General Cartwright Confirms B61-12 Bomb “Could Be More Useable”

By Hans M. Kristensen

General James Cartwright, the former commander of U.S. Strategic Command and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed in an interview with PBS Newshour that the increased accuracy of the new guided B61-12 nuclear bomb could make the weapon “more useable” to the president or national-security making process.

GEN. JAMES CARTWRIGHT (RET.), Former Commander, U.S. Strategic Command: If I can drive down the yield, drive down, therefore, the likelihood of fallout, et cetera, 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.

Cartwright’s confirmation follows General Norton Schwartz, the former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, who in 2014 assessed that the increased accuracy would have implications for how the military thinks about using the B61. “Without a doubt. Improved accuracy and lower yield is a desired military capability. Without a question,” he said.

In an article in 2011 I first described the potential effects the increased accuracy provided by the new guided tail kit and the option to select lower yields in nuclear strike could have for nuclear planning and the perception of how useable nuclear weapons are. I also discuss this in an interview on the PBS Newshour program.

In contrast to the enhanced military capabilities offered by the increased accuracy of the B61-12, and its potential impact on nuclear planning confirmed by generals Cartwright and Schwartz, it is U.S. nuclear policy that nuclear weapons “Life Extension Programs…will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities,” as stated in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report.

The effect of the B61-12 modernization will be most dramatic in Europe where less accurate older B61s are currently deployed at six bases in five countries for delivery by older aircraft. The first B61-12 is scheduled to roll off the assembly line in 2020 and enter the stockpile in 2024 after which some of the estimated 480 bombs to be built and, under current policy, would be deployed to Europe for deliver by the new F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation fighter-bomber and (for a while) older aircraft.

For background information, see:

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

Upgrades At US Nuclear Bases In Europe Acknowledge Security Risk

By Hans M. Kristensen

Security upgrades underway at U.S. Air Force bases in Europe indicate that nuclear weapons deployed in Europe have been stored under unsafe conditions for more than two decades.

Commercial satellite images show work underway at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and Aviano Air Base in Italy. The upgrades are intended to increase the physical protection of nuclear weapons stored at the two U.S. Air Force Bases.

The upgrades indirectly acknowledge that security at U.S. nuclear weapons storage sites in Europe has been inadequate for more than two decades.

And the decision to upgrade nuclear security perimeters at the two U.S. bases strongly implies that security at the other four European host bases must now be characterized as inadequate.

Security challenges at Incirlik AB are unique in NATO’s nuclear posture because the base is located only 110 kilometers (68 miles) from war-torn Syria and because of an ongoing armed conflict within Turkey between the Turkish authorities and Kurdish militants. The wisdom of deploying NATO’s largest nuclear weapons stockpile in such a volatile region seems questionable. (UPDATE: Pentagon orders “voluntary departure” of 900 family members of U.S. personnel stationed at Incirlik.) Continue reading

US Nuclear Weapons Base In Italy Eyed By Alleged Terrorists

Italian security forces practice protection of US nuclear weapons at Ghedi Air Base in 2014.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Two suspected terrorists arrested by the Italian police allegedly were planning an attack against the nuclear weapons base at Ghedi.

The base stores 20 US B61 nuclear bombs earmarked for delivery by Italian PA-200 Tornado fighter-bombers in war. Nuclear security and strike exercises were conducted at the base in 2014. During peacetime the bombs are under the custody of the US Air Force 704th Munitions Support Squadron (MUNSS), a 130-personnel strong units at Ghedi Air Base.

The Italian police said at a press conference today that the two men in their conversations “were referring to several targets, particularly the Ghedi military base” near Brescia in northern Italy.

Ghedi Air Base is one of several national air bases in Europe that a US Air Force investigation in 2008 concluded did not meet US security standards for nuclear weapons storage. Since then, the Pentagon and NATO have spent tens of millions of dollars and are planning to spend more to improve security at the nuclear weapons bases in Europe.

