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The Cost of Teaching an Old Nuclear Weapon New Tricks

Seven decades after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, the United States has long-term plans to modernize its nuclear weapons at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars.

A frontal view of four B-61 nuclear free-fall bombs on a bomb cart. Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, December 1, 1986. (Photo: SSGT Phil Schmitten / United States Department of Defense)

When the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan 69 years ago, the shadows of charred silhouettes etched against the ruins of shattered cities indelibly marked nuclear weapons as forbidden tools of war. The indiscriminate carnage wrought in Hiroshima by “Little Boy” (est. 15 kilotons) and Nagasaki by “Fat Man” (est. 20 kt) has, so far, not been repeated.

But seven decades later, the United States continues to pursue more accurate, “lower-yield” nuclear bombs. Despite President Obama’s 2009 speech in Prague in which he stated “clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” the United States plans to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on its own nuclear weapons upgrades, modernization and “life extension programs” (LEP).

William Hartung, director for the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, warns that many of today’s nuclear weapons are far more powerful than those used against Japan. He calls the idea of redesigning nuclear weapons that can be “dialed up or down” to increase or decrease their explosive yield a “dangerous logic.”

In an era of austerity and sequestration when even the Pentagon is being forced to make cuts once thought unimaginable, Congress, with the support of the Department of Energy (DOE), has approved funding for the LEP for one of America’s oldest and most relied-upon nuclear weapons: the B61 gravity bomb.

First built in 1963, the B61 has been called “the bread and butter” of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The bomb’s newest incarnation, B61-12, will be a variable-yield, precision-guided version of one of the most numerous bombs in the US arsenal.

With a newly designed, $1.8 billion tail kit and increased accuracy, the B61-12 is expected to “hold at risk” targets that today require a greater yield to be destroyed. The B61-12 will allow the military to phase out five other nuclear gravity bomb types, including an earth-penetrating (“bunker buster”) B61-11 and the high-yield B83.

The B61-12 will have four variable yields: 0.3kt. (kiloton), 1.5kt., 10kt. and 50kt.

At just 11.8 feet long, 13 inches in diameter and about 700 pounds, the B61-12 is small enough to fit in the back of an SUV – something that could easily go missing.

Worth Its weight in gold

Two researchers from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen, have written extensively about the B61 family of nuclear bombs. In their report for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, they detail the bomb’s history and proposed future as well as its extraordinary costs.

Norris and Kristensen write that the B61-12 program was first estimated at $4 billion, a cost that doubled in just two years and has now exceeded $10 billion. They point out that each B61-12 will cost more than its own weight in solid gold, making it the most expensive nuclear gravity bomb ever built.

The B61 is not the only American nuclear weapon being upgraded. Kristensen, director of the FAS’s Nuclear Information Project, explains that under a 25-year plan promoted by the Obama administration, four different W series warheads – the W78, W80, W87 and W88 – will be redesigned to have greater flexibility.

According to a 2013 Congressional Budget Office report, US plans to maintain and modernize nuclear weapons will cost $355 billion between 2014 and 2023. It suggests annual costs will likely grow after 2023 production begins on replacement systems. The Center for Public Integrity reports additional related spending will drive total costs to around $570 billion over the next decade, a figure that could approach $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

In whose best interest?

Who stands to benefit from life extension programs, stockpile stewardship and other modifications to America’s nuclear arsenal?

The LEP are critical for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which receives around $7 billion a year for maintaining and enhancing nuclear weapons and infrastructure.

Also poised to benefit are the nuclear weapons laboratories, specifically Sandia (a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin) and Los Alamos National Laboratories, which are overseeing the design, manufacture and testing of B61-12.

William Hartung says that the nuclear laboratories have a perennial quest for new ideas and angles for nuclear weapons. He calls it an “employment program for nuclear scientists.”

Major military defense contractors like Bechtel and Boeing reap great benefits from nuclear upgrades. Hartung says Lockheed Martin “gets two bites at the apple” because it also designs and builds the F-35A Lightning fighter bomber, which will be fitted to carry the B61-12, as will the F-15E (McDonnell Douglas), F-16 (General Dynamics), B-2A (Northrop Grumman), B-52H (Boeing), Tornado (Panavia Aircraft) and future long-range striker bombers.

Nuclear Glue

Excluding submarine-based missiles, the B61 is the only US nuclear weapon deployed outside of the United States today. The United States has around 180 B61s at six bases in five NATO countries – Belgium, Germany, Italy, Holland and Turkey. These nuclear weapons are part of what many call the “glue” that holds NATO together.

