By Gunnar Westberg
There are at present about 180 B-61 nuclear bombs in Europe, in Germany, Italy, Turkey, The Netherlands and Belgium. There used to be about three times as many but under pressure from both governments and peace movements most have been returned to their owner, the United States.
We have always been told that these “Nato bombs” were of no military value. This has been the message at our meetings with Nato officials as well as during meetings during last year’s preparing for the Chicago Nato Summit. As “gravity bombs” they could not hit their targets with precision. They stayed in Europe as pawns, indicating that the U.S. was willing to defend Europe, with nukes if need be. This was of course quite irrational, but nuclear weapons are irrational. France seems to have resisted the removal bombs with great passion, although France is not a member of the strategic council of Nato. France is very special…
Now the B-61 rôle is about to change. All the bombs in U.S. possession will be upgraded and modernized. Under the Nuclear Stewardship program they will be extensively overhauled. Independent experts say that no such check-up is needed, the weapons are fully reliable as they are.
Moreover, they will be equipped with a tail fin and a steering system, making it possible to hit with precision. They will have a variable “payload”, explosive power, from very low up to something like four times the Hiroshima bomb.
Thus, these purely political symbols will become militarily useful weapons. Their targets are likely to be underground, such as Russian silos for nuclear missiles. This implies a change in the military doctrines and as such, should be discussed among Nato leaders. There is no sign of such a discussion, e.g. in the documents from the strategic NATO meeting in Chicago.
So why this sudden interest in these antiquated left-overs from the Cold war? The reason, if the only or the main reason, is that President Obama had made a deal with senators who have strong connections with the nuclear weapons laboratories. The labs must have something to do. They must be able to recruit young talent to ensure the future of the nuclear weapons age. Then a reconstructed B 61 with a variable payload may seem like an attractive project. The labs can attract young scientists, and the senators will get support and votes.
The cost, now US $10 billion and running, will be carried by the U.S. tax payers and unavoidably reduce resources for such things as health care and education.
However, these new weapons cannot be carried on the existing fighter planes owned by Nato member states. These states will have to buy new planes. It seems that only U.S. planes are well suited for these bombs**.
It seems that these changes, in doctrines, in technology and in cost, should be discussed in the parliaments of Nato states. Hospitals are closing, social benefits are cancelled. Only military spending is left untouched.
Valuable background information can be found in the
PSR publication from 2003:
*) Pork barrel, noun N. Amer. Informal, used in reference to the utilization of government funds for projects designed to please voters or legislators and win votes: the lesson that power is based on the pork barrel and purchased with patronage
**) The cost of a F-35 fighter plane to a buyer is not decided. In May 2011 a quoted price was 133 million US $, but the next year the final price was estimated at twice that sum. A Norwegian Air Force Officer estimated that the total cost of each F-35 over its life time would be $ 733 million. Still, the U.S. plans to buy 2,400 F-35 planes.