What the New Definition of “New” Is

On March 16 I met with a senior congressional staff members. I raised the issue of what is “new.” I specifically pointed to an earth-penetrating variant of the B61 gravity bomb (the B61-11) that was rushed to the stockpile in 1997, likely because of a perceived threat of an alleged Libyan hardened underground bioweapons facility. B61’s are believed to have selectable yields, ranging from .3 kilotons to 300 kilotons.

The destructive effects of earth-penetrating weapons (even if they penetrate 10 meters or less) rise exponentially due to shock “coupling” with geologic strata. The B61-11, with a yield of up to 300kt, was designed to and did replace the monster 9-megaton surface-burst B53. Earth-penetration is indisputably a new military capability for the B61 bomb. But because the B61-11 has the same military mission as the B53 to destroy hardened deeply buried targets (never mind the extreme differences in yields, while arguably lower yield weapons are more “usable”), this senior HASC staffer asserted that the B61-11 was not a “new” nuclear weapon.

This is not an isolated case. I then went on to raise the current example of the sub-launched W76 that is now being refurbished in an ongoing Life Extension Program (LEP). It is being endowed with a new fuze that gives it selectable heights of burst and a more accurately targetable reentry vehicle. So it not only can hit a smaller target, but the lower the altitude of the burst, the more it can hold hardened bunkers or underground facilities at risk. Pete Nanos, then head of Naval Strategic Systems (and later controversial LANL Director), wrote in 1997 that the refurbished 100kt W76-1Mk4 would be transformed into a hard target killer, one that is a “counterforce” weapon against military assets rather a “countervalue” (“city-buster”) weapon of deterrence.

But because refurbished W76s could replace the hard target killer mission of 450kt. sub-launched W88s, this HASC staffer again maintained that it was not a “new” weapon. Never mind that there are less than an estimated 400 W88s, while the Bush Administration planned to run some 2,000 W76’s through LEP’s, which would radically alter the strategic equation (we don’t yet know how many Obama will refurbish).

To add to my case, now Under Secretary for Arms Control and Nonproliferation Ellen Tauscher (former congresswoman for the CA district that sites Livermore Lab) has also indicated that if a modified existing U.S. nuclear weapon, no matter how profoundly changed, assumes the mission of another existing nuclear weapon, then it is not a “new” nuclear weapon.

Needless to say the specific missions of U.S. nuclear weapons are highly classified. But the bottom line is that our stockpile is enough to kill this planet many times over. The U.S. Government appears poised to run many existing nuclear weapons through extreme makeovers (including plutonium pit triggers) that clearly give them new military capabilities. But because there is little theoretical end to what nuclear weapons can blow up (on this planet anyway) our government will continue to deny that these heavily modified existing nuclear weapons are “new” nuclear weapons as long as they assume the missions of other existing nuclear weapons.

In other words, they think they can do whatever they damn well please, and still not call it a new nuclear weapon.

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