By Russ Wellen

The primary U.S. thermonuclear weapon is designated B61. When we hear the modifier thermonuclear, aka H-bomb, we think end of the world.  But this bomb, delivered by bombers and fighters, as opposed to missiles, can function as either an intermediate “strategic” — blow up a specific part of the world — or “tactical” — just the battlefield — nuclear weapon.

The B61 is what’s known as a variable-yield bomb. First, it’s not one weapon per se, but a category of weapons based on one design. Second, some of the B61s come equipped with a dial. Bet you didn’t know that the destructive force of a nuclear bomb could be adjusted like an appliance.

The six settings range from A to F. Wonder what those stand for. How about: A for anti-personnel, B for bad news, C for cataclysmic, D for death and destruction, E for end of life on earth as we know it, and F for fail as in epic?

The executive director of the Project for Government Oversight (POGO), Danielle Brian, has just written a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta pointing out that, in fact, it’s U.S. taxpayers who are “bearing the increasing life extension costs of the approximately 200 B61 nuclear bombs deployed and stored in Europe.”

The issue of whether or not one objects to nuclear weapons on principle aside for the moment, POGO questions the military value, the security, and the cost of the umbrella deterrence which we extend to Europe.

The effectiveness first: “The situation at the U.S. base in Incirlik, Turkey, is particularly problematic: Most of the” approximately 50 bombs “are for delivery by US aircraft,” but requests to deploy a U.S. Air Force “wing there have been turned down by Turkey. … In a crisis, US aircraft from other bases would have to first deploy to Incirlik to pick up the weapons before they could be used. … Turkey’s F-16s … are not currently certified to carry out the mission of delivering nuclear weapons … In another example, Germany plans for its replacement fighter aircraft not to be nuclear capable. This could influence other countries to do the same—leaving the United States in a position where U.S.” aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons would need to fly in from elsewhere.

Second, the security:

A 2008 report by a U.S. Air Force Blue Ribbon Review states that security at the host-nation locations is varied and often does not meet U.S. nuclear weapons protection standards. Physical facilities such as structures, fences, lights, and alarm systems are not well maintained. In addition, host-nation military personnel charged with the security mission are sometimes conscripts [with] almost no specialized training [whose] reliability is questionable due to deficiencies in host-nation screening processes.

Third, the cost:

POGO has learned from government sources that, since POGO first raised the issue,  the total cost estimate for extending the life (called a life extension program, or LEP) of B61s has grown from approximately $4 billion to $5.2 billion. The cost for the B61s deployed in Europe alone has grown from approximately $1.6 billion to approximately $2.1 billion.

Ms. Brian concludes:

If U.S. and European leaders really believe these nuclear weapons can be useful as a deterrent or that they remain essential to maintaining the political ties that bind the Alliance, the European members must agree to bear an increased share of the costs for these weapons. The U.S. should not be responsible for continuing to pay the majority of the cost to maintain a nuclear weapons capability in European countries, particularly given our nation’s financial constraints.

Washington and the military tend to be impervious to existential questions about nuclear weapons and their morality. Demonstrating their exorbitant costs and their lack of usefulness* in specific situations is, arguably, the best technique for effecting arms control and disarmament.

*As Ward Wilson of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies has often eloquently argued, especially in his Nonproliferation Review article The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence.

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