Russia worried less powerful US nuke will be ‘more tempting’ to use

A long-rage ground-based missile silo, Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. © Kacper Pempel
Russia says the global security situation could change after the US National Nuclear Security Administration decided to upgrade its B61 nuclear weapon. Moscow also fears that as the new bomb will be less powerful, there could be greater temptation to use it.

The decision by the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) authorized the program to enter a post-engineering phase, which comes after four years of work. This now means the first upgraded bombs are set to roll out by 2020. 

However, this has worried both the Russian Foreign Ministry and arms experts, who believe the move could change the global security situation.

“We were discussing this as soon as the plans appeared about creating something that according to the information that has been made publically available has greater precision, but is not as powerful as other existing weapons within the US arsenal,” said the deputy head of the foreign ministry Sergey Ryabkov, as cited by RIA Novosti. 

“This means that the armaments threshold could in theory have been lowered, which of course will destabilize the situation to a certain extent,” Ryabkov added.   

Mikhail Ulyanov, the head of the ministry’s department on arms control was equally worried about the new development and believes that despite the weapons perhaps being less powerful, this could ultimately lead to a greater “temptation to use them.” 

"It is no coincidence that some American experts were quick to call the new warheads more 'ethical,' stating that their use would have less severe humanitarian consequences. But this is precisely why this is a bad thing,” Ulyanov said, according to RIA Novosti. 

“The characteristics of such weapons will objectively increase the temptation to use them. This will mean a substantial lowering of the threshold for using nuclear weapons,” he added. 

The B61 has been the principal US airborne nuclear bomb since 1968, when the first version was commissioned. With some of the modifications being canceled over the years and others withdrawn from use, only models 3,4,7,11 and 12 are currently in active service. 

The upgrade is also part of the Obama administration’s plan to modernize the US nuclear weapons arsenal, which is expected to cost around $355 billion by 2023. However, critics say this figure could rise to over $1 trillion. 

“These life extension programs directly support President Obama’s directive to maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent, while reducing the size of the stockpile,” Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz mentioned in an NNSA press release.  

The new B61-12 weapons will not necessarily be used solely by the US military – a fact which worries Ulyanov. It is believed that once production starts, the nuclear bombs will be housed on the territory of five European countries – Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. 

The decision to upgrade the B61 bomb will not cause problems in regards to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons in the short term, Ulyanov believes, but he is worried that the move signals the US’ desire to extend its cooperation with its NATO allies.  

"That is when the negative impacts of the modernization will truly be felt," he said, adding that the renewal of the US nuclear arsenal in Europe means a long-term extension of NATO's joint nuclear missions, which "flagrantly violate the spirit and contents of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons."