“You’re too smart for your own good.” So the saying goes. However, sometimes, somebody’s smartness can be especially dangerous to others. That is arguably the case for certain weapons and their delivery systems. The current life-extension program (LEP) for the B61 seems to fit this category: an outdated tactical nuclear bomb is being transformed into a smart weapon, which will be carried by even smarter dual-capable aircrafts, the F-35 and others. This analysis, however, will focus mostly on the role of the F-35 for the future of US nuclear weapons hosted in Europe. Indeed, the new B61s will be integrated onto a variety of dual-capable aircrafts, none of which will have solely (or even primarily) a nuclear-strike role as their mission. So it’s understandable that the F-35 program doesn’t get much attention in the overall American nuclear modernization debate. In fact, only a small amount of these aircrafts will have a dual-capable role – and this nuclear certification isn’t scheduled to take place until the mid‑2020s. But this doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason why such an important aspect of the F-35 is often completely ignored, given the media coverage that the aircraft otherwise receives. Therefore, it is important to highlight the nuclear role of the F‑35, by evaluating some proposals which connect the aircraft to the future of the B61s in Europe.
The B61 is a gravity nuclear bomb which dates back to the 1960s. Since then, various versions have been produced and a further upgrade is currently taking place. The new B61 mod 12 will be equipped with a guided tail kit: maneuverable fins controlled by an Internal Navigation System will greatly increase the bomb’s accuracy. This innovation goes hand in hand with the “dial-a-yield” option, which can limit both the destructive power of the weapon and its radioactive fallout. Paradoxically, these features would actually make the B61-12 more dangerous than its predecessors, by lowering the threshold for its use. If this wasn’t enough, the B61‑12 has also an earth-penetrating capacity. Hans Kristensen of the Federation of Atomic Scientists has argued that the combination of all these features has “significant implications” since it makes the bomb “more efficient at destroying deeply buried targets”; this “enhanced military capability” can prove that the Obama administration is violating its declared policy not to develop new nuclear weapons. All of this has to be coupled with the stealth characteristics of the F-35.
The F-35 comes in three variants: A, B and C. The F-35A is currently the only version designed to carry a nuclear weapon. The F-35B, instead, is particularly unfit to receive nuclear certification: having smaller internal bays than the other two variants, it would have to carry the B61‑12s externally, which would significantly reduce the aircraft’s stealth capabilities. For this reason, Toby Fenwick of Centre Forum has called for the conversion of British orders from F‑35B to F‑35C, which is much similar to the F-35A and could receive B61-12 integration. Fenwick argues that the United Kingdom should retire Trident and host at Lakenheath airbase the B61s stationed in Germany, Turkey and the Netherlands. For political or security reasons, these countries are no longer ideal locations for the B61s, which should also be transferred to Aviano, in Italy. But satellite imagery of this airbase reveals that the number of protective aircraft shelters containing underground nuclear weapons storage vaults has been reduced from 18 to 12.
This decreased capacity may well signify that approximately 20 out of 50 B61s have been removed from Aviano. Furthermore, the Italian military isn’t particularly interested in the new B61-12, according to the Secretary-General of Pugwash, Paolo Cotta Ramusino. It therefore seems unlikely that Italy will alleviate the nuclear sharing problems of other European countries by hosting additional B61s. It is also unclear whether the F-35C will ever be made nuclear capable.
Another possible future for the B61s in Europe is tied to a different aircraft, the Eurofighter Typhoon. Curiously, its importance in this debate lies in the fact that it is generally not considered as dual‑capable. The argument usually goes that, since Germany has preferred this aircraft to the F-35, Berlin is disarming by default. However, Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute has claimed that the B61-12 could be integrated on a Typhoon without too much structural re‑manufacturing, which was once a necessity with analogue electronics. In fact, the digital nature of the B61-12 would make integration on the Typhoon’s software not too complicated. Hence, were Belgium to opt for a nuclear-certified Eurofighter, Germany could possibly be influenced to the point of preserving its nuclear mission for this aircraft. Nevertheless, it must be stated that this possibility seems to be very unlikely for the time being. Quite the opposite, there is reason to believe that Belgium is interested in the F-35 and Germany will unsurprisingly make an independent decision.
In conclusion, a B61-12 carried by an F-35 would be an incredibly smart weapon. While its intelligence is indisputable, the consequences of its introduction in the nuclear arsenal are open for debate. In fact, some features, described here as potentially dangerous, have been welcomed by numerous commentators as positive instruments to reinforce deterrence. But in this divide, some interesting arguments have been put forward on other cost-effective alternatives to counter more concrete threats. For example, a report by the Center for American Progress has called for the cancellation of the B61 program in order to reinvest those funds in rapid response forces and rotational deployments, which would be more effective in fighting ISIS. While it would be difficult to convince policymakers to abandon the B61-12 program entirely, the nuclear capability of the F-35 may be an easier target, especially if more attention is dedicated to the issue. Skyrocketing costs and increasing liabilities of the aircraft may lead to a general transatlantic exasperation, at which point it will be necessary to discuss who will pay for the nuclear certification of the aircraft. That debate will be based on political and economic calculations. Let’s hope that policymakers will be at least as smart as the weapons and delivery systems they are discussing. Because even if the saying goes “you’re too smart for your own good”, when it comes to nuclear weapons, there is nothing more dangerous than stupidity.