, 7, 10. A fifth, the B61 Mod 11, dates to Bill Clinton’s administration and does not yet need to be replaced. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is responsible for maintaining the United States’ nuclear weapons, thinks that the best thing to do for the other four is to consolidate their different designs into a single modification, the B61 Mod 12, which would use newer and fewer components.

Consolidating four modifications into a streamlined bomb is a pretty ambitious work plan. But, as if that weren’t enough, the Air Force wanted the proposed B61 Mod 12 to be more accurate than the original B61. The major limitation on accuracy has always been the parachute that slows the bomb’s descent, largely to prevent the bomb from splattering when it hits the ground. Parachutes, though, mean the bomb drifts a bit in the wind. The Air Force wanted to replace the parachute with a guided tail kit, like that used on precision munitions. But removing the parachute introduced a new complication: An atomic bomb dropped without a parachute will explode before the airplane is safely away. That means NNSA must also redesign much of the packaging and components to survive “laydown” — i.e., thudding into the ground and then exploding a few moments later.

Then, NNSA decided to make even more changes. Replacing the parachute with a modern tail kit left extra space inside the bomb casing. Nature abhors a vacuum. So do weapons designers, who decided to fill that space by adding new safety features. One well-meaning senior official went so far as to say he wanted to make nuclear weapons so safe that “if the wrong person gets a hold of it, it’s a paperweight.” American nuclear weapons are already quite safe, but some designers are pushing exotic concepts straight out of science fiction, such as “paste extrudable explosives” — explosives in what amounts to a fancy toothpaste tube that would automatically be squirted into a nuclear weapon to disable it should the bomb detect an unauthorized attempt to access it. These proposals are about enhancing safety in precisely the same way that a visit from the neighbor is about a cup of sugar in a pornographic film. New safety features could mean the redesign involves not just the non-nuclear components, but might extend into the “physics package” that is at the heart of the bomb.

In 2010, the Government Accountability Office took a look at all these changes and noted, quite sensibly, that this looked like the sort of program that might fall behind schedule and go over budget. The project then fell behind schedule and went over budget.

Why did the NNSA propose so many changes? I believe the weapons laboratories were trying to see how much “modernization” they could get away with before someone screamed about building “new” nuclear weapons. When George W. Bush’s administration planned a series of so-called “reliable replacement warheads” (RRW) to replace the existing designs in the stockpile, many people sensibly wondered why the country was building new nuclear warheads. Congress ultimately defunded the RRW, and President Barack Obama decided against continuing with it, saying he was opposed to building “new” nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, “new” has no technical meaning, so the B61 Mod 12 became a test case for how far the nuclear weapons complex could go in terms of redesigning nuclear weapons while staying within the president’s broad political guidance.

In a very narrow sense, the nuclear weapons complex succeeded in pushing the envelope: The B61 Mod 12 is a completely redesigned weapon with fewer and more modern components, new capabilities, and different safety features. It is “new” in every important sense of the word, without running afoul of the prohibition against “new” nuclear weapons as defined in Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. In particular, the national laboratories are pushing the rationale of “enhancing safety” to expand modernization efforts past weapons’ non-nuclear guidance and arming systems and into the nuclear heart of the bomb. Because Obama does not inspire the same suspicions with regard to nuclear weapons as Bush did, the labs have been able to run riot.

But pushing the boundaries of acceptable modernization has made the B61 life-extension program so expensive that Congress may now kill it off altogether. Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) has already argued that the problems suggest “NNSA is simply incapable of performing its basic mission.” Turner and other proponents of spending more on nuclear weapons are preparing to use the failure of the B61 life-extension program to attack the Obama administration for failing to make good on the commitments to nuclear modernization it made as part of the deal to secure Senate passage of the New START arms control treaty with Russia. The B61 Mod 12 does not have many friends at the moment.

All this brings us back to the question of whether the B61 is worth it.

Right now, the United States forward-deploys 180 B61s at air bases in five NATO countries. They are “tactical” nuclear weapons, deployed to help stop a Soviet thrust into Western Europe. (That there is no Soviet Union anymore is a mere detail.) If the life-extension program slips, there may be a gap during which the United States does not have B61s in Europe. Do we really need them? Senior military and civilian officials have repeatedly stated, in private and public, that the B61 has no military utility. One senior official with European Command told a task force created by the defense secretary, “We pay a king’s ransom for these things and … they have no military value.” There is no military mission for these weapons; they exist largely to fulfill political needs.

