Open letter to NATO Secretary General on B-61 upgrades

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BASIC has written to the NATO Secretary General with concern over the rising cost of the new full-scope Life Extension Program for the U.S. B-61 nuclear bombs. The U.S. Department of Defense estimates the program costing $10 billion, more than doubling original estimations.


Dear Mr. Secretary General,

We write with a concern that, especially in these times when budgets are under tight pressure, it is important to reassess projects that could harm Alliance cohesion if Allies feel pressured into accepting them, or worse, take the plunge and invest only to find other Allies failing to live up to presumed commitments. The United States is currently planning massive investment in modifying its B-61 nuclear bombs that will also require further spending by its Allies before the updated tactical versions can be deployed in Europe.

In recent weeks, the attention of U.S. policymakers has focused on the ballooning cost for the new full-scope Life Extension Program for the B-61, from $4 billion up to an estimated $10 billion, according to recent U.S. Defense Department estimates. This does not include additional modifications, such as the addition of a tail-fin to give the munition greater accuracy, which will cost well over an additional $1 billion. The LEP will combine different current variants of the bomb, intended for both strategic and tactical aircraft. It is thought that almost half of the expected total of 400-500 updated warheads will be allocated to the NATO mission in Europe. If, in the middle of austerity, the United States allocates a sizeable fraction of up to $12 billion on upgrading the B-61 nuclear bomb, and then finds there is a debate in Europe as to whether it should be deployed, this could put severe strain on the reputation of the Alliance in Washington amongst fiscal conservatives and those looking to question US commitment to Europe. It is likely that these cost overruns on a project so central to NATO's strategy are likely to bring greater attention on Capitol Hill to NATO's operations more generally.

Whether or not the United States decides to continue the full-scope LEP, questions have already been raised about the necessity of retaining the bombs based in Europe assigned to NATO. If Allies hosting the nuclear bombs and providing dual-capable aircraft (that will themselves need to be replaced) decide that the mission is no longer necessary, where will that leave the US upgrade?

The Chicago Summit concluded with a strong message that security must not be sacrificed in these austere times, and that Allies can find ways to meet current and future security goals by using monies more wisely. If there were a strong consensus in Europe that the continued deployment of the B-61 was necessary, our concerns would have less potency. But given the current situation, it would seem prudent for the Alliance to take more responsibility in engaging in discussions in Washington over the upgrades to the B-61 at this point, rather than see this as a technical question for Congress to determine.