There are currently approximately 180 US B61 bombs deployed in Europe at six bases in five NATO countries: Belgium (Kleine Brogel AB), Germany (Buchel AB), Italy (Aviano AB and Ghedi AB), the Netherlands (Volkel AB), and Turkey (Incirlik AB).

Over the next decade, the B61s in Europe will be modernized and, when delivered by the new F-35A fighter-bomber, turned into a guided nuclear bomb (B61-12) with greater accuracy than the B61s currently deployed in Europe. Aircraft integration of the B61-12 has already started.

Read also:

Italy’s Nuclear Anniversary: Fake Reassurance For a King’s Ransom

B61 LEP: Increasing NATO Nuclear Capability and Precision Low-Yield Strikes

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

The INF Crisis: Bad Press and Nuclear Saber Rattling

By Hans M. Kristensen

Russian online news paper Vzglaid is carrying a story that wrongly claims that I have said a Russian flight-test of an INF missile would not be a violation of the INF Treaty as long as the missile is not in production or put into service.

That is of course wrong. I have not made such a statement, not least because it would be wrong. On the contrary, a test-launch of an INF missile would indeed be a violation of the INF Treaty, regardless of whether the missile is in production or deployed.

Meanwhile, US defense secretary Ashton Carter appears to confirm that the ground-launched cruise missile Russia allegedly test-launched in violation of the INF Treaty is a nuclear missile and threatens further escalation if it is deployed. Continue reading

Rumors About Nuclear Weapons in Crimea

The news media and private web sites are full of rumors that Russia has deployed nuclear weapons to Crimea after it invaded the region earlier this year. Many of these rumors are dubious and overly alarmist and ignore that a nuclear-capable weapon is not the same as a nuclear warhead.

Several U.S. lawmakers who oppose nuclear arms control use the Crimean deployment to argue against further reductions of nuclear weapons. NATO’s top commander, U.S. General Philip Breedlove, has confirmed that Russian forces “capable of being nuclear” are being moved to the Crimean Peninsula, but also acknowledged that NATO doesn’t know if nuclear warheads are actually in place.

Recently Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov said that NATO was “transferring aircraft capable of carrying nuclear arms to the Baltic states,” and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reminded that Russia has the right to deploy nuclear weapons anywhere on its territory, including in newly annexed Crimea.

Whether intended or not, non-strategic nuclear weapons are already being drawn into the new East-West crisis.  Continue reading

Polish F-16s In NATO Nuclear Exercise In Italy

By Hans M. Kristensen

NATO is currently conducting a nuclear strike exercise in northern Italy.

The exercise, known as Steadfast Noon 2014, practices employment of U.S. nuclear bombs deployed in Europe and includes aircraft from seven NATO countries: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, and United States.

The timing of the exercise, which is held at the Ghedi Torre Air base in northern Italy, coincides with East-West relations having reached the lowest level in two decades and in danger of deteriorating further.

It is believed to be the first time that Poland has participated with F-16s in a NATO nuclear strike exercise.

Coinciding with the Steadfast Noon exercise, NATO is also conducting a Strike Evaluation (STRIKEVAL) nuclear certification inspection at Ghedi.

A nuclear security exercise was conducted at Ghedi Torre AB in January 2014, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of U.S. nuclear weapons deployment at the base.

Steadfast Noon/STRIKEVAL is the second nuclear weapons strike exercise in Italy in two years, following Steadfast Noon held at Aviano AB in 2013.

Italy hosts 70 of the 180 U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.  Continue reading

Why NATO Should Eliminate Its Tactical Nukes, Despite Russian Belligerence

In a new op-ed  published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Director of the Nuclear Information Project, Hans Kristensen and Adam Mount, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, write that with the upcoming NATO summit in Wales, it is time to revisit the question of what to do with U.S. tactical nukes in Europe. Despite Russian aggression in Ukraine and claims that these weapons are needed now more than ever, Kristensen and Mount argue that U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe detract from more useful defense initiatives.

