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A Tale of Two Bombs

Goodbye to an old stalwart, and hello to a new nuke
A U.S. Air Force F-16 launches a new kind of nuclear weapon over the Nevada desert last March. (Photo: Sandia National Laboratories / James Galli)

This is the story of a pair of Air Force bombs. I came across it just before Thanksgiving, and in the days since—probably like you—I have been confronted with the traditional late-November choice: dark meat, or light. Or, in this case: conventional, or nuclear?

The first of the two bombs is coming to the end of its career. It’s a dumb iron weapon that has served the U.S. military since Elvis. The second is the rejuvenation of an atomic bomb that has been around since the Beatles.

Nuclear weapons generally have been so huge and crude that they have been self-deterring. The B61-12 suggests that may no longer be the case.

Given the current state of world affairs, there’s no denying nuclear weapons have a place on the American military menu. But, as Mom used to say around a groaning Thanksgiving table: Moderation in all things. The U.S. military likes to tweak Ben Franklin’s adage just a bit: Modernization in all things.

The Air Force recently completed its initial series of tests on this first-ever nuclear smart bomb, at Nevada’s Tonopah Test Range and other locations (one test was delayed until wild horses could be herded away from the target zone). Meanwhile, airmen at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana spent their days before Thanksgiving building the service’s final M-117 non-nuclear bombs.

Each kind of bomb weighs about 750 pounds, but that’s where their similarities end.

The Pentagon’s nuclear stockpile is aging and shrinking, so it’s eager to revitalize what it’s got. And just as you probably recycle your cans and newspapers (assuming you’re a subscriber), the Air Force is recycling old nuclear weapons. Earlier generations of the B61 bomb are being retooled and outfitted with new electronic guts and a “guided tail-kit assembly” to create the B61-12.

Ever since Hiroshima, it has been a nuclear weapon’s dumbness—and sheer magnitude—that marked its military utility. Nuclear weapons generally have been so huge and crude that they have been self-deterring. The B61-12 suggests that may no longer be the case.

That’s the obvious downside to making nuclear weapons smaller and more accurate: it increases the chances they will be used. The B61-12’s unspoken targets: buried nuclear-production sites and command and control bunkers belonging to nations like North Korea, Iran and Russia. The B61-12’s smaller blast would generate less atomic fallout, reducing civilian deaths and thereby giving it even more utility. Its mini-nuke nature also makes it better-suited for forward-deployed warplanes based in Europe or Asia with U.S. and allied forces.

B61-12 nuclear bomb test
A mockup of the B61-12 nuclear bomb is tested in a Tennessee wind tunnel to ensure its accuracy. (Photo: National Nuclear Security Administration)

It’s a dumb bomb made smart by its adjustable tail fins that is likely to guide it within 100 feet of its target (its accuracy remains classified). Think of it as a nuclear Joint Direct-Attack Munition, the GPS-guided bomb that dramatically increased the accuracy of non-nuclear U.S. airpower beginning in 2000. The Pentagon plans to spend about $10 billion to build about 400 B61-12s, roughly $25 million a pop. They should be ready for action in 2020.

The B61 first entered the U.S. stockpile in 1968. “However, the aging weapon system requires a life extension to continue deterring potential adversaries and reassuring our allies and partners of our security commitments to them,” the National Nuclear Security Administration, responsible for developing U.S. nuclear weapons, says.

Not everyone is convinced. “The new version of the B61 would be our first nuclear smart bomb, but it is still a dumb idea,” says Joe Cirincione, president of the anti-nuclear Ploughshares Fund. “Rather than increasing our security, the new B61 increases the likelihood that a president would be convinced to use nuclear weapons first, under the mistaken belief that the smaller, more accurate blast would minimize civilian casualties.”

And this new bomb isn’t the end of it. The B61-12 represents a gateway drug for two new nuclear weapons. “This is the first major Air Force nuclear-warhead modernization effort since the mid-1980s,” says Colonel Dustin Ziegler, a top Air Force weapons expert. It paves the way “for future nuclear modernization programs like the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent and the Long Range Standoff weapon.”

