Nuclear Budget Buster Faces Strong Criticism

The Obama administration is seeking money to upgrade a nuclear bomb it doesn’t need, to fight a war that no longer exists. The bomb is the B61, and it is a glowing example of Washington’s nuclear budget waste.

Analysts expect the B61 nuclear bomb upgrade to cost $11.9 billion – with each bomb costing more than its weight in gold.

The bombs were initially deployed in Europe, during the Cold War, to fend off a Soviet land invasion. Decades have passed. The USSR no longer exists. New threats have arisen. Despite these monumental changes to the European and global security environments, the U.S. continues to deploy an estimated 200 B61s in NATO countries today and plans to spend billions more updating them.

As one senior defense official told a Pentagon Task Force about the B61, “We pay a king’s ransom for these things...and they have no military value.” It’s perplexing then why some in the U.S. want to spend vast sums upgrading the B61 bomb.

Not everyone agrees. The New York Times editorial board recently voiced its disapproval of the bomb program.

This is a nonsensical decision, not least because it is at odds with Mr. Obama’s own vision. In a seminal speech in Prague in 2009 and a strategy review in 2010, Mr. Obama advocated the long-term goal of a world without nuclear arms and promised to reduce America’s reliance on them. He also promised not to field a new and improved warhead.

There are alternatives. Fifteen nuclear policy and grassroots organizations – including many Ploughshares Fund partners – argue in a February letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) that Congress could pause the bomb upgrade program and seek smarter options. The letter argues that there are smaller measures that could keep the warheads secure and reliable for many years – giving the U.S. time to reassess whether to keep the bombs while avoiding billions in needless spending.

The argument is catching. In an April hearing, Sen. Feinstein challenged officials overseeing the B61 upgrade to reassess the scope of their planned work for the bomb. She noted her concern that “virtually every” nuclear weapons program is over budget, even during today’s budget conditions.

“It’s a very sobering thing to me because I’m of the school that doesn’t believe we need all these nuclear weapons,” said Sen. Feinstein in the hearing.

The B61 is relic of the Cold War and is irrelevant for today’s threats like nuclear terrorism and the growing prevalence of cyber warfare. Spending billions to upgrade the bomb will only siphon funds away from programs that address real threats and actually make the U.S. safer.

With budgets tight, it’s time for the U.S. to stop spending on Cold War nostalgia and scale back or cancel the B61.

Photo: NNSA