This month contains the 70th anniversary of a nuclear world, and the times we live in cast the somber anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in an ominous light. Ongoing negotiations with Iran to reach some sort of an agreement on how to structure its nuclear program serve as a reminder that we still live in the shadow of the bomb. We mustn’t forget that there exists a very real man-made method to eradicate life on Earth.
This makes it all the more troubling that President Barack Obama has very quietly betrayed his past promises of nuclear proliferation and been making dangerous upgrades to our nuclear arsenal, specifically the B61-12 nuclear bomb.
One of the reasons Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2009 was his proclaimed support of nuclear non-proliferation. Mohamed El Baradei, the head of the United Nations nuclear monitoring group the International Atomic Energy Agency, told reporters that he couldn’t think of a figure more deserving of the award than Obama. “In less than a year in office, [Obama] has transformed the way we look at ourselves and the world we live in and rekindled hope for a world at peace with itself,” he said.
In an attempt to fulfill the bombastic promise of his Nobel, Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review articulated his intent not to develop new nukes. But non-action isn’t enough in a nuclear context. The inertia his policy has enabled brought about continued investment and continued production, and the B61-12 nuclear bomb is an example of America’s ongoing appetite for new weapons technology. Even though the B61 type nuclear bomb has been around since the '60s as a staple of our last-resort nuclear gravity bomb arsenal, its latest iteration should be classified as a new weapon entirely. Its guidance system, a complex Boeing-designed tail kit, and dial-a-yield controls to vary the power of the blast, also make it more dangerous than previous weapons, if only because it is more likely to actually be used.
Before the latest iteration, the most recent innovation to the B-61 series was a “bunker busting” variant developed in the late 1990s. All of these models were designed to drop from planes and freefell on to their targets. While it’s true that a high yield, hard-to-aim bomb has traditionally been a method of helping to ensure that our nuclear arsenal is used primarily as a deterrent to other nuclear powers, the B61-12, with a highly sophisticated $178 billion tail guidance system isn’t part of a defensive posture at all. A more accurate nuke could theoretically end up saving lives by creating less collateral damage — but not before wreaking havoc on their actual targets. What’s more, this accuracy makes the bombs more likely to actually be used at all, transforming the bomb from a strategic last resort into a feasible tactical method.
As well as being easier to aim, B61-12’s have a feature that allows their dispatcher to control the blast yield, or the amount of energy released in a nuclear blast, usually expressed in equivalent tons of TNT. It sounds counterintuitive, but adjusting the blast radius of a nuclear weapon down makes it more likely to be used in future conflicts because it, at least theoretically, presents a chance of reducing collateral damage.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists categorizes tactical nukes as “weapons in search of a doctrine”, and warns that “there is no rational doctrine” for the use of these kinds of tactical nukes, that a war in which they were used “may create the illusion that a limited nuclear war can be fought” cleanly and efficiently without devolving into a full-blown nuclear holocaust.
Of course, other countries have tactical nukes, too. This only makes the American nuclear arsenal an even more dangerous potential catalyst for a larger war. Pakistan recently confirmed that short-range tactical nuclear weapons, or “battlefield nukes” are part of their plan to defeat India in battle. Critics like former Indian special envoy for disarmament and nuclear nonproliferation Rakesh Sood maintain that it is “extremely destabilizing for any country to develop tactical nuclear weapons,” for the obvious reason that if Pakistan uses them, so will India. India only has large, strategic, nuclear weapons to respond with. This is to say nothing of the security concerns surrounding Pakistan’s battlefield nukes, of their greater ability to be stolen and used by renegade lone wolves or terrorist groups such as Al-Qaida.
America’s possession of the B61-12 is as provocative as Pakistan’s hold on its battlefield nukes. As Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said recently of the B61-12: “It turns out that under the disguise of a notorious and invented threat coming from the Russian side, the United States was not only increasing the military potential and activity of NATO member states, but was upgrading its nuclear potential as well.”
Finally, the B61-12 was designed to be carried by the latest multi-role joint fighter plane, the problem-wracked F-35. This plane, in turn, is designed to sneak past enemy radar to deliver its payload. This spells disaster. “If the Russians put out a guided nuclear bomb on a stealth fighter that could sneak through our air defenses, would that add to the perception here that they were lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons?” Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists said to Len Ackland and Burt Hubbard from the Center for Investigative Reporting. “Absolutely.”
The connection between the F-35, the most expensive weapon in human history, and the B61-12, the most expensive nuclear bomb in history, is not a coincidence. Both are the products of a broken defense budget process and revolving door between military, industry and lobbying positions. A special government audit into the lobbying process that led to the B61-12 variant released in 2014 detailed how the two main contractors behind the project, Lockheed Martin and Sandia, attempted to extend federal contracts without an open bidding process. It was a damning document that revealed how deeply greed corrupts reason in defense appropriations. This is a particularly dangerous racket when it comes to nuclear weapons.
At the time of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, mankind’s staggering capacity for destruction had reached such a magnitude that only theological language could do it justice. Hence Robert Oppenheimer, the lead research scientist for the development of the bomb, quoted Vishnu from the Hindu religious text the Bhagavad-Gita in response to the bomb’s creation: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
The development of the B61-12 is a repudiation of all subsequent rhetoric surrounding the memorialization of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The creation of a precision guided, low-yield nuclear weapon makes the world a more dangerous place. Its purpose isn’t to deter or defend, but instead serves as a way to transfer vast amounts of public money into private hands. Most importantly, it isn’t the way of a morally serious nation. The burden of history compels us to do better than this.