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B61 – a pork barrel* bomb

June 6, 2013

[Ed. note: Dr. Westberg of SLMK, IPPNW’s Swedish affiliate, joined a delegation that met with NATO officials in Brussels on June 3.]

B-61There 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 movement most have been returned to the owner, the USA.

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 preparing for the Chicago NATO Summit in 2012. As “gravity bombs,” they could not be well targeted. They stayed in Europe as pawns, indicating that the USA 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 of the bombs with great passion, although France is not a member of the strategic council of NATO. France is very special…

Now the B-61 role is being changed. All these bombs in US 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, they 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 weapons that could be used. 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 recent strategic meeting by NATO in Chicago.

So why the 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 $10 billion and running, will be carried by the US tax payer, and reduce resources for, e.g., 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 US planes are well suited for these bombs.**

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 is found in the PSR publication from 2003, What wrongs our arms may do.


* 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, but the next year the price was guessed to be double that sum in the end. A Norwegian Air Force Officer estimated that the total cost of each F-35 over its life time would be $ 733 million. The US plans are still to buy 2,400 F-35 planes.

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