A War With China Would Be Bloody—And Stupid

The Buzz

Sidney Rittenberg knows a thing or two about China. During World War II, he learned fluent Mandarin as a U.S. Army linguist, worked in China, left the Army and joined the Chinese Communist Party. He became friends with Mao Zedong and spent 16 years in solitary confinement—as Mao’s prisoner.

We recently spoke to Rittenberg about his experiences in Maoist China, his imprisonment and why he became disillusioned with the party. In his 93 years, he’s seen China and America at their best … and their worst.

Now as tensions between Washington and Beijing grow, Rittenberg worries that American officials are returning to old habits of seeing China as a mysterious and hostile power. The former apparatchik thinks this is a grave mistake.

On July 9, Gen. Joseph Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee that China—and Russia, too—present the greatest threat to American security.

“They present the greatest existential threat,” Dunford said. “If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.”

China is rapidly upgrading its military and expanding its navy. The United States is undergoing a “Pacific pivot,” shifting military forces to the region and its strategic waterways. To be sure, Rittenberg blames both Washington and Beijing for the veritable arms race between the two countries.

But in the second part of our extensive interview, Rittenberg warned that a potential conflict with China would be disastrous … and bloody. He doesn’t believe it would be a war America could win. “We’re not very good at learning,” he said.

In any case, he believes the United States and China have far more—and better—reasons to work together than to fight. He argues that this has been the case historically, even when Washington and Beijing didn’t have diplomatic relations at all.

Complicated Ties:

Rittenberg derives his views from his relationships and experiences. He’s a retired academic and ran a consulting business for American firms seeking to do business in China. He also twice translated for Mao during the communist leader’s interactions with the U.S. government during the 1940s.

Back then, Mao made several overtures to the Harry Truman administration, even as his rebels fought the U.S.-backed regime of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Mao’s reasons were pragmatic—he wanted normal diplomatic relations with the United States so he wouldn’t have to depend on Joseph Stalin.

As Rittenberg sees it, Washington missed a golden opportunity to exploit a growing rift between the Soviet Union and China’s future communist leaders—and perhaps avoid future wars in Korea and Vietnam. Or at least, make those conflicts far less costly.

Besides, the Soviets were stingy. Following the Chinese civil war, the communists requested a $300 million loan from Moscow. Instead, Stalin gave them $4.4 million. Another time, Mao told Rittenberg of an attempt to buy smelting equipment from the Soviet Union. Stalin slapped a condition on the sale—the Chinese had to buy Russian rocks to go with the equipment.

“Mao told Stalin that there were plenty of rocks in China, but Stalin said they came as a set,” Rittenberg recalled with a laugh. “He said China couldn’t have one without the other.”

China’s communist leadership soon locked Rittenberg away at Stalin’s insistence—the Soviet dictator thought he was a Western spy. Mao didn’t release Rittenberg until 1955, after Stalin’s death.

Sino-Soviet relations didn’t improve when Nikita Khrushchev took power, either. The new leader continued Stalin’s propensity to condescend to the Chinese, which offended them. “I remember once seeing Khrushchev come out of that room purple faced, madder than you can hardly imagine,” Rittenberg recalled of a meeting between the Khrushchev and Mao.

During one visit, the Soviet leader told Mao he expected the Chinese to invite Soviet technical advisers to sit in during all committee meetings. When the Chinese leader told him they would instead brief the Russians on whatever decisions they made, Khrushchev protested.

“Khrushchev told [Mao] ‘all our comrades in Eastern Europe do it this way,’” Rittenberg recalled. “Mao told him, ‘I know what happens in Eastern Europe, that’s why we’re not going to do that.’”

By the 1960s, Khrushchev had recalled most Soviet advisers.

Pres. Richard Nixon—who ironically rose to prominence as an ardent anti-communist—finally pushed the United States to recognize that communist governments weren’t in lockstep with each other.

He made China a priority, arguing that “there is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.” His 1973 visit led to a historic thaw in relations between the two powers.

Best Frenemies:

“We’ve taken a strategic position with every president since Nixon, that a strong China is good for America,” Rittenberg said. “Despite what you hear, relations on the ground are actually very good.”

He said that post-Nixon, American leaders have generally welcomed Chinese prosperity as an opportunity for mutual growth and healthy competition. He’s not wrong. Dozens of U.S. government agencies regularly hold high and mid-level talks with their Chinese counterparts—a level of engagement Rittenberg argued America has with few world governments.

