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Ticking Time Bomb? How Pentagon Plans to Modernize Nuclear Arsenal to Deter Evolving Russian, Chinese Threats

New US Nuclear Gravity Bomb for Deterring Russia and China
Source: Airforce Global Strike Command

The B61-12 gravity bomb being prepared for a test.

Nov. 2 2023, Published 9:01 a.m. ET

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America’s Department of Defense has announced its decision to develop a new version of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb, designated B61-13.

Knewz.com reported that the bomb will have a similar yield to the B61-7 but will replace some of the older versions currently in the military's arsenal.

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The Pentagon notes that the decision is in line with the changing security environment, as outlined in the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, which calls for the modernization of the country's nuclear forces to effectively deter China and Russia - its two main nuclear-armed competitors.

According to Defense News, the B61-13 will incorporate the same modern safety, security, and accuracy features as the B61-12, and provide America’s presidents with more options to strike targets that are more resilient and bigger.

It will also support the retirement of legacy bombs such as the B61-7 and B83-1.

According to nuclear weapons expert Hans Kristensen, the B61-13 will cannibalize warheads from the 1980s- and 1990s-era B61-7s, and enclose them in a similar casing and tail kit as the B61-12.

The creation of the B61-13 also brings hope for compromise and the resolution of a longstanding disagreement between Democrats and Republicans regarding the fate of the B83-1 bomb.

Former President Barack Obama had sought to eliminate the B83-1, the last megaton bomb in the country's nuclear arsenal.

However, his successor, former President Donald Trump, reversed that decision and President Joe Biden has since revived efforts to get rid of the B83-1, but key Republican lawmakers argue that it is necessary for striking deeply buried targets.

The maximum yield of the B61-7 is 50 kilotons while the newly proposed B61-13 is 360.

As Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons boffin at the Federation of American Scientists, suggests:

“This is a sweetener to the hardliners in Congress to basically say: ‘OK guys, you want something with a high yield. Here’s a small number of them … but you also get one with a tail kit that will be more accurate.’”

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The United States plans to produce as many B61-13s as the number of B61-12s it will lower, leading to no overall increase in the size of the military's stockpile - also, it is expected that only a few dozen B61-13s will be produced.

If approved and funded by lawmakers, the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration will be responsible for producing the B61-13.

The bomb will be deployed on modern aircraft, including the B-21 Raider stealth bomber currently being developed by the Air Force but not the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The creation of the B61-13 has thus far generated mixed opinions. While some view it as a positive move to phase out the B83-1 bomb, others see it as a costly concession to defense hawks in Congress.

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The Pentagon, however, remains firm that this development is necessary to address the evolving security threats posed by China and Russia.

The news comes in the wake of Russia’s decision to end its observation of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The decision has since raised eyebrows among experts as they fear that Putin’s administration may start testing nuclear weapons which may then lead to the same behavior by other entities like China, India, and North Korea.

Vladimir Putin has since asserted that the latter is not his intention. But he also noted that if America were to start testing, then Russia would too.

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