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March 31, 2022
Notes from the Pentagon

European commander: Keep nuke cruise missile, gravity bomb

By Bill Gertz
The commander of U.S. forces in Europe, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, told Congress Wednesday that his forces in Europe need a nuclear-armed cruise missile and the 1980s-era B83 nuclear gravity bomb to maintain deterrence.

Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn, ranking Republican on the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said during a full committee hearing that the Biden administration’s budget request made public this week eliminates funding for a needed nuclear-armed cruise missile. Mr. Lamborn also said the budget suggests the administration is planning to do away with the military’s massive B83 nuclear gravity bomb.

The sea-launched cruise missile, known as the SLCM-N, is backed by Strategic Command’s commander, Adm. Charles Richard, who has said the missile is needed to deny nuclear-armed enemies “any mistaken confidence that limited nuclear [weapons] employment would provide an advantage over the United States, its allies and partners.”

Asked if it would be better to keep the nuclear cruise missile in the U.S. arsenal, Gen. Wolters said: “It would and I agree with Adm. Richard.”

On the administration’s potential plan to retire the B83 gravity bomb, Mr. Lamborn said several years ago a decision was made to keep the bomb until other capabilities could be added to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Gen. Wolters said he was not asked about whether the B83 should be retired.

“I’m only familiar with it as a result of what’s coming next and I know that Adm. Richard is making sure that there’s no gap” in deterrence power between the B83 and a successor weapon.

Currently, the B83 is needed to deter aggression in the European theater. “I would concur with the utilization of that [bomb] to complicate the challenges of the enemy against us, as long as there is not another system in place and I know that is part of the issue with the transition,” Gen. Wolters said.

The B83 is a megaton-class nuclear bomb with a blast potential equal to 1 million tons of TNT. The B83 bomb can only be carried by the B-2 bomber.

The bomb was slated for retirement during the Obama administration in 2014 to be replaced by the B61-12 gravity bomb. But, amid growing nuclear threats, the Trump administration ordered the military to retain the B83 in 2018 until a proper replacement was identified.

The Biden administration last year initially decided to fund an extension for the B83.

A spokesperson for the National Nuclear Energy Administration, which builds and maintains nuclear weapons, had no immediate comment on the status of the B83.

Mr. Lamborn said in an interview following the hearing that the B83 may be on the chopping block even though the administration has also zeroed out funding for nuclear cruise missiles.

“It’s regrettable that the Biden administration seems to be retreating to Obama-era nuclear policies,” he said.

The invasion of Ukraine shows the need to increase nuclear forces, he said.

The threat of nuclear war has increased in Europe as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin placed Russian nuclear forces on a higher alert status and threatened to use nuclear arms against any nation opposing Moscow’s operations in Ukraine.

Anti-nuclear advocates in the Biden administration have been seeking to shift the role of U.S. nuclear weapons, and to limit the modernization program by killing off three nuclear programs. The Pentagon in September removed a senior nuclear policy official who was involved in the posture review, Leonor Tomero, amid reports that the deputy assistant defense secretary was opposing the military’s efforts to strengthen U.S. nuclear forces.

Ms. Tomero was an aide to liberal Washington state Democrat Rep. Adam Smith, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, who has called for adopting the no-first-use policy for nuclear weapons that has been rejected by military commanders

. In addition to the cruise missiles and B83, the administration could also eliminate a new, low-yield nuclear warhead known as the W76-2 that was first deployed on Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles in 2020.

Mr. Lamborn said earlier this month that there is strong bipartisan support in Congress for keeping the SLCM-N, the B83 and the W76-2.

“If President Biden sheds or does away in any way with nuclear capabilities as has been reported, I predict bipartisan opposition in the House and Senate that will override it and continue to fund these systems,” he said.

The nuclear force is undergoing a $1.2 trillion, 30-year force modernization.

Strategic analysts say deterring U.S. rivals has grown much more complex as a result of the expansion of Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals, North Korea’s development of long-range nuclear missiles, and the prospect that Iran could emerge in the coming years as the world’s newest nuclear power.

Russia to station nukes in Belarus
Russia appears ready to station nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus, according to congressional testimony on Wednesday from a top Pentagon official.

Celeste Wallander, assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, said in a prepared statement to the House Armed Services Committee that the deployment of nuclear arms in Belarus is one element of a growing threat posed by Russia, which “routinely threatens nuclear use irresponsibly and often casually.”

“This includes fielding nuclear-armed hypersonic weapons and a variety of non-strategic nuclear weapons, including land-, sea-, and air-based systems, many of which are dual-capable,” she said.

The advanced Russian nuclear arsenal “backs a military doctrine that emphasizes the coercive military value of nuclear weapons, including limited nuclear first-use in conventional regional conflict, at multiple levels of the conflict spectrum,” Ms. Wallander said.

On Belarus, Ms. Wallander said, “We are also likely to face Russian systems and methods of warfare as Russia proliferates military capabilities to others, including the potential basing of nuclear weapons in Belarus.”

The government of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has facilitated the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Europe’s first major war since the 1940s, she stated. The Lukashenko regime in late February held a referendum that removed a constitutional declaration that Belarus was a neutral, non-nuclear state, Ms. Wallander said. The vote heightened concerns about the deployment of nuclear arms in the country that Ms. Wallander described as moving toward becoming an appendage of the Russian state.

Ms. Wallander warned that stationing nuclear arms in Belarus will lead to bolstering U.S. forces in NATO’s eastern zone. The United States has deployed about 100 aircraft-delivered nuclear weapons in Europe.

“Should a permanent Russian military presence remain in Belarus, the United States and NATO will be forced to reassess our force along NATO’s eastern flank,” she said.

Currently, there are an estimated 100,000 U.S. troops in Europe deployed in NATO nations, including states close to Russia and Ukraine.

China threat to Europe
NATO’s military chief, who also serves as commander of U.S. forces in Europe, is warning that China poses a threat to the security of the continent, including through the use of its state-run telecommunications companies.

Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters told the House Armed Services Committee this week that both Huawei Technologies and ZTE pose “significant security risks to the interests and military forces of the U.S., allies, and partners.”

The state-backed Chinese companies are working to expand 5G networks throughout Europe that critics warn will potentially open the door to government data theft, hacking and disruption.

“These networks place intellectual property, sensitive information, technology and private personal information at heightened risk of acquisition and exploitation by the Chinese government,” Gen. Wolters said.

The Chinese also are making significant investments in ports and other transportation nodes in the region along with gaining access to other critical European infrastructures that could be disrupted during a crisis or conflict.

European governments increasingly are becoming aware of the growing China threat, he noted. Several countries have banned Huawei from their national telecommunications networks. New screening mechanisms also were put in place on Chinese investments based on the threat to European security.

“Together, we must hold the PRC accountable for its predatory and unfair practices and ensure that Western technologies do not facilitate the PRC’s military buildup,” Gen. Wolters said, using the acronym for People’s Republic of China.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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