The New York Times gathers a “critical” mass of former insiders now dissing nuclear modernization plans

1/13/16 update: an alert reader (Steve Starr) has noticed an important factual mistake in yesterday’s post, which I have corrected. In the process I’ve added considerably to the argument. Thank you Steve.

(Note to readers: henceforth I will try to use this blog to assemble and briefly comment upon a few important news stories on a very frequent basis, daily if I can, in addition to posting what have been all-too-occasional essays. I will explain more tomorrow given the lateness of the hour today, and meanwhile jump right in.)

Today [1/12/16], on the morning of President Obama’s last State of the Union Address, the New York Times headlined quite a decent article by Bill Broad and David Sanger on the proposed B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb, the very dangerous proposed Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) cruise missile, and the Administration’s nuclear warhead modernization program generally.

The interesting video that opens the article is part of a longer video shown to guests at the Washington DC “lab day” conference in October, provided later to this organization by Sandia National Laboratories. We distributed it widely on 12/31/15.

Broad and Sanger get the evolving politics right. The Administration’s ambitious warhead modernization plan is in some trouble. That, and the NYT‘s recognition (on the front page no less), is the news. The critical views of the former Administration officials variously cited — Phil Coyle, Andy Weber, William Perry, Steve Fetter, James Cartwright — do carry real political as well as intellectual weight.

It’s better late than never. If not for the Times‘ need to remain within a very small bubble of elite insider opinion, an article making the same arguments could have been produced five years ago, before B61-12 decisions were made. The hour is now late. As one government analyst remarked to me in 2014, “Congressional opposition to the B61-12 died on the streets of Kiev.”

Not so for the LRSO. For that, design is just beginning.

Still, it should be said that despite the B61-12 decisions that have been made, there are still plenty of “off-ramps” available. There are plenty of ways this program could be set aside, and plenty of potential new reasons to do so. The immediate future of the Republic is very clouded. Black swans are filling the sky. Even if the bomb is finally built there will be plenty of excellent reasons to not deploy it outside U.S. territory. If deployed, there will be plenty of reasons to retire it.

There is always, as a Chinese sage once said in a slightly different context, “another way up.”

In the long run, the B61-12 will not last. Will we?

That said, there is an important error in this article, in the title as well as the text. It is just not right to say that the B61-12 is part of any “build-it-smaller approach.”

First, the B61-12 Life Extension Program (LEP) does not lower the maximum yield of its B61-4 “parent,” and it does not lower the selectable yields that would be available from a possible B61-4 LEP. No other planned LEP for any warhead or bomb does so either, all the way out to 2040.

Second, the claim that the B61-12 “replaces” all other deployed U.S. gravity bombs (the B61-3, B61-7, the inactive B61-10, B61-11, and the B83; see Kristensen here) does not hold water. That is what the Administration says. It should not have been repeated in this article without serious critique. This “replacement” meme is all about selling new bombs.

B83 retirement in particular is being used as a “bargaining chip” vis-a-vis Congress and future administrations. The 1.2 megaton B83 has been exiting for some time, as Kristensen notes. There is no LEP planned for it and no funds have been allocated for one. The B83 is on a glide path to retirement.

(As an aside, it would be interesting to investigate whether the more accurate, 50 kt B61-12 could accomplish the destructive missions of the B83, whatever they may be — for example, holding  deep command and control targets at risk. In the matter of creating forces on targets significantly deeper than the accuracy of the B61-12, I doubt that a bomb with only 4% of the yield can do that comparably at the relevant depth, say 100 meters, even with the B61-12’s greater accuracy. Similar questions arise for the B61-11 earth penetrator.)

We need to ask: do either the B83 or B61-11 really have a military mission today — or more rigorously, one that passes the smell test even from the military perspective?

Do any of these bombs, in fact? Upon information and belief, the B61-4 has had, at least until recently if not still also today, no military mission — no target set. We believe NATO nuclear weapons have no pre-planned targets. In the event of a crisis, they’ll think of something to bomb.

Just considering the military perspective, aren’t the missions for all nuclear gravity bombs evaporating? Aren’t all these bombs obsolete, or on the verge of becoming so? (But of course these plans, plus NATO expansion and forward basing, plus the U.S.-planned neocon coup in Ukraine, have triggered a variety of Russian reactions, including some announced this week. So the potential target set of the B61-12, in the same minds that have promoted it, may be expanding quickly.)

