US is taking a step backwards by developing ‘smarter’ nuclear bomb

Washington is devoting US$1 trillion to a ‘precision’ atomic weapon but history tells us that other powers will follow suit, leading to a new arms race

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 August, 2016, 4:11am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 August, 2016, 4:11am

Anew generation of American nuclear weapons is leading the world down a worrying path. They are smaller and more precise than the bombs they will replace, prompting fears of a temptation to use them. Other nations, especially the US’ greatest rivals China and Russia, will likely be eager to acquire their own, sparking a new arms race. It is a slippery slope that can be prevented only with renewed global effort to pursue disarmament.

US President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 in large part for a pledge to strive for a world free of nuclear weapons and make disarmament a centrepiece of his country’s defence policy. The US energy department’s announcement earlier this month that the B61-12 model bomb was on course to go into production in 2020 after the recent completion of a testing phase goes against that promise. Even if it leads to the scrapping of existing weapons, its technical advantages make it an enticing option to turn to.

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One use could be against North Korea, which tests and stores its nuclear arms in deep underground tunnels. The new bomb is computer-guided and has four fins for easy manoeuvrability, making it ideal for precision attacks on deeply buried targets. Its explosive force can be adjusted to minimise collateral damage, lessening concern that civilian populations will be put at risk. That could lead to a temptation not just to break the taboo against using atomic bombs that has prevailed since two were dropped on Japan in 1945, but to use them first rather than in retaliation.

Developing such weapons has long been about deterrence, but is also expensive. The latest US programme will cost US$1 trillion over 30 years; it was funding on such a scale that led to the collapse of Russia’s predecessor, the Soviet Union, which had been locked in a race with the US to build nuclear bombs and missiles during the cold war. Both sides now have substantially smaller arsenals, but an agreement by Washington and Moscow in 2010 to further reduce stockpiles has failed to make progress. Obama’s programme to modernise his country’s weapons has already spurred Chinese and Russian efforts to follow suit.

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Stopping the momentum will be increasingly difficult. Should nuclear arms be less about deterrence than conventional military power, there is every chance of them being used again. Governments have to be responsible; they have to work afresh for their elimination, just as they have done with chemical and biological weapons.