In 2007, Gen. Peter Pace—one of Dunford’s predecessors—accepted a Chinese invitation to tour the country. He became the highest ranking American military official to visit China since the 1940s.

It was an important visit. Six years earlier, a Chinese J-8 fighter jet collided with a U.S. EP-3 spy plane, killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the American plane to make an emergency landing on Hainan island. It was a significant international incident that chilled relations.

But in the years since Pace’s visit, the U.S. and Chinese navies have teamed up for disaster relief exercises and port visits. Both navies have sent warships to patrol for Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. During the summer of 2014, a Chinese hospital ship attended the U.S.-led RIMPAC exercise in Hawaii for the first time—although Beijing brought an uninvited spy ship along for the trip.

Later that year, a handful of American, Chinese and Australian troops participated in a survival skills in an Australian jungle for weeks during Exercise Kowari 2014.

“There’s a lot of talk about rethinking our China strategy today,” Rittenberg said. But he said he’s wary of a “containment” strategy in regards to Chinese power. He’s also skeptical of increased U.S. security talks with China’s neighbors such as India and Vietnam. “We seem to be trying to form a sort of anti-China alliance.”

His major point—a war with China would be a tragedy for everyone involved, and that the U.S. military’s technological superiority may prove less decisive in a war with China than many Americans might expect.

“The last war we truly, decisively won was Grenada,” Rittenberg asserted. He argued that the Persian Gulf War’s bloody aftermath and the U.S. military’s continuing entanglements in Iraq calls into question the effectiveness of Operation Desert Storm. “And now you want to fight China?”

Ultimately, Rittenberg thinks that most of the tough talk is just that—talk. As he sees it, Beijing and the Washington have too many shared strategic interests. Both fear political instability and terrorism. Both benefit from a globalized economy. Chinese and American companies have ties that are too deep—and profitable—for either side to want to act on their harsh rhetoric.

But he thinks business may also drive anti-China fears in America. Specifically the arms business. “I think a lot of this is about selling weapons,” he said. “I think we’re trying to have China be a friend and an enemy at the same time.”

He asserts that fear of Chinese power is good for the American defense lobby, keeps military spending high and justifies the acquisition of high priced systems like the hotbut controversial—F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Assertive China:

Rittenberg readily admits that China is far from blameless for the buildup of tensions. The United States has been able to increase security ties and arms sales to China’s neighbors in part because of Beijing’s own increasing arms buildup and willingness to flex its military muscles.

“I think the ‘assertive’ is the word people use today when we talk about China,” Rittenberg said. “And China has been quite assertive.”

In May 2014, China moved an oil rig to an area of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam. The Vietnamese coast guard ordered the rig to leave, and the two sides got into a scuffle—which escalated to a Chinese coast guard ship ramming a Vietnamese vessel. Back in Vietnam, angry protesters attacked Chinese citizens and businesses.

Beijing ultimately agreed to move the rig, but then moved it back in June 2015. Such brazen moves have made several Southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam and the Philippines, understandably wary.

In June 2015, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that Hanoi would purchase new American patrol boats for its coast guard. Vietnam has also strengthened ties with the Philippines—a key U.S. ally in the region.

“We might get back some bases in the Philippines and maybe some naval docking in Vietnam,” Rittenberg said. “But the Southeast Asian countries are never going to be true allies to us or China.”

He added that smaller countries in Asia have been caught between empires for generations, and will ultimately look after themselves first. “They’ll never fully go to one side or the other, they’re just too smart for that.”

Of greater concern to Rittenberg is Japan. Tokyo and Beijing have been locked in a bitter debate over disputed islands near Taiwan called the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands, respectively. Rittenberg believes Beijing’s forceful power displays have had unintended consequences in Japan.

In particular, he believes that Japanese fear of Chinese expansionism has inadvertently lead to a revival of radical ultra-nationalist groups in Japan. These groups romanticize Japan’s militarist leaders of the 1930s and ’40s. Rittenberg is especially critical of current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who he accused of intentionally inflaming nationalist tensions on both sides.

“Abe doesn’t have to go to that shrine,” Rittenberg asserted, referring to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine where Japan’s war dead—including several infamous war criminals—are memorialized. “He does it to fling his nose at China.”

But much like the Sino-American relationship, Chinese and Japanese companies have formed close business partnerships. Conflict over access to Pacific islands and waterways disrupt these ties. “The Chinese need to be much more conciliatory with Japan,” Rittenberg said. “And I think they already know that.”

Rittenberg explained that China—like America—must weigh aspirations with international realities. China is one of the world’s oldest civilizations. It’s also a country that rose from a playground for empires into a veritable superpower in less than a century.

