on the Table
U.S. ratchets up debate on `usable' nuclear
Critics fear fallout from Bush cadre's pro-nuke strategy
Ward, November 16, 2003
by the Toronto Star
bombs exploded on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the possibility
of an atomic Armageddon has made the use of such cataclysmic weapons
But after the election of President George W. Bush,
and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the word
"nuclear" has been creeping back into the vocabulary
of American policy, reaching for a respectability that until recently
was thought gone for good.
Lobbying Congress for funds to research and develop
new nuclear weapons, Bush has opened the back door to the doctrine
of a "fightable" nuclear war, one in which the use of
small or limited nuclear weapons would be possible or even desirable
to defeat ruthless and unconventional enemies.
"Nuclear programs are a cornerstone of U.S.
national security posture," said Congress' Armed Services
Committee, which recently backed the allocation of $400 billion
(all figures U.S.) for national defence in the coming year.
Both critics and supporters of developing "usable"
nuclear weapons agree that the path from the laboratory to the
launching pad is a long and difficult one.
But since the Bush administration presented its
radical "Nuclear Posture Review" in March, 2002, pro-nuclear
officials have been pushing steadily ahead toward developing weapons
that will cross the line that separates conventional from unconventional
warfare, threatening half a century of disarmament negotiations,
treaties and taboos.
This month, the Senate endorsed an Energy and Water
Appropriations Bill allocating $7.5 million to research on nuclear
"bunker-buster" bombs and $10.8 million to plans for
nuclear "pit" facilities to produce triggers for new
nuclear bombs. Both sums were reduced from totals originally requested
by Bush officials.
A final environmental study is being prepared to
determine how and where the pits should be manufactured.
Crucial to the administration's hopes for developing
a new generation of nukes was the repeal in May of a 1993 ban
on research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons —
those with a force of less than 5 kilotons, or 5,000 tonnes of
The bomb dropped on Hiroshima, by comparison, was
approximately 15 kilotons.
"A one-kiloton nuclear weapon detonated 20
to 50 feet underground would dig a crater the size of Ground Zero
in New York and eject one million cubic feet of radioactive debris
into the air," says California Senator Diane Feinstein, an
opponent of usable nuclear weapons.
The development of any new nuclear arms would require
testing. And as early as June, 2001, Bush also signalled that
he might consider ending an 11-year moratorium on underground
He called for a scientific review of the Nevada
test site that resulted in shortening the time it would take to
restart nuclear test explosions from 36 months to no more than
18 months from the time an order to resume nuclear testing is
And although the Bush administration has so far
made little progress in promoting the development of "mini
nukes" that could be used against enemy forces, the influential
Defence Science Board that advises the Pentagon has thrown its
weight behind them.
In a leaked report, due to be tabled in the next
few months, the board urges the development of lower-yield weapons
that would have more battlefield "credibility" than
the more powerful current nuclear bombs.
The rationale of the pro-nuclear supporters is
clear: After Sept. 11, America is fighting an unpredictable enemy
that must be attacked and eradicated by any possible means.
"As seen in Afghanistan, conventional weapons
are not always able to destroy underground targets," said
the Armed Services Committee, which backed the new nuclear policy.
"The United States may need nuclear earth
penetrators (bunker-busters) to destroy underground facilities
where rogue nations have stored chemical, biological or nuclear
Keith Payne, the Pentagon's civilian liaison with
the U.S. Strategic Command, which plans how a nuclear war could
be fought, has for a decade promoted the idea of usable nukes.
Payne believes the lessons of the 1991 Gulf War
included the discovery that Scud missiles might elude attack.
In a 1999 paper on the future of American nuclear weapons, he
wrote: "If the locations of dispersed mobile launchers cannot
be determined with enough precision to permit pinpoint strikes,
suspected deployment areas might be subjected to multiple nuclear
Other pro-nuclear theorists say a new generation
of fightable nukes might have a deterrent effect on the kind of
enemies America now faces: guerrilla groups and unpredictable
"All we have left is nuclear use and pre-emption,
so that something a little bigger, with a little more bite, does
not emerge as the next threat against our security and values,"
says Barry Zellen, publisher of the electronic security bulletin,
"Our willingness to go beyond deterrence to
a more pro-active strategy of nuclear use might just end up achieving
what we wanted in the beginning: successful deterrence of further
aggression and terror against us, now and in the future."
