The Bomb. You know exactly what I mean, right? Funny thing is, most of them aren't "bombs" at all. Of the 5,000 or so nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile as of 2010, probably less than a third are "bombs" in the sense of things one might drop from an airplane. The United States has just two "bomb" designs in the arsenal: the B83 and B61.
There is now a furious debate about whether the United States needs to modernize the B61, which dates to Lyndon B. Johnson's administration, making it the oldest design left in the stockpile. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, recently revealed that the cost of the program to extend the bomb's life has more than doubled: Modernizing the approximately 400 B61 gravity bombs in the stockpile will cost $10 billion. That is billions with a "B." In case you were wondering, it would be less expensive to build solid-gold replicas of each of the 700-pound B61s, even at near-record gold prices.
In the current budgetary environment, costing more than your weight in gold is not a happy place. How did this happen?
Since the early 1960s, the United States has produced 11 variants of the B61 (formally called "mods" for "modifications"), plus two missile warheads based on the same design. Today, the United States has four flavors of B61 left over from the Cold War: the B61 Mods 3, 4, 7, 10. A fifth, the B61 Mod 11, dates to Bill Clinton's administration and does not yet need to be replaced. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is responsible for maintaining the United States' nuclear weapons, thinks that the best thing to do for the other four is to consolidate their different designs into a single modification, the B61 Mod 12, which would use newer and fewer components.
Consolidating four modifications into a streamlined bomb is a pretty ambitious work plan. But, as if that weren't enough, the Air Force wanted the proposed B61 Mod 12 to be more accurate than the original B61. The major limitation on accuracy has always been the parachute that slows the bomb's descent, largely to prevent the bomb from splattering when it hits the ground. Parachutes, though, mean the bomb drifts a bit in the wind. The Air Force wanted to replace the parachute with a guided tail kit, like that used on precision munitions. But removing the parachute introduced a new complication: An atomic bomb dropped without a parachute will explode before the airplane is safely away. That means NNSA must also redesign much of the packaging and components to survive "laydown" -- i.e., thudding into the ground and then exploding a few moments later.
Then, NNSA decided to make even more changes. Replacing the parachute with a modern tail kit left extra space inside the bomb casing. Nature abhors a vacuum. So do weapons designers, who decided to fill that space by adding new safety features. One well-meaning senior official went so far as to say he wanted to make nuclear weapons so safe that "if the wrong person gets a hold of it, it's a paperweight." American nuclear weapons are already quite safe, but some designers are pushing exotic concepts straight out of science fiction, such as "paste extrudable explosives" -- explosives in what amounts to a fancy toothpaste tube that would automatically be squirted into a nuclear weapon to disable it should the bomb detect an unauthorized attempt to access it. These proposals are about enhancing safety in precisely the same way that a visit from the neighbor is about a cup of sugar in a pornographic film. New safety features could mean the redesign involves not just the non-nuclear components, but might extend into the "physics package" that is at the heart of the bomb.
In 2010, the Government Accountability Office took a look at all these changes and noted, quite sensibly, that this looked like the sort of program that might fall behind schedule and go over budget. The project then fell behind schedule and went over budget.