From this perspective isn’t the B61-12, with its new capabilities over a simpler B61-4 LEP, just keeping faith in nuclear gravity bombs alive for a new generation of delivery aircraft and a new generation of NATO leaders? Isn’t that the big secret of this bomb — that without the glitz of its new technology and its compatibility with expensive new delivery systems, the NATO nuclear mission would become visibly obsolete?

In any case, it is very far from proven that the B61-12 will “replace” these bombs, with the exception of the B61-4 from which it is to be physically made.

Third, the very idea of a “smaller” nuclear weapon is problematic from all relevant perspectives except one: nuclear war fighting. In terms of international politics, humanitarian and nonproliferation law, supporting infrastructure and program commitments, and the pork-barrel politics that so massively drive procurement decisions — which is to say, in most of the real world where politics is done and history is made — a “smaller” and “more accurate” nuclear weapon describes a distinction without a difference.

Only in weapons phenomenology, targeting, and strategy is there a difference, and that difference is less than might appear.

For example, is the risk of nuclear escalation from an “accurate” B61-12 detonation significantly and knowably different than that from detonating a B61-4? So then how is the B61-12 more usable, or more credible as a deterrent, than the B61-4 it is to replace? How is the proposed new bomb smaller, in this sense — from the point of view of prospective nuclear war?

To take another example, we say that the combination of high accuracy, stealthy delivery, forward basing, and selectable yields enables the B61-12 to address a larger target set, all of which is certainly true to some extent. But what is the actual increment of that B61-12 target set, beyond the target set of a life-extended B61-4 with the same forward basing, same stealthy delivery, and the same original selectable yields? In other words, how much of this bomb’s purported greater utility is just hype?

What about collateral damage, then? Wouldn’t that be “smaller?” Well, blast overpressure and thermal deposition from nuclear weapons scale with the 1/3 power of the yield, so the B61-12’s highest yield (50 kt) would produce a given overpressure or thermal pulse reaching to 67% the radius of the B61-3’s 170 kt explosion, or to 52% of that from the B61-7’s 360 kt. To my view, this is not an impressively “smaller” bomb in this sense either. In what important sense for civilization, or for the target country, would the detonation of a B61-12 be much “smaller” than that of any other nuclear bomb or warhead? Would a blast of more than three times the size of Hiroshima be more “acceptable?”

So I would say that Broad and Sanger have fallen into the trap of privileging the nuclear war fighting perspective. Unfortunately, most arms control discourse about this bomb does so also.

The great bulk of arguments against this weapon have rested on its novel features. The differences are real but narrow, and overall they do not touch or refute enough of the real political and strategic motives for pursuing this bomb. That is one reason they fail. You could say that we who oppose this bomb have too often confined ourselves to arguments that are so narrow that they are logically and factually flawed.

For example, we say that the B61-12 costs more than a simpler LEP. That is true. But what if spending money, hiring new weapons engineers, and supporting the labs and plants and giving them all something to do are goals, not costs? (And of course they are.) In that case the greater the cost, the better! And in comparison to the goal of keeping NATO nuclear, and Europe in the U.S. geopolitical orbit, the cost of the B61-12 is beyond trivial.

What about the increased risk of nuclear war it appears to represent? Yes, every gain in deterrent credibility is also an increase in the risk of nuclear war. But is the B61-12 really that much worse in this regard than the B61-4 or any of the other bombs it is falsely claimed to replace? Yes, perhaps it is riskier, but will this difference in risk, even if properly perceived, ever be enough to offset the political and management benefits of spending all that money, enthusing the pro-nuclear NATO military partners, and perhaps even keeping the NATO nuclear mission alive? I doubt it.

Aren’t the stronger arguments against the B61-12 the arguments against any tactical nuclear gravity bombs, against foreign basing of nuclear weapons in general, against nuclear (delivery) sharing in general, against nuclear gravity bombs altogether, and against the fiction or idiocy (take your pick) of “nuclear umbrellas” in general?  And this list could be extended.

I am not saying that cost should not be considered. I am saying it is a weak argument, and a benefit in many eyes.

The bigger issues are also the bigger motivations for this program, and they are just too often “off the table” within the bubble that is imperial Washington.