As a result, China’s leaders have a deep sense of history and national pride. The same leaders can get very defensive when they feel outsiders are insulting that sense of pride, and are zealous in demonstrating their power in the 21st century.

“Nationalism sometimes blinds even the most rational leaders,” Rittenberg said, speaking specifically of China and its leadership’s desire to appear strong on the international stage.

He hopes that Chinese Pres. Xi Jinping will dial back on some of Beijing’s tough talk to focus on domestic issues—chiefly corruption. Xi has overseen an unprecedented campaign against corruption in China targeting party leaders and officials—even military leaders—that many Chinese previously thought untouchable.

“They gave people the opportunity to come forward and fess up, but hardly anyone took advantage,” Rittenberg said.

When asked if perhaps many officials simply didn’t believe they could be arrested, the former Maoist replied that that was almost definitely the case. “Some of these guys have been at it so long, they probably thought it would never end.”

China has even asked the United States for help with the anti-corruption campaign—as Chinese authorities believe several corrupt party officials have gone into hiding in America. U.S. and Chinese agencies have already cooperated in at least one bust and are seeking other fugitives.

There’s room for this grow. For instance, the U.S. and China could cooperate on slowing the steady beat of violent crime at sea in the Pacific and Indian oceans—which disrupts commerce and poses danger for everyone passing through.

The former revolutionary said he hopes that an informed populace in both countries—as well as continued business, educational and cultural exchange—can help prevent conflict. “It’s extremely important for both sides to have accurate information about the other.”

This piece first appeared in WarIsBoring back in July of this year here.

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

The Amateurish Attacks in Paris

Paul Pillar

A strong tendency in the wake of major terrorist attacks is to associate the impact the event has on our own fears and thoughts (which generally are correlated with the number of Westerners who died in the incident) with the level of skill and sophistication of the attackers. The skill and sophistication in turn tend to be thought of as associated with the size and strength of some foreign organization that sponsored the attackers.

These presumed associations are false. The plain (and after such incidents, disturbing) fact is that the inherent vulnerabilities in our free and open Western societies are such that it does not require any noteworthy skill or sophistication to kill a lot of people. What it takes are extreme inclinations and a willingness to die in pursuit of malevolent ideas.

The terrorist attacks in Paris illustrate the point. Some organizational aptitude was needed to put together an operation that involved simultaneous dispatch of multiple attack teams, but this did not require organizing any more people than would be needed to put together a neighborhood soccer team. The death toll for all of the Paris attacks, as shocking as it understandably was, nonetheless was much less than a more skillfully conducted operation involving a comparable number of attackers would have inflicted. The attack team that went after the most target-rich location—a sports arena with tens of thousands of people—managed to kill only one other person besides themselves. The spraying of bullets in crowded places such as cafes or concert halls is not a high-skill endeavor, especially when the shooters have resigned themselves to being killed as well. Jack Shafer at Politico, who criticizes mainstream media for giving alleged attack organizer Abdelhamid Abaaoud too much credit by labeling him a “mastermind,” observes that earlier failed shooting attacks that Abaaoud was suspected of being behind “took about as much imagination and skill as ordering a pizza.”

Shafer also has done the math to determine that the Paris terrorists inflicted fewer deaths per attacker than did one deranged individual at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That is an apt comparison given the nature of the counterterrorist task that the FBI and other U.S. authorities currently face in trying to prevent mass-casualty attacks in the United States. Americans attempting to travel to ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq barely constitute a trickle: an average of only two persons a month since July. Battalions of radicals traveling to and from the ISIS mini-state clearly are not the core of any threat to American security. As a New York Times article about these patterns aptly puts it, “thwarting an Islamic State-inspired attack in the United States” is “less like stopping a traditional terrorist plot and more like trying to prevent a school shooting.” Washington Post editorial cartoonist Tom Toles illustrates the same basic point in another way.

As debate rages on about U.S. policy toward Syria, the debate would be more focused and useful if it could dispense with two persistent misconceptions. One is that being a skilled terrorist requires being sponsored and trained by some organization that occupies a piece of land overseas. The other is that inflicting a lot of casualties in a terrorist attack requires being skilled and trained. Ian Buruma provides a better insight in explaining why countering ISIS-inspired terrorism is more a matter of giving young men with a death wish a reason to live.

