Tuesday, August 9, 2016


By Ronald T. Fox

LRSO Concept Design
Is This the Future?
Barack Obama began his presidency with a firm pledge to rid the world of nuclear weapons. In an oft-quoted speech in Prague, he said that as the only nuclear power to have used nuclear weapons, the United States had a moral responsibility to take “concrete steps” to begin to build a world without nuclear weapons. He reaffirmed his vision of a nuclear-free world during his recent visit to Hiroshima. Lofty rhetoric aside, his current nuclear modernization program promises to spur a renewed nuclear arms race and increase the risks of nuclear war.

The modernization program underscores the striking gap between Obama’s souring vision of a world without nuclear weapons and the tough political, economic, bureaucratic, and global realities of actually getting rid of nuclear weapons.
The program entails a massive three-decade project now estimated to cost at least $ 1 trillion dollars (and that’s before the inevitable delays and cost overruns set it). It will include the development new submarines, improved missiles, a fleet of new stealth bombers, improved missile defense and anti-satellite weapons, and, most troubling to me, the development of new guided gravity nuclear bomb (the B61-12) and a long-range standoff nuclear-armed cruise missile (LRSO) carrying the W80 warhead. The new B61-12 and the LRSO will usher in a new nuclear age, one characterized by the development of small, stealth, variable yield and highly accurate nuclear weapons.
Supportive arguments advanced by various members of the “nuclear enterprise”—a complex encompassing the Departments of Defense and Energy, nuclear weapons-oriented wings of the military services (especially the Air Force), the nuclear research laboratories (like Sandia and Los Alamos), defense hawks in Congress, and an army of former defense officials and contractors—have included: the predictable “weapons are getting old, we need new ones;” the modernization will bolster our security; and, most revealing, the new improved weapons will provide more flexibility for deploying nuclear weapons in an expanded array of circumstances. Here we have yet another reiteration of the idea of using nuclear weapons in a limited way—shades of nuclear war fighting thinking hatched at the Rand Corporation in the 1950s.
B61-12 gravity bomb
The B61-12 Nuclear Gravity Bomb
The so-called B61-12 nuclear weapon is a gravity bomb that has a tail guidance system that can deliver its payload with an accuracy of 30 meters. This expands the target set it can be used against. Its yield can be scaled to from .3 kilotons (KT) up to 50 KT. It can be set for airburst, ground burst, or serve as a ground penetrating bunker buster. Designed to protect NATO and Asian allies, the small B61-12 bomb (11’ 8” long and about 13” in diameter) can be deployed from bombers (such s the B-2), dual-capable fighter aircraft, and is planned to arm the F-35 long-range strike bomber. (Perhaps it part of an AF strategy to give purpose to the troubled F-35. See previous post: F-35 Cost Explodes: Business As Usual At The Pentagon)

B61-12 Nuclear bomb with new guided tail kit
The B61-12 With Guided Tail Kit
The bomb’s unparalleled precision and variable yield provides unprecedented versatility. It can serve both tactical and strategic purposes; for example, for use on the battlefield or for busting up hardened targets, or cities, if called for. Many nuclear strategists consider it the ultimate weapon for fulfilling a credible flexible response posture since it will enable limiting collateral damage on a battlefield. Its greater accuracy, coupled with the way its explosive force can be reduced electronically (through a dial-a-yield system accessed by a hatch on the bomb’s body), erodes a critical barrier to nuclear weapons use: fewer unintended casualties (from, for example, blast, radiation and fallout). This broadens, they contend, the range of circumstances that US military strategists might reasonably consider employing nuclear weapons. Making them more usable, in theory, would make it easier for a president to authorize their use. (Significantly, Donald Trump has not ruled out using nuclear weapons against ISIS.)

LRSO Long-Range Cruise Missile
The Proposed LRSO 
The small, sleek, LRSO nuclear-armed cruise missile, projected to cost $20-$30 billion, is being sold as essential to ensure we can penetrate enemy defenses. It is planned to be armed on a new stealth bomber, the B21 (80 to 100 are planned), expected to cost $60-$80 billion. I can’t follow the logic in why we would need both the LRSO and the B21. The plan is to build a stealth bomber for maximum penetrability and equip it with small, high speed, cruise missiles that can be fired from standoff positions. If penetrability is the goal, why do we need both weapons? Wouldn’t one or the other suffice?

