By Connor Murray
The Pentagon recently announced plans to develop a new variant of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb, the B61-13. This proposed bomb would, as the name suggests, be the 13th variant of the B61 and “provide the President with additional options against certain harder and large-area military targets.”
The weapon would be delivered by strategic bombers, like the planned B-21, and have an explosive yield similar to the existing B61-7, including the guided tail kit recently debuted on the B61-12.
The B61-12, which is expensive and was a major priority for Pentagon officials over the past 13 years, seems to suddenly have taken a backseat along with the argument that the B61-12 was to cover all relevant missions with decreased collateral damage. B61-12s were designated mostly for Europe to support NATO’s nuclear sharing mission.
The need for the B61-13, as articulated, is nebulous at best. The weapon would have a significantly higher maximum yield than the B61-12 given its use of the B61-7’s warhead. The use of the tail kit may improve its earth penetration capabilities and will certainly increase its accuracy. Nothing in the Pentagon’s announcement makes it clear where the value added might be, at least not to any degree that might justify the likely multi-billion-dollar price tag that will accompany this new bomb.
Over the last two decades, U.S. planners have moved away from high-yield nuclear weapons, given improvements in accuracy and development of effective conventional alternatives. The last megaton-plus-yield weapon in the U.S. arsenal, the B83-1, was proposed for retirement in President Joe Biden’s 2022 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) due to “increasing limitations on its capabilities and rising maintenance costs.” Importantly, the next sentence referred to the development of an “enduring capability for improved defeat of [hard and deeply buried] targets.”
This final sentence was likely the hint at possible development of the B61-13. While retiring the B83-1 is certainly a worthy goal, replacing it with a brand-new weapon is not a worthwhile endeavor. Though the new weapon uses an existing warhead, it likely still would put additional stress on an already strained nuclear enterprise that regularly sees cost overruns.
Congressional Budget Office (CBO) this year updated its cost of U.S. nuclear forces to $756 billion for the 2023-2032 period. That estimate is a shocking 19% above CBO’s 2021 estimate for the 2021-2030 period. CBO updates these projections every two years. Inflation is taken into account in their estimates. However, the dramatic increase indicates struggles with existing programs, cost overruns and policy decisions that have been made since the 2021 estimate was published. Those include increased costs to the Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile and other modernization initiatives. Further straining resources via the B61-13 spells possible disaster, delays and extreme cost.
A larger question remains unasked. The NPR states clearly that America’s nuclear weapons are for “defense and deterrence.” Despite the Pentagon’s consideration that destroying a large, hard target is defensive, the question remains how an additional capability to do so adds to “defense and deterrence” when other existing capabilities might already fill that need.
Rather than seeking to add to the mission set, the administration should work with congressional and nongovernmental experts to adapt current capabilities to fill defense and deterrence needs without expanding offensive capabilities. The United States should be looking for ways to increase efficiency in nuclear spending, not add yet another weapon at high cost with limited, if any, usefulness.