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Building a Better Bomb 

While condemning India for its nuclear testing, the U.S. government quietly funnels billions to research programs aimed at creating an ever-more-virulent nuclear arsenal

Wednesday, May 27 1998
It's difficult to pinpoint an exact moment when we stopped worrying about The Bomb. Maybe it was during the winter of 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. Or two years later, when the Soviet Union's collapse was assured. But at some point we declared the Cold War over, and the specter of nuclear war -- something most of us lived with our entire lives -- melted away.

The news that India had conducted a series of underground nuclear tests three weeks ago sparked outrage because it violated our newfound sense of calm. Sanctions were ordered, and the United States assumed a righteous posture, castigating India's newly elected government for its irresponsibility.

The message, one you have undoubtedly heard many times before, is that civilized nations are trying to get out of the nuclear weapons business. The U.S. has pledged not to build any new nuclear weapons, and signed treaties promising to dismantle much of its arsenal. The days when we felt compelled to invest billions of dollars in nuclear weaponry are supposed to be over.

So you might be surprised to learn about the B-61 Mod 11, the newest addition to our nuclear arsenal. About 12 feet long, the Mod 11 is an old-fashioned gravity bomb, made to be dropped from a plane. It weighs 1,200 pounds, small enough to fit inside the new B-2 stealth bomber.

What makes the Mod 11 most remarkable is its hardened nose cone, which allows the bomb to punch its way about 50 feet into the ground before it explodes. The ensuing nuclear blast is small, relative to some of the other warheads we have in stock. But the explosive force travels downward in waves through the dirt and rock, like an earthquake coursing through bay fill, making mash of anything within several hundred feet of the surface.

It's called a "bunker buster," the perfect bomb to burrow into the Russian tundra or Iraqi desert and destroy underground military command centers. It could also be used to wipe out a subterranean chemical weapons lab, like the one we believe Libya is building in Tarhunah, 40 miles outside of Tripoli.

The U.S. military had wanted a burrowing bomb like the Mod 11 for a long time, and that desire did not wane just because the Soviet Union fell apart. The Air Force finally began taking delivery of the first Mod 11s early last year. Fifty of them are now on hand at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.

Please do not misunderstand. Even though it is newly arrived in the arsenal, even though it was custom-made to fit our newest bomber, and even though we have never before produced a bomb like this, the Mod 11 is not a "new" weapon, as the government defines the term.

If the Mod 11 were truly "new," that would mean the government is being disingenuous with us, and with Russia, China, France, Great Britain, India, Pakistan, and scores of other nations. How can we condemn India for testing its bomb if we are building "new" weapons of our own?

Officially, the Mod 11 is an old weapon. It's just been redesigned. A little.

Scientists took the design from an old B-61 bomb -- which was first manufactured in the 1960s -- gave it a new front end, swapped out the body, and added some fancier tail fins. The guts of the bomb, what scientists call the nuclear "physics package," is a used part scavenged from older B-61s and shoehorned into the Mod 11.

It's a "repackaged" bomb, if you will, and as far as the government is concerned it does not run afoul of international law or treaties.

"The treaties don't say, 'You shall not build an earth-penetrating missile,' " observes William Hogan, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. "That's not a different nuclear weapon. That's a new weapons system."

But to those who cast a critical eye on the nation's weapons programs, the distinction is absurd.

"I wish they could repackage my Subaru into a Ferrari," says William Arkin, a columnist for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and consultant on nuclear weapons issues for various environmental groups.

"There's what 5 1/2 billion people on the planet think 'new' means, and what these bozos think 'new' is. The fact of the matter is we are stocking the nuclear arsenal with new capabilities."

The semantic debate notwithstanding, one thing about the Mod 11 is certain: In contrast to the international furor sparked by India's testing, barely a whisper accompanied the deployment of the Mod 11. It was designed, built, and delivered to the Air Force with virtually no public notice. Anti-nuclear activists and weapons junkies had to scour government publications and comb through congressional testimony to even learn that the Mod 11 was being built. It was hard to find, acknowledged only in footnotes and by allusion in a few official documents. Not until the bomb was almost finished did the mainstream press learn of it, and even then coverage was scant.

The U.S. is not getting out of the nuclear arms business, whatever you might have been led to believe.

With little fanfare, and almost no public debate, the country is embarking on a massive new program of nuclear weapons research, a program that will actually cost more money each year than was spent on average during the decades when the arms race was at its most fevered pitch.

Treaties obligate us to reduce the number of weapons we have, but they don't stop us from overhauling the ones we keep. And they don't stop us from hiring dozens of new scientists and asking them to design completely new bombs. As long as we keep the blueprints on the shelf, saving them for a later day, we can design as many completely new weapons as we like.

The Mod 11 is not the only surprise U.S. weapons designers have been working on lately. Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, for instance, is well on the way to developing yet another updated version of the B-61 called BIOS, for Bomb Impact Optimization System.

About The Author

David Pasztor


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