Nukes: Eradicate or Modernize?

Ever hear of the B-61? Sounds like a US warplane, and that’s close but not quite right. Or maybe you’re not interested at all in the B-61, whatever it is – but, to modify the quote attributed to Leon Trotsky, the B-61 could well be very interested in you, at least in the event of nuclear war. For the B-61 is actually the leading thermonuclear bomb in the American arsenal, first designed back in 1963 at the height of the Cold War. And a there was a recent article in Der Spiegel (US Ministry wants to modernize old atomic weapons) about the drive that is now underway on the part of the US Department of Energy (which formally controls all American atomic weapons) and the Department of Defense to spend quite a lot of money to modernize the many B-61s still in stockpile.

Aside from being refreshingly arcane – anybody see any sort of coverage of this at all in the American press? I thought not – how is any of this important? In a couple of ways, actually. First there’s our old friend German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who explicitly campaigned during the last German nationwide election to have the Americans withdraw all of their nuclear warheads from Germany. It’s even a separate policy-point in the coalition agreement that undergirds the current CDU/CSU/FDP federal government in power in Berlin.

Obviously, though, if the Americans are seriously contemplating going forward with B-61 modernization, including for the many such warheads stored in Germany (the exact number is surely classified), then the German Foreign Minister can yell and demand all he wants, but it will remain painfully apparent that he has no say in the matter. Hey, they’re just devices sitting on German soil, each capable of annihilating a major city – but it’s highly unlikely that even Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel herself has any say, either, due to the web of defense agreements governing NATO military installations and US-German relations dating from back when Central Europe was a much more dangerous place.

It’s all something rather alarming to be made aware of, especially if you’re a German citizen, but this still is plainly the main message of this article’s author, Otfried Nassauer, even as he goes on in his article to describe – in what sometimes reads like rather unseemly detail – exactly what the proposed B-61 modernization plans entail. Right now there are five B-61 models, and that’s too unwieldy; those five are to be transformed into just two, namely Model 11 (which already exists and is said to be an atomic “bunker-buster” for tactical use) and Model 12 (brand-new, a multi-use model to take up the roles now covered by all the other models which are to be phased out). Further, in a yet more- explicit sign of the clear intention to keep these weapons in Europe for a long time to come, another aspect of the modernization will involve making sure these bombs are modified so that they can be delivered by the next generation of NATO tactical aircraft, such as the Joint Strike Fighter.

There’s yet another point Nassauer intends to make as well, however. Didn’t President Obama, in his speech to the adoring crowd last April in Prague’s Hradčanské náměstí (Castle Square), speak of his ambition to abolish nuclear weapons entirely? What ever happened to that notion? It’s true that Obama gets the last word in this modernization decision, which he will present in the “Nuclear Posture Review” that his administration is due to deliver to Congress shortly. But – surprise! – no sort of radical move to put aside the proposed modernization entirely is expected. There is too much money at stake, i.e. too many vested interests pushing for it both in DOE and DOD. Indeed, the main point of contention currently is whether the envisioned modernization will end up paving the way for the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons or instead just serve as a substitute for that.

But as for the Germans? Forget ’em.

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