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Air Force Reaches Deal to Bolster B-61 Nuclear Bomb's Accuracy

A newly announced U.S. Air Force deal for developing B-61 nuclear gravity bomb guidance components could yield an unconventional weapon of unprecedented precision, Wired magazine reported on Wednesday.

The 36-month, $178 million arrangement calls for defense contractor Boeing to develop a "tail kit" for the weapon's planned "Mod 12" update, the company said in a press release on Tuesday. The project is part of a wider effort to update nearly all components of the B-61 armaments in order to lengthen their periods in service; the work is projected to cost roughly $10 billion.

The planned components would be comparable to existing technology that relies on targeting information from orbiting spacecraft weapons to carry out non-nuclear strikes. The overall update necessitates modifications to numerous other B-61 parts, said Jeffrey Lewis, arms expert with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

“An atomic bomb dropped without a parachute will explode before the airplane is safely away," he said. "That means (the federal government) must also redesign much of the packaging and components to survive ‘lay-down’ -- i.e., thudding into the ground and then exploding a few moments later.”

More than half of the proposed Mod 12 alterations remained in early planning stages, according to a Defense Department assessment issued earlier this year.

The B-61 bomb's Mod 12 variant is intended to supplant roughly 180 older systems held in several European NATO member states as a deterrent against a potential assault by Russia. Critics have charged that the bombs are an unnecessary holdover from the Cold War.

"Who's the target? The Red Army. The Red Army that's sitting in East Germany, ready to plunge into Europe," Lewis said.

“Old parts mean less-safe nukes. 60 years without an accidental detonation. We have a keen interest in keeping that record going,” one-time Air Force missile command official John Noonan said.

“Modernization is expensive because we keep delaying it, " said Noonan, now a House Armed Services Committee spokesman. "Now we’re at a point where, instead of making pragmatic annual investments in lab, stockpile, and delivery modernization -- we have to do it all at once."

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