That is not nearly as disreputable as it sounds, though I happen to dislike spending on symbolic capabilities. But the theory has been that nuclear weapons in NATO allow for burden-sharing. The idea is that one solution to the “free-rider” problem in NATO’s defense is to insist that NATO allies bear some of the financial and political burden of keeping NATO as a “nuclear alliance” by housing forward-deployed U.S. nuclear weapons.

The problem with this argument is that the NATO nuclear weapons are Exhibit A for the failure of the alliance to share the burden. In general, European politicians run in the other direction at any mention of U.S. bombs on their soil. We’ve seen a lot more burden-shirking than burden-sharing.

In particular, the state of security provided by those countries that host U.S. nuclear weapons is dreadful. One senior U.S. officer, no peacenik I might add, told a group of U.S. experts that his greatest fear was that a peace activist would get inside a nuclear weapons shelter with a camera phone. Which is exactly what happened. In 2010, some Belgian peace activists got inside one of the shelters. Let me repeat that: They got inside one of the shelters where the United States stores nuclear weapons. Here is a picture they took:

I’ll admit, I expected an image like this to create a bigger political controversy than a few scattered news reports. I had assumed that the local reaction would be swift and immediate, leading to an unceremonious withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons. I am unsure why this event didn’t create a public furor, but I suspect the reason is that it defied imagination that security could be this bad. I mentioned this to several former U.S. officials who, to a one, did not believe peace activists could get inside an aircraft shelter that contained a vault for nuclear bombs. I had to share this picture to convince them, pointing out the Weapons Storage and Security System console on the right side.

This was hardly the first incident demonstrating NATO’s lousy nuclear security. The United States removed nuclear weapons from Greece in 1998 after a series of security incidents. One former U.S. officer described the nuclear weapons in Greece as guarded by “an unmotivated group of foreign military [con]scripts … complete with an alcoholic commander.” And, in 2009, after the U.S. Air Force mistakenly flew six nuclear weapons from North Dakota to Louisiana, a task force reviewed security across the service. It found that “most” nuclear bases in Europe do not meet Pentagon standards — something senior U.S. military officials had been saying in private for years.

So, should anyone be surprised that a bunch of Euro-hippies from Peace Action Belgium got inside an aircraft shelter at Kleine Brogel Air Base? (In fact, this was the second time in less than a year that activists had accessed aircraft shelters at the base. The previous time, the activists gained entry to the wrong part of the base; some genius in the Belgian Defense Ministry decided to helpfully point out the nuclear weapons were stored at the other set of shelters.) The lax state of Belgian security was appalling. One of the security holes was that the Belgians had not hired a qualified dog-master. I had been told, on a visit to NATO headquarters, that NATO countries would have to spend more than $100 million to meet U.S. standards for securing nuclear weapons. I had no idea dog-masters were so well paid.

An incident like this makes clear why it is crazy to spend billions of dollars trying to turn the B61 into a paperweight. America’s European allies are unwilling to spend $100 million on guns, guards, gates, and a dog-master. So the U.S. response is? To spend 100 times that — $10 billion — for a new bomb that, in Never Never Land, doesn’t need guarding.

Look, America’s European allies don’t value U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. Yes, some of them, especially in a few defense ministries, say they do, but actions speak louder than words. The United States’ NATO allies value nuclear weapons so much that they aren’t willing to properly fund the mission. Some of my colleagues note that the weapons vaults are so secure that it doesn’t matter if the allies don’t live up to their obligations. I think that’s nonsense. Nuclear weapons security is an organizational activity. If you can’t be bothered to hire a dog-master, what are the odds that you’ll do all the other little things that add up to a security culture? No matter what some European officials say, the actions of European hosts say they don’t care.

The United States doesn’t have to withdraw its nuclear weapons from Europe immediately, but it could immediately consolidate them at two U.S. air bases in Europe, where they would be guarded properly by the U.S. Air Force, not Tintin. In the meantime, the United States could leave training dummies in place so that there would be no disruption to the normal routine at the air bases. Belgian pilots could pretend to drop nuclear weapons in training exercises, just like Belgian security guards pretend to guard them.

Consolidation would, of course, demonstrate that the United States doesn’t actually need forward-deployed nuclear weapons in any of these countries. The country could then quietly cancel the expensive replacement program and save the $10 billion. That means, of course, that over time, the B61s will come home. My guess is that no one will notice.

If America really wants to show its commitment to its Europeans allies, let’s replace the B61s with solid-gold replicas, forward-deployed at the NATO air base of your choice. What ally wouldn’t be delighted to have access to a few hundred-million dollars’ worth of gold bullion? And, of course, what better way to achieve the intrinsic security of a paperweight than with the real thing?

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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