The Air Force’s top general says his service’s newest nuclear weapons—next-generation ICBMs and an air-launched cruise missile—are so vital (and costly) that he’s looking to accelerate their procurement. “How do we get this capability earlier?” General David Goldfein recently wondered aloud to the Defense One website. “Because if you can actually get it faster, you can get it cheaper sometimes.” The two new weapons, slated for service starting in about a decade, will cost close to $100 billion.

The U.S. military likes to tweak Ben Franklin’s adage just a bit: Modernization in all things.

Goldfein’s service tapped Boeing and Northrop Grumman in August to compete to build the so-called Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (who knows where the Air Force gets these names, but it’s a safe bet the use of “ground” has Curtis LeMay turning over in his Air Force Academy grave) to replace the Minuteman III missiles standing alert in silos in the northern Great Plains. And the Air Force selected Lockheed Martin and Raytheon the same month to vie to build the new cruise missile, bizarrely named the Long-Range Standoff (or LRSO) weapon.

The Air Force says it needs the cruise missile so its aircraft can fling them without sending manned aircraft into hostile airspace. Of course, that’s precisely what the ICBMs are designed to do. The Pentagon’s concern over saving the lives of a handful of pilots in a nuclear exchange that could kill tens of millions is almost quaint. Sure, it makes some kind of sense in PowerPoint briefings, but such perverse calculations echo Dr. Strangelove’s Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper.

But now the Pentagon is seeking a super-accurate nuclear bomb—with adjustable levels of destruction—to threaten enemy targets without destroying entire cities or industrial complexes. Once burrowed inside the ground, the weapon can do a lot more damage with a far smaller warhead—something that critics fear could also make it more usable.

“The yield required of a nuclear weapon to destroy a hard and deeply buried target is reduced by a factor of 15 to 25 by enhanced ground-shock coupling if the weapon is detonated a few meters below the surface,” the nation’s top scientists noted in a 2005 National Research Council study. But that also has benefits: once the B61-12 is operational, the Pentagon plans to retire far more destructive nuclear weapons.

This is all part of a new military strategy that turns the old “biggest bang for the buck” on its (war)head. When national survival is not at stake, the U.S. military finds itself eager to use smaller weapons that reduce civilian deaths (the cloaked epithet “collateral damage”). Besides, there’s no way to wage an indefinite war with huge weapons—there just aren’t that many tempting targets in the insurgencies that look like they’re going to be the U.S. military’s bread and butter for awhile.

But tiny weapons require amazingly precise intelligence that’s usually MIA. It’s worth noting that the U.S. military strived vainly to kill both Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden with bombs and missiles from the sky. But ultimately, they had to rely on Navy SEALs to shoot bin Laden and angry Iraqi Shiites to hang Saddam. I can remember talking to Saudi-bound U.S. troops in 1990. One dryly noted that the massive half-million mobilization wouldn’t be needed if someone in Saddam’s inner circle would just kill him.

An insider will always be the ultimate smart weapon.

Unfortunately, bombs will often remain the weapon of choice absent a willing insider.

Meanwhile, airmen at that Louisiana base wrapped up work on the service’s final 31 non-nuclear M-117s. “These bombs have been around since the Korean war,” Technical Sergeant Michael Bryant said to an Air Force reporter. “This is very exciting for us because these are the last few M-117s in the whole Air Force.”

Airmen work on M-117 bombs
Airmen finish work on the final lot of M-117 non-nuclear bombs at Barksdale Air Force Base, La. (Photo: Air Force / Tessa B. Corrick)

As has been true since cavemen swapped their stone spear tips for bronze, improved weapons have driven the M-117 from the U.S. arsenal. “We don’t really need these bombs anymore,” Bryant said. “We have bigger, better, smarter weapons that accomplish the mission.”

Here’s hoping the B61-12 isn’t one of them.