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What You Won't Hear in the Presidential Debates: The Bombs We Left Behind

One of the first things the United States did as the Soviet Union dissolved was remove thousands of its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe. But they left a small stash, just in case. Now, the U.S. could spend $10 billion to overhaul those nukes it left behind.


Meet the B-61 nuclear bomb: the country's last remaining, and staggeringly expensive, “tactical” nuclear weapon. Once a mainstay of the Cold War, it's now a model of budget waste.

Depending on the model and options selected, the B-61 has both the smallest amount of explosive energy in the U.S. nuclear arsenal (enough to destroy Chicago’s Soldier Field) and the second largest (enough to destroy Chicago's South Side). Since 1963, the U.S. produced approximately 3,000 B-61 bombs. During the Cold War, the idea was that if Soviet tank columns rolled into West Germany, NATO warplanes would use these B-61 bombs to turn back the land invasion before things got nastier.

Today, the U.S. has gotten rid of all but 500 of these bombs, including the 200 still in Europe. But the remaining bombs have outlived their purpose. Europe is whole, and the Soviet Union is no more. Perhaps recognizing this, one senior defense leader told a Pentagon Task Force (PDF), “We pay a king’s ransom for these things and ... they have no military value.” Several NATO allies hosting the bombs appear to agree. Host nations like Germany and perhaps Belgium and the Netherlands are unlikely to buy another generation of nuclear-capable planes—effectively setting their retirement date from the nuclear business.

Even nuclear warheads have finite lifespans. With the B-61 getting older, the U.S. faced a decision: retire its nukes in Europe or pay to overhaul them. It chose overhaul, putting taxpayers on the hook for a $10 billion Life Extension Program for the B-61 bomb, its $1.2 billion tail kit and the $340 million total it takes to attach the bomb on the new F-35 fighter (a $135 million plane). The bomb alone is so expensive that overhauling it could cost almost twice its weight in gold.

That’s a lot of scratch for something military officials say they don’t need.

Nuclear weapons are increasingly irrelevant for addressing today’s threats or the threats over the horizon. Security today is best upheld by a strong economy, smart conventional military, tight alliances, skilled diplomats, and robust trade relations—not token stashes of unusable nuclear bombs. Buying excessive nuclear weapons—let alone those with no military purpose—only robs funds from today’s security needs and adds to the national debt.

The B-61’s bureaucratic advocates, however, remain undeterred. In the last year, the cost of the B-61 program more than doubled from $4 billion to $10 billion. When the Pentagon learned of this cost hike, “They went, ‘Oh, that’s really expensive. Oh, that’s really expensive, damn,’” one senior official told Global Security Newswire. Still, the program continues.

There’s a solution to this problem that doesn’t involve dumping endless amounts of cash down a nuclear hole. The U.S. could simply retire the B-61s as their service life ends, bringing them back to U.S. territory to be securely stored and eventually dismantled.

Instead of spending $10 billion on NATO’s nuclear nostalgia, the nation could use its resources to orient the alliance toward the real security challenges of the 21st century.

This is the fourth in a series of essays provoking a conversation around the invisible issues of Election 2012—those crucial topics that hide in plain sight as the two candidates square off during the presidential debates this month.

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Image (cc) flickr user James Nash

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