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Move to update nuclear gravity bomb concerns Catholic leaders, peace advocates

A U.S. Air Force B-1B bomber is pictured in a file photo flying over Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. The Department of Defense announced Oct. 27, 2023, that it is seeking congressional approval to update the B61 nuclear gravity bomb, a move that concerns Catholic leaders and peace advocates. (OSV News photo/Kim Hong-Ji, Reuters)
A U.S. Air Force B-1B bomber is pictured in a file photo flying over Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. The Department of Defense announced Oct. 27, 2023, that it is seeking congressional approval to update the B61 nuclear gravity bomb, a move that concerns Catholic leaders and peace advocates. (OSV News photo/Kim Hong-Ji, Reuters)

(OSV News) — When the U.S. Department of Defense announced the proposed modern variant development of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb Oct. 27, experts monitoring arms control, international relations and conflict resolution voiced concern that pursuing the updated weapon — to be known as the B61-13 — could signal a risky escalation of tensions in an already precariously weaponized world.

For Catholics concerned with such matters, there is an additional complexity: the inherent immorality of both existing and future nuclear armaments.

In 2022, Pope Francis declared that “the use of nuclear weapons, as well as their mere possession, is immoral.” The notion of mutual deterrence, the pontiff added, “inevitably ends up poisoning relationships between peoples and obstructing any possible form of real dialogue.” Pope Francis also has spoken of the potentially devastating environmental impact of nuclear bombs.

“The best thing for the world — as Pope Benedict spoke about and Pope Francis, and John Paul II before both of them — would be mutual disarmament of the nuclear arsenals of all nations that possess them, either openly or secretly,” said Msgr. Stuart Swetland.

A moral theologian and president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, Msgr. Swetland also is a U.S. Naval Academy physics graduate who spent midshipman summers on deterrence patrols aboard submarines equipped to carry nuclear weapons.

The Catholic Church has an extensive history of teaching regarding war and nuclear weapons, including St. John XXIII’s 1963 papal encyclical, “Pacem in Terris”; the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (“Gaudium et Spes”); the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response”; and dozens of other official pronouncements.

Most recently, Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, wrote a 2022 pastoral letter “Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace: A Conversation Toward Nuclear Disarmament.”

Any threat to use nuclear weapons violates international law, including the Charter of the United Nations. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons — the first legally binding international agreement to prohibit and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons — took effect Jan. 22, 2021. But only 93 countries out of the U.N.’s 193 member states have signed it, and the nine states known to have military nuclear programs have not. They are Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.

“Just because others continue to sin doesn’t give us the right to participate in structures of sin,” Msgr. Swetland stressed. He hopes the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will soon issue a new statement concerning peace — one that will respond to the fact that, as the priest frames it, “our nation has chosen to do something that has set up what we would call, theologically, a structure of sin.”

“These weapons — if used — would be both nondiscriminatory, in the sense that they would not discriminate between combatants and noncombatants, and they’d be disproportionate,” explained Msgr. Swetland. “So they can never justly use these weapons. To threaten to use something you cannot justly use is also sinful.”

Referring to the Department of Defense’s Oct. 27 press release, Msgr. Swetland observed that it mentions “keeping a credible deterrence. … But I notice in the statement they also say, ‘and if necessary, respond to strategic attacks,'” he added.

“So obviously, our policy is yes, to deter first; but for that deterrence to be credible, we have to talk about responding to strategic attacks. So they’re planning to use these,” Msgr. Swetland stressed. “They’re training people to be willing to use these.”

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy John Plumb said, “The B61-13 represents a reasonable step to manage the challenges of a highly dynamic security environment.”

Plumb added that “while it provides us with additional flexibility, production of the B61-13 will not increase the overall number of weapons in our nuclear stockpile.”

Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told OSV News, “We were given pre-briefings on this weapon by the Department of Defense and the National Security Council, and in those meetings — before it was announced — we asked questions. Is this a response to what’s happening in China, or Russia, or North Korea, or something like that?”

“And they were very clear; they said no, this was not in response to some adversary development,” he said. “Instead, they painted it as an attempt to keep a capability in the arsenal that would allow them to retire another large-yield nuclear weapon.”

The Federation of American Scientists is a global policy think tank founded in 1946 by scientists, including some who developed America’s first atomic bomb. Created to use science and technology to benefit humanity, it also aims to reduce the amount of nuclear weapons in use.

“If anything, it’s sort of a symbol, I would say, of this new era we’re in — where it’s possible for the defense establishment to get new nuclear capabilities that it just couldn’t get 10 years ago,” said Kristensen. “The Chinese and the Russians are misbehaving — and the U.S. is changing its approach to that by saying, ‘We need to be more in their face. We need to beef up our capabilities.’ And so that leaves an open space for arguing for a capability like this.”

Deliverable by aircraft such as the B-21 stealth bomber, the B61-13 will apparently feature improved accuracy, additional safety features and the capability of destroying underground targets.

It’s also likely to be almost 25 times more powerful than the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945, during the final stages of World War II. That nuclear weapon — “Little Boy” — had a destructive force equal to 16,000 tons of TNT, and killed 135,000. The B61-13 will potentially have a destructive force equivalent to 360,000 kilotons of TNT, which could cause a death toll of 1 million.

“People tend to either greatly overestimate how powerful a nuclear weapon is, or greatly underestimate how powerful it is,” said Alex Wellerstein, director of science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, and creator of NUKEMAP, a “mapping mash-up that calculates the effects of the detonation of a nuclear bomb.”

Wellerstein’s NUKEMAP is both engagingly interactive and yet profoundly chilling. Pull down menus allow users to select metropolises worldwide, pair them with specific nuclear weapons from global arsenals, and — with the touch of a bright red “detonate” button — model the resulting catastrophic blast and its effects, including the radius of a fireball, radiation and blast damage.

While the need for the updated B61-13 remains somewhat obscure to Wellerstein, he finds another query just as intriguing.

“I think the more interesting question to ask is what the rest of the world thinks about this,” said Wellerstein. “The United States is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; one of the pillars of that treaty is the states with nuclear weapons who sign the treaty will agree to essentially try to end the arms race and disarm over time,” he noted.

“The countries in the world that are interested in holding us to our commitments to disarmament — how are they going to see this?” asked Wellerstein. “That’s a more tricky subject to balance.”

It’s also a balance that could be aided by skilled diplomats.

“We need to beef up our State Department. We need skills for diplomacy,” said Mary Ellen O’Connell, a law professor and professor of international peace studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute. “And,” she added, “alternatives to using military force to resolve disputes.”

“Eisenhower said it: The military-industrial complex is really hard to beat,” reflected O’Connell. “But that’s where our church has to speak up.”

In his 1961 farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower cautioned that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence … by the military-industrial complex.”

O’Connell thinks Eisenhower’s warning is no longer heeded.

“Our government and our Department of Defense is so captured by the arms race mentality that they’re not thinking very hard about usability as an effective deterrent, or morality — they’re just thinking, ‘Here’s a new invention in the world of arms, and we have to have it,'” she said.

“This is exactly the problem with the arms race mentality,” O’Connell explained. “If you think that the winner is the one with the bigger pile of newer armaments, then you never stop playing that game.”

Kimberley Heatherington writes for OSV News from Virginia.

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