United States’ first ‘smart’ nuclear bomb signals new arms race with China and Russia: analysts
The 350kg bomb, which can penetrate structures underground, is designed to hit targets precisely with limited damage elsewhere
Washington’s green light for a new generation of steerable and smart tactical nuclear weapons may signal the start of a new US nuclear arms race with China and Russia, military analysts say.
Russia and China are believed to have been developing similar weapons for decades, but Chinese experts are apparently keen to learn the lessons of the former Soviet Union’s failed attempt to keep up with the United States in the cold war.
Tactical nuclear weapons, known as non-strategic nuclear weapons, are designed to support naval, land and air forces in areas close to friendly forces and perhaps even on contested friendly territory.
The new US weapon, the B61-12, is America’s first guided, or “smart” nuclear bomb. It weighs 350kg and can penetrate fortified structures several metres underground.
Unlike banned weapons of mass destruction, the B61-12 is designed to be carried by high-speed stealth fighter jets to hit targets precisely with limited damage to structures and lives nearby.
Song Zhongping, a retired instructor for the People’s Liberation Army’s former strategic missile force, said one of China’s main challenges was the carrier vehicle.
“Like many other nuclear powers, China started developing similar tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) many years ago. It has had nuclear technology for decades,” Song said.
“The main difficulties China’s TNW development faces now are how to increase precision and what kinds of carriers the mini-weapons will use.”
Song said China’s technology lagged the US and Russia, but he declined to give details of the types Beijing was developing.
The US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration announced early this month that the B61-12 had completed a four-year development and testing phase and was in production engineering. Full-scale production was expected to get under way in 2020.
US President Barack Obama announced that 180 of the weapons would be deployed in five European countries, despite appeals last month from 10 senators urging restraint on nuclear weapons spending.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the reports that the US was getting ready to produce the B61-12, except that the Kremlin was still assessing its threat.
But Senator Viktor Ozerov, of the Russian Federation Council’s Defence and Security Committee, warned that the country’s nuclear specialists would “carefully study the level of threat and take measures to minimise it, if needed”, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported.
Professor Jonathan Holslag, head of research at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, said the B61-12 “increased America’s options to carry out strikes against potential adversaries like China, Russia, and Iran”.
“The B61-12 has to be seen in this context ... to have more escalation possibilities in between a conventional war and a nuclear Armageddon,” Holslag said.
“We are already in a nuclear arms race, not of the magnitude of the cold war ... Contrary to the cold war, it is not the size of the weapon stocks that matter, but its survivability and accuracy.”
Shanghai-based military expert Ni Lexiong said America’s announcement to develop the controversial bomb suggested the Pentagon was preparing for potential regional conflicts, such on the Korean peninsula with North Korea, or even in the South China Sea with China.
“It’s rare for the US to announce the deployment of such a controversial weapon. It’s possible the US is going to use the B61-12 in case there is a regional conflict,” Ni said.
“But I don’t exclude the possibility that the US wants to increase its nuclear deterrence by announcing such a shocking project. It’s such a costly project.”
Both Ni and Song said they believed China would not follow in Moscow’s footsteps in keeping up with the US in the arms race as Beijing still remembered the lessons learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union collapsed after engaging in a costly and destructive arms race with the United States while its military worked to suppress anti-communist elements and extend its power in eastern Europe.
“Beijing still sticks to the rule left by Mao Zedong that ‘China should develop and own nuclear weapons, but no need to keep so many… [just] enough to cause deterrence,” Ni said.
The B61-12 weapon has been dubbed the most expensive US nuclear bomb, costing about US$11 billion for 400 bombs. It is at the heart of an ongoing modernisation of America’s nuclear arms, projected to cost US$1 trillion over the next 30 years.
Holslag said the production of the super bomb would be limited by the huge cost.