With the recent actions by Russia in Ukraine, many of the new NATO members in close proximity to Russia are concerned about their security and look to the West for support. Kristensen and Mount state that the creation of the NATO Response Force in July 2014 (consisting of highly advanced forces from land, air, sea and special operations to deploy quickly when needed), is a great example of a more useful response to the threat posed to NATO members in Eastern Europe.The call to retain U.S. tactical nuclear bombs in Europe are are an echo from the past rather than a solution for the future as these weapons distract and divide the NATO alliance rather than unite it.

Read the op-ed here. 



President’s Message: The Nuclear Guns of August

“One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true,” wrote Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August.1)Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (New York: Dell, 1962). Today, the United States and other nuclear-armed states are not addressing the harder alternative of whether nuclear weapons provide for real security. The harder alternative, I argue,  is to work toward elimination of these weapons at the same time as the security concerns of all states are being met. If leaders of states feel insecure, those with nuclear arms will insist on maintaining or even modernizing these weapons, and many of those without nuclear arms will insist on having nuclear deterrence commitments from nuclear-armed states. Therefore, security concerns must be addressed as a leading priority if there is to be any hope of nuclear abolition.

Among the many merits of Tuchman’s book is her trenchant analysis of the entangled military and political alliances that avalanched toward the armed clashes at the start of the First World War in August 1914. The German army under the Schlieffen Plan had to mobilize within a couple of weeks and launch its attack through neutral Belgium into France and win swift victory; otherwise, Germany would get bogged down in a two-front war in France and Russia. But this plan did not go like clockwork. As we know from history, years of trench warfare resulted in millions of soldiers killed. The war’s death toll of military and civilians from multiple causes (including pandemic influenza) was more than 16 million.

The danger today is that alliance commitments could drag the United States into an even more costly nuclear war. While the United States must support its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and in East Asia (including Japan and South Korea), it must be wary of overreliance on nuclear weapons for providing security. This is an extremely difficult balancing act. On the one hand, the United States needs to reassure these allies that they have serious, reliable extended deterrence commitments. “Extended” means that the United States extends deterrence beyond its territory and will commit to retaliating in response to an armed attack on an ally’s territory. Such deterrence involves conventional and nuclear forces as well as diplomatic efforts.

NATO allies have been concerned about the security implications of Russia’s incursion into Crimea and its influence over the continuing political and military crisis in Ukraine. Do nuclear weapons have a role in reassuring these allies? A resolute yes has come from an August 17th op-ed in the Washington Post by Brent Scowcroft, Stephen J. Hadley, and Franklin Miller.2)Brent Scowcroft, Stephen J. Hadley, and Franklin Miller, “NATO-based nuclear weapons are an advantage in a dangerous world,” Washington Post, August 17, 2014. (The first two gentlemen served as national security advisers in the Ford, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush administrations while the third author was a senior official in charge of developing nuclear policy for Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.) Not only do these experienced former national security officials give an emphatic affirmation to the United States recommitting to nuclear deterrence in NATO (as if that were seriously in doubt), but they underscore the perceived need for keeping “the modest number of U.S. nuclear bombs in Europe.” The United States is the only nuclear-armed state to deploy nuclear weapons in other states’ territories.

The authors pose three arguments from opponents and then attempt to knock them down. First, the critics allegedly posit that NATO-based nuclear weapons “have no military value.” To rebut, Scowcroft et al. state that because NATO’s supreme allied commander says that these weapons have military value, this is evidence enough. While by definition of his rank he is an authority, he alone cannot determine whether or not these weapons have military value. This is at least a debatable point. Scowcroft et al. instead want to emphasize that the weapons are “fundamentally, political weapons.” That is, these forward deployed arms are “a visible symbol to friend and potential foe of the U.S. commitment to defend NATO with all of the military power it possesses.” But would the United States go so far as to threaten Russia with nuclear use? The authors do not pursue this line of questioning. Perhaps they realize that this threat could lead to a commitment trap in which the United States would risk losing credibility because it would not want to cross the nuclear threshold, but Russian President Vladimir Putin could call the U.S. bluff.3)For more on the commitment trap as applied to the riskiness of nuclear threats against chemical and biological weapons, see Scott D. Sagan, “The Commitment Trap,” International Security, Spring 2000, pp. 85-115.

