Efforts to eliminate funding for the B-61 gravity bomb threaten to undermine U.S. deterrence, writes Thomas Karako, director of the Center for the Study of American Democracy at Kenyon College.
Components of the B-61 weapon, the U.S.’s most visible commitment to European security, are reaching the end of their service lives. The U.S. must extend the life of this weapon.
The U.S. retains a few hundred of these weapons in Europe. Under the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives in the early 1990s, the U.S. eliminated a large portion of its short-range nuclear weapons arsenal. Russia promised to take reciprocal steps but has not followed through. This has left the U.S. with a major disadvantage in this class of weapons.
Russia is engaged in a major military build-up, both conventional and nuclear, and it is in violation of its arms control obligations. Reducing the number of B-61 weapons by attrition would seem like a reward to Russia’s increasingly aggressive behavior and would make U.S. allies in Europe nervous.
The strategic utility of the B-61 weapon, however, goes beyond U.S. interests in Europe. Allies in South Korea and Japan seek Washington’s assurances vis-à-vis North Korea. North Korea already has nuclear weapons and is working on the means to deliver them effectively. It attacked South Korea and has threatened to attack the U.S. The U.S. might need the B-61’s capability to reassure allies and dissuade them from developing their own nuclear weapons.
The B-61 Life Extension Program is the beginning of the Obama Administration’s efforts to sustain the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. It will contribute to maintaining the health and knowledge base of the U.S. industrial complex. While the U.S. is not developing any new nuclear weapons, nor is it planning on testing the weapons it currently has, it must maintain nuclear know-how. The world is not getting any safer, and the nation has been surprised by unexpected developments. Future surprises might concern other nations’ nuclear weapon capabilities.
The National Nuclear Security Administration estimated that the program will cost over $8 billion total and will extend the B-61’s life expectancy by 20 to 30 years. European allies will contribute their territories, personnel, and dual-capable aircraft to extend deterrence. They have repeatedly endorsed their commitment to forward-deployed weapons.
Karako concludes that the B-61 “is vetted and ready. Its completion is necessary to meet deterrence requirements, assure allies, stem further proliferation, and allow prudent reductions to the stockpile.”