America's nuclear bomb gets a makeover

HARI SREENIVASAN: During the Cold War, the United States built tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. Now that it's over and with arms control treaties in place, the arsenal has shrunk significantly.

The Departments of Defense and Energy say the remaining bombs need to be rebuilt, but critics say those departments are building new nuclear bombs and spending too much money.

Veteran correspondent Jamie McIntyre, now Al-Jazeera America's national security correspondent, went on special assignment for the NewsHour to examine the claims.

The story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

JAMIE MCINTYRE: At Eglin Air Force Base, a solitary F-15 takes to the skies over the swamps of Western Florida on a mission that hearkens back to the Cold War.

It looks like any old-fashioned gravity bomb as it falls to earth. But what you're seeing is one small part of an $8 billion project, the most extensive and expensive improvement ever to the B-61 nuclear bomb. It's a nuclear test of sorts without a mushroom cloud, because what's being tried out is a new guidance system to increase accuracy.

The first test mission was flown by pilot Jeff Searcy.

MAJ. JEFF SEARCY, Air Force Test Pilot: We are able to enter in coordinates into our system and then transfer those coordinates into the weapon now. And the weapon is built to be able to guide to those coordinates.

NARRATOR: This is a B-61 bomb, a lightweight two-stage thermonuclear weapon.

JAMIE MCINTYRE: The B-61 was designed and first built in the early 1960s. As this vintage Air Force film shows, it lacked any of today high-tech guidance systems, relying on a parachute to give the plane time to escape the blast.

A half-century later, it's still the mainstay of the Air Force's nuclear arsenal, long overdue for an overhaul, argues Major General Garrett Harencak.

MAJ. GEN. GARRETT HARENCAK, U.S. Air Force: These components age, just like any component would in an automobile or in an appliance, and it has certain aspects of it that just have to be modernized.

JAMIE MCINTYRE: The PBS NewsHour was given exclusive and unprecedented access to the labs and facilities across the country involved in the multibillion-dollar makeover, such as the National Security Campus in Kansas City, where crash tests help determine the durability of key components.

The B-61 is just one program in a $100 billion effort dubbed stockpile stewardship, an ambitious plan that includes modernizing America's remaining arsenal of 1,500 nuclear bombs and warheads. At Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, senior engineer Brad Boswell showed me the obsolete analog innards of the old 1960s version of the bomb.

So, one of the things that was surprising to me was that we still have nuclear weapons using vacuum tubes, like the ones we had in our old TVs.

BRAD BOSWELL, Sandia National Laboratories: That is correct.

JAMIE MCINTYRE: And so this kind vacuum tube is now part of this printed circuit board?

BRAD BOSWELL: That is correct. As you look at this printed circuit board, vacuum tubes like this are replaced by the smaller, commonly used electronic, discrete components that you see on these boards today.

JAMIE MCINTYRE: While many of the components of the B-61 are being upgraded and modernized, the big change is the addition of this tail fin kit, which allows the bomb to be guided to its target, a big improvement over the old system that deployed a parachute, which floated the bomb down to the ground.

It won't make the bomb as precise as a GPS-guided smart bomb, but it will increase its accuracy. You might think that with all their destructive power, nuclear weapons wouldn't need to hit a target dead center. But the B-61 has a feature dubbed dial-a-yield, which allows its explosive force to be reduced. And when combined with better accuracy, that results in a weapon war-fighters might actually be tempted to use on the battlefield.

In his Washington office, Hans Kristensen, with the Federation of American Scientists, called up a Web site to show me an example.

HANS KRISTENSEN, Federation of American Scientists: Here you have, the White House itself is gone, and so is much of the downtown area, but a much smaller radius.

JAMIE MCINTYRE: Smaller blast area, less radiation, fewer casualties, all add up to a more palatable last-resort option, argues Kristensen, making the B-61 less deadly, but, perversely, more dangerous.

