WASHINGTON Defense officials are considering the possibility of developing a low-yield nuclear device that would be able to destroy deeply buried stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons.
Such a move would require Congress to lift a 1994 ban on designing new nuclear warheads.
In a report to Congress, the Defense Department argues that conventional weapons, while effective for many underground enemy targets, would be unable to destroy the most deeply protected facilities containing biological or chemical agents.
This kind of warhead is "the dirtiest kind of all. It's highly radioactive." Development of such a bomb would send the wrong signals and would add to the risk of nuclear proliferation.
In recent years there has been a growing unease that terror groups or unfriendly, newly nuclear-capable states may be hiding weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological weapons, in deep underground facilities.
In the report sent to Congress in October, the Defense Department said a low-yield, less than five-kiloton, nuclear warhead coupled with new technology that allows bombs to penetrate deep underground before exploding could prove effective in destroying biological and chemical agents.
Although not formally engaged in developing a new warhead design, nuclear scientists "have completed initial studies on how existing nuclear weapons can be modified" for use to destroy deeply buried targets containing chemical or biological weapons, the report said. Studies include "synergies of nuclear weapons yield, penetration, accuracy and tactics," it said.
Conventional weapons cannot destroy the most deeply buried chemical and biological holding facilities, the report concludes, but a low-yield nuclear device could do the job. It notes that the current nuclear arsenal was "not designed with this mission in mind."
The report was submitted in response to a congressional directive that the Pentagon report what it was doing to develop ways to attack stores of chemical and biological weapons and also contains updates on a number of programs involving conventional weapons.
The report shows the Bush administration views a nuclear strike as "an intrinsic part" of dealing with deeply entombed enemy targets and "is essentially doing all the preparation" for a future full-scale research and development program for a new mini-nuclear warhead, said Martin Butcher, director of security programs at the Physicians for Social Responsibility.
This kind of warhead is "the dirtiest kind of all. It's highly radioactive," said Butcher, whose group has been a leading voice in the nuclear nonproliferation debate. Development of such a bomb would send the wrong signals and would add to the risk of nuclear proliferation, he said.
A low-yield nuclear weapon generally is considered to be no more than five kilotons. By comparison, the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II were about 15 kilotons each.
The report sent to key committees in Congress by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in October provides a general outline of U.S. capabilities for dealing with what defense officials believe is a growing gap in U.S. military response.
The House International Relations Committee is pressing for renewed U.N. inspections in Iraq on the belief that it has rebuilt its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs since President Saddam Hussein's government stopped allowing inspections in 1998.
Notes and diagrams found in houses vacated by al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan also point to an effort to create weapons of mass destruction.
The report said enhancements expected to be completed by 2005 to an array of conventional weapons, including laser-guided bombs and cruise missiles, should be able to destroy most underground facilities. But it maintains such weapons cannot penetrate the deepest facilities.
The report acknowledges that any decision to proceed with a nuclear device for attacking underground targets would be considered within the administration's broader plans for the nuclear stockpile and overall nuclear weapons policy.
It said a joint nuclear-planning board already has been established to examine the use of nuclear weapons as bunker-busters.
The idea of using low-yield nuclear warheads to attack deeply buried enemy targets has been discussed for years. It was the subject of a classified study concluded in 1997 and has been frequently discussed by nuclear weapons scientists at the Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories.
The essence of the report sent to Congress was reported Tuesday by The Albuquerque Journal. A copy was distributed by Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, based in Santa Fe, on its Web site.
The report had been requested by Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Wayne Allard, R-Colo., and was part of this year's defense authorization legislation.
On the Net: Nuclear Watch of New Mexico: www.nukewatch.org
© 2001 The Associated Press