Scale Back the B61 Nuclear Bomb

Volume 4, Issue 6, June 25, 2013

This week, House and Senate appropriators will vote on how much money to spend on the B61 gravity bomb, a $10 billion program to upgrade a weapon that President Obama said last week he wants to reduce. Given the high cost of this effort, the declining military justification, and the fact that less expensive alternatives exist, Congress should scale back this program dramatically.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) plans to extend the service life of 400 B61 bombs for an estimated cost of $10 billion, or $25 million per bomb. NNSA is requesting $537 million for the program in fiscal year 2014, a 45 percent increase over the 2013 appropriation.

This is just the beginning of an expensive series of Life Extension Programs (LEPs) in the pipeline. According to the FY2014  Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, NNSA wants to upgrade four additional warhead types between now and 2038, each of which will cost more than the B61. All told, NNSA plans to spend more than $65 billion on upgrading five warhead types over the next 25 years, requiring a significant increase in annual funding.

Given the current fiscal climate, such spending plans are not realistic. For example, the GOP-controlled House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee voted last week to cut the administration's request for NNSA weapons activities by $193 million. The subcommittee had specific concerns about the life extension programs, and required NNSA to prepare a report on alternatives to its plans. The House and Senate Energy and Water subcommittees are expected to complete their bills this week.

Moreover, NNSA's plans do not reflect the reality that U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals are declining in size. President Obama announced just last week in Berlin that deployed strategic nuclear weapons can be reduced by one-third below New START treaty levels while ensuring a strong strategic deterrent. He said that he intends to seek negotiated strategic nuclear reductions with Russia.

Tactical B61s: No Need

President Obama also said in Berlin that he will "work with our NATO allies to seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe." The B61 is the only U.S. nuclear weapon in Europe, with about 180 stored in five NATO countries. It would be a waste of scarce resources to spend billions of dollars upgrading B61 tactical (or short range) bombs that may soon be retired.

With the Cold War over, the Warsaw Pact long gone, and the threat of a Soviet land-attack across central Europe no longer a possibility, there is no military justification for keeping B61 tactical bombs in NATO. These weapons should be returned to the United States and kept in secure storage. We can continue to reassure our NATO allies, and deter any nuclear weapons threat against NATO with nuclear weapons based in the United States and on submarines at sea.

Ruud Lubbers, Dutch prime minister from 1982 to 1994, recently confirmed that B61s are still stored in the Netherlands and said that the bomb is "an absolutely pointless part of a tradition in military thinking."

Strategic B61 Life Extension: Less Costly Alternatives

In addition to the tactical bombs, another 200 B61s are carried by strategic (or long range) B-2 bombers based in the United States, and while they may be reduced in the future, most are likely to remain in service. But even in this case, NNSA's $10 billion, gold-plated life extension plan can be scaled back. There are cheaper options that would save billions of dollars.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, said in April that NNSA has studied another option for the B61 LEP that would cost billions less. This option, known as the triple alteration or "triple-alt," would replace only three key bomb parts that are said to be nearing the end of their useful lives in the next ten years.

B61 bombs, like all modern nuclear weapons, have certain parts that have a predictable service life and are replaced on a regular basis. The triple-alt plan would replace the bomb's neutron generator, power source, and radar system. This plan would extend the life of B61 bombs for another 10 years, according to NNSA, and would cost approximately $3 billion, according to the Defense Department.

In contrast, the scope of NNSA's $10 billion LEP goes well beyond these three components and involves replacing hundreds of other parts, such as switches, foams, cables, and the bomb's uranium secondary. Many of these parts can wait until we have a better idea of how many B61 bombs are needed for the future. In all likelihood NNSA will be able to reduce the number of bombs to be upgraded, and save money.

Spending $10 billion on upgrading 400 B61 bombs would be a tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars. Instead, we can delay the tactical bomb upgrades for a year or more to see if progress can be made in removing B61s from Europe. As for the strategic version, we should be able to scale back the effort significantly. The scope and cost of the B61 LEP can be reduced by half or more, saving billions of dollars.--TOM Z. COLLINA


The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today