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U.S. Nuke Overhaul Seen Adding New Abilities

A U.S. program to overhaul decades-old nuclear weapons stationed in several European states would augment the bombs' military capacities, potentially undermining Obama administration efforts to "reset" strategic relations with Russia, according to a new technical report released on Wednesday (see GSN, June 3).

The Air Force intends to spend $4 billion to increase the lifespan of the B-61 gravity bomb. The project is one component of a broader U.S. effort to maintain a dependable U.S. nuclear stockpile while avoiding adding any new abilities or weaponry that could lead to another arms race with Russia, Bloomberg reported.

The goal of the refurbishments is "to modernize them, not in the sense of capability, but in terms of security and reliability," outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate Appropriations panel on Wednesday. "The risks are to our own program in terms of being able to extend the life of our weapons' systems."

The modifications would equip existing B-61s with a new tail section. The end result would essentially consolidate four B-61 configurations into one version with the potency of the most powerful system presently in use, according to a May analysis by the Government Accountability Office.

"There's no way this can happen without increasing the military capability," Federation of American Scientists nuclear weapons expert and report author Hans Kristensen said.

The United States is understood to have some 200 B-61 gravity bombs deployed in Belgium, Italy, Germany the Netherlands and Turkey as a holdover from the Cold War.

The United States has seven classes of nuclear bombs in its arsenal, including the B-61. As the type of B-61 that has the greatest explosive power is not presently fielded in Europe, Air Force plans to bring all B-61 bombs up to its potency level would mean a general enhancement, Kristensen said (Viola Gienger, Bloomberg, June 16).

"The Obama administration and Congress should reject plans to increase the accuracy of nuclear weapons and instead focus on maintaining the reliability of existing weapons while reducing their role and numbers," Kristensen stated in his report.

Once refurbishments to the B-61 bombs, including the addition of a new targeting system, are completed and they are redeployed in Europe in 2018, the U.S. ability to precisely strike military installations on the continent will be enhanced, the report says.

"The upgrade would also improve the capability of U.S. strategic bombers to destroy targets with lower-yield and less radioactive fallout," Kristensen writes.

"Finally the B-61-12 [the end-result consolidated version of the bomb] will mark the end of designated nonstrategic nuclear warheads in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, essentially making concern over 'disparity' with Russian nonstrategic weapons a nonissue," the report reads.

The Obama White House has said it wants to begin negotiations with Russia on reducing the number of tactical weapons each side possesses. Russia is thought to currently have some 2,000 deliverable battlefield nuclear arms within its borders (Hans Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists, June 15).

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

NTI Analysis

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