The US is about to rebuild its arsenal of B61 nuclear bombs to a new standard, ensuring they stay reliable while adding new capabilities including a "dial-a-yield" capability. The process is so extensive some critics charge that the modified bombs are essentially a new weapon, a development that could restart the nuclear arms race.
The Pentagon has many types of nuclear weapons, but currently the only true "bomb"—dropped from an aircraft and delivered to target by free fall flight—is the B61. First produced in the late '60s, the B61 series of bombs can be carried carried by a number of combat aircraft, including the B-52 Stratofortress, B-2A Spirit, F-15E Strike Eagle, and F-16 Fighting Falcon. The F-35A Joint Strike Fighter will also be cleared to carry the new version of the bomb.
Now the National Nuclear Security Agency, or NNSA, has cleared the B61-12 to enter its last phase of development before production. Production will involve taking older versions of the bomb and updating them to the B61-12 standard. Washington insists that the update is critical to ensure the bombs remain reliable into the future.
In addition to the reliability update, the B61-12 has several new features. It has a new set of bolt-on tail fins that increase the range at which the bomb can be released and still hit its target. This increases aircraft survivability while allowing the pilot to avoid close-in air defenses. The bomb also has a new inertial navigation system accurate to 30 meters, without using the constellation of GPS navigation satellites that might be shot down in wartime.
An earlier version of the B61 bomb, broken down into component parts.
Finally and perhaps most importantly it has a "dial-a-yield" mechanism that allows the operator to choose the explosive power of the bomb. The bomb can be set to the equivalent of a mere 300 tons of TNT, 1.5 kilotons of TNT, 10 kilotons, or 50 kilotons. The Hiroshima bomb, for comparison, was about 16 kilotons.
The B61-12 program is estimated to run approximately USD10 billion dollars, to produce between 400 and 500 bombs. That breaks down to approximately USD28 million per bomb, which will make it the most expensive U.S. nuclear bomb project ever. At one point, with gold at USD1,619 an ounce, observers of the program noted the 700 pound bomb cost "1.5 Times its Weight in Solid Gold."
Critics of the B61 modernisation believe that introducing a new bomb into the military arsenal at this point could restart a nuclear arms race with Russia and even China. They also charge that the "dial-a-yield" capability and and low yields could encourage the Commander-in-Chief to use them instead of conventional weapons.
Supporters of the weapon believe that modernizing the US's nuclear bomb stockpile will put bad actors on notice that Washington is serious about its nuclear policy. The upgrade will also give the US expanded options for using the weapons, trading explosive yield for accuracy. Using smaller bombs in a conflict could prevent escalation to using larger ones. But let's hope it doesn't come to that.
From: Popular Mechanics.