Controversial New U.S. Nuclear Bomb Moves Closer to Full-Scale Production

Phil Hoover, engineer and manager of the B61-12 integration project, kneels next to flight-test body of a B61-12 nuclear weapon at the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico on April 2, 2015. The flight-test body is a semi-operational copy of an actual B61-12 but without the physics package (nuclear bomb) or functional tail fins, and is used to test the weapon on an aircraft.

Jerry Redfern / Reveal, from The Center for Investigative Reporting

Phil Hoover, engineer and manager of the B61-12 integration project, kneels next to flight-test body of a B61-12 nuclear weapon at the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico on April 2, 2015.

The most controversial nuclear bomb ever planned for the U.S. arsenal – some say the most dangerous, too – has received the go ahead from the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

The agency announced on Aug. 1 that the B61-12 – the nation’s first guided, or “smart,” nuclear bomb – had completed a four-year development and testing phase and is now in production engineering, the final phase before full-scale production slated for 2020.

This announcement comes in the face of repeated warnings from civilian experts and some former high-ranking military officers that the bomb, which will be carried by fighter jets, could tempt use during a conflict because of its precision. The bomb pairs high accuracy with explosive force that can be regulated.

President Barack Obama has consistently pledged to reduce nuclear weapons and forgo weapons with new military capabilities. Yet the B61-12 program has thrived on the political and economic clout of defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin Corp., as documented in a Reveal investigation last year.

The B61-12 – at $11 billion for about 400 bombs the most expensive U.S. nuclear bomb ever – illustrates the extraordinary power of the atomic wing of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the “military industrial complex,” which has now rebranded itself the“nuclear enterprise.” The bomb lies at the heart of an ongoing modernization of America’s nuclear arms, projected to cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

Virtually everyone agrees that as long as nuclear weapons exist, some modernization of U.S. forces is needed to deter other countries from escalating to nuclear weapons during a conflict. But critics challenge the extravagance and scope of current modernization plans.

In late July, 10 senators wrote Obama a letter urging that he use his remaining months in office to “restrain U.S. nuclear weapons spending and reduce the risk of nuclear war” by, among other things, “scaling back excessive nuclear modernization plans.” They specifically urged the president to cancel a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile, for which the Air Force is now soliciting proposals from defense contractors.

While some new weapons programs are farther down the road, the B61-12 bomb is particularly imminent and worrisome given recent events such as the attempted coup in Turkey. That’s because this guided nuclear bomb is likely to replace 180 older B61 bombs stockpiled in five European countries, including Turkey, which has an estimated 50 B61s stored at Incirlik Air Base. The potential vulnerability of the site has raised questions about U.S. policy regarding storing nuclear weapons abroad.

But more questions focus on the increased accuracy of the B61-12. Unlike the free-fall gravity bombs it will replace, the B61-12 will be a guided nuclear bomb. Its new Boeing Co. tail kit assembly enables the bomb to hit targets precisely. Using dial-a-yield technology, the bomb’s explosive force can be adjusted before flight from an estimated high of 50,000 tons of TNT equivalent force to a low of 300 tons. The bomb can be carried on stealth fighter jets.

“If the Russians put out a guided nuclear bomb on a stealthy fighter that could sneak through air defenses, would that add to the perception here that they were lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons? Absolutely,” Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists said in the earlier Reveal coverage.

And General James Cartwright, the retired commander of the U.S. Strategic Command told PBS NewsHour last November that the new capabilities of the B61-12 could tempt its use.

“If I can drive down the yield, drive down, therefore, the likelihood of fallout, etc., does that make it more usable in the eyes of some – some president or national security decision-making process? And the answer is, it likely could be more usable.”


Ackland can be reached at He wrote this story for Reveal,  from the Center for Investigative Reporting.  

9 thoughts on “Controversial New U.S. Nuclear Bomb Moves Closer to Full-Scale Production

  1. Yes, let us put these into the hands of Donald Trump as soon as possible. Or failing that, put them into the hands of HRC asap.

    Infrastructure in terrible shape, planet experiencing abrupt climate change, sixth extinction well underway, sure let’s spend a trillion $ so MIC can profit instead of fixing anything important.

    Makes sense to me.

  2. I don’t care about “who” or any kind of election oriented rhetoric that anybody of any party wants to spin this into…

    This is absolutely wrong wrong wrong!!!

    When, as a supposedly “intelligent” species on this world, are we going to see the very mad circle we have run in since before history.
    It is a circle that can definitely be broken, but, like any established habit, can be difficult.

    War begets War.

    Hate begets Hate.

    Offense begets Defensiveness and Offense.

    Defensiveness begets Defensiveness.

    What kind of peace can there ever be, in this world, when everybody believes that they must live on the Defensive???!!!

    Is that a quality kind of freedom?

    And our defensiveness has become so deadly offensive that we can destroy the planet a few times over, including ourselves!

    We constantly complain about the enemies that come up and out to destroy us.
    Why do we not see that by every warring offensive defensive hateful action, we actually create those enemies ourselves???

    Definition of insanity…
    When we do the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.

    That is us, on this planet, right now!!!

  3. This tactical weapon has no legitimate role other than to enhance the profit of the manufacturer.

    Any use would invite retaliation and escalation as the threshold for nuclear warfare is lowered.

    Even at the low yield, the thing amounts to a massively catastrophic dirty bomb.

  4. Imagine being defended by an exploding B61-12! This HORRIBLE weapon is something that the USA should be deeply ASHAMED that they even developed!
    The reputation of the USA is in tatters – as a result of things like this. HOW DARE YOU!

  5. The necessity of a ‘new politics’ for the United States is continually thrust in our faces by the ongoing actions of the two parties tied to military-industrial complex. The mutual destruction argument as deterring the use of nuclear weapons is wiped out by the ability to be first but stop after the first. There is not much point in choosing the lesser evil in the face of reliance on violence. Anyone concerned with Justice and Peace will vote for Jill Stein. But only a party built on the value of ecological wisdom is able to make the material connections and pursue policies of internationally shared responsibility for dealing with the consequences of climate change, recognizing that the needs of species come before the need for the defense of a peculiarly human institution. Elie Yarden, Green-Rainbow Party, Cambridge

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