Capabilities of B61-12 Nuclear Bomb Increase Further

A B61-12 radar test drop conducted earlier this year.

By Hans M. Kristensen

With every official statement about the B61 nuclear bomb life-extension program, the capabilities of the new version (B61-12) appear to be increasing.

Previously, officials from the DOD, STRATCOM, and NNSA said the program is a consolidation of the B61-3, B61-4, B61-7, and B61-10 gravity bombs that would provide no additional military capabilities beyond those weapons.

This pledge echoed the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which states: “Life Extension Programs (LEPs)…will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.”

Yet the addition of a guided tail kit will increase the accuracy of the B61-12 compared with the other weapons and provide new warfighting capabilities. The tail kit is necessary, officials say, for the 50-kilotons B61-12 (with a reused B61-4 warhead) to be able to hold at risk the same targets as the 360-kilotons B61-7 warhead. But in Europe, where the B61-7 has never been deployed, the guided tail kit will be a significant boost of the military capabilities – an improvement that doesn’t fit the promise of reducing the role of nuclear weapons.

More recently we also learned that the guided tail kit will provide the B61-12 with a “modest standoff capability,” something the current B61 versions don’t have.

And during yesterday’s hearing in the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, defense officials said the B61-12 would also replace the B61-11, a single-yield 400-kiloton nuclear earth-penetrating bomb introduced in 1997, and the B83-1, a strategic bomb with variable yields up to 1,200 kilotons. 

If so, the military capabilities of the B61-12 will be able to cover the entire range of military targeting missions for gravity bombs, ranging from the lowest yield of the B61-4 (0.3 kilotons) to the 1,200-kiloton B83-1 as well as the nuclear earth-penetration mission of the B61-11.


That’s quite an achievement for a weapon that just a few years ago was described simply as a refurbishment of four old B61s. Now the B61-12 has become the all-in-one nuclear bomb on steroids, spanning the full spectrum of gravity bomb missions anywhere.

That has some pretty significant implications in Europe where the United States has never deployed bombs with the military capabilities of the B61-7, B61-11 and B83-1. And it opens up a portfolio of enhanced targeting options with less radioactive fallout – more useable nuclear strike scenarios. Not bad for a simple life-extension, but less clear why it is needed and how it fits U.S. and NATO promises to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and seek “bold reductions” in U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons in Europe.

The Magic Reduction Bomb

During yesterday’s hearing, the military and nuclear lab officials portrayed the B61-12 as key to future reductions and modifications of the nuclear stockpile.

Since its inception, the B61-12 program has been described as a “consolidation” of four existing B61s into one allowing retirement of tree types. Now, in a blunt example of nuclear horse-trading in the 11th hour, the military and labs are adding retirement of the B61-11 and B83 as additional sweeteners to justify the expensive B61-12 program.

Without the B61-12, so the argument goes, the United States would not be able to reduce its inventory of gravity bombs. In contrast, completion of the B61-12 program “will result in a reduction in the total number of nuclear gravity bombs in our stockpile by a factor of two,” according to NNSA.

That is a stretch, to say the least. In reality, nearly two-thirds of the gravity bombs currently in the stockpile are already inactive and would likely be retired anyway (see table).

Screen Shot 2013-10-30 at 11.07.44 AM

Yesterday, the officials ridiculed the B83 as a nuclear dinosaur with too big a yield (1.2 Megatons) even though they admitted that it also has lower yields. But that has been the case for decades and the B83 role faded years ago. After Congress rejected using the B83 warhead for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), the B83 was decertified from first the B-1 bomber and more recently the B-52 bomber as well. That leaves the B-2 as the sole carrier with many more B83s in the stockpile than needed. The same goes for the B61-7.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Despite serious questions raised about the scope, cost, and management of the B61-12 and many other nuclear modernization programs, the Pentagon and NNSA yesterday portrayed the B61-12 – as well as the yet unclear but highly risky 3+2 warhead plan for the entire stockpile – as the cheapest solution to all nuclear issues: deterrence, assurance, modernization, and reductions. If that doesn’t set off alarm bells, I don’t know what would.

