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The U.S. Military's Development and Testing of the B61-12 Tactical Nuclear Bomb; Why it is Cause for Concern in Russia and North Korea

Part Two

August 31st - 2017

Amid growing tensions between Russia and the United States, increasing tactical nuclear weapons testing and the planned deployments of hundreds of new B61-12 bombs near Russia's borders has led to concerns among the country's leadership of the potential consequences of the development of new and more applicable nuclear weapons. These weapons could potentially be used to target Russian conventional forces in Europe - while the United States would be able to use its growing missile shield in Eastern Europe to avoid nuclear retaliation. According to Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, the United States' B61-12 tests confirm U.S. plans to maintain a formidable arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe capable of targeting Russia - the primary target for which the weapons are developed. Antonov stated that the United States was increasing its nuclear arsenal in Europe "under the disguise of a notorious and invented threat coming from the Russian side." Regarding the B61-12 specifically he stated in regards to its variable payload: "The atomic bomb, which was tested, is a dual purpose device. It can be both an element of strategic offensive weapons" when delivered by heavy bombers "and an element of non-strategic nuclear weapons when delivered by tactical aircraft. The special feature of the conducted the test was the fact that the F-15E fighter-bomber was used as a carrier for a nuclear weapon. This gives grounds to believe that the test was conducted in order to examine the possibility of using the B61-12 atomic bomb by NATO fighter-bombers stationed in Europe." When the bomb enters service, it will be deployable to all of the United States' forward bases which house strike or multirole fighters near the Russian borders - as well as to the bases of non-nuclear U.S. NATO allies operating fighters such as the F-16 and F-35.

With NATO military leaders having repeatedly expressed their reservations regarding their ability to defeat Russian forces in a conventional war in Europe, escalation and the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons such as the B61-12 against Russian forces and strategic targets could serve to deny Russia any conventional capability advantage it may have. Another theatre in which the United States and its allies may well need the support of nuclear weapons to combat an adversary with formidable conventional capabilities is on the Korean Peninsula - where the threat posed by tactical nuclear weapons has been presented even more directly than it has against Russia. The United States had a long history of threatening North Korea with nuclear weapons dating back to the 1950s when U.S. B-29 bombers would frequently drop dud nuclear bombs on North Korean territory to test their capabilities. The U.S. later unilaterally abrogated paragraph 13d of the Korean War armistice and deployed nuclear weapons to South Korea - a capability the north would take over 50 years to match with its own nuclear arsenal.

In the 21st century the threat of nuclear weapons, particularly low yield 'bunker buster' tactical nuclear weapons such as the B61-12, being used against the North Korea by the United States has only grown. Following North Korea being labeled a member of the 'Axis of Evil' in 2003 U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated in reference to North Korea that certain 'rogue states' could be legitimate targets of preemptive U.S. nuclear strikes. Rumsfeld called on North Korea to 'draw the right lesson' from the United States' successful invasion of Iraq just months before, and ordered revisions to the United States' Operations Plan 5030 which laid out plans for for a U.S. attack on North Korea. Most critically however Rumsfeld sought money from Congress for the development of new tactical nuclear weapons with bunker busting capabilities, similar to the capabilities of the B61-12, as these would be essential for a successful attack on North Korea's heavily fortified underground installations. As of 2002 the United States' nuclear posture review required the Pentagon to draft contingency plans specifically for nuclear weapons use against North Korea - where again tactical nuclear weapons with high penetration capabilities were essential.

North Korea's defence largely rests on its highly fortified bunker and tunnel networks, and it remains by far the most tunnelled country in the world. Destruction of these fortifications from the air, impossible with conventional arms, is essential to facilitating any American attacks on North Korea. As North Korea also fields advanced conventional capabilities and a highly trained army of several million, including 180,000 elite special forces, and has been preparing for a possible war for over 60 years - the United States would be hard pressed to wage a war using conventional arms alone. In such a war, should neither side use nuclear arms, the United States is expected to suffer over 100,000 military casualties in just a few weeks of fighting at a conservative Pentagon estimate. To nullify this advanced conventional capability, and particularly the advantage of North Korea's extensive fortifications and tunnel networks, the United States would need to employ tactical nuclear weapons with bunker busting capabilities. This is something to which the B61-12 is ideally suited. High precision allows the B61-12 to vary the yield of its warhead from 0.3 to 50 kilotons. The bomb has been designed with high earth-penetrating capabilities to be able to function as a nuclear bunker buster capable of striking deep underground structures. While a significant proportion of the energy of a normal nuclear blast bounces off the ground, the earth-penetrating B61-12 is ideally suited to striking underground facilities such as tunnel networks and bunkers. With tensions between the United States and North Korea reaching new heights as of 2017, the B61-12 test has come at a time when the U.S. has issued statements that it will not allow North Korea to continue to develop its missile deterrent forces - and that the option of using military force to achieve its objectives in the country remains 'on the table.'

Both North Korea and Russia have issued responses to the perceived threats of the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons by the United States. Russia's development and deployment of advanced air defence systems such as the S-500 to intercept enemy missiles and S-400 to intercept enemy bombers and strike fighters at long range make tactical nuclear bombs far more difficult to deliver. The same can be said to a lesser extent of North Korea's development of the KN-06 surface to air missile system. Russia is meanwhile developing more advanced delivery systems for its nuclear weapons to deny the United States use of its missile defence system and so to allow Russia to target the U.S. mainland itself with strategic weapons. These weapons are not meant to be used in combat, but rather to deter adversaries from starting a war by keeping the cost of aggression high. Missiles such as the Satan 2 and new hypersonic weapons currently being tested will ensure that, should the United States perceive itself able to defeat Russia on the battlefield using its new tactical weapons, any attempts to do so would lead to the certain destruction of its major population centres. North Korea for its part has adopted a similar strategy, and is using its nuclear weapons to negate what it has termed the United States' "nuclear monopoly" on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea's leadership is aware that the United States would only attempt to start a war should it be able to use nuclear weapons to gain an advantage and quickly neutralise North Korean assets. By developing their own nuclear weapons capable of striking U.S. territories such as Guam, Hawaii and Alaska - with future missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland - North Korea can deter the United States from using its nuclear weapons such as the B61-12 against them. Due to the importance of nuclear arms to U.S. war strategies, this thereby prevents the U.S. from being able to launch military action, as planned since 2002, against North Korea.

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