B21 Stealth Bomber.First AF Picture
First AF Picture of the B21 Stealth Bomber
And why equip the LRSO with a nuclear tip? The Air Force already has highly capable long-range conventional armed cruise missiles that provide a standoff capability for our bombers. The LRSO will add little capability to the US strategic force mix. It will only make it easier to cross the nuclear threshold, which is not out of the question since the LRSO mission appears to entertain ideas about using nuclear weapons against regional and near-peer adversaries in the name of extended deterrence and escalation control before long-range missiles might be launched.
If you think the current enthusiasm for small, stealthy, precise nuclear weapons sounds familiar, you’d be correct. Defense intellectuals have been kicking around the whimsical, dangerous idea that a limited nuclear war is both possible and containable since the 1950s. The B61-12 and LRSO fit neatly into their war-fighting vision. (See previous posts: Counselors of War and From MAD to NUTS: the Militarization of U.S. Nuclear Strategy.)
Here’s a sampling of what defense officials are saying about the new weapons: they will enable us to deploy bombers “whenever and wherever we want; multiplying the number of penetrating targets imposes “an extremely difficult . . . defense problem on our potential adversaries;” the new systems will provide us “uniquely flexible options in an extreme crisis, particularly the ability to signal intent and control escalation, long-standing core elements of U.S. nuclear strategy;” they will enable us to control and limit “escalation throughout all stages of a potential conflict;” we will have “a rapid and flexible hedge against changes in the strategic environment;” and, the new weapons provide “an extremely valuable signaling capability and a degree of versatility unmatched elsewhere in the Triad.” It’s déjà vu all over again.
It is clear from the many statements being made to justify nuclear modernization, especially in advocating for the B61-12 and LRSO weapons, that the modernization project is not designed to strengthen our retaliatory capability (and therefore reinforce deterrence), but to fine-tune a nuclear strike capability that is intended for use in the early phases of a conflict. The use of aircraft with LRSO and B61-12 weapons in a pre-nuclear war phase is part of an increasing focus on regional nuclear strike scenarios. This sounds very much like a plan to use mini-nukes as tactical weapons to be deployed in a general military campaign alongside conventional weapons (a conventional version of the LRSO is also planned). These weapons lower the nuclear threshold, blurring the line between conventional and nuclear war.
Missing from the rosy scenarios are any ideas as to how escalation to all-out nuclear war might be controlled once the threshold has been crossed. In over half a century, no one has come up with an answer to this fundamental question.
U.S. nuclear modernization is sparking a revival of the Cold War arms race between the US, Russia and China. Moscow and Beijing are working on space weapons that could destroy American military satellites at the beginning of a nuclear war. In response, Washington is launching space observation satellites intended to defeat such attacks. Lesser nuclear states are now pursuing smaller atomic weapons to be used in a battlefield. Such arms racing developments already are unsettling the balance of destructive force among nations.
Moscow is working on miniaturized warheads, and experts worry it may violate the global test ban and the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) agreement. (Washington has finessed this issue by claiming the B61-12 is an upgrade, not a new weapon.) According to Russian news reports, the Russian Navy is developing an undersea drone that can cause a cloud of radioactive contamination from an underground explosion that would devastate target cities. Putin’s posturing and loose talk from American military hawks about confronting Russian “adventurism” in Ukraine and elsewhere ramps up the danger inherent in the renewed nuclear arms race.
According to Christopher Twomey, a national security expert at the Naval Postgraduate School, China views Obama’s nuclear modernization “with much trepidation,” specifically its plans for the B-61 and the advanced cruise missile. Beijing has embarked on its own revitalization, which, among other things involves re-engineering many of its long-range missiles to carry multiple warheads. It is flight-testing a novel warhead called a “hypersonic glide vehicle” that when launched can maneuver through the atmosphere at more than a mile a second, rendering any missile defenses all but useless. (The Obama administration has flight-tested its own hypersonic weapon.) Washington’s attempt to isolate China from its neighbors has inflamed regional flash points, including disputes in the South China and East China Seas. This has placed the U.S. on yet another collision course.
Not to be outdone, both India and Pakistan are developing small, short-range, low-yield nuclear weapons designed to be used in fighting limited nuclear wars. Capable of striking both tactical and strategic targets, these weapons undermine deterrence stability in the region.  They also make the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons more likely. Common sense tells us that the continuing expansion of India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities will increase the chance of any small conflict escalating into a full-blown nuclear war in South Asia. Use your imaginations to trace out the consequences of such an event.