The United States can still demonstrate resolve and commitment to allies with its strategic nuclear weapons based on U.S. soil and on submarines under the surfaces of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Moreover, the United States can show further support by working with European allies to make them more resilient against disruptions of energy supplies such as oil and natural gas from Russia. By implementing policies to reduce and eventually eliminate dependencies on Russian energy supplies, these countries will strengthen their energy security and have further options to apply economic and diplomatic pressure, if necessary, on Russia. These measures are not explicitly mentioned in the op-ed.

Rather, Scowcroft et al. argue that Russia has been modernizing its nuclear forces because these weapons “clearly matter to Russian leadership, and as a result, our allies insist that the U.S. nuclear commitment to NATO cannot be called into question.” But of course, these weapons are valuable to Russia due to the relative weakness of its conventional military. While Scowcroft et al. raise an important concern about continued modernization of nuclear weapons, this argument does not lead to the necessity of deployment of U.S. nuclear bombs in European states.

Scowcroft et al. then argue that NATO’s overwhelming conventional military superiority in the aggregate of all its allies’ conventional forces is a fallacy because it “masks the reality that on NATO’s eastern borders, on a regular basis, Russian forces are numerically superior to those of the alliance.” Moreover, “Russia’s armed forces have improved significantly since their poor performance in [the Republic of] Georgia in 2008.” The authors then state that looking at conventional war-fighting capabilities alone miss the point that “NATO’s principal goal is deterring aggression rather than having to defeat it. And it is here that NATO’s nuclear capabilities provide their greatest value.” Although I have no argument against deterring aggression, they have not proved the point that forward-deployed U.S. nuclear weapons have done so. Indeed, Russian forces have occupied parts of Ukraine. While Ukraine is not part of NATO, it is still not proven that U.S. nuclear bombs in Europe are essential to block Russia from potentially encroaching on NATO allies in Eastern Europe. Perhaps at best nuclear forces on either side have stalemated each other and that there are still plenty of moves available for less potent, but nonetheless powerful, conventional forces on the geopolitical chessboard.

Finally, they address the opponents’ argument that deep divisions run through NATO allies about the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. While they acknowledge that in 2007 and 2008 domestic politics in several alliance states fed a debate that resulted in several government officials in some European states expressing interest in removal of U.S. nuclear weapons, they argue that the 2010 NATO Strategic Concept (endorsed by all 28 NATO heads of government), demonstrates unity of policy that “We will maintain an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces [and] ensure the broadest participation of Allies in collective defense planning on nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces, and in command, control, and communications arrangements.” Of course, one can read into this statement that “broadest participation” and “peacetime basing” can suggest forward deployment. On the other hand, the statement can be read as purposively ambiguous to iron over differences and achieve consensus among a large group of states. These governments have yet to seriously question nuclear deterrence, but this does not demand forward basing of U.S. nuclear bombs.

Left unwritten in their op-ed are the steps the United States took at the end of the Cold War to remove its nuclear weapons from forward basing in South Korea and near Japan.  Although some scholars and politicians in Japan and South Korea have at times questioned this action, the United States has frequently reassured these allies by flying nuclear-capable B-2 and B-52 strategic bombers from the United States to Northeast Asia and emphasizing the continuous deployment of dozens of nuclear-armed submarine launched ballistic missiles in the Pacific Ocean. Japan and South Korea have not built nuclear weapons, and they have not experienced war in the region since the Korean War ended in 1953 in an armistice. It would be a mistake for the United States to reintroduce forward-deployed nuclear weapons in and near Japan and South Korea. These allies’ security would not be increased and might actually decrease because of the potential for adverse reactions from China and North Korea.

