So far, no bombs with the military capabilities of the B-61-7, B-61-11 or B-82 have been deployed in Europe, Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists wrote in a blog posting on Oct. 31. The B-61-12 is intended to consolidate the potential of all these weapons. "Not bad for a simple life-extension," Kristensen wrote. That would make the B-61-12 an "all-in-one nuclear bomb on steroids," he added.
Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists expressed similar thoughts. The responsible agency, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), itself admits that 15 of the 16 planned upgrades are not aimed at improving security and avoiding obsolescence, but rather an increase in performance. According to Young, that shows that performance has been the "driving factor" behind the modernization program.
But this is not even the crucial question, argues Oliver Meier from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, because "the new capabilities will come about at any rate." That has already been stressed not only by external experts but also by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). And "one must deal with" this reality, Meier said.
A Threat to Disarmament Negotiations
The NNSA is trying to placate its critics: The B-61-12 uses revised versions of nuclear components taken from an existing bomb and brings with it no new military capabilities, officials claim. All targets for which the B-61-12 was conceived have already been covered previously -- with weapons that carry a much greater explosive power. And with the help of the B-61-12, the U.S.' total stockpile of airborne nuclear bombs could be reduced by around half its current amount.
But observers warn of a potential threat to the future disarmament negotiations between NATO and Russia, intended to discuss the issue of non-strategic nuclear weapons. That the B-61-12 is now set to replace the B-61-11 bunker buster and the strategic B-83 is "indeed alarming," Meier said. "The Russians are modernizing their arsenal also, and will surely, therefore, gratefully use the B-61 program to question NATO's seriousness." In the disarmament efforts, the B-61 modernization program is thus "definitely not helpful."
Götz Neuneck of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg sees the onus being put onto the incoming German government. "They should make it clear to Washington that Europe does not need the new bombs and will not make any delivery systems available for it." In addition, NATO must urgently make concrete offers to Russia with regards to the controversial US missile defense system, which is seen by Moscow as a threat. "If all this fails," said Neuneck, "new tactical nuclear weapons will be stationed in Europe, and nuclear disarmament will be impossible for decades."
'We Still Need to Complete' the Program
The NNSA, meanwhile, is pressing ahead with the B-61 modernization program, despite the criticism from pro-disarmament politicians and an enormous explosion in costs -- because the B-61 project is only the first step on the path to a more modern, much more efficient nuclear weapons posture for the US. In November 2012, the Nuclear Weapons Council, a joint decision-making body of the departments of defense and energy, enacted the so-called 3-plus-2 strategy, whereby American nuclear weapons are to be kept ready for use until well into the second half of this century.