The US Department of Defense has announced a project to upgrade its main nuclear gravity bomb, the B61-13. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) at the Department of Energy will be responsible for developing the munition, pending approval and funding by Congress.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, John Plumb, stated that the upgrade represents a reasonable step to manage the challenges of a highly dynamic security environment. He also clarified that the production of the B61-13 will not increase the overall number of weapons in the US nuclear stockpile. Plumb described the decision as reflective of a changing security environment and the growing threats from potential adversaries.
The Pentagon emphasized that the upgrade was not made in response to any specific current event, but rather based on an ongoing assessment of the security environment outlined in the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review.
The B61-13 project will leverage the established production capabilities that support the B61-12. It will incorporate modern safety, security, and accuracy features while maintaining the much higher yield of the B61-7 model.
The B61-7 is a strategic bomb with a yield of up to 340 kilotons, while the B61-12 is a tactical weapon with a yield ranging from 0.3 to 50 kilotons. The new variant may replace some of the existing B61-7s as well as the soon-to-be-retired B83.
The B61 bomb has been a crucial air-dropped thermonuclear weapon in the US arsenal since its design in 1963. It is compatible with various aircraft, including the B1B-Lancer, B-2 Spirit, and B-52 Stratofortress bombers, as well as the F-15 and F-16 tactical attack jets. The F-35 is also currently being tested for its capability to carry and deploy the B61 bomb, although it is not yet officially rated for it.
Air-dropped nuclear weapons are one of the components of the Nuclear Triad, alongside intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) deployed on land or aboard submarines. The congressional Strategic Posture Commission recently recommended a significant expansion of both the conventional US military and the triad to address potential conflicts with Russia and China simultaneously.
According to the Federation of American Scientists, the US currently has around 5,200 atomic weapons in service, compared to Russia’s nearly 5,900. This upgrade project aims to maintain and enhance the US nuclear deterrence capabilities in the face of evolving security challenges.
In conclusion, the US Department of Defense’s project to upgrade the B61 nuclear bomb reflects the changing security environment and the need to address potential threats from adversaries. The upgrade will utilize existing production capabilities while incorporating modern features, ensuring the safety, security, and accuracy of the weapon. It is part of the US’s ongoing assessment of its nuclear arsenal and is not a response to any specific current event. The upgrade will not increase the overall number of weapons in the US nuclear stockpile but will enhance the nation’s nuclear deterrence capabilities.