The urgent required action is for the United States to stop being the only country with nuclear weapons deployed in other countries, and instead it should remove its nuclear bombs from European states. The United States should not give other countries such as China, Russia, or Pakistan the green light to forward deploy in others’ territories. For example, there are concerns that Pakistan could deploy nuclear forces in Saudi Arabia if Saudi rulers make such a request because of their fears of a future nuclear-armed Iran.

In conclusion, ideas in books do matter. President John F. Kennedy during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis drew lessons from The Guns of August. The main lesson he learned was that great powers slipped accidentally into the catastrophic First World War. This sobering lesson in part made him wary of tripping into an accidental war, but he still took risks, for example, by ordering a naval quarantine of Cuba. (He called this action “quarantine” because a blockade is an act of war.) During the quarantine, it was fortunate that a Soviet submarine commander refrained from launching nuclear weapons that were onboard his submarine. This is just one example of how close the United States and Soviet Union came to nuclear war.

Let us remember that the crisis was largely about the United States’ refusal to accept the presence of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba that was within 100 miles of the continental United States. At that time, the United States had deployed nuclear-capable Jupiter missiles in Turkey, which bordered the Soviet Union. Both sides backed down from the nuclear brink, and both countries removed their forward deployed nuclear weapons from Cuba and Turkey. Thus, it is ironic that we seem to be headed back to the future when senior former U.S. officials argue for U.S. nuclear bombs based in Europe.


Charles D. Ferguson, Ph.D.

President, Federation of American Scientists


Notes   [ + ]

1. Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (New York: Dell, 1962).
2. Brent Scowcroft, Stephen J. Hadley, and Franklin Miller, “NATO-based nuclear weapons are an advantage in a dangerous world,” Washington Post, August 17, 2014.
3. For more on the commitment trap as applied to the riskiness of nuclear threats against chemical and biological weapons, see Scott D. Sagan, “The Commitment Trap,” International Security, Spring 2000, pp. 85-115.

Italy’s Nuclear Anniversary: Fake Reassurance For a King’s Ransom

A new placard at Ghedi Air Base implies that U.S. nuclear weapons stored at the base have protected “the free nations of the world” after the end of the Cold War. But where is the evidence?

By Hans M. Kristensen

In December 1963, a shipment of U.S. nuclear bombs arrived at Ghedi Torre Air Base in northern Italy. Today, half a century later, the U.S. Air Force still deploys nuclear bombs at the base.

The U.S.-Italian nuclear collaboration was celebrated at the base in January. A placard credited the nuclear “NATO mission” at Ghedi with having “protected the free nations of the world….”

That might have been the case during the Cold War when NATO was faced with an imminent threat from the Soviet Union. But half of the nuclear tenure at Ghedi has been after the end of the Cold War with no imminent threat that requires forward deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe.

Instead, the nuclear NATO mission now appears to be a financial and political burden to NATO that robs its armed forces of money and time better spent on non-nuclear missions, muddles NATO’s nuclear arms control message, and provides fake reassurance to eastern NATO allies.  Continue reading

Nuclear Exercises Amidst Ukrainian Crisis: Time For Cooler Heads

A Russian Tu-95MS long-range bomber drops an AS-15 Kent nuclear-capable cruise missiles from its bomb bay on May 8th. Six AS-15s were dropped from the bomb bay that day as part of a Russian nuclear strike exercise.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Less than a week after Russia carried out a nuclear strike exercise, the United States has begun its own annual nuclear strike exercise.

The exercises conducted by the world’s two largest nuclear-armed states come in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, as NATO and Russia appear to slide back down into a tit-for-tat posturing not seen since the Cold War.

Military posturing in Russia and NATO threaten to worsen the crisis and return Europe to an “us-and-them” adversarial relationship.

One good thing: the crisis so far has demonstrated the uselessness of the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.  Continue reading