HANS KRISTENSEN: It's more likely that a military commander will go to the president with this weapon and say, Mr. President, all our other options are out of the question, but we have a good one here that doesn't pollute a whole lot.

JAMIE MCINTYRE: It's one thing for an arms control advocates to make that case, but another when the former top commander of America's nuclear forces to agree.

Retired Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Marine General James Cartwright supports the B-61 upgrade, but can see how it could change the calculus in a crisis.

GEN. JAMES CARTWRIGHT (RET.), Former Commander, U.S. Strategic Command: If I can drive down the yield, drive down, therefore, the likelihood of fallout, et cetera, does that make it more usable in the eyes of some — some president or national security decision-making process? And the answer is, it likely could be more usable.

JAMIE MCINTYRE: The Pentagon argues making nuclear weapons more usable makes them a more realistic threat, thereby increasing their deterrent value and decreasing the risk of miscalculation.

Donald Cook is a deputy administrator at the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is overseeing the B-61 project:

DONALD COOK, National Nuclear Security Administration: If we have a weapon that is lower-yield and greater accuracy, and our adversaries know that, it's my own belief that that weapon then is a more effective deterrent and is, therefore, less likely to ever be used in anger.

JAMIE MCINTYRE: The Pentagon is careful to portray the new B-61 as basically the same old bomb with just a few more modern parts. That's a key point, since the Obama administration had pledged not to build new nuclear weapons.

But officials also stress they're making the bomb safer and more reliable. At Los Alamos National Laboratory, engineers are testing a new high-explosive material that's used to trigger the nuclear chain reaction in the B-61 warhead. It's called insensitive high explosive, insensitive because it's really hard to detonate, just what you want in a nuclear warhead.

The standard for nuclear weapons is always/never, as in, they must always work when they should, and never when they shouldn't. Critics of the B-61 say they have no objection to making nuclear weapons safer, but they allege the Energy Department labs that rebuild the weapons have a financial motive, lobbying Congress, sometimes with government money, to approve lucrative contracts.

Jay Coghlan is with Nuclear Watch New Mexico, an anti-nuclear watchdog group.

JAY COGHLAN, Nuclear Watch New Mexico: The American taxpayers should know that the directors of these nuclear weapons laboratories that are pushing these extreme proposals actually have an inherent conflict of interests.

They're both the lab directors, but at the same time they're the presidents of corporations running the labs. It's in their interests and their bottom line to be able to have these life extension programs.

JAMIE MCINTYRE: At Sandia, deputy laboratory director Steve Rottler said his people believe they are performing a vital national security function.

STEVE ROTTLER, Sandia National Laboratories: We very much view what we're doing as a public service. We approach it with objectivity. We approach it with the sober understanding of what we're doing and the impact of what that could mean if these weapons were ever used.

JAMIE MCINTYRE: Critics like to point out the estimated $20 million price tag for a single retooled B-61 is more than if the 700-pound bomb were made out of solid gold. And they argue the billions could be better spent on more conventional arms, weapons that will be used every day.

That argument rankles Air Force General Harencak, who says deterring potential adversaries is a real return on investment.

MAJ. GEN. GARRETT HARENCAK: Eight-point-one billion dollars is a lot of money, but what you can't do is just take the number of missiles and divide it by 8.1 and say, OK, this is the cost. This is a weapon that is going to be used every single day in a deterrent mission. So, when you add that over 40 years, find out, I think you come to the realization that it's a pretty good bargain for the American people.

JAMIE MCINTYRE: The cost of the program has already doubled once from the initial estimate, and one internal Pentagon review back in 2012 suggested the final cost could end up higher.

Whatever the price tag, the B-61 will be the Pentagon's most expensive bomb project ever.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jamie McIntyre, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There's a lot more about the remaking of America's nuclear arsenal on our Web site. We have extended excerpts of all the key interviews, plus a photo essay, all that at

Recently in World