The future of the ISIS mini-state certainly is important for multiple reasons, many of which have much more to do with politics and stability in the Middle East than with terrorism in the West. A terrorist-related reason is that the fortunes of the ISIS enclave help determine how much inspiration it provides to already radicalized individuals and thus is an influence in determining the likelihood of such individuals performing acts that are both suicidal and lethal to others. It is a mistake to regard the ISIS entity as a font of critical skills needed to kill people.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr.                         

TopicsTerrorism France Syria

Get Ready, China: This Is Why Australia Needs Nuclear Weapons

The Buzz

Over the past century, Australia has been America’s most dependable military ally. In every major U.S. conflict, including World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, Australians have fought alongside.

Yet as competition between China and the United States heats up in the Western Pacific, Australia is cautious not to provoke its greatest trading partner. When it comes to a potential U.S.-China conflict, Australia is doing all it can to keep its options open – and with good reason.

Australia is highly vulnerable to long-range missile attack, including those carrying nuclear payloads. Despite Australia being a continental power, almost all its population is concentrated in a half-dozen major cities — easy targets for small numbers of warheads.

In a high-intensity conflict between the United States and China, it is conceivable that China may target Australia with long-range nuclear missiles as a step up the escalation ladder, demonstrating to the United States its capacity, and willingness, to conduct nuclear strikes over intercontinental ranges.

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In this eventuality, extended nuclear deterrence would hardly be credible. Retaliating on Australia’s behalf would demonstrably mean accepting large-scale nuclear attack by China on the continental United States.

For this reason, many Australians believe entering into conflict with the world’s most populous nuclear power, for any reason and under any circumstance, is unthinkable – despite very strong support for the Australia-U.S. alliance overall. The most effective means for Australia to insulate itself from long-range nuclear attack is to develop or acquire its own reliable long-range nuclear deterrent.

Many would consider this a bad idea. If Australia (a non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT) went nuclear, conventional wisdom suggests it very difficult to dissuade Japan, South Korea and others from following suit, critically threatening the nuclear non-proliferation regime as a whole.

This view is fundamentally flawed. In actuality, Australia has a very unique legal status with regard to nuclear weapons.

At present, there are five Nuclear-Weapon States under the NPT (United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France and China). Under Article IX.3 of the NPT, a country may accede to the treaty as a Nuclear-Weapon State if that state “manufactured and exploded a nuclear device prior to January 1, 1967”.

Australia qualifies. In the 1950s and ’60s, Australia hosted a series of nuclear tests conducted by the United Kingdom. These nuclear explosions were conducted on Australian sovereign territory with the active participation of Australian scientists and military personnel.

These tests received financial support direct from the Australian government, with at least some explosions likely to have used fissile material that had been sourced locally from within Australia. No other non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT is in this category.

As Rod Lyon of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute sharply has observed from recently declassified documents, Australian negotiators were very much cognizant of this legal basis prior to Australia joining the treaty. In sum, if Australia determined it was a national security imperative to develop an independent nuclear deterrent, it would be legally entitled to do so.

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As this legal status does not apply to America’s other allies in the Asia-Pacific, a changed nuclear status by Australia under the NPT would not automatically undermine the treaty as a whole.

A nuclear-armed Australia is likely to confer a number of strategic advantages upon the United States. It strengthens Australia’s resolve in supporting the United States in a potentially open-ended strategic contest in the Asia-Pacific. It supports extended nuclear deterrence by removing a potentially vulnerable element of the policy, and the nations in Southeast Asia will see Australia as a more capable strategic partner and deepen cooperation.

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There’s more. A nuclear-armed Australia makes drawing the country into a broader collective defense architecture much more feasible. Having a reliable U.S. ally in the Asia-Pacific with an independent nuclear deterrent strengthens nuclear deterrence in the Asia-Pacific overall. And it achieves these objectives without fatally weakening nuclear non-proliferation efforts more broadly.

The United States should publicly recognize Australia’s right to nuclear weapons under the NPT. This does not mean that Australia will immediately seek to acquire such weapons.

Australia has a strong non-proliferation record and a long history of disarmament activism. In the short-term, Australia would use this recognition to leverage its position in present nuclear arms control negotiations, further persuading countries in the region to exercise nuclear restraint.

Regardless of Australia’s future nuclear choices, just acknowledging the legal reality of Australia’s unique status under the NPT supports America’s long-term strategy in the Asia-Pacific. The U.S. government should do so as a matter of priority.

