The oldest atomic bomb in the U.S. arsenal desperately needs to be upgraded before its aging electronics go bad early in the next decade, the head of the Offutt-based U.S. Strategic Command says.
Gen. C. Robert Kehler has been telling anyone who will listen that the clock is ticking on the B61 bomb. It was designed in the 1960s to be dropped from NATO's strategic bombers and tactical fighters, thwarting a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.
“The B61 life-extension program is absolutely necessary,” Kehler said in an interview with The World-Herald. “Much has been deferred. Now we don't have the luxury of waiting.”
But congressional opponents on the right and left are lining up against the program, citing cost estimates that have doubled in just two years to more than $28 million per bomb. As anti-nuclear activists are fond of pointing out, that's about twice what it would cost if the B61 were made of solid gold.
What's more, the battle looks like a precursor to a much larger one over the planned retooling of America's nuclear weapons as well as the missiles, submarines and aircraft that carry them. The projected price tag for some of those upgrades already stands at $65 billion, even as the Pentagon enters an era of tight spending.
“The B61 is the first in that queue,” said Kingston Reif, director of nuclear nonproliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C. “There's concern about whether these plans make any sense.”
About 180 B61s are deployed at NATO air bases in Europe for tactical use to blunt a Russian attack, according to calculations by Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. An estimated 250 more are in place to arm B-52 and B-2 strategic bombers in North Dakota and Missouri, he said, and an additional 500 are inactive.
After decades of storage, though, some of the electronic parts have grown obsolete and unreliable. The Pentagon wants to upgrade the four aged B61 types into a single new one called the B61-12.
“Some of the components are so old, they can't be replaced,” said Michaela Dodge, defense and strategic policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who supports the upgrade. “We are facing a very serious situation when it comes to nuclear weapons.”
President Barack Obama has championed the B61 upgrade in spite of his frequently stated goal of reducing nuclear weapons. In 2010, he asked Congress to spend $4 billion over 10 years to refurbish 400 of the bombs as part of the larger program to modernize the nuclear arsenal.
He agreed to boost spending on the modernization plan to win the support of Senate Republicans that year for the extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that Obama had negotiated with the Russians, analysts say.
The plan pitched by the National Nuclear Security Administration, which manages the country's nuclear stockpile, would do more than just replace obsolete parts of the B61.
It also would add certain security features that backers say would make the bomb safer even if it fell into the wrong hands, although critics contend those features are unnecessary. And it would retrofit the bomb so it could be used with the new F-35 fighter jet.
Significantly, it would add a guided tail kit that would turn the B61 from a gravity-dependent “dumb” bomb into a “smart” one that could be aimed more precisely at a target.
“The big plus to the (B61-)12 is the additional precision guidance,” said Barry Watts, a retired Air Force officer who is now a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “The anti-nuclear groups look at it as a new capability, a new warhead.”
Arms-control advocates have argued the B61-12 upgrade violates Obama's 2010 nuclear strategy, which pledged not to add military capabilities when upgrading nuclear weapons.
The trouble with that strategy, Watts said, is that the U.S. arsenal is full of larger weapons designed for a massive Cold War confrontation with the Soviets. Now, though, the Russians and other nations in the nuclear club are focusing on smaller, tactical weapons designed to take out armies instead of cities.
Watts believes the U.S. emphasis on reducing weapons is misguided.
“If everybody on Earth were following (Obama's) lead, that would be fine,” Watts said. “But most countries are walking in the opposite direction.”
The escalating cost of the B61 upgrade has inspired some Tea Party conservatives in Congress to join forces with nuclear skeptics on the left.
By 2012, cost estimates had more than doubled, to $10.4 billion. Kristensen has called it the “most expensive nuclear bomb project in history.”
“It's a huge budget-buster,” said Reif, from the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
Members of Congress are beginning to cut back the B61 program. The current year's budget sequester already reduced appropriations for the project by about 20 percent. For next year, congressional subcommittees that oversee the nuclear stockpile budget are threatening to cut the Obama administration's $537 million B61 request by about one-third.
The tug of war is frustrating for Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, who has spoken up for StratCom's priorities from her position on the Senate Armed Services Committee — which, she said, has fully supported the president's B61 plans.
“Cost growth and schedule slips are serious issues, and another year of sequestration cuts will only exacerbate these problems,” she said in a statement released from her Washington office. “As these issues compound, and the weapons continue to age, we approach the possibility that our military may not have this critical tool at its disposal. I hope Congress acts before this point is reached.”
Kristensen, however, said he hopes the cuts imposed by Congress will force the Obama administration to look at lower-cost alternatives to the souped-up B61-12.
“How exotic do you need to make the upgrade?” he said. “There are cheaper ways to do these things.”
Kristensen has proposed one such plan. His idea is to upgrade only one of the four current models, the B61-7, of which about 215 are deployed in the United States. That would fix three of the most critical aging components, skipping the F-35 compatibility upgrade and the expensive guided-tail kit.
He estimates the B61-7 alternative would cost no more than $2 billion, or one-fifth as much as the current plan. His plan also would remove all the weapons from Europe, because the versions used there would not be upgraded.
In his view, that's a plus. Anti-nuclear groups in Western Europe have long opposed the presence of the weapons there, and Kristensen sees the threat of a Russian attack as remote. President George W. Bush already had cut the number of warheads in Europe by half.
“This is an irritant for a mission that's not very important,” he said.
Kehler and his allies, though, see the European weapons as important, and they favor the full modernization.
“What they provide is assurance for our (European) allies,” Dodge said. “They're a visible testament to NATO's cohesion.”
Kehler believes scrimping on the B61 upgrade now will only cost more later.
“We think this is a good investment in the long term,” he said. “It makes the most sense to do a more comprehensive life-extension now because, also in the long term, that's going to be the most cost-effective way to go forward.”
There is not much time to delay. Under the current schedule, the first of the upgraded B61s are scheduled to be ready in 2019 — just as the old ones are expected to age out.
And with critical nuclear upgrades planned for missiles and their delivery systems in the coming decades, the military says it can't afford to slow down now.
“We have a series of life-extensions that need to occur in order here,” Kehler said. “And now is the time to get moving.”