Again, the Biden administration seeks to reduce the US nuclear capability by retiring the B83-1 atomic gravity bomb. The White House and congressional Democrats are pushing not to retain the only nuclear weapon dropped from an aircraft capable of destroying command bunkers buried deep underground. As has been the case with the current national defense leadership, they appear to take every opportunity to hobble US military power. In this case, America’s commander-in-chief wants to take out of the inventory a weapon without offering up something equally effective in its place. That results in a net reduced state of overall national security.
The nuclear triad is a particularly valuable and necessary element of the nation’s overall defense. An essential part of this tri-partite nuclear deterrence is the airborne bomber force. To achieve this deterrence, the US has invested in stealth bombers like the B-2 Spirit, of which 19 are operational, and one is a flight test aircraft. The B-2 is the only aircraft designated to carry the B83-1 nuclear bomb. What makes the B83-1 particularly useful is its variable yield characteristic. The bomb’s yield is somewhere in the low kiloton range up to 1.2 megatons, approximately 60 times greater than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, ending World War II in the Pacific. The yield variability allows for tailoring to specific targets where reducing collateral damage might be an objective.
The White House and, by extension, congressional Democrats are hanging the decision to retire the B83-1 on a recently revealed administration Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). In March, Congress became privy to the review as part of a re-evaluation of the US strategic forces. The Pentagon’s position is the bomb is “costly to maintain and of limited value,” a defense official told The Washington Times. That is a curious assessment, particularly when considering the Defense Department has nothing to replace the unique bunker-busting capability of the B83-1. No one says that destroying deeply buried command and control facilities and hardened missile sites isn’t difficult or necessary. So, if you have at least one weapon capable of eliminating such targets, it must have some value. Nonetheless, “The Nuclear Posture Review considered the need to hold at risk adversary hard and deeply buried targets. In reviewing the diminished role of the B83-1 in accomplishing this task, the NPR concluded that this weapon should be retired,” the defense spokesman continued.
“Diminished role” is a decision made by the defense leadership, not some fact of life. Are there buried targets for which a bomb that can destroy them would be effective? An effective argument could be made; yes, there are. North Korea has much of its nuclear capability located in tunnels running far into mountains. The recent overhead imagery of North Korea’s Punggyeri Nuclear Test Facility clearly shows that new tunnels – one of which is designated as Tunnel No. 3 – are under construction and being readied for resumed testing. “Refurbishment work and preparations at Tunnel No. 3 [have] been proceeding over the past three months and presumably will be nearing completion for the oft-speculated seventh nuclear test,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies explained.
Furthermore, “China may be using thousands of miles of underground tunnels to hide a nuclear missile arsenal that is bigger than current estimates,” according to researchers at Georgetown University, as reported in The Daily Mail in 2011. More recently, “China is busy building ‘at least 250 long-range missile silos in three locations,” Alice Peacock wrote in The Sun. Discussing China’s rapidly growing nuclear missile expansion, Admiral Charles Richard, commander of US Strategic Command, said, “The explosive growth and modernization of its nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I describe as breathtaking, and frankly, the word ‘breathtaking’ may not be enough.” Those Chinese nuclear missiles are in hardened silos.
Republican legislators are not being quiet about their objection to the Biden defense team’s plan to remove from America’s nuclear arsenal the B83-1. “The rationale of this administration to retire the B83 gravity bomb without a replacement capability is not clear to me,” Congressman Doug Lamborn (R-CO), ranking member of the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee, said at a May 17 hearing. “In fact, it my understanding that not only is there no replacement capability, but the process to identify candidates for a replacement capability has not even yet started.” The Senate Appropriations Committee, at a hearing on May 18, heard a similar objection from Senator John Kennedy (R-LA), who spoke against retiring the only atomic bunker-buster.
We are experiencing a critical and complex period in the spectrum of protecting US national security. Russia is openly threatening the use of nuclear weapons, North Korea is preparing to start nuclear testing again, and China is increasing its nuclear arsenal at a “breathtaking” speed. Arbitrarily reducing America’s nuclear deterrent capability unilaterally is decidedly unwise.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.