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Push to upgrade AF's nuclear arsenal faces opposition

Nov. 6, 2013 - 06:25PM   |  
The B-61 nuclear bomb is designed for carriage by aircraft at supersonic flight speeds and is the primary thermonuclear weapon in the U.S. stockpile since the end of the Cold War. The Defense Department's plans to extend the life of its main nuclear gravity bomb continues to meet resistance.
The B-61 nuclear bomb is designed for carriage by aircraft at supersonic flight speeds and is the primary thermonuclear weapon in the U.S. stockpile since the end of the Cold War. The Defense Department's plans to extend the life of its main nuclear gravity bomb continues to meet resistance. (Air Force)
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The Defense Department’s plans to extend the life of its main nuclear gravity bomb continues to meet resistance with lawmakers questioning the need to spend the money on the department’s most expensive life extension program on nuclear weapons.

The B-61 is one of two nuclear gravity bombs in the U.S. arsenal, and can be carried by the Air Force’s bombers and fighters. It has been in service since 1968 and leaders in the Defense Department and Nuclear Security Administration say it is in dire need of a life extension.

“It will arm the future long-range strike platform. It arms the current dual capable aircraft that are forward stationed in Europe as well as those of our NATO allies that maintain dual capable aircraft. And it’s the candidate weapon to arm the F-35 in that dual capable aircraft role,” Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told lawmakers at a House Armed Services hearing Oct. 29.

“It’s about deterring. It’s about assuring our allies of our extended deterrence commitment to them. And from a military standpoint, it’s about being able to offer the president a series of options that include nuclear options in extreme circumstances,” he said.

The Defense Department and National Nuclear Security Administration has estimated the total cost to extend the B-61 arsenal to be about $10 billion, $1.2 billion of which has already been spent, said Donald Cook, deputy administrator for defense programs in the National Nuclear Security Administration.

But lawmakers said it’s difficult to justify spending that much money on a program that may only ever be used as a deterrent, especially since the department has another gravity bomb, the B-83, that does not need life extension.

“I’m going to a $12 billion question here,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif.

“Do we really need the B-61 modified? Does the B-83 suffice? Presumably, this entire discussion has to do with deterrence, not with tactical,” he ask. “We do have a B-83 bomb that works.”

Cook said the B-83 will eventually need upgrades that could be more expensive, and that the B-61 is more versatile than the heavier, more powerful B-83.

“We’ll need to do a life extension to B-83 ... it will be no sooner than 10 years but not longer than 15 years,” Cook said. “It will be a larger life extension. It will be more expensive. We’ll have to do compatibility with aircraft which don’t currently fly it, and it will not have the basis to do that anywhere near the cost of the B-61-12.”

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