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Editorial: Two NM labs’ work on low-yield nukes means a safer world

Like all things nuclear, the ongoing work at New Mexico’s two national laboratories to modify the B61 gravity bomb has triggered debate.

An important part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the modified weapon will have both improved accuracy and allow for a variable yield as low as 0.3 kiloton – a tiny fraction of the yield from the 15-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Critics argue a highly accurate, low-yield nuclear weapon poses its own kind of danger. “The risk is that if you have a low-yield option, you might say, ‘I’ll just use this one smaller nuclear weapon to solve this problem I have, and it’ll be OK,'” said Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “No. It’s not OK. It could cause a chain reaction that you never predicted. Having a low-yield option is militarily useful but politically dangerous.”

A briefing paper from the Center for Strategic & International Studies includes the other side of the argument, as advocates for greater flexibility in our nuclear weapons say it will allow the United States to offset advantages posed by adversaries who already possess a wide variety of low-yield weapons. It also notes the U.S. 2018 Nuclear Posture Review suggested Russia might resort to limited nuclear use in a regional conflict, forcing the United States to choose between responding with a high-yield weapon – risking an all-out nuclear conflict – or simply backing down. The new design would remove that temptation from the Russian playbook.

And doesn’t flexibility make sense in dealing with nuclear bad actors like North Korea and wanna-be nuclear powers like Iran? It makes no sense to limit options there or in Europe and Asia, where tens of thousands of U.S troops are stationed alongside Allies to the equivalent of a nuclear all-or-nothing.

It’s also important to note our nuclear arsenal is aging. Absent unilateral disarmament, the question isn’t whether to modernize and upgrade, but how. It’s not destructive capability we seek. It is deterrence. We already have bombs hundreds of times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima.

The initial B61 gravity bomb was designed and engineered at Los Alamos in the 1960s. More than 50 years later, scientists at Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories are giving the 13th version of the bomb a multibillion-dollar face-lift. The two N.M. labs are the design and engineering labs for the B61-12 Life Extension Program, extending and modernizing the nation’s nuclear arsenal without new nuclear tests.

Officials conducted the first in a series of tests this summer when a mock version of the weapon was released from an F-35A fighter jet over the Nevada desert. It is expected to enter production soon. Christine Mitchell, the senior manager at Sandia for the test flight, said the design work has been a significant project for the New Mexico labs involving thousands of engineers and other employees.

The redesigned weapon also is intended to be safer and more secure.

A spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration says the “capabilities offered by the B61-12 are important to the United States and our NATO allies and partners, demonstrating our commitment to protecting the homeland, assuring allies and, above all, deterring adversaries.”

And that, of course, is the ultimate goal of the nation’s nuclear weapons program. While recognizing there are real threats, the arsenal is designed to make sure there is a level of deterrence that means they will never have to be used. The work being done here on the variable yield B61-12 is an important step in that direction.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.