Published on Sunday, November 16, 2003 by the Toronto Star
Armageddon Back on the Table
U.S. ratchets up debate on `usable' nuclear weapons
Critics fear fallout from Bush cadre's pro-nuke strategy
by Olivia Ward
Since nuclear bombs exploded on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the possibility of an atomic Armageddon has made the use of such cataclysmic weapons unthinkable.
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.
"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 TNT.
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 nuclear blasts.
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 given.
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 weapons."
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 strikes."
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 terrorists.
"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, SecureFrontiers.com.
"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 against us."
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 them.
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 Studies.
"Now, they're in a position to seize their chance."
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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