Making Nuclear Weapons Usable?

Our story today is about the US’s ongoing efforts to develop a nuclear weapon that could be “usable”. If this sounds a bit odd to you, it might be for any number of the following reasons:

  • The Cold War ended 26 years ago.
  • We already have enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world multiple times.
  • The only threats to US national security are non-state actors, against which nukes are not helpful. 
  • President Obama gave a big speech near the beginning of his presidency, ostensibly in support of nuclear disarmament near the beginning of his presidency.
  • Wait–what the hell is a “usable” nuclear weapon?
All compelling points, and all of them make today’s topic a bit confusing. You see, the fact is that the US actually still spends a lot of money on developing nuclear weapons. Of course, we don’t call it that. We’re not developing nuclear weapons, we’re just “modernizing” our existing stockpile. That sounds innocent enough, right? And wouldn’t it be embarrassing if we destroyed the whole damn world with nukes that were out-of-style? No, we can’t have that.
Okay, so it’s not quite that absurd, but it’s pretty close. It turns out some maintenance is required on nuclear weapons to help prevent issues. Essentially, someone needs to check the circuitry and components periodically to ensure nothing’s going to accidentally explode. But our “modernization” program goes much further than that. And this explains why it costs so much. The current program is estimated to cost approximately $1 trillion over the 30-year period from 2014 to 2043. Obviously, this involves more than just re-soldering a few fraying wires.
And today, our story relates to one terrifying example of what this modernization means in practice. They are taking a very old “dumb” nuclear weapon, the B61, and working to add new features that would make it easier to target and even allow generals to customize the blast size. These new features led one general to remark that it might be usable. And with that, we’ll let Julian Borger at The Guardian pick up the story. His article is a quick read and has just the right level of contempt and snark to properly discuss the subject:

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