The Pentagon will eliminate the sole nuclear gravity bomb in the U.S. strategic weapons arsenal capable of blasting deeply buried underground structures as part of the Biden administration‘s review of strategic weapons policy, according to U.S. officials.
The retirement of the B83 bomb, a megaton-class weapon delivered by B-2 stealth bombers, was disclosed to Congress last month as part of the Biden administration’s classified nuclear posture review, a major reassessment of strategic forces and their employment. The bomb is “costly to maintain and of increasingly limited value,” a senior defense official told The Washington Times.
The decision to cancel the weapon carries what defense officials say is the increasing challenge for U.S. planners to deter nuclear adversaries like China, North Korea and Russia. All three states are expanding their nuclear forces with the addition of new strategic weapons and warheads.
“The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) considered the need to hold at risk adversary hard and deeply buried targets,” the defense official said. “In reviewing the diminishing role of the B83-1 in accomplishing this task, the NPR concluded that this weapon should be retired.”
Supporters of the B83 say it is still needed for deterring China, which has built a vast network of underground tunnels estimated to be 3,000 miles snaking throughout the country. The tunnel system, dubbed the “Underground Great Wall,” is used for producing and storing China‘s growing nuclear arsenal.
In addition to the B83, the administration’s proposed budget cancels plans for a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile, known as SLCM-N. Defense sources said the retirements of both the B83 and canceling the SLCM-N were opposed by U.S. Strategic Commander Adm. Charles Richard.
Adm. Richard, the senior military leader in charge of nuclear forces, listed the B83 bomb as one of several weapons that needed to be kept in the arsenal to maintain nuclear deterrence until a replacement weapon is identified.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, ranking member of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said the Pentagon decision to scrap the bomb was a “needless, self-inflicted wound” for U.S. strategic deterrence.
“This is a bad decision because it takes away one option we have in our tool kit that keeps potential adversaries guessing,” Mr. Lamborn said in an interview.
The B83 is the sole weapon capable of addressing certain threats and targets “that can’t be dealt with any other way,” the Colorado Republican added.
Mr. Lamborn said Republicans will seek to reverse the B83 retirement by inserting language in this year’s national defense authorization bill that requires the military to maintain the bomb, noting there is bipartisan support for the initiative.
Deterring nuclear threats is increasingly difficult.
SEE ALSO: Biden calls for Putin to face war crimes trial after mass graves found in Ukraine
“We keep reducing the number and type of our nuclear weapons while China and Russia are increasing and modernizing the number and type of their weapons,” Mr. Lamborn said. “At the end of the day we need a stronger nuclear defense posture, and we need to reject this particular NPR.”
A congressional defense aide said the administration “does not have a plan to replace” the B83. Instead, a study will be conducted at some point in the future to determine how best to get at deeply buried targets, the main mission of the B83, the aide said.
“They have no plan to replace it with either a nuclear or conventional weapon and readily admit that they are assuming risk in this space,” the aide said.
Compounding the problem, Chinese, North Korean, Russian and potentially Iranian military forces are moving more of their nuclear forces and warheads into hardened underground structures that the B83 is designed to counter.
Retiring the bomb also will not save large amounts of money. The cost of refurbishing and extending the life of the weapon is estimated to be between $100 million and $200 million. That amount is relatively small considering the administration is engaged in a major modernization of U.S. nuclear forces costing around $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years.
Last year’s budget sought $50 million for B83 life extension.
Initially, the Pentagon considered replacing the B83 with another nuclear gravity bomb known as the B61-12. That bomb has some of the ground-penetrating capabilities of the B83. But the B61-12 is unable to match its explosive power.
The B82 has an estimated yield of 1.2 megatons, or the equivalent of 1.2 million tons of TNT.
NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Tod D. Wolters told a House hearing last week he agreed with Adm. Richard on the need to keep both the B83 and the SLCM-N, since the “multiple options exacerbate the challenge for potential enemies against us.” Gen. Wolters said he was not consulted by the Pentagon planners on the decision to eliminate the B83, despite being in charge of NATO’s nuclear forces deterring Russian nuclear threats.
Diminishing the role of nukes
The nuclear posture review was sent to Congress late last month in classified form. A senior defense official told reporters that the still-secret review includes a direction from policymakers to diminish the role of nuclear weapons in American defense strategy.
The review “underscores our commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons and reestablishing our leadership in arms control,” a Pentagon fact sheet states. “We will continue to emphasize strategic stability, seek to avoid costly arms races, and facilitate risk reduction and arms control arrangements where possible.”
But the shift come as a time when U.S. analysts believe China is engaged in what Adm. Richard, the Stratcom commander, has called “strategic breakout” with a major expansion of its nuclear forces, which have long been overshadowed by those held by the U.S. and Russia. In addition to its large underground nuclear complex, Beijing recently began building three large missile fields in western China for the new, 10-warhead DF-41 long-range missile, in addition to adding scores of new road- and rail-mobile ICBMs to its arsenal.
The DF-41s will boost China’s strategic warhead arsenal from around 200 to as many as 1,500 warheads.
North Korea has built several long-range missiles capable of hitting the U.S. and is estimated to have nuclear warheads small enough to be carried by the missiles.
Russia is building several new strategic weapons, including a nuclear-powered cruise missile, nuclear-tipped hypersonic glide vehicles and a megaton-warhead underwater drone. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly hinted at being ready to use the Kremlin’s nuclear might if NATO allies try to intervene in the fighting in Ukraine.
In 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies reported that Russia
was building dozens of deep underground nuclear facilities. The construction suggested that Moscow is preparing for a future nuclear conflict.
Russia also built a large underground strategic command post at Kosvinsky Mountain, located in the Ural Mountains about 850 miles east of Moscow. Underground Russian leadership compounds have been identified at Voronovo, about 46 miles south of Moscow and Sharapova, 34 miles from the capital.
The administration has linked both the nuclear posture review and a missile defense review to a new national defense strategy. However, sources acknowledge that the defense strategy has had to be revised in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
A fact sheet on the national defense strategy identifies “integrated deterrence” as the Pentagon’s main strategy, combining military power with other elements of national power and networks of alliances to protect the homeland. But the still-vague integrated deterrence failed to prevent the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“They’ve put their pens down on the national security strategy given that integrated deterrence didn’t work in Ukraine,” a defense source said.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, Wisconsin Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee, said the Pentagon’s plan for integrated deterrence “failed in Ukraine,” even though the NATO alliance has been unified by the attack on Kyiv.
“The fact remains… that we attempted to deter an invasion of Ukraine, largely using non-military instruments of national power, and that attempt failed,” he said.
Mr. Putin may not have been deterred by any means, Mr. Gallagher acknowledged, “but integrated deterrence as conceptualized by the Pentagon and as implemented in the specific case of Ukraine, as a matter of fact, failed.”
Patty-Jane Geller, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, said the administration’s new nuclear policies have weakened deterrence by reverting to policies of the Obama administration.
“Mr. Biden’s decision to announce the reduced role of U.S. nuclear weapons as war wages along NATO’s borders could also cause allies to question the administration’s assurance that it will live up to its extended deterrence commitments,” she stated in a Washington Times op-ed article. “In the face of some of the greatest threats to national security, the U.S. must show strength.”