The hearing reminded me of the hearing a few years back were the CEOs of the tobacco industry were asked if nicotine were addictive; under oath they all said “no.”

Similarly, when asked yesterday if they could see any reason why the United States should not continue with the planned B61 life-extension program, the nuclear officials all said “no.”

To me, the willingness to trade all gravity bombs for the B61-12 is a tacit admission that most of the existing weapons are not needed but offered as sweeteners to “sell” the expensive program to Congress and the public.

Except for Representatives Loretta Sanchez and John Garamendi, none of the members that had shown up for the hearing asked any critical or difficult questions. Instead they appeared to invite the views that they knew the witnesses had anyway. There were no independent witnesses at the hearing, which appeared to be intended as a pushback against efforts in the Senate to scale back the B61-12 program.

There are no targets for the B61-12 that cannot be held at risk with ballistic or cruise missiles. And it is unlikely that there are any nuclear bombs deployed in Europe a decade from now. Instead, a basic gravity bomb capability on the B-2 and next-generation bomber could be achieved with a simpler and cheaper non-nuclear life-extension of the B61 as proposed by Senator Dianne Feinstein.

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.


3 thoughts on “Capabilities of B61-12 Nuclear Bomb Increase Further

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

    June 16, 2011

    The B61-12, the product of a planned 30-year life extension and consolidation of four existing versions of the B61 into one, will be equipped with a new guidance system to increase its accuracy.

    As a result, if funded by Congress, the U.S. non-strategic nuclear bombs currently deployed in five European countries will return to Europe as a life-extended version in 2018 with a significantly enhanced capability to knock out military targets.]

    Hans Kristensen

    I’m still confused on how the B61-12 bomb provides “significantly enhanced capacities” over the existing NATO B61-3/4 nuclear bombs; how it opens up new “targeting opportunities”. It’s a tactical weapon designed to strike military targets like air bases, naval ports, arms depots, troop concentrations, air defense systems, command & control systems, etc. What are the “new enhanced targets” that the B61-12 opens up to the Pentagon?

    The better argument is that we no longer need to drop nuclear battlefield weapons and, thus, the B61-12 isn’t needed at all. Just LEP the B61-7s and we’re “good to go”.

    Any clarifications on this is greatly appreciated.

    Frank Shuler


  2. Hans Kristensen:

    Just a followup.

    Very interesting post; most informative. I could not find in the supporting documents the direct reference to the B61-12 also replacing the B61-11 penetrator bomb but suspect your conclusion is accurate. Did I miss this somewhere? Also, the comment that the B-52H has dropped both the B83-1 bomb mission and, indeed, the entire nuclear gravity bomb mission for the current OPLAN 8010. Very interesting. Do we have supporting documents there? I guess this would explain the decision by the Pentagon to update the B-52H cruise missile package with the new Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) nuclear cruise missile.

    [Hans Kristensen -That has some pretty significant implications in Europe where the United States has never deployed bombs with the military capabilities of the B61-7, B61-11 and B83-1.]

    In the historical context, that statement isn’t entirely correct. B28s were deployed all over Europe for delivery by B-52s, B-47s and various tactical NATO fighters in both the strategic and tactical missions. Gosh, even the Canadians had CF-104 Starfighters assigned to the European nuclear strike mission. (Hard to imagine the sleek Lockheed Starfighter as a nuclear platform) The B28 of its day was similar in scope and mission to the B61-12.

    Frank Shuler


  3. Take this to the bank, nuclear weapons are here to stay. Once released they never return to the genie jar. There will be more nukes the future, not less. And they will be used for many purposes. Because that’s just human nature’s mandate for dominance. Absent genetic transformation of substantially all humans to neutralize the tribal trait that’s exactly the way it will be. Better use of time is to optimize the use of nukes so that they don’t have to destroy more than intended. Make not mistake, no matter what actions are taken in the short term they will be used in the long term. That is humanity and its manifest destiny. Dominance. A curse, but incurable. We should admit what we are and get on with it.

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