Recently, I read an article in the New York Times about the current effort to modernize the U.S nuclear arsenal. After reading this piece I began to wonder; “do anti nuclear advocates really understand nuclear war”? Now, I know that there are many bright and highly intelligent people the work in non-proliferation. I am not suggesting that they lack an understanding of the weapons themselves.But understanding how a weapon works and what its immediate effects are is different from understanding how it is employed in combat.
Nuclear war is based on a concept called counterforce. Every as early as the late 50s and early 60s America’s priority in a potential nuclear war was to destroy the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal and bombers. The first wave of nuclear strikes was to attack airfields and missile installations to prevent a counterstrike by the Soviets . In SIOP-62 this strategy remained unchanged. It was only modified by the inclusion of new weapons such as Soviet ICBMS. Further operational plans have not been made available. However, it is safe to say that the goal has remained the same. In a nuclear war America would attack the adversary’s nuclear capabilities to prevent as much damage as possible to our own forces and citizens.Since the logic of nuclear war dictates that any weapon system that survives the nuclear strike can be use to deliver a retaliatory strike garanteeing their destruction is extremely important.In the case of SIOP-62 some of the highest priority targets required the Air Force to guarantee a 97 percent destruction probability. It’s a classic kill or be killed scenario that in some cases requires near perfect guarantees.
If you follow this logic some of the President Obama’s proposed nuclear modernization begins to make sense. The B61 mod 12 is designed to ensure the destruction of hardened bunkers. In its previous configurations the B61 was a gravity bomb. It had no guidance system and relied on gravity and careful aim to hits target. If the pilot made any error in aiming to bomb would have no way to correct itself and miss the target. In order to ensure target destruction the power of the bomb had to be increased so that in the event of a miss or less than perfect hit the military could still ensure target destruction.
This concept is what the nuclear critics in the New York Times piece don’t seem to understand or take into account. As noted in the piece, critics were pleased at the concept of a lower yield nuclear weapon but were dismayed when they found out it was going to be upgraded into a smart bomb.Yet, it is clear that the guidance system is the reason why the mod 12 doesn’t need as much explosive power. With the guidance system the accuracy of the bomb becomes an order of magnitude greater and a bomb dropped off target can find it’s way back to it. This massive increase in accuracy and reliability is what allows for the smaller yield.
Ironically in a fit of cognitive dissonance , another argument was made that low yield nuclear bombs would make their use more likely and that they should be gotten rid of. History simply does not back this claim. The united States has possessed small, low yield weapons before and they were never used in combat despite being explicitly made for non-strategic battlefield use. The 0.01 kt “Davy Crockett”, the 15kt “Atomic Annie” artillery piece, the 2-30 kt MGR-1 “Honest John”and 1-10 kt “Little John” have all been deployed and retired without ever being used in combat. More recently the W80 warhead has been mounted to a variety of modern cruise missiles including the AGM-86 and AGM 109 “Tomahawk” series. The AGM-86C was used to deliver conventional warheads in Operations Desert Storm, Desert Strike, Desert Fox, Allied Force, Enduring freedom and Iraqi Freedom. In none of these instance did the Soviets/Russians mistake it for a preemptive nuclear strike. Nor have they mistaken the hundreds of Tomahawk cruise missiles we have launched for it’s now retired nuclear variant.
This drives at the reality of the matter. When the military builds a weapon they do so in order to fulfill a need or to improve upon a previously inefficient system.International stability depends on the United States having nuclear weapons that are a credible deterrent to other nations. Nuclear capability must be maintained in relation to the those countries with similar capabilities if deterrence is to work. letting our nuclear capacity erode or will harm that balance. Claiming that we should eliminate smaller yield weapons because they are potentially destabilizing ignores the fact that they are still needed in a potential war and for deterrence.
In this realm the B 61 is unmatch. If you want to deter an adversary you only have nuclear cruise missiles or nuclear bombs. Submarines are designed not to be seen and carry only strategic nuclear weapons. The Minuteman IIIs are housed in fixed silos and also carry only strategic warheads.The B 61 on the other hand, can be based overseas and loaded onto any tactical fighter in the U.S inventory. If you want to make a statement and deter aggressors then the B 61 is the way to go. Unless of course you want to fly in a B-52 with cruise missiles strapped to it’s wings.
To conclude,the idea that lower yield weapons are potentially easier in a war does not detract from their combat capability or necessity. In a sense critics believe that they can have their cake and eat it too. That the yield can be dropped to less than a kiloton of TNT without anything to compensate for it. That the U.S can simply let its nuclear deterrent shrivel without any broader changes to the global balance of power or the political situation. One must keep in mind the military mindset. You must always plan for the worst case scenario.It is the job of the military to ensure that the U.S can counter potential threats and deter enemies not to disarm and hope our opponents will do the same.The raison d’etre for a bunker busting nuke still exists.The command bunkers the B 61 was designed to take out are still in place. No other bomb in the U.S arsenal is made to do what the B 61 does. It is not an asset that can be substituted or a capability that can be lost.