According to Jeffrey Lewis at Foreign Policy, “the United States is building a nuclear bomb that costs more than its weight in solid gold.”
There is now a furious debate about whether the United States needs to modernize the B61, which dates to Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, making it the oldest design left in the stockpile. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, recently revealed that the cost of the program to extend the bomb’s life has more than doubled: Modernizing the approximately 400 B61 gravity bombs in the stockpile will cost $10 billion. That is billions with a “B.” In case you were wondering, it would be less expensive to build solid-gold replicas of each of the 700-pound B61s, even at near-record gold prices.
So even though Washington has a nuclear arsenal that can obliterate much of the world’s population, somehow it’s necessary to “modernize” the warheads at a cost of $10 billion? This at a time when there is a virtual bipartisan consensus that defense budgets can’t be cut in order address deficit issues. “In 2010,” Lewis continues, “the Government Accountability Office took a look at all these changes and noted, quite sensibly, that this looked like the sort of program that might fall behind schedule and go over budget. The project then fell behind schedule and went over budget.”
Normal people might look at this and ask “whether the B61 is worth it.” For the money? No, not worth it. For the security? Absolutely not. For politicians? Yeah, they need it.
Right now, the United States forward-deploys 180 B61s at air bases in five NATO countries. They are “tactical” nuclear weapons, deployed to help stop a Soviet thrust into Western Europe. (That there is no Soviet Union anymore is a mere detail.) If the life-extension program slips, there may be a gap during which the United States does not have B61s in Europe. Do we really need them? Senior military and civilian officials have repeatedly stated, in private and public, that the B61 has no military utility. One senior official with European Command told a task force created by the defense secretary, “We pay a king’s ransom for these things and … they have no military value.” There is no military mission for these weapons; they exist largely to fulfill political needs.