The arrival of the upgraded B61-12 gravity bomb, originally scheduled for next spring, has now been pushed back to December 2022. This is what US officials informed their NATO allies at a closed meeting in Brussels this month, the cable reveals. The move, which involves replacing older weapons with new versions at various warehouses in Europe for potential use by US and allied bombers and fighter jets, comes amid heightened tensions over Russia’s threats to use nuclear weapons.
The modernization of the B61 program has been openly discussed in budget documents and public statements for years, and Pentagon officials say it is necessary to ensure that the stockpile is modernized and safe. Asked for comment, Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder responded by email that “while we will not discuss specifics about our nuclear arsenal, the modernization of America’s B61 nuclear weapons has been underway for years, and plans to safely and responsibly replace more the old weapons with the upgraded B61-12 versions are part of a long-planned modernization effort.”
“This is in no way related to the current events in Ukraine and has not been accelerated in any way,” the general also claimed. The arrival date came as a surprise to some longtime observers, who fear it could further inflame an already dangerous situation in Europe. The announcement at the Brussels meeting came days before NATO began its annual Steadfast Noon nuclear exercise. The two-week exercise ends on Sunday and involves about 70 aircraft. On Wednesday, October 26, Russia conducted a nuclear drill that Defense Minister Shoigu described as a simulation of a “massive nuclear strike” in response to a nuclear attack by an adversary.
The message behind sending the first bombs in December may be aimed more at European allies who feel particularly vulnerable to Moscow.
“I think it’s aimed more at NATO than at Russia,” said Tom Colina, policy director at the Plowshares Fund, a disarmament group.
“There are already [older] B61s there. The Russians know that” he said. And he added that the old nuclear weapons work well, and the difference with the new ones is not so great.
“But this may be a way to secure the allies when they feel particularly threatened by Russia,” the expert believes.
Two people familiar with the matter of the upcoming delivery to Europe confirmed the accelerated time frame reported in the diplomatic cable. They have asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject.
The information, which has not been made public until now and is intended to give policymakers at the State Department and the Pentagon a brief on what was discussed between defense ministers at the NATO meeting, makes it clear that allies are on edge.
The document said that during the meetings, the 15 NATO allies expressed concern that the alliance “should not give in to Putin’s nuclear blackmail”.
“Given the growing volume and scale of Russian nuclear rhetoric, some Allies have requested continued NATO consultations to ensure continued readiness,” the cable added.
However, Colina also warned that any steps related to nuclear weapons, however modest, could have unpredictable consequences. “It could escalate. We’ll see,” he said.
B61s are nuclear bombs first developed in the early 1960s and initially demonstrated in underground nuclear tests in Nevada. A dozen versions have been developed over the decades, most of which have now been decommissioned.
The $10 billion B61-12 life extension program is managed by the Department of Energy and aims to replace several earlier versions, including about 100 bombs stored at air bases in Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Turkey.
The upgrade addresses the non-nuclear aspects of the unguided bomb’s design and includes removing the parachute, installing a new tail assembly, and other improvements for “significantly greater accuracy,” says Hans Christensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, who is closely monitoring the project. The new version is designed so that US and allied bombers and fighter jets – including the B-2 and B-21 bombers and the F-15, F-16, F-35, and Tornado fighters – can carry the weapon, unlike the few older versions of the B61 that have been in storage for years.
The warhead itself is one of the most versatile in the US arsenal, as its explosive power can be increased or decreased depending on the target, making it a low- or medium-power weapon.
The new delivery date is a sign that the Pentagon has judged the weapon to be ready earlier than planned, Christensen said. He points out that the MoD inspector general is expected to complete a review of the weapon’s performance before aircrew training begins – late this year or early next year.
The Air Force conducted flight tests of the new bomb design on the F-35A in October 2021 and certified it on the F-15E in 2020. But in February, the Pentagon said it plans to “complete certification of the B61-12 nuclear design with F-35A before January 2023, after which [US Air Forces in Europe] will be able to start certification training,” added Christensen.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told NATO allies in Brussels this month that the administration’s long-awaited nuclear policy review, likely to be released in the coming days, would preserve Washington’s decades-old nuclear policy of “calculated ambiguity,” it said. in the telegram. Austin’s assurance to European allies that US nuclear policy will remain unchanged comes as Europe seeks steady support from Washington to counter the nuclear powers of Russia and China.
During the Brussels meetings, Austin also informed allies that the review would support a full modernization of the US nuclear triad, while also retiring the B83 gravity bomb and ending the sea-launched nuclear missile program launched by the Trump administration.
But lawmakers oppose halting the cruise missile program and are likely to continue funding it in upcoming defense policy legislation, Politico predicted.