The proposal from President Biden’s administration involves the transformation of existing nuclear bombs into new ones to allow the Pentagon to replace its largest nuclear weapon.
The B61-13 that is being suggested would serve as a replacement for a considerably larger and more difficult bomb. However, it would still possess one of the highest levels of explosive force among all the nuclear weapons in America’s arsenal.
This new bomb is part of a series of efforts to modernize older weapons, such as the B61-12 gravity bomb and the W76-2 submarine missile warhead. These initiatives aim to ensure the country remains on par with adversaries possessing nuclear capabilities.
The Nuclear Bombs of America
The nuclear arsenal of the United States is generally categorized into warheads that are deployed on missiles and gravity bombs that are dropped from aircraft. Within the category of gravity bombs, there are two main types currently in use: the B61 series, which Los Alamos developed in the 1960s, and the B83.
The B61 series bombs are equipped with a control system known as “dial-a-yield,” which enables the bomb’s explosive yield to be modified according to the needs of the mission.
This range can vary from 300 tons (.3 kilotons) to 360,000 tons (360 kilotons). By comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, had an explosive yield of only 15,000 tons (15 kilotons). The B61 series bombs can be deployed by various aircraft, including the B-2 and B-21 bombers as well as the F-35, F-15E, and F-16 fighters.
DOD F-35 Joint Program Office
Out of the 13 different versions of the B61, six are currently being utilized, one is being developed, and the remaining variants have been canceled or retired. Each variant serves a distinct purpose: The B61-3, -4, and -10 are considered tactical weapons and are effective against targets above ground such as military bases, troop concentrations, or other strategically important fixed targets.
The B61-7 is classified as a strategic weapon and would be employed in a general nuclear war against targets of strategic significance like ports, factories, oil refineries, and other similar objectives. It possesses a higher explosive yield.
As for the B61-11, it is designed as a strategic “bunker buster” with a steel casing capable of penetrating up to 20 feet of soil. Lastly, the B61-12 (depicted in the top image) represents the most precise version developed in the 2010s to replace older iterations.
The B-2 Spirit bomber is the only aircraft capable of deploying the B83, another nuclear bomb. With a massive warhead measuring 1.2 megatons (1,200 kilotons), it holds the distinction of being the largest warhead currently available.
Although some may argue its necessity at present, there were discussions about retiring it. However, thanks to reasons unknown, the Trump Administration decided to preserve this bomb.
An Innovative Nuclear Weapon
The most recent version of the weapon is called B61-13, the 13th variant. However, it should be noted that this weapon will not be completely new. Instead, it will reuse B61-7 warheads that have yields of 360 kilotons. This means that the overall size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile will not increase. The Arms Control Association estimates that there are currently 215 B61-7s in the stockpile.
The Department of Defense states that the development of the B61-13 is essential in response to a changing security landscape. Although the Pentagon does not mention specific countries, potential targets for this new bomb include North Korea, Iran, China, and Russia.
The primary purpose of this bomb is to offer the President more choices when it comes to engaging harder and larger military targets. Additionally, the B61-13 will integrate the latest safety, security, and accuracy advancements previously incorporated into the B61-12 bomb.
The bomb’s capacity to penetrate the ground is not extensive, which could potentially make it suitable for targeting buried facilities in North Korea or Iran. However, it is unlikely to be effective against heavily fortified Russian and Chinese installations due to their depth and robust construction.
According to an initial analysis by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, there is a potential application for this bomb with North Korea. The B61-12 was initially designed to target buried sites but has a maximum yield of 50 kilotons, whereas a larger warhead with a yield of 360 kilotons would have greater penetration capabilities underground.
The apparent requirement for this new bomb implies that the underground facilities of potential adversaries may be deeper than previously estimated.
The B61-13 is set to replace the B83 bomb, which currently holds the title of the giant bomb in America’s arsenal with a yield of 1.2 megatons or 1,200 kilotons. While the B83 was designed to obliterate large targets, it is outdated and less precise.
However, the Pentagon is confident that despite its smaller size, the new and more accurate B61-13 bomb will compensate for the B83’s capability of producing a massive nuclear fireball with a diameter of 1.2 miles.
A Developing Collection of Weapons
Since the Cold War ended in 1991, there have been three “new” nuclear weapons proposed. The Obama Administration approved the B61-12 bomb to modernize most of the B61 tactical arsenal. Following that, the Trump Administration developed and deployed the W76-2 warhead on the Trident D-5 missile for Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines.
This warhead has a yield of only 5 kilotons and was designed to equip submarines with the capability to launch tactical nuclear weapons. The B61-13 will be the third weapon proposed within the past three presidential administrations.
An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Nebraska (SSBN 739) off the coast of California. The new W76-2 low-yield nuclear warhead was designed for the Trident II missile.
Until now, all the weapons have been created by reusing the design and nuclear materials from previous weapons. Additionally, the Department of Defense states that the same quantity will reduce the production of B61-12s as the production of B61-13s. Once all three programs are finished, there should not be an overall increase in the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S.’s stockpile.
Key points to remember
The development of nuclear weapons significantly declined following the conclusion of the Cold War. However, the emergence of Chinese military strength, North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons, and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities have all created additional challenges for the global order.
The creation of this new bomb is a response to these threats and aims to align weaponry with different potential scenarios.
However, it remains uncertain whether America truly required a fresh bomb, along with all the accompanying expenses.