Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
Since the 1960s, when the first B61 nuclear bomb was built, there have been 11 versions of the weapon, five of which are still active in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
That includes the B61-11, a ground-penetrating weapon known as the “bunker buster,” which will remain in the stockpile after the current modernization program to extend the B61’s life is finished.
Sandia National Laboratories, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the U.S. Air Force are working together on refurbishing the other four bomb models – the B61-3, -4, -7 and -10 – into a single modernized version called the B61-12.
About 400 B61s are still in service today, nearly half of them deployed in Europe. Delivered by aircraft, it’s the oldest bomb in the nuclear arsenal and the most versatile, because it’s built to withstand supersonic speeds, can be carried long distances by a wide number of aircraft, and its warhead can be adjusted up or down to produce higher or lower blast power.
The B61-12 will eventually be carried on the government’s newly built F-35, a stealth joint strike craft the Air Force is developing. The bombs can currently be carried on F-16’s and Tornado jet fighters, which will also be upgraded to accommodate the refurbished B61.
The bomb’s life extension program and aircraft upgrades are part of a government effort to overhaul much of the U.S. nuclear military complex. That includes modification of bombs built for submarine and ground launch, and refurbishment of the ships and ground platforms that support those weapons. It also includes upgrades at laboratory complexes where nuclear warheads are managed and nuclear material is developed, such as LANL buildings for plutonium research and uranium-processing facilities at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee.
All told, the system-wide overhaul is projected to cost more than $350 billion over the next 10 years, according to a 2012 study by the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.