Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.
OPINION — I have a job for the people running the Biden Nuclear Posture Review.
Buried in the Biden fiscal 2022 budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is $98.5 million to begin extending the service life of the almost 40-year-old, B83-1 nuclear gravity bomb, the last one in the U.S. arsenal that can deliver a one megaton explosion – that’s the equivalent of one million tons of TNT. It’s time to get rid of the B-83. To keep it in the nuclear arsenal illustrates the lack of serious thinking associated with nuclear weapons.
Seven years ago, in June 2014, the Obama administration announced it would retire the B-83 and replace it with the proposed B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb, the first of which was to be produced in 2020. In August 2016, then-Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz told Congress “Once completed, the B61-12 LEP (Life Extension Program) will allow for the retirement of the B83-1—the last megaton-class weapon in America’s nuclear arsenal—while supporting the nation’s continued commitment to our national security and that of our allies and partners.”
However, two years later, the 2018 Trump Nuclear Posture Review directed the NNSA to “retain the B83-1 until a suitable replacement is identified,” although at the time, the B61-12 program – though more costly than expected – was moving forward.
In April 2019, then-Deputy Administrator for NNSA Defense Programs Charles Verdon, said the agency wanted about $52 million for B-83 stockpile sustainment in fiscal 2020, during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee. “What is that for?” Senator Dianne Feinstein asked during that hearing. “We’ve upped the surveillance on [B83] in order to meet the annual assessment requirements associated with … keeping it in the stockpile longer,” Verdon said. Feinstein asked if the Pentagon wanted to keep the B83 in the NNSA’s active stockpile because its destructive yield was potentially so much greater than the B61. Verdon said the Defense Department’s decision was “based on their need for targeting: what they need for targets that they’re provided that they have to hold at risk.” Feinstein did not ask what targets needed a one megaton thermonuclear bomb to be held at risk, but the indication was that they were underground. At the time, the U.S. reportedly had 100 B83s in the stockpile [650 B83s were originally produced].
In January 2020, it was reported that America’s main strategic bomber, the B-52H, was no longer configured to carry the B83 bomb. That left only B-2s authorized to carry the B83 and there are at most, 20 of those aircraft. In June 2020, the Nuclear Weapons Council, the senior Pentagon group that develops stockpile options and includes the NNSA Administrator, decided to extend the life of the B83, a plan that then-President Trump later signed off on. So far, the Biden team has not objected.
The Biden NNSA fiscal 2022 budget released ten days ago, included funds to “begin implementation of B-83 extension,” according to a document sent to Congress. The requested $98.5 million would “start initial activities,” the NNSA document said, which included replacement of neutron generators, Tritium reservoirs, and the development of a Joint DoD/NNSA Test Assembly program.
The B61-12 has been successfully tested in drops from the F-35 fighter-bomber and B-2. The fiscal 2022 budget also provides funds to move the B61-12 to full scale production which is scheduled to be completed in 2026.
It was the Trump 2018 Nuclear Posture Review that revived the B83; it should be the Biden Nuclear Posture Review that retires this unneeded weapon for good.
The Biden group should also rethink $10 million in the fiscal 2022 NNSA budget to begin a feasibility study and design options for the W80-4 warhead for a low-yield, revival of a Navy Sea-Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM).
This would not be a new nuclear weapon but rather the return of one that then-President George H.W. Bush wisely withdrew in 1991 as a part of his plan to limit forward deployed, tactical nuclear weapons. Back then, there was a nuclear version of the dual-purpose, Tomahawk cruise missile deployed on some Navy ships and attack submarines. The 2010 Obama Nuclear Posture Review called for retirement of those nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles. Although Russia retained many of its tactical nukes, the Obama review said, “Because of our improved relations [with Moscow], the need for strict numerical parity between the two countries is no longer as compelling as it was during the Cold War.”
The Navy has kept the non-nuclear, conventional Tomahawk cruise missiles on ships and attack submarines and used them in 2018 to attack Syrian targets. When those Tomahawks were launched, no one watching them fly toward targets had to worry that they could have nuclear warheads.
Again, the Trump 2018 Nuclear Posture Review saw it differently. It worried about Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and China’s nuclear, intermediate-range missiles in the Far East. To meet those challenges, the Trump team called for developing “a modern, nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile…[with] a low-yield SLBM warhead.” Since it would be at sea, it “will not require or rely on host nation support to provide deterrent effect,” the Trump review said. While there was no immediate direct threat to the U.S., officials working for Trump called it “a valuable hedge against future nuclear ‘break out’ scenarios.”
But we already have low-yield tactical nuclear weapons in B61 bombs, whose dial-a-yield capability can be exploded way below one kiloton, or the equivalent of around 300 tons of TNT.
The U.S. already has recently deployed a new, low-yield, nuclear warhead, the W76-2, on Trident D-5s, submarine-launched strategic ballistic missile submarines. Their presence puts Russia or some other target country in position to guess how powerful a warhead on that missile may be, since most W76’s on the D5s are in the 100 kiloton range. Biden ,back in July 2019, described the low-yield nuclear weapons as a “bad idea.”
It is not as if the Biden team eliminating the B83, the proposed low-yield, nuclear Tomahawk warhead and even the W76-2, would leave the U.S. without a modernized nuclear arsenal. According to the latest State Department report of October 1, 2020, the U.S. currently has 675 deployed strategic nuclear delivery systems (165 more than the Russians), and 1,457 deployed strategic warheads (10 more than the Russians).
Meanwhile, the Biden fiscal 2022 NNSA budget also provides funds for upgrading warheads for the Air Force’s new, nuclear long-range, stand-off air-launched cruise missile (W80-4); the Navy’s Trident D5 SLBM (W88); the Air Force’s new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent missile (W87-1), and the Navy’s new SLBM (W93) for the new Columbia strategic submarine. There is also money for testing the newly refurbished warheads for currently deployed SLBMs (the W76); production of the B61-12; pre-production of the refurbished warhead in the Minuteman III (W78).
The Defense Department is doing its share in the nuclear field. Biden’s fiscal 2022 Pentagon budget has $27.7 billion for modernization of the land, sea and air systems that will deliver nuclear weapons. There is $5 billion for the new Columbia submarines; $3 billion for the B-21 long-range strike bomber, $2.6 billion for the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ICBM, and $609 million for the long-range, stand-off air-launched cruise missile.
The Obama 2010 Nuclear Posture Review has as one of its main objectives, “Reducing the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy.” The Biden fiscal 2022 budget proposal for NNSA does not do that.
The Biden Nuclear Posture Review should take another look, particularly in a world where cyber and space are becoming more dominant as war fighting domains.
Have an expert-opinion to share? Drop us a note at [email protected]
Read more expert-driven national security insights, perspective and analysis in The Cipher Brief