Opponents of nuclear weapons fiercely disagree.
They shudder at the thought of crossing the line between fighting
a conventional and nuclear war, once considered unthinkable. And
they argue that such a move would promote, rather than deter terrorism.
One of the most troubling aspects, critics say,
is the "creeping respectability" of arms that have been
considered beyond the pale of defence policy.
"It creates the image of `clean' nuclear weapons,"
says Brice Smith of the Maryland-based Institute for Energy
and Environmental Research.
"We can use them without all the old Cold
War anxieties about total destruction. A lot of psychology is
involved here and it includes the very powerful idea of being
able to defeat attempts to use chemical and biological weapons
However, experts say, usable nukes would be far
from environmentally safe. Bunker-busting bombs would explode
close to the surface of their targets, spreading radioactivity
through an explosion of dust and causing the death of tens of
thousands of people if dropped on urban areas.
It is also likely, says Smith, that the explosions
would spread deadly chemicals or bioagents, rather than destroying
And, critics argue, the political fallout from
threatening to use, let alone using, such weapons would be dangerous
to the United States and its Western allies.
Apart from inciting terrorism, such a policy would
create deeper cynicism about Washington's disregard for international
treaties on nuclear weapons, convincing countries like Iran and
North Korea that Washington is applying double standards when
it insists they halt efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
The Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists, which monitors
nuclear peril worldwide, last year moved its Doomsday Clock forward
two minutes, to seven minutes to midnight, citing the Bush administration's
failure to change its Cold War nuclear-alert practices while authorizing
its weapons labs to work on the design of new nuclear arms.
"Terrorist efforts to acquire and use nuclear
and biological weapons present a great danger," concluded
George Lopez, the Bulletin's board chairman.
"But the U.S. preference for the use of pre-emptive
force rather than diplomacy could be equally dangerous."
Historian and Kennedy-era political adviser Arthur
Schlesinger Jr., put it more flamboyantly.
"Looking back over the 40 years of the Cold
War," he wrote in The New York Review Of Books, "we
can be everlastingly grateful that the loonies on both sides were
powerless. In 2003, however, they run the Pentagon, and preventive
war — the Bush doctrine — is now official policy."
Those who follow the progress of the new nuclear
doctrine say its resurgence signals the comeback of its backers,
a pro-nuclear cadre that has for years urged a more aggressive
approach to both domestic and military nuclear policy.
The cadre includes Vice-President Dick Cheney,
who urged planning for nuclear strikes against Third World "enemy"
countries as secretary of defence in the first Bush administration;
Payne, who wrote a doctrine of fightable nuclear war; and Pentagon
threat-reduction chief Stephen Younger, a director of the Los
Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory and one of the first scientists
to promote the use of low-yield nuclear weapons.
With an influential group of lobbyists working
closely with the White House, it appears highly likely that plans
to produce a new generation of nuclear weapons would go forward
if Bush wins a second term.
However, there is trepidation in the ranks of both
Republican and Democratic parties about such a development.
Congress has so far made sure that funding is limited
to the exploratory stages of the project and that millions rather
than billions of dollars have been allocated
"By seeking to develop new nuclear weapons,"
says Senator Feinstein, "the United States sends the message
that nuclear weapons have a future battlefield role and utility.
That is the wrong direction and, in my view, will only cause America
to be placed in greater jeopardy in the future."
The opposition is unlikely to weaken the pro-nuclear
cadre's resolve, however.
"What you're seeing is a thoughtless strategy
being pursued under cover of the war on terrorism, by people who
always wanted to do this," says arms-control expert William
Arkin of Johns Hopkins University's Institute of Advanced International
"Now, they're in a position to seize their
Critics say a new arms race is on the horizon and
they predict the effect on global security to be gloomy, as resentment
escalates toward the United States for its double standard of
developing nuclear weapons, while insisting that others desist.
In the United States, says Daryl Kimball, executive
director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, "there
is a creeping respectability of nuclear weapons."What Bush
has done is emphasize that there are not only bad weapons out
there, but bad people with bad weapons.
"Then, the line becomes blurred, because he's
implying that responsible states are entitled to possess and even
use the same kinds of weapons.
"In fact, these are all weapons of mass terror,
and we should never forget that."
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