Pakistans Nasr TNW
Pakistan's Nasr Nuclear Missile
What’s remarkable about the current strategic discourse in the U.S. is that so little has changed in over a half of century. Despite the proliferation of nuclear weapons and their presence in arenas of extreme instability, which has made the danger of some sort of nuclear catastrophe greater than it was during the Cold War, many high-placed defense officials continue to claim that nuclear weapons can be used in a limited way and escalation controlled.  Nuclear modernization plans have reinforced this reckless idea.  This is astonishing.
Common sense tells us that small, less destructive, more accurate and more easily hidden nuclear weapons won’t enhance deterrence and won’t serve any useful military purpose. On the contrary, they will only enhance the temptation to use them first in a battlefield. Lowering the nuclear threshold is a recipe for disaster. Strategic thinkers, as well as most of the American public, seem oblivious to the looming danger.
It’s terrifying to think of where a new era of arms racing might lead. It is within the realm of possibility that the US, Russia and China could be drawn into a nuclear exchange none of them desire. I worry that the proliferation of mini-nuke technology will make it more likely terrorist groups will gain access to materials that could produce a nuclear device—perhaps they could steal an existing one (since it is reported that B61-12 bombs will be stored at the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey--less than 70 miles from the Syrian border-- such a possibility is not far-fetched).  I also worry that the use of nuclear weapons could be initiated by accident or by some human error. The nuclear age has witnessed many false alarms that might have triggered nuclear war. Fortunately, mostly through sheer luck, war was avoided. With quicker fingers on the nuclear triggers we might not be so lucky in the future.
In conclusion, The U.S. nuclear modernization plan, with its key focus on small, precise nuclear weapons, is a bad—and dangerous—idea. It is costly, soaking up billions of dollars that will drain resources from other military needs, inherently destabilizing, and instrumental in revitalizing a nuclear arms race that could weave its way to terrorist groups. Warhead miniaturization and technical improvements will make it more difficult to achieve progress in arms control. The new weaponry contradicts the core principles of deterrence, and, it should be stressed, in terms of firepower they are totally unnecessary. The U.S already has a dominant conventional capability that can effectively perform the tasks assigned to the new mini-nukes. The B61-12 and LRSO should be canceled, which they would be if rational heads prevailed.
U.S. nuclear modernization may satisfy the glutinous appetite of the nuclear weapons enterprise, as well as Congressional war hawks, but by making the unthinkable more thinkable, it will make the United States, and the world, less safe.


  1. Ron, You are spot on -- especially with regard to the problem that has never been resolved, i.e., how to stop escalation once the nuclear threshold has been crossed. Mutual deterrence, which seemed to work in a bipolar world, but has been undermined with the added numbers of nuclear powers and will be further undermined with the advent of these new "tactical" nuclear weapons, has from day one been based on a belief in leaders' rational decision-making. Deterrence theories have always been based on the assumption that decision-makers wouldn't initiate a nuclear exchange since it could lead to their own destruction. While that seems true, the problem is that it seems equally true that decision-makers continue to willing to take many of the same risks that have led to war in the past and could again -- intentionally or not, accidentally or through nuclear escalation. While risks are still taken, the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons is all the greater today with more nuclear countries, messianic terrorists and more advanced, miniaturized and specialized weapons. A commitment to no use, to disarmament and to verification is the only answer. As a start, we should act unilaterally (yes) by cancelling these new weapons programs for all the reasons you cite.

  2. This was an informative paper indeed. I’m sure glad this was not my birthday month. My renewed disgust is not the gift I had in mind. It’s good to know there are well informed, tenacious guardians of information on duty. You are one of them. I plan to forward.

    Thanks Professor Ron


  3. Ms. Swanson is correct, it is indeed good to know that you are providing the information we would not normally get. I feel that I am relatively well-informed, but I knew nothing of these planned weapons. In fact, I had swallowed whole Obama's commitment to eliminating nuclear weapons -- not that I felt he could accomplish much given obstructionists on all sides -- so hats off to you, Ron.

  4. I think your article makes a very strong case against these new weapons. Your conclusion that they increase, instead of decrease, the possibility of nuclear war is startling given how little attention is paid to this issue. Also, as Jim Dubbs has already pointed out, there seems to be no answer to the question of escalation. " You are spot on -- especially with regard to the problem that has never been resolved, i.e., how to stop escalation once the nuclear threshold has been crossed." So these weapons both increase the likelihood of using nuclear weapons with no real method of assuring we don't end up in a doomsday all out nuclear war.
    This issue seems even more relevant given my feeling that Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump doesn't understand the gravity of using nuclear weapons. Further, who is to say that future candidates will have a clear understanding?
    For all these reasons, these weapons should not be built.


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