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Both Hans Kristensen, at the FAS Strategic Security blog, and The Government Accountability Office have published superb and detailed analysis of the B61 LEP, of which the end product will be the development of a single “modernised” B61, the B61-12.

The GAO report tells us that the development of a single B61 warhead is based on a “tentative” agreement between the DOD and NNSA. The report also tells us that the physics package is to be based on the B61-4, but that

…the Nuclear Weapons Council, in its June 2008 letter, scoped the study to include options for incorporating previously untried technologies and design concepts into the refurbished bomb, in addition to replacing its aging components…

That is a quote worth filing away, I think.

The GAO study was prompted by concern that past experience with LEP programmes suggests that there exists a risk that whilst the B61 is being refurbished that the US would not be able to fulfil its nuclear obligations to NATO under the “transatlantic link” concept.

But the report covers more ground than this, which is handy. The B61-12 looks to be providing us with some very useful insight into what warhead modernisation is supposed to be all about. A key reason for this is that

…The scope of the B61 study—which includes studying new features and designs, in addition to replacing aging components—is considerably broader than previous life extension programs…

Further on the GAO states,

…Furthermore, in preparation for future life extension programs, the council wanted to take advantage of the B61 study to explore novel and innovative concepts that could be applied when conducting future life extension programs…

When RRW was put forth by the Bush Administration the vanguard warhead, if you will, was going to be the W76. It looks now that it will be the B61. Nice strategic move that.

I have blogged about the B61-12 in depth before, and there isn’t terribly much for me to add in so far as the technical aspects of the B61-12 go.

I had focused my discussion on the B61 LEP by looking at the B61 tail section. On this GAO states

…The new bomb tail section is estimated to cost $800 million and is designed to increase accuracy, enabling the military to achieve the same effects as the older bomb, but with lower nuclear yield…

I’ll come back to that.

According to the GAO Report

…In March 2008 the Nuclear Weapons Council—a statutorily authorized joint activity composed of DOD and DOE officials—approved an Air Force request for a study of military performance requirements and potential design options for the B61 life extension program…

It is the “military performance requirements” which is getting most of the attention.

The GAO Report states,

…While U.S. Strategic Command has prepared an operational plan for employing nuclear weapons, neither NATO nor U.S. European Command, in accordance with the NATO Strategic Concept, have prepared standing peacetime nuclear contingency plans or identified targets involving
nuclear weapons…

That would suggest that “military performance requirements” are not too much of an issue for us to get fussed about. We learn from the GAO report that Strategic Command, European Command and USAF have reached an agreement on some of the performance characteristics that the B61-12 bomb is to have.

So we would have here a European Command/NATO bomb whose performance characteristics are also based on the military requirements of Strategic Command. So the very design of the bomb sort of blurs the gap between strategic and non-strategic weapons. The B61-12 will be deliverable by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Hans Kristensen has more detailed analysis of the technical aspects of the B61-12 at his blog. Do check it out.

I would certainly agree that this would enhance NATO’s military capabilities with respect to Russia. A more accurate and lower yield nuclear bomb, delivered by the F-35, is certainly consistent with Kristensen’s reasoning. Of course, Russia is, slowly, developing fifth generation Surface-to-Air Missile systems and fifth generation fighter aircraft.

An interesting link might develop with the Phased Adaptive approach to European BMD. You might want to call this a “double track” military augmentation in the European theatre.

I would just like to add one thing to Kristensen’s analysis.

NATO has in practice gone “out of area” and is now going “out of area” formally through the new Strategic Concept. I rather suspect that NATO’s nuclear mission is also going out of area. I tend to believe that a key concern of the GAO report, the viability of the transatlantic link during the LEP transition period, probably mandates it. I mean the credibility of the link per se, not just during the period of the LEP.

If NATO is going out of area, and possible contingencies in WMD regional environments are a strategic-tactical possibility that needs to be planned for, then enemy regional WMD use needs to be deterred and countered. Under the transatlantic link concept that counter-proliferation capability is NATO-European Command nuclear forces.

NATO nuclear deterrence, or better still the nuclear umbrella, I think, must go out of area following upon any conventional out of area strategic concept. I find it hard to accept that the nuclear umbrella won’t be extended to out of area operations with potential WMD contingencies. If I were a senior military commander I’d be demanding it. The transatlantic link concept permits no gaps.

Kristensen is surely right when he speaks of strong similarities between the B61-12 and the older proposals for the development of low yield nuclear weapons. Regional contingencies were an important consideration for the latter.

While we are on the topic of NATO let me bring up a blog post of Stephen Walt’s responding to some strong statements from Bob Gates on European strategic free riding.

Walt is a brilliant analyst and is, by far, the world’s leading International Relations scholar.

I am expecting any day now a book in the mail on Walt and rational choice theory.

I had made a comment at Walt’s blog which I would like to place below.

Gee, I don’t know about this one Stephen. You’re right in what you say but I think that you can take this a little bit further. I think that we see some of the limitations of realism here. I tend to think that what we see here is the classic free rider problem, which has always been the major problem in US-European relations with respect to NATO. The US performs a vital function; it largely maintains a system of global order which exists underneath an umbrella of power, including but not limited to military power that is most favourable to US and West European interests. The Europeans have been pretty comfortable with that and would like to free ride some more. Perfectly rational. The US, despite the huffing and puffing, I think has largely gone along with this as the sort of inevitable price to be paid for being the primary power within “the affluent alliance.” But the aftershocks of the financial crisis, BRICs and Global Trends 2025 and all that makes free riding more of problem. Again, perfectly rational. That, I suppose, would be a kinda realist way of seeing things. I think that as *relative* US decline starts to bite free riding by Europe becomes more of a hassle and a bug for Washington. So, yes, it is *structural* and it is kinda *realist* although it’s the type of realism that is prepared to be super cynical.

I was just reading a paper in the latest issue of International Security, the world’s premier International Relations journal, on great power retrenchment and neorealist theory that made the following point

… In the long term, decline is inevitable, but in the short term it is anything but. States can improve their relative growth by imitating the practices of lead states. And, like firms, states are capable of recovery if they make astute adjustments. Reorganization requires some combination of resources and time, which states can generate by paring back military expenditures, avoiding costly conflicts, and shifting burdens onto others…

I agree with that, especially the last three words which is what Gates is trying to do.

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