This piece first appeared in WarIsBoring here

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Jeb Bush's Big Foreign Policy Speech: Dreams vs. Reality

The Skeptics

Last week’s terrorist attack in the heart of Paris has not only rightly refocused the world’s attention on the dangers that the Islamic State represents--it has also upended the presidential politics here in the United States.  If immigration reform and the economy were the top two subjects that dominated the first two nationally televised debates, the November 13 attack in Paris have shifted the deck as to the issues voters care about.  

For Jeb Bush, who continues to meander in the single digits in the polls (the latest survey from Florida Atlantic University has Bush at 9% in his home state, compared to Donald Trump’s 36%), the violence in Paris that claimed the lives of 129 people at six separate locations exemplifies an argument that he has been trying to make since he declared his candidacy: do Americans really want someone as inexperienced as Ben Carson or as hot-tempered as Donald Trump sitting in the big chair making critical national security decisions for the country?  Bush’s campaign clearly believes that Paris shows the best opportunity for Bush to demonstrate his skills as a sober minded and serious executive.

Bush tried to do that on November 18, when he was invited to South Carolina’s Citadel to speak to cadets about the ever-changing geopolitical landscape and how the United States should respond. The speech was billed by the Bush campaign as a major foreign policy and national security address by a candidate who takes these issues seriously. While that may be the case, Jeb’s address at the Citadel left many questions unanswered; indeed, like national security speeches given by Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Chris Christie, and Gov. John Kasich, Bush’s remarks were based almost entirely on aspirations rather than reality. Bush has a long list of plans, but the fact of the manner is that many of them are either impossible to accomplish in Washington’s current political environment or, in the case of the fight against the Islamic State, difficult logistically to pull off. He has stated,

Militarily, we need to intensify our efforts [against ISIL] in the air – and on the ground.  While air power is essential, it alone cannot bring the results we seek. The United States – in conjunction with our NATO allies and more Arab partners – will need to increase our presence on the ground.”

How Jeb Bush would convince NATO and Arab partners to contribute more resources, money, and manpower towards the fight against ISIL is left out of the equation.  For Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, launching airstrikes against ISIL targets in Syria is far less of a priority than launching airstrikes against Houthi militants in Yemen and re-installing Yemeni President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi to power.  How Bush intends to persuade these countries to think differently about their own national interests was left unsaid. Bush has also asserted,

“In the span of a decade, our government will have withheld a trillion dollars from our national defense. There is no security rationale for these cuts, or any kind of strategic vision. They are completely arbitrary – imposed by a process that everyone in Washington claims to dislike, but no one in Washington has the courage to stop.”

Sequestration, the automatic budget caps that are designed to control government spending, is a law that many Republicans and Democrats absolutely despise.  The Budget Control Act, passed by Congress and signed by the President in 2011, sets deficit control and spending restraint on discretionary accounts as the law of the land.  Jeb Bush is right that the defense cuts are arbitrary, yet he doesn’t appear to understand just how difficult overturning sequestration would be — even if he were President.  The failure of Republicans and Democrats to override the BCA is not one of “courage” but rather one of competing priorities: budget hawks against defense hawks, Republicans against Republicans, and Republicans against Democrats.  This dynamic will continue well into the next administration whether Jeb Bush likes it or not. When it comes to Asia, Bush says,

“China, to take the most obvious example, has for years been spending heavily on warships, submarines, long-range attack aircraft, missile systems, and other capabilities that threaten America’s strategic position in the Pacific. And whatever China’s designs are in all this, we can safely assume it’s not in our interest to draw down as they build up.”

China’s reclamation and island building in the South China Sea is indeed one of the most disturbing challenges to the free flow of movement and commerce.  Trillions of dollars every year transactions pass through the South China Sea, activity that could very well be at risk if Beijing’s push to own the waters is not resisted by the United States and its Asia-Pacific allies.  But Bush’s claim about the Chinese catching up with the U.S. military in terms of capability is more alarmism than cool-headed analysis.  Although China spends more on defense acquisition and development as a percentage of its budget, Beijing is still far behind the United States in actual dollars.  In FY14, the U.S. spent approximately $609 billion on defense compared to China’s $216 billion.  Or, to put it another way the difference between the U.S. and China in military spending ($393 billion) is still greater than what China spent last year.  

If Bush wants to come across as prepared to be Commander in Chief, he needs to recognize that sloganeering can’t replace serious policy analysis when it comes to executing foreign policy. Will he?

Image: Flickr. 


America's Most Dangerous Nuclear Weapon Passes Critical Test

The Buzz

The Pentagon has completed the third and final developmental flight test for the B61 Mod 12 aircraft-delivered thermonuclear bomb. Unlike previous American nuclear bombs, the new B61-12 is designed for high accuracy using inertial guidance but low yields—which is hoped will give the weapon better overall performance.

