In the newest edition of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris discuss the newest addition to the B61 family of nuclear weapons. They briefly describe the improvement:
The Obama administration has approved an upgrade to the B61 nuclear bomb, one of the most versatile and numerous nuclear warheads in the US stockpile. The new type, known as the B61-12, uses a new tail kit assembly to convert the B61-4 into a guided standoff nuclear bomb. By increasing the accuracy of the weapon, the 50-kiloton warhead from the B61-4 can be used to hold at risk the same targets that today require the higher-yield B61-7.
In the new B61-12 design, the parachute will be removed and the weapon instead will use a guided tail kit to provide a limited standoff capability to increase delivery aircraft safety. The B61-12 will have both air- and ground-burst capability.
While the B61-12 will be capable of holding at risk the same targets as current gravity bombs in the US stockpile, it will do so with less yield and thus less collateral damage, including radioactive fallout.
I highlight these statements first, to frame another point made by the authors. They make the point, while anecdotally, that this new system will increase the weapon’s ”usability’. I find this conclusion, even made in passing and not the crux of their argument, both fascinating and troubling.
While I agree that a weapon that will reduce civilian causalities is more advantageous for deployment, simply enhancing the technological capability of a weapon system does not precipitate its usage. Further, a more precise nuclear weapon is still a devastating weapon that will inflict mass damage and causalities. The new tail assembly, while making the weapon ‘guided’, marks only a marginal improvement to the overall triad. By this line of thinking, the gradual improvements of weapon systems by both the US and USSR throughout the Cold War should have reached a technological precipice by which escalation to nuclear conflict would have been the rational choice as determined by incrementally better technological positioning.
Additionally, as the third quote above mentions, the tail kit would improve the potential for survivability of delivery aircraft. This may be important for conventional forces, but I fail to see how, in the case of nuclear warfare, having aircraft that are more survivable after deployment of their payload increases the incentive to engage in nuclear conflict. If we consider Schelling’s escalation ladder concept, a delivery of this type of device would be strategic and would require immediate, and definitive, response, making a survivable strategic aircraft force for secondary payload would seem a mute point.
I also find this point fascinating and puzzle producing: does incremental technological innovation in a weapon system fundamentally change its nature to the point that it would shape the decision-making processes of conflict initiation? While I am sure there is a plethora of literature out there that I am ignorant of, this idea of innovation as shaping not only decision-making processes in initiating conflict, but also potentially influencing perceptions of threat and shifting preference ordering is worthy of further investigation. This would seem appropriate in the current context in the area of drones as well. Not as a new, overarching way of conducting war, but how advances in the technology of drones has potentially driven usage. Fundamentally, in terms of the escalating use by the US in the War on Terror, has drone technology driven the ease and ability of policy-makers to deploy assets that do not put servicemen in danger, or has advances in intelligence and processes for reducing collateral damage brought about their increase use? How does incremental technological development shape the strategic context for policy-makers?