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House Democrat Eyes More Powerful Alternative to B-61 Nuclear Bomb

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

The tail section of a B-61 nuclear gravity bomb undergoes testing at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. A key House Democrat on Tuesday pressed the Obama administration on whether the B61, currently in the early phases of an expensive refurbishment, could be replaced by the more powerful B-83 (U.S. Sandia National Laboratories/Natural Resources Defense Council). The tail section of a B-61 nuclear gravity bomb undergoes testing at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. A key House Democrat on Tuesday pressed the Obama administration on whether the B61, currently in the early phases of an expensive refurbishment, could be replaced by the more powerful B-83 (U.S. Sandia National Laboratories/Natural Resources Defense Council).

WASHINGTON -- A key House Democrat on Tuesday pressed the Obama administration over whether it could use another, more powerful nuclear weapon to defend U.S. allies in Europe rather than making controversial and costly upgrades to the B-61 atomic warhead.

The B-61 is a U.S. nuclear gravity bomb stationed in five NATO member nations in Europe. The National Nuclear Security Administration and its contractors are currently in the early phases of a life-extension program for variants of the aging weapon, which administration officials say is urgently needed to ensure they remain safe and reliable.

Some Democrats question the administration's position, however. During a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Representative Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) referenced prior remarks by retired Gen. James Cartwright indicating that there are other weapons in the U.S. arsenal that could deter attacks on NATO allies. She called the continued use of the B-61 "political."

Given fiscal constraints facing the United States, Representative John Garamendi (D-Calif.) asked specifically whether another U.S. gravity bomb, the B-83, could be used instead. Administration officials indicated that the B-83 would not require a major overhaul for approximately 10 to 15 years, whereas the B-61 is in need of more urgent refurbishment if its use is to be continued.

But the B-83, which is capable of destroying entire cities, is a much more powerful weapon than those the United States currently deploys in Europe.

"It truly is a megaton-class weapon -- it is the relic of the Cold War," Madelyn Creedon, assistant secretary of Defense for global strategic affairs, said at the Tuesday hearing. "The B-83 is not compatible with European aircraft and the idea of introducing a megaton warhead into Europe is almost inconceivable to me, so we need the B-61."

Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, who heads the U.S. Strategic Command, said the B-61 life-extension program would enable the nation to reduce the number of B-83 warheads and eventually eliminate the more powerful weapon entirely. "That's what we will do … so we're not spending money twice," Kehler said.

If, however, the administration does not refurbish the B-61 as currently planned, it would then become necessary to conduct a separate life-extension program for the B-83, according to Donald Cook, NNSA deputy administrator for defense programs.

"We'd have to do compatibility with aircraft which don't currently fly it and we will not have the basis to do that at anywhere near the cost" of the planned B-61 refurbishment, Cook told the House lawmakers. "All I can say right now is it would be considerably more expensive in my opinion."

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee, has raised concerns that the method of extending the life of the B-61 that the administration has chosen is not the least costly and risky option, and she has proposed cutting money for the program.

Arms control activists, meanwhile, have suggested that the plan amounts to the creation of a new nuclear weapon -- thereby conflicting with President Obama's vows to reduce atomic arms -- rather than a simple refurbishment.

Administration officials and House Republicans sought to refute these arguments this week.

The B-61 plan is "absolutely consistent with the president's goals," according to Creedon.

"It's very important to remember that there are sort of two points to all of this," she said. President Obama "has been very strong that the stockpile be safe, secure and reliable, and that it remain that way as long as there are any nuclear weapons.

"That said," Creedon continued, "he has clearly indicated that he would like to entertain reductions … along with Russia. But until such time as that happens, the [planned B-61 refurbishment] is absolutely consistent with the president's goals, as well as our commitment to our allies."

Cook insisted there was no cheaper option.

"There is a $4 billion number often thrown around as some kind of baseline [for the B-61 refurbishment, but] that was never a baseline," Cook said.

"We had a very initial position in the budget several years ago that said we believe the cost will be at least in the $4 billion range and we prepared as we usually do then to undertake the work," he said. "At that point, no engineering work had been done; no design work had begun … So it was a placeholder and nothing more than that."

Kehler agreed.

"Early on, it appeared that there might be a lower-cost option," Kehler said. "As I look at this today, there is a not a minimum option that is going to fulfill all the military requirement that we've laid out."

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