Back Off, Man; I’m A Scientist

Posted: June 19, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
Tags: ,

Is it better to have a weapon that is accurate (and can do its job the first time out), or is it better to have a weapon that’s inaccurate?

In the case of one U.S. nuclear weapon in particular, the B61, and all U.S. nuclear weapons in general, Hans M. Kristensen, writing at The Federation of American Scientists blog advocates the later.

Insert, in your mind, the image of Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters: Back off man, I’m an American scientist.

Kristensen offers this:

The B61-12, the product of a planned 30-year life extension and consolidation of four existing versions of the B61 into one, will be equipped with a new guidance system to increase its accuracy.

There’s a lot to be said for modifying four versions into one: reducing the product line; streamlining and standardizing the logistics tail; having a personnel requirement where technicians need only to be proficient on one variation of the weapon versus four or conversely, having fewer technicians.

There’s also a lot to be said to improving accuracy.

Improved accuracy reduces collateral damage.  It reduces the need to re-strike targets.  It makes ingress and egress less harrowing for air crews.  It improves the likelihood that targeting objectives will be met.  For nuclear weapons, it reduces radiation and the associated nasty consequences.  In summary, improved accuracy is green and who is against green, right?

The upgrade would also improve the capability of U.S. strategic bombers to destroy targets with lower yield and less radioactive fallout…

Then, in the middle of his argument, there’s this non sequitur:

…the B61-12 will mark the end of designated non-strategic nuclear warheads in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, essentially making concern over “disparity” with Russian non-strategic weapons a non-issue.

That statement fails to address in any way the massive de facto issue of the Russians having a ten-to-one advantage in their non-strategic weapons count.  Non-issue?  Non.  The offering is a strawman, plain and simple.

Sorry, I had to point it out.  Now, back on issue.

Kristensen’s intellectual choke-point on the B61 has to do with the fact the life-extension/modification/consolidation (which includes a JDAM like tail-section and guidance) makes the B61 more accurate and that it (get this) violates the Nuclear Posture Review.

It is U.S. nuclear policy that nuclear weapons “Life Extension Programs…will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.” According to this policy stated in the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the B61-12 cannot have new or greater military capabilities compared with the weapons it replaces.

First, the USG doesn’t even comply with its own law, let alone toothless stuff like policy (unless it’s convenient).   Next, I’d say Kristensen offers an interesting interpretation of the NPR language.  Back off man, I’m a scientist and a lawyer.

What exactly are “new military missions” or “new military capabilities”?  If a target had to be struck with an SLBM before and now it can be stuck with a B-61, it seems no new military mission has emerged.  And by Kristensen’s logic, is any improvement in a weapon (accuracy, reliability, sustainability, etc.) a new military capability? 

Kristensen’s big problem is that the life-extended/modified/consolidated B61 can provide JDAM-like accuracy when GPS is available and still profound accuracy when it isn’t.  So Kristensen’s issue, boiled-down, seems to be this to me: if the U.S. and its allies have to fight a nuclear war, we shouldn’t have accurate weapons to smite our adversaries because that would be inconsistent with our stated policy.

Somewhere in here is the lesson of William Buckley who said he’d rather be governed by a random group of people drawn from the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty.


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