The US just introduced a new type of bomb into its already extensive arsenal, and it may just be the most alarming US weapon yet, Zachary Keck writes for The National Interest.
The new bomb is the B61-12. On its surface, the bomb does not appear to be as dangerous as other weapons in the US arsenal. Although the B61-12 is nuclear-armed, it has a yield of 50 kilotons — tiny compared to the largest nuclear bomb that the US possesses, which has a yield of 1,200 kilotons.
But as Keck notes, that difference in explosive power doesn’t tell the entire story.
“What makes the B61-12 bomb the most dangerous nuclear weapon in America’s arsenal is its usability,” Keck writes. “This usability derives from a combination of its accuracy and low-yield.”
According to the Federation of American Scientists, the B61-12 will be able to strike within 30 meters of its target. This accuracy allows the bomb to destroy targets that would have previously necessitated the use of a larger but more indiscriminate weapon.
As a result of the bomb’s relatively low yield, the weapon would produce less nuclear fallout than earlier nuclear weapons, something which would limit unintended casualties from a nuclear attack.
But this lower fallout also lowers the cost and scope of a nuclear strike — which could in turn increase the possibility that the bomb would actually be used in a military engagement.
As it is, the B61-12 may actually expand the range of possible US nuclear targets. In a 2014 conference organised by the Stimson Center, retired US Air Force General Norton Schwartz said that the B61-12’s target set goes beyond that of previous gravity-guided nuclear bombs in the US military. This effectively means that the US could now consider the use of aircraft-delivered lower-yield nuclear weapons in a wider range of scenarios.
The concern over the B61-12 — and the thing that could make it is the most dangerous bomb in the US arsenal — is that such an accurate and usable nuclear weapon could encourage military thinkers to start imagining a wider variety of situations in which the use of nuclear weapons would be acceptable.
Once the B61-12 is fully tested and deployed, it will be integrated into existing NATO forces and the F-35 in order to enhance the alliance’s nuclear posture in Europe.
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