A Russian official said Saturday that the US is lowering the “nuclear threshold” by sending an upgraded version of its B61 nuclear bomb to NATO bases in Europe.
The B61 is the US’s primary thermonuclear gravity bomb, and it is being modernized into a newer weapon known as the B61-12. Politico reported last week that the US told NATO allies at a recent meeting that it is deploying the B-61-12 to Europe to replace older bombs by this December, a faster timeline than the originally planned spring deployment.
“We cannot ignore the plans to modernize nuclear weapons, those free-fall bombs that are in Europe,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, according to Russia’s RIA news agency.
The US has approximately 100 B61s currently stored at air bases in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Turkey. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the B61-12s carry a lower yield and are more accurate than older B61s.
“The United States is modernizing them, increasing their accuracy and reducing the power of the nuclear charge, that is, they turn these weapons into ‘battlefield weapons,’ thereby reducing the nuclear threshold,” Grushko said.
The B61s deployed in Europe are part of the US’s nuclear arsenal that are considered tactical weapons, which have smaller yields than strategic ones. The US has an estimated 200 tactical nuclear weapons, while Russia is said to have about 2,000. US tactical nuclear weapons range from between 0.3 and 170 kilotons (the bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of 15 kilotons).
The plans to deploy the B61-12s to Europe by December have puzzled experts as the accelerated timeline does little but raises tensions with Russia. The Pentagon insists its B61-12 plans have nothing to do with the current situation and denies the characterization of the Politico report.
“Modernization of US B61 nuclear weapons has been underway for years, and plans to safely and responsibly swap out older weapons for the upgraded B61-12 versions are part of a long-planned and scheduled modernization effort,” a Pentagon spokesman said, according to Reuters. “It is in no way linked to current events in Ukraine and was not sped up in any way.”
Another part of the B61-12 upgrade is that it will allow the bomb to be carried by all US and allied bombers and fighter jets. The revelation of the planned deployment came as NATO was holding its nuclear Steadfast Noon exercises, which are due to conclude on Sunday. The drills were hosted by Belgium and involved 14 NATO members and about 60 aircraft that simulated dropping nuclear bombs.