B61-12 Nuclear Bomb Triggers Debate in the Netherlands

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In a few years, US Air Force C-17 aircraft will begin airlifting new B61-12 nuclear bombs into six air bases in five NATO countries, including Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands (seen above).

By Hans M. Kristensen

The issue of the improved military capabilities of the new B61-12 nuclear bomb entered the Dutch debate today with a news story on KRO Brandpunt (video here) describing NATO’s approval in 2010 of the military characteristics of the weapon.

Dutch approval to introduce the enhanced bomb later this decade is controversial because the Dutch parliament wants the government to work for a withdrawal of nuclear weapons from the Netherlands and Europe. The Dutch government apparently supports a withdrawal. 

Bram Stemerdink, who was Dutch defense minister in 1977 and deputy defense minister in 1973-1976 and 1981-1982, said that the Dutch government would have been consulted about the B61-12 capabilities. “Because we have those bombs at the moment. Was the Netherlands therefore consulted, yes,” Stemerdink reportedly said.

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Former Dutch defense minister Bram Stemerdink said the Netherlands would have been consulted about the military capabilities of the enhanced B61-12 bomb.

NATO approved the military characteristics of the B61-12 in April 2010, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “including the yield, that it be capable of freefall (rather than parachute-retarded) delivery, its accuracy requirements when used on modern aircraft and that it employ a guided tailkit section, and that it have both midair and ground detonation options.”

Dutch approval is also controversial because the improved military capabilities of the B61-12 compared with the weapons currently deployed in Europe (addition of a guidance tail kit to increase accuracy and provide a standoff capability) contradict the U.S. pledge from 2010 that nuclear weapon life-extension programs “will not…provide for new military capabilities.” The U.S. currently does not have a guided standoff nuclear bomb in its stockpile. The improved military capabilities also contradict NATO’s promise from 2012 to seek to “create the conditions and considering options for further reductions of non-strategic nuclear weapons assigned to NATO…”

Last month Dutch TV disclosed a dispute between the U.S. and Dutch governments over how to discuss potential financial compensation in case of an accident involving U.S. nuclear weapons in the Netherlands.

The B61-12 is currently being designed for production with a price tag of more than $10 billion for approximately 400 bombs – possibly the most expensive U.S. nuclear bomb ever.

Nuclear weapons are unlikely to remain in Europe for long, so instead of wasting more than $10 billion on the controversial enhanced B61-12 for a mission that has expired, the United States should instead do a more basic and cheaper life extension of an existing version. Instead of wasting money on modernizing a nuclear weapon for Europe, the United States should focus its efforts on changing the views of eastern European NATO countries by providing extended deterrence in a form that actually contributes to their security.

This publication was made possible by grants from the New-Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

12 thoughts on “B61-12 Nuclear Bomb Triggers Debate in the Netherlands

  1. Never quite understood this.

    Turkey and Italy seem quiet on this issue.

    However, if the Dutch, Germans and Belgians don’t want nuclear weapons on their soil and all three governments have stated their objective is a nuclear-free country, then why are they part of the NATO nuclear mission in the first place? Greece withdrew from such a mission, why not The Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium?

    I won’t even begin the argument on whether B61s are needed and necessary in NATO today. I do have a comment on the B61-12 program. By the time the DOE puts the B61-3s, B61-4s, B61-7s and B61-11s through some kind of LEP, the cost would probably be the same, or much more, than rebuilding 400 B61s into the mod12.

    In fact, I’d much rather have 300 to 400 mission flexible B61-12 weapons in the US Nuclear Inventory that the 955 or so B61/3/4/7/&11s there now. Less is better.

    Frank Shuler

    USA

    1. Yes “less is better” but not at any price and not if it undermines the pledge not to add military capabilities. There are cheaper ways of extending the life of B61s than the gold-plated B61-12.

      1. “The B61 LEP consolidates four existing B61 types (non-strategic B61-3, B61-4 and B61-10, as well as the strategic B61-7) into one, so the new B61-12 must be able to meet the mission requirements for both the non-strategic and strategic versions. But since the B61-12 will use the nuclear explosive package of the B61-4, which has the lowest yield of the four types (a maximum of 50 kt), increasing the accuracy was added to essentially turn the B61-4 into a B61-7 in terms of targeting capability.”

        – Hans M. Kristensen (April 2013)

        It appears the increased “military capabilities” of the B61-12 is only relative. The “strategic” B61-12 has a more accurate guidance system for a 50 kt nuclear warhead in place of the existing B61-7 (up to 340 kt yield). The “tactical” B61-12 has the same increased guidance system for the same 50 kt warhead in place of the B61-3, for example (up to 170 kt yield).

        I’m always naturally suspicious of anyone wanting to build “cheaper” nuclear weapons.

        The issue is simple. If you want to drop a nuclear bomb from a supersonic F-35, or any tactical fighter in general, you need the 21st Century flexibility of the stand-off B61-12 weapon. However, if the idea of “battlefield nuclear weapons” are an anachronism who’s time has long passed, you don’t need the B61-12 project at all. Just LEP the B61-7.

        What is the rationale for continuing the “tactical” mission? Why is the project so important to the Obama Administration? That’s the question.

        Frank Shuler

        USA

        1. The “tactical” mission (read: NATO deployment) is useful because it is unlikely that Congress would authorize $10 billion-plus for the B61 LEP on the B-2 unless it is also tied to the NATO mission.

          1. Confused. A LEP on just the B61-7 and the handful of B61-11s would also cost $10 billion-plus?

            After Congress funded Life Extension Programs for the W76-1, the B83-1 and the W78 LEP, why do you think they would not fund a B61-7 LEP?

            Frank Shuler

            USA

  2. Question, you said “The U.S. currently does not have a guided standoff nuclear bomb in its stockpile”

    Isn’t that statement only true if you want to split hairs on the difference between a bomb and a missle? The W80-LCM is a guided standoff nuclear weapon just as the B61-12 will be a guided standoff nuclear weapon.

    The W80-TLAM was also a guided standoff nuclear weapon that has now been retired – could argue that the B61-12 is just a poor replacement of that system to help satisfy the extended deterrence concerns in South East Asia who didn’t want TLAM to retire.

          1. The decision to retire the TLAM/N was made because the National Command Authority (read: President George H. W. Bush) made the decision to eliminated all tactical nuclear weapons at sea. Once recovered, TLAM/N was held in nuclear storage ashore and never redeployed at sea again. These nuclear cruise missiles were retained in the US nuclear “hedge force” in case of some future need but their role basically ended with the basing of additional Trident submarines in the Pacific. It was Trident that ultimately made them “redundant”.

            Frank Shuler

            USA

  3. Are these B61-12 going to be the future of Nuclear Bombs for the US? or will there be others as well as this one in addition to Land and Sea based weapons

    1. Almost. The plan is to phase out all other gravity bombs (B61-3, B61-7, B61-10, and B83-1) and only keep about 400 B61-12 and the remaining few dozen B61-11 earth-penetrators.

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