The present article, and some of our own work in the past, as well as the work of the masterful Hans Kristensen on this topic (on whom we rely for so much), just make too much of these small differences. It is an expression of the quantitative obsession that leads the arms control field to so often miss the forest for the trees. Usually this or that “tree” is “better” or “worse” in rather small ways. This distortion and denial is a defining characteristic of arms control.

Does it need to be said again that the President’s vague and aspirational 2009 Prague speech — cited in this article as if it meant something — was without disarmament content?

Phil Coyle’s wise and important remarks about production surge capacity (we don’t need it) and the unlikelihood of actually completing the modernization plan are well worth emphasizing:

But the bigger risk to the modernization plan may be its expense — upward of a trillion dollars if future presidents go the next step and order new bombers, submarines and land-based missiles, and upgrades to eight factories and laboratories.

Insiders don’t believe it will ever happen,” said Mr. Coyle, the former White House official. “It’s hard to imagine that many administrations following through.

Exactly so, and for many more reasons than can be mentioned in the New York Times.

The flip side of the article’s emphasis on former insiders and on the nuclear war-fighting perspective is its omission of any of what might be called any “left of center” — any actual disarmament oriented — critiques.  The B61-12 plan “seemed reasonable, critics said, until attention fell on the bomb’s new tail section and steerable fins.” Really? Well, the B61-12 never seemed reasonable to quite a few analysts, including me.

The Santa Fe New Mexican carried this story. I offered this comment:

This is a decent article, despite its [NYT] provenance.

Readers may wish to see this interesting testing video produced by Sandia National Laboratories, shown to guests at the Washington DC “lab day” conference in October and provided to our organization: http://www.lasg.org/videos/B61-12_SAND8928_2015.mp4. It forms the lede in the original article.

The bermed target area appears to be about 30 meters in radius, and if so this corresponds to the previously-advertised accuracy of this new bomb. The clean entry of the bomb in the earth suggests some earth-penetrating capability, which was present in earlier B61 models as well. Both enable lower yields and expand the potential target set, leading to the perceptions of greater risk discussed in the article.

The perennial problem of the arms control community, which historically has felt a need to be very close to the U.S. government for funding and “access” and remains very close today, is one of which world-ending weapons to oppose — where to draw the line — and how to do so effectively given their broad endorsement of nuclear budgets, institutions, and especially of treaties like New START, which could not be ratified without a blanket endorsement of nuclear weapons modernization. Alas, New START had no disarmament component.

All the B61-12 critics mentioned in this articles were in favor of broad-spectrum modernization of the entire triad in 2010 for the sake of New START ratification. Those then in government like Phil Coyle and Andy Weber had to hold their noses (Coyle did I am sure!), or else thought the bomb was a good idea.

These latter-day critics were however outmaneuvered and effectively neutered by the neocon coup in Ukraine and subsequent deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations, passively allowed by a tragic, MIA president who is no longer in charge of his government, if he ever was.

The B61-12 program is driven by the availability of the technology, by pork-barrel politics (Udall rescued it in committee), and by a desire to keep NATO nuclearized, with forward-based bombs to be delivered by non-U.S. pilots in violation of the NPT, as part of the “glue” that keeps NATO states aligned with the U.S. instead of building ties with energy-rich, nearby Russia. It’s all about our on-going, never-ending, Cold War with Russia.

The labs of course need that war to justify their massive budgets, which now dwarf what they got during the Cold War in constant dollars. This one bomb supplied the money that allowed Sandia to hire 600 new staff. This bomb is thus a potent weapon in the never ending fight against spending for schools, sustainability, and infrastructure, and it helps keep clueless or hireling politicians in line. It is, as General Smedley Butler said so long ago, a racket, in this case dressed up in very fancy clothes but a very effective con just for that reason.

One might get the impression that this is a “smaller” yield bomb than the bomb it replaces. It is not. It is a variable-yield bomb.

I don’t want to lightly gloss over the notion of the NNSA weapons labs as rackets. I did not mean that as a figure of speech. They are indeed rackets, and as institutions they cannot be understood at all without examining them from that perspective. The U.S. warhead labs don’t just have the occasional departure from social, environmental, worker safety, or legal norms. They are fundamentally constituted outside those norms. But with that assertion, offered here for your meditation and without further explanation, these comments must close.

If you have comments, send them to me.  Thank you for your attention.

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