“This demonstration of effective end-to-end system performance under representative delivery conditions marks another 2015 achievement in the development of the B61-12 Life Extension Program,” said National Nuclear Security Administration deputy administrator Madelyn Creedon in a statement. “Completing this guided B61-12 flight test provides additional evidence of the nation's continued commitment to our nation’s security and that of our allies and partners.”

All though the U.S. Air Force and the NNSA completed this last flight test on Oct. 20, 2015, at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada, the Defense Department didn’t announce the successful completion of the trials until Nov. 16. During the test, a U.S. Air Force F-15E from Nellis AFB, Nevada—most likely the 53d Test and Evaluation Group—dropped the “B61-12 test asset and it demonstrated successful performance in a realistic guided flight environment.”

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Depending on the exact delivery profile, that might have entailed a shallow dive to accelerate to delivery speed as the jet passes the target and then pulling into the vertical. The jet would have released the bomb just it passed the vertical—tossing the bomb high into the air and back toward the target—while the F-15E escapes blast area. Sources are understandably squeamish talking about the topic—pilot’s refer to the technique as the “idiot’s loop”— but one Strike Eagle pilot said the jet will hit speeds of around Mach 1.6—which is it’s maximum speed with conformal fuel tanks when flying those profiles. The bomb itself can be released at speeds around Mach 2.0.

The NNSA stated that initial indications showed the test was successfully and that telemetry, tracking and video data were all properly collected. “This test provides additional confidence in the weapon system and instrumentation designs prior to authorizing Phase 6.4, Production Engineering, in 2016,” the agency stated.

According to the NNSA, the B61-12 flight test hardware included parts designed by the Sandia National and Los Alamos National Laboratories. Those are components are manufactured by the National Security Enterprise Plants. The B61-12’s tail kit is designed and built by Boeing under a contract with Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center.

The tail-kit is derived from Boeing’s Joint Direct Attack Munition weapon system—which consists of a tail-kit assembly section and bolt-on stakes. While the B61-12 was originally believed to utilize the Global Positioning System to enhance accuracy, the NNSA explicitly states that is not true. “Although the tail-kit assembly guided the test unit, the B61-12 nuclear weapon will have no additional capabilities from the legacy B61 nuclear weapons and is not GPS-guided,” the NNSA stated.

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However, it should be noted that while JDAMs are often described in the media as “satellite-guided bombs”—the weapons actually use inertial guidance with GPS positional corrections. Thus the lack of GPS capability would only slightly reduce the accuracy of the B61-12.  Indeed, during the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. Air Force used JDAMs to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s GPS jammers with negligible impact of the weapons’ accuracy.

While the B61-12 has a maximum yield of only 50KT and is a relatively low powered weapon compared to previous versions of weapon—indeed, it can be dialed back to 0.3KT if need be—the increased accuracy makes it more effective. By some estimates, the inertial guidance kit would increase the weapon's capability to a level similar to the now retired 360KT B61-7 or the 400KT B61-11 while reducing casualties.

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Some have argued that would make it more palatable to use those weapons operationally. “Warplanners and adversaries could see such nuclear weapons as more useable allowing some targets that previously would not have been attacked because of too much collateral damage to be attacked anyway,” wrote Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists. “This could lead to a broadening of the nuclear bomber mission, open new facilities to nuclear targeting, reinvigorate a planning culture that sees nuclear weapons as useable, and potentially lower the nuclear threshold in a conflict.”

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The NNSA also took pains to stress that the B61-12 does not violate any treaties and does not add to existing nuclear capabilities—other than increased accuracy. “This development flight test asset contained representative non-nuclear components but no highly enriched uranium or plutonium, consistent with test treaty obligations,” NNSA states.  “The B61-12 LEP refurbishes both nuclear and non-nuclear components to extend the bomb’s service life while improving its safety, security and reliability. The LEP will reuse or remanufacture existing components to the maximum extent possible. With the incorporation of an Air Force provided tail-kit assembly, the B61-12 will replace the existing B61-3, -4, -7, and -10 bombs.”

Nonetheless, many arms control experts are concerned about the new weapon and the capabilities it brings—particularly since the B61-12 will be integrated onto the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. That might also provoke a Russian response.

“If the Russians put out a guided nuclear bomb on a stealthy fighter that could sneak through air defenses, would that add to the perception here that they were lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons?” Kristensen told the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal magazine. “Absolutely.”

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.