“People say ‘$350 billion for modernization’ but we’re not modernizing, we’re sustaining.”

One of the staunchest supporters of keeping US nuclear weapons in Europe is Dr. Keith Payne, president of the National Institute for Public Policy. Fiercely opposed to decreasing US nuclear forces, in 2012 Payne warned that reducing the nuclear arsenal “from roughly 5,000 nuclear weapons to 900” would “leave the United States vulnerable to its opponents.”

In 1980, Payne coauthored an article for Foreign Policy titled “Victory is Possible,” the contents of which prompted one journalist to dub Payne “Rumsfeld’s Dr. Strangelove.”

Dr. Payne declined to be interviewed for this story.

Cheaper than Dog Food

Michaela Dodge, a defense policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, argues that programs like the B61-12 are not nuclear weapons modernization. In fact, she says “the US is the only nuclear weapons state that is not modernizing its nuclear weapons.”

“What we’re doing today is sustaining weapons we’ve had since the 1980s and that we have not tested with any yield producing [nuclear explosion] experiments for 20 years . . . That’s unprecedented,” Dodge says.

“People say ‘$350 billion for modernization’ but we’re not modernizing, we’re sustaining.”

According to Dodge, the US nuclear arsenal is “fundamentally a force for good.”

Dodge says the arms control community skews numbers by lumping nuclear and non-nuclear systems together. The cost is relative she says, adding, “Americans spend $60 billion a year on pet food.” She also suggests Americans spend more on Halloween candy than nuclear weapons modernization.

“Yes, it is cost,” she says, “but compared to other elements of our spending – our entitlements – and what you’re getting back for it, I think it’s just really not that much.”

A Force for Good

According to Dodge the US nuclear arsenal is “fundamentally a force for good.” In her words, “It’s a force that is hedging us from large-scale strategic attack; it’s assuring allies; it’s preventing more proliferation, and we haven’t had a major conventional war on the scale of the first or second World War since nuclear weapons were invented.”

But Dodge is concerned that computer simulated nuclear tests are inadequate to verify the functionality of existing nuclear weapons. Instead, Dodge says small scale “very low-yield” experiments should be permitted.

“You could do it in a room the size of [an apartment] flat to help understand . . . the physics of nuclear weapons aging,” she says.

“It’s not very difficult conceptually to figure out how to build a nuclear bomb. After all, grass-eating North Koreans are making nuclear weapons,” says Dodge, who defines a “safe nuclear weapon” as one that “never detonates unless through a proper chain of command.”

Whether you consider US modifications to its nuclear arsenal to be “upgrades,” “modernization” or “sustainment,” the goals are the same: make existing nuclear weapons more flexible, more accurate and produce a lower yield, allowing the military to reduce the number of weapon systems.

While some argue this reinforces the credibility of the US nuclear deterrent, others like Kristensen and Hartung, say these changes make the weapons easier to use – at least from a military, if not political, perspective.

Hartung points out that along with redesigned nuclear weapons, the construction of a new plutonium facility, a new uranium production facility and a plant to manufacture non-nuclear parts means the whole nuclear warhead infrastructure puts the United States ahead in case of a new or accelerated arms race.

“The parochial politics and endless desire of the nuclear priesthood to come up with new ideas about nuclear weapons is trumping common sense and arms control considerations,” says Hartung. In short, it sends the wrong message.

The Message

And what is the message sent to other nations when the United States invests hundreds of billions of dollars to upgrade its own nuclear weapons?

Joseph Gerson, director of the Peace and Economic Security Program for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and long-time nuclear disarmament activist, says that LEP and nuclear weapons upgrades, in conjunction with the deployment of a nuclear capable F-35 stealth fighter jet, are likely to reinforce hardliners in Russia and actually decrease US security. A nuclear capable F-35 remains controversial, even among military figures who support the B61-12 upgrade.

Modernizing the US nuclear arsenal is also problematic from the view point of Iran, which the United States has threatened with its own bombs for decades.

Reza Marashi, research director for the National Iranian American Council, says that from the Iranian government’s perspective, America’s nuclear weapons modernization efforts illustrate a double-standard.

“America should remember that it’s an uphill battle to tell countries, ‘do as I say, not what I do,” Marashi wrote in an email.

“It’s exactly the opposite of what [the US] should be doing if [it] wants to convince other countries not to build their own nukes.”

Hartung says that given what nuclear weapons can do, “nobody is really responsible enough to be holding onto a large number of them given the possibility of an accident, a leader has got a screw loose or you get backed into a crisis . . . and some idiot ends up trying to use one of the things.”

