As North Korea dug tunnels at its nuclear test site last fall, watched by American spy satellites, the Obama administration was preparing a test of its own in the Nevada desert.
A fighter jet took off with a mock version of the nation’s first precision-guided atom bomb. Adapted from an older weapon, it was designed with problems like North Korea in mind: Its computer brain and four maneuverable fins let it zero in on deeply buried targets like testing tunnels and weapon sites. And its yield, the bomb’s explosive force, can be dialed up or down depending on the target, to minimize collateral damage.
Mr. Obama has long advocated a “nuclear-free world.” His lieutenants argue that modernizing existing weapons can produce a smaller and more reliable arsenal while making their use less likely because of the threat they can pose. The changes, they say, are improvements rather than wholesale redesigns, fulfilling the president’s pledge to make no new nuclear arms.
But critics, including a number of former Obama administration officials, look at the same set of facts and see a very different future. The explosive innards of the revitalized weapons may not be entirely new, they argue, but the smaller yields and better targeting can make the arms more tempting to use — even to use first, rather than in retaliation.
The United States military is replacing the fixed tail section of the B61 bomb with steerable fins and adding other advanced technology. The result is a bomb that can make more accurate nuclear strikes and a warhead whose destructive power can be adjusted to minimize collateral damage and radioactive fallout…
The B61 Model 12, the bomb flight-tested last year in Nevada, is the first of five new warhead types planned as part of an atomic revitalization estimated to cost up to $1 trillion over three decades. As a family, the weapons and their delivery systems move toward the small, the stealthy and the precise. Already there are hints of a new arms race. Russia called the B61 tests “irresponsible” and “openly provocative.” China is said to be especially worried about plans for a nuclear-tipped cruise missile….The advanced cruise missile are estimated to cost up to $30 billion for roughly 1,000 weapons….Because the missile comes in nuclear and non-nuclear varieties, a foe under attack might assume the worst and overreact, initiating nuclear war.
Excerpt from WILLIAM J. BROAD and DAVID E. SANGERJAN, As U.S. Modernizes Nuclear Weapons, ‘Smaller’ Leaves Some Uneasy, NY Times, Jan. 11, 2016
see also Nuclear Weapons, Justice and the Law