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Aging US atomic bomb caught in strategic tug-of-war

Published time: September 23, 2013 22:37
Edited time: September 24, 2013 04:55
B61 Thermonuclear Bomb. (Photo from Wikipedia.org)

B61 Thermonuclear Bomb. (Photo from Wikipedia.org)

The clock is ticking for upgrades on America’s oldest atomic bomb before the 1960s-era electronics become outdated - and unpredictable - in the next decade, the head of US Strategic Command said.

The B61 bomb was designed in the 1960s for NATO bombers and tactical fighters to defend against Soviet incursion into Western Europe.

NATO air bases in Europe are stocked with 180 B61s, according to Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. He said that another 250 remain in North Dakota and Missouri to arm B-52 and B-2 strategic bombers, while another 500 are inactive.

Now that the bombs are around five decades old, electronic parts have made their maintenance “unpredictable and irregular,” said a senior USAF official quoted by Air Force Magazine in April. The Pentagon now wants to upgrade four aged B61 variants into a new version called the B61-12.

Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander of the Nebraska-based US Strategic Command, told the Omaha World-Herald that now is the time to address making a decision on these bombs.

“The B61 life-extension program is absolutely necessary,” Kehler said. “Much has been deferred. Now we don't have the luxury of waiting.”

But the cost estimates of such a project have now reached $28 millon per bomb, which is part of a potential $65 billion effort to upgrade America’s total nuclear arsenal and various missiles, aircraft, and other hardware to carry the bombs.

“The B61 is the first in that queue,”
Kingston Reif, director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said. “There's concern about whether these plans make any sense.”

Even proponents of a full-scale upgrade of B61 capabilities have pointed out that much of the old technology cannot be redeemed. They are pushing to begin the weapons reset as soon as possible.

“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 upgrading. “We are facing a very serious situation when it comes to nuclear weapons.”

Yet US President Barack Obama’s nuclear modernization plan, which calls for a $4 billion, 10-year effort to upgrade 400 bombs, includes replacing obsolete parts of the B61. The project was set in motion in 2010, when the US Senate agreed to extend the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that Obama negotiated with Russia in exchange for more spending on weapons upgrades.

While military sources say the renewal project is crucial for security purposes and NATO cohesion, advocates for reducing nuclear weapons say the retooling of the B61 is a violation of the president’s pledge to lessen the global nuclear arsenal – much of which is still around from the Cold War.

Towering B61 upgrade costs - estimates have reached $10.4 billion - have united conservative and liberal members of Congress in calling for cuts to the B61 program.

Pentagon budget reductions in the current fiscal year already cut appropriations for Obama’s renewal project by about 20 percent. And next year, members on committees that oversee the nuclear stockpile budget are threatening to drop one-third of the $537 million that the Obama administration has requested for the B61.

Nevertheless, Kehler is pushing for more B61 capabilities as soon as possible.

“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.”

The first of the upgraded B61s are scheduled to be ready in 2019 - around the time the older versions should be phased out.

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