The Cold War is over, but advocates and critics of nuclear weapons inside the Bush administration and on Capitol Hill continue to battle over how the United States should reduce and restructure its enormous stockpile.
The infighting will become public this week when Congress considers the fiscal 2004 defense authorization bill. It contains language that eliminates current restrictions on researching low-yield nuclear weapons, gives added money for research on a high-yield nuclear bomb for use against deeply buried targets, and completes funding for reducing to 18 months from three years the preparation time required for resuming underground nuclear testing.
Although arms control experts on Capitol Hill worry that the Bush administration is seeking new nuclear weapons, the man who runs U.S. Strategic Command is looking to reduce dependency on the current nuclear stockpile by turning to smart, precision conventional bombs and missiles.
Adm. James O. Ellis Jr., head of U.S. Strategic Command, has said he wants to reduce the country's dependence on nuclear weapons by using conventional, precision-guided bombs and missiles to destroy deeply buried targets that some in the Pentagon say can be threatened only by a new nuclear warhead.
If those conventional weapons cannot penetrate targets buried deep in mountains, Ellis said, the U.S. military can attack the sites by blocking their entrances and exits and making them unusable. Ellis said he also wants to be prepared to use special forces on the ground to guide air attacks on bunker sites or to seal the entrances.
"This innovative approach will enable [Strategic Command] to deliberately and adaptively plan and rapidly deliver limited-duration, nonnuclear combat power anywhere in the world," Ellis told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee last month.
But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), said late last month that the Pentagon's proposals for new nuclear research "are raising doubts about our own long-standing policy on nuclear weapons." Kennedy said at a news conference sponsored by the Arms Control Association that the Pentagon's moves question "our commitment not to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear nations."
Kennedy and others say the administration's plans, as outlined in last year's Nuclear Posture Review, could lower the threshold for using nuclear weapons. But Ellis told the senators that the review's impact will be to "raise even higher the nuclear threshold."
"The administration is sending mixed messages," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "They are saying they will reduce the need for strategic nuclear weapons at the same time they are moving ahead with a new class of nuclear bunker busters and also perhaps low-yield ones to use against chemical and biological stocks."
To combat the proposed nuclear earth penetrator, Kimball and other arms controllers say smart weapons could do it more effectively because no nuclear weapon could go deep enough without destroying itself or creating enormous fallout. As Sidney Drell, the nuclear physicist, recently wrote, 50 feet is about as deep as a bomb or missile warhead could dig itself. To be effective, it would take more than 100 kilotons to reach a target 1,000 feet down. That size weapon would create a much larger crater than Ground Zero at the World Trade Center and create a large amount of dangerous radioactive debris.
One solution, Drell said, is a new, so-called pilot hole conventional weapon system under development at the Sandia National Laboratories. In this program, Drell said, one detonation creates a hole, and using global position satellites, successive warheads are directed in the same hole. "You have successive explosions, and you can increase the depth to which you penetrate," Drell said.
As for researching new low-yield weapons, Drell said, "The issue is not testing or developing new designs; