New Nukes, Old Nukes

Oct. 1, 2009

B61 life extension: caught up in a debate. (USAF photo)

When it comes to the political debate in Washington, nuclear weapon programs now fall into two broad categories—those that would “modernize” existing capabilities, and those that would create new ones. Modernization programs are generally acceptable. Those deemed to be producing new or stronger nuclear capabilities most definitely are not.

Caught in the middle of this tug-of-war is a plan to extend the life of the B61, but that is getting ahead of the story.

Anti-nuclear activists, in their zeal to stamp out all such weapons, routinely apply the “new capabilities” tag to any type of program. Often, this requires a stretch of the imagination. What, exactly, is a new weapon, or a new capability

Washington has no agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a “new” weapon and what constitutes a “modernized” weapon. Application of the distinction, as you might imagine, gets pretty mushy. “Neither word really means anything,” said Jeffrey G. Lewis of the New America Foundation. “It’s all about salesmanship.”

This dynamic has played itself out several times in recent years. A life extension program (LEP) for W76 warheads used by the Navy’s Trident submarines is under way, and the Air Force has consistently found support for extensive Minuteman III ICBM sustainment programs.

However, lawmakers have in recent years killed Pentagon plans for a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator and canceled the Reliable Replacement Warhead. Those programs were deemed to be of the “new capabilities” type, and therefore verboten.

Which brings us to the B61. B61 variants are used by USAF heavy bombers and NATO dual-role fighters. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told NATO allies in June that “the United States is committed to a full life extension program for the B61 gravity bomb deployed in support of the alliance.”

This comes with a deadline: The LEP needs to be done by 2017 to give the F-35 nuclear delivery capability. As Air Force Brig. Gen. Garrett Harencak, who oversees defense programs for the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration, noted, “Our allies are spending a lot of money on the F-35” —and they expect certain capabilities from it.

Long-standing NATO arrangements make US B61s available, under certain conditions, to allies flying F-16s and Tornados. Several will replace their dual-role fighters with F-35s, and planners want to make the extended deterrent available on “the premier weapon system,” Harencak said.

Delaying the LEP, and therefore keeping the B61 off the F-35, “doesn’t make any damn sense,” for the US or NATO, said Harencak, a career bomber pilot who commanded the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman AFB, Mo.

The Administration therefore requested $65 million in Fiscal 2010 to begin design studies for a B61 extension, but the House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, which oversees DOE nuclear programs, zeroed out the funding.

Administration officials insist a modernized B61 would offer no new military capabilities.

What makes the B61 LEP fundamentally different from previous RNEP or RRW proposals is the lack of new nuclear capability, said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “That’s why you see [three of four] committees supporting it.”

In Kimball’s view, the B61 proposal is a standard life extension, “not a new design effort.”

The weapon’s yield, for example, would not change, although it would have improved reliability and better safety, for example, through improved resistance to fire.

Few US nuclear weapons currently have “internal disablement features” to prevent unauthorized use if the weapons are stolen, but military planners would like to add this capability, too. Logistics would also be simplified.

Some allege a definition of a “new” nuclear weapon came in the 2003 National Defense Authorization Act, Lewis noted. The legislation, however, only sets rules for budget requests and is frequently misconstrued.

The act stated that a weapon is considered new if its plutonium pit (the primary) or its canned subassembly (which houses the nuclear secondary) was not in the stockpile or production in 2002.

The House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee is looking for a nuclear strategy. In the report language passed by the House, HEW lawmakers wrote that they “will not support a major warhead redesign in the absence of clearly defined nuclear weapons strategy, stockpile, and complex plans. In light of the evolving strategic climate, the B61 is particularly in need of a clearly articulated strategy.”

A subcommittee release added that it “does not support the effort to develop what is essentially a new nuclear weapon.”

Harencak added that the goals for the B61 LEP are safety, security, and reliability. The B61s are old—they were designed in the 1960s and delivered beginning in the 1970s. “Its radar has vacuum tubes,” noted Harencak. “It’s crazy to think that a weapon that’s so important to our extended deterrence and our strategic air deliveries … would ever have features that are that old.”

Whether the program goes forward, however, will likely depend on which side prevails in its attempt to “brand” the LEP—as modernization or a new weapon.

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