With the United States taking advantage of its own technical superiority as it redesigns its own nuclear weapons while threatening to attack anyone who doesn’t toe the United States line, Hartung believes this will make other countries more likely to want nuclear weapons.

“It’s exactly the opposite of what [the US] should be doing if [it] wants to convince other countries not to build their own nukes,” Hartung says.

One of the challenges of understanding US nuclear weapons is simply gaining an awareness of what’s happening, both in Congress and among the general public.

Many people associate nuclear weapons with the Cold War era, and some, particularly younger people, are surprised to learn they still exist. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates around 16,300 nuclear warheads – 4,000 of them operational – are held by the nine nuclear states. Of those, over 90 percent are Russian and American.

AFSC’s Gerson calls the argument that modernization is essential to the “safety” of nuclear weapons “nonsense.”

“Let’s go back to fundamental realities. We now know that if there was an exchange of as few as 50 nuclear weapons . . . we would end up with global famine. These are weapons that should not exist,” says Gerson, calling them “the most fundamental violation of basic human rights.

“Tell me how spending billions of dollars on an improved nuclear weapon is compatible with the creation of a world without nuclear weapons?, he asks.”

“We kind of stopped thinking about nuclear weapons policy and strategy after the end of the Cold War. It’s very unfortunate.”

Everyone interviewed for this story agreed that drawing the public’s attention to nuclear weapons is increasingly difficult. From a widespread misperception that nuclear arms were strictly a “Cold War problem” to competition from dozens of other urgent issues, the American public today is largely disengaged from the subject.

Gerson calls the generation raised between 1983 and today “woefully ignorant of these dangers,” adding: “One of the really great challenges we face is to find ways to educate people and raise the alarm.” On this point there is general agreement between nuclear weapons opponents and proponents. “We kind of stopped thinking about nuclear weapons policy and strategy after the end of the Cold War. It’s very unfortunate,” says the Heritage Foundation’s Michaela Dodge.

Even Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently lamented the US military “losing focus” on the nuclear mission and called for the “nuclear enterprise” to be strengthened.

Oversight? What Oversight?

Considering the potential for unprecedented disaster resulting from a loss, theft, mishandling, compromise or other nuclear mishap, and the extraordinary associated costs, you might think these weapons systems would have absolutely failsafe oversight.

Yet in just the last decade there have been a number of publicized incidents involving nuclear weapons in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, North Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana and overseas. One author said those overseeing America’s nuclear arsenal were “getting sloppy.”

A serious lack of understanding of nuclear weapons extends to Congress, says FAS’s Kristensen. “I can tell you from first-hand experience that the number of staffers and . . . members of Congress today that have any clue what this is about is a very, very small group, and it is shrinking.”

Although the Congressional Armed Services Committee has subcommittees tasked with oversight of the US nuclear arsenal, Kristensen says most in Congress have no personal background in nuclear weapons issues and no interest except for when it comes to questions of cost.

Kristensen warns that without education and basic knowledge, congressional staffers are likely to find themselves face to face with defense contractor lobbyists insisting on the importance of new weapons systems and they’ll have no context or way to ask well-informed questions.

In 2013 the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) provided written testimony about DOE/NNSA oversight efforts specific to modernizing the nuclear weapons. GAO cited flawed security procedures, “persistent safety problems” and six-fold cost overruns.

The New (Nuclear) Math

As the Obama administration, Congress, US nuclear laboratories, defense contractors and NNSA move forward with plans to upgrade and extend the life one of America’s oldest and now most expensive nuclear gravity bombs, Kristensen says a more immediate concern for Americans is, “Do you want to spend this large amount of money on this when your kids can’t even get their school lunch?”

“Is it fair,” he asks, “to spend more than $10 billion on less than 500 gravity bombs when we have enormous fire power – both nuclear and conventional – at all other levels.”

Ultimately, Kristensen doesn’t think the B61-12 will make the United States safer.

Looking back at Obama’s Prague speech, Kristensen points out that talk of “deep cuts and the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons” was only half the president’s message. In the other half, Obama said, “Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies . . . “

This is the “new nuclear math” – the idea that improving the diversity and accuracy of a nuclear weapon system (B61) and adding it to multiple delivery methods will allow the United States to retire or phase out other bombs and claim to be reducing the overall stockpile. At the same time, the US Air Force clings to its long-term plans to ensure it remains “nuclear capable” when your yet-to-be-born grandchildren are well into middle age.

“They argue in this ironic way,” Kristensen says, “that the way of reducing the arsenal is to actually build a weapon.”

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