In October, the United States Department of Defense announced plans to develop a new version of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb. The new variant, the thirteenth modification of a nuclear weapon first developed in the 1960s, will be called the B61-13. Development is subject to authorization by Congress.
According to a Department of Defense press release, the B61-13 reflects a “changing security environment and growing threats from potential adversaries.” Development of the bomb would not increase the overall number of weapons in the U.S. stockpile, the release said.
The bomb’s predecessor, the B61-12, was announced during the Obama administration and went into production last year. It is being deployed to military bases in five NATO countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey).
Like all U.S. nuclear weapons, the B61-13 will be assembled near Amarillo, Texas, at the Pantex Plant, which describes itself as “the nation’s primary assembly, disassembly, retrofit, and life-extension center for nuclear weapons.” Life-extension programs are designed to upgrade and prolong the service life of nuclear weapons, keeping them in the arsenal for additional decades.
A Political Bomb
Matt Korda, a senior research fellow with the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project, told Truthout that the decision to develop the B61-13 appears to have been motivated more by politics than perceived military need.
Korda and fellow nuclear weapons analyst Hans Kristensen published a detailed summary report explaining the technological characteristics, political dynamics and background behind the B61-13. They suggest development of the B61-13 is a tradeoff to placate Republicans in Congress like Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado, Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, and others who have argued for the retention of the B83, the last megaton-class weapon in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The idea was that the B61-13 could be developed in exchange for the B83, a weapon which may no longer be seen by the U.S. military as necessary if other conventional (nonnuclear) weapons could potentially threaten the same targets.
Under President Obama, the B83 was to be retired, but the bomb was revived by the Trump administration. And while Biden supports retiring the B83, that decision could be reversed as soon as 2025 under a different administration. There’s nothing that requires the next U.S. president to continue Biden’s nuclear plans.
“They could very easily say, ‘alright, great. Thanks for the B61-13. And we’re going to keep the B83’,” said Korda. However, the high cost of more additions without any cuts could erode support for both weapons systems.
Korda says it’s unclear what new capability the B61-13 offers that doesn’t already exist. “It’s hard for me to imagine a specific target or mission that the U.S. military would not be able to complete if they didn’t have this bomb.”
Old Bomb, New Bomb
If built, the B61-13 would have a maximum yield (the amount of energy, blast and radiation released in an explosion) of 360 kilotons, far larger than the B61-12, which has a maximum yield of 50 kilotons. By comparison, the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki had yields of 15 and 21 kilotons respectively.
Korda notes the importance of not oversimplifying comparisons in bombs because the “destructive power” of a nuclear weapon doesn’t scale perfectly with yield.
This sort of bomb could target military infrastructure or a leadership bunker buried deep underground with a variable yield, meaning the bomb’s explosive power could be “dialed up or down” depending on the target.
In a joint statement regarding the B61-13, House and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking members Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Alabama) and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) said they welcomed a variant of the B61 in order to “reach hardened and deeply-buried targets” but called it “only a modest step in the right direction.”
Referring to an October 2023 final report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, Rogers and Wicker said, “China and Russia are in a full-on arms race, and the U.S. is running in place. Dramatic transformation of our deterrent posture — not incremental or piecemeal changes — is required to address this threat.”
Neither Rogers nor Wicker’s offices responded to Truthout’s requests for comment.
Anna Newby, director of communications for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), told Truthout in an email that the NNSA “frequently investigate[s] opportunities, in coordination with congressional partners, to ensure the continued safety, security, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.” Newby declined to comment specifically on the development of the B61-13.
In a statement, Melissa Park, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons called the B61 upgrade “an irresponsible escalation of the new nuclear arms race.”
The vast and complex web of nuclear modernization programs being pursued by the United States, an endeavor which could cost up to $2 trillion over 30 years, is thoroughly summarized by the Arms Control Association in this detailed fact sheet.
More Bombs, More Threats
The B61-13 announcement comes as Congress appears prepared to fund a new U.S. nuclear sea-launched cruise missile, which is opposed by the Biden administration.
These developments are happening nearly two years after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin has made explicit nuclear threats and emphasized Russia’s own nuclear capabilities. Meanwhile, China is increasing its nuclear arsenal. In Israel, a country which refuses to comment on its own nuclear status, one Israeli minister recently said that using a nuclear weapon against Gaza was “one option.”
Modernization and expansion of nuclear arsenals by the world’s nine nuclear-armed nations continues despite the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) which was adopted by 122 countries in 2017 and entered into force in 2021. The TPNW (also called “nuclear ban treaty”) has been signed by 93 countries and ratified by 69 state parties. The treaty prohibits all aspects of nuclear weapons, from development and deployment to stockpiling and threat of use.
In late November, the second Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW will convene at the United Nations. Alexander Kmentt, director for Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation for the Austrian Foreign Ministry and an active proponent of the nuclear ban treaty said, “We are at an inflection point on the nuclear weapons issue with an increasing re-emphasis on nuclear deterrence coupled with highly irresponsible nuclear rhetoric.”
In an email, Kmentt told Truthout “nuclear deterrence is a highly precarious theory” that could fail at any moment and, if it did, would have “catastrophic consequences on a global scale.” He added that “the nuclear taboo looks increasingly fragile and nuclear risks are higher today than probably ever.”
Kmentt says that the nonnuclear majority of nations argue for an “urgent paradigm shift [through the TPNW] … away from the ill-fated belief that a permanent threat of global mass destruction can be considered … as a legitimate way to provide security.”
Korda, who analyzes the complex, technical details of the world’s deadliest weapons, suggests that rather than focusing on the modifications of one specific bomb, the public would do well to pay attention to the bigger, general trends related to nuclear weapons.
“I think people should be aware of the fact that countries — not just the U.S. but certainly this includes the U.S. — are planning on maintaining nuclear weapons for the next 60, 70, 80 years,” said Korda. “Nuclear-armed countries are not planning on disarming any time soon. They’re planning on keeping nuclear weapons around longer than many of us are going to be alive. If we want to push countries toward disarmament, that’s going to be a long process.”
“Every time a country announces a new weapon, a new missile system, those have shelf lives of 50 years or sometimes more. Those are things that we’re going to be paying for throughout the entirety of our lives if you’re a taxpayer in one of those countries. And if you don’t live in one of those countries, then you still might pay for it anyway because it’s possible that one of these weapons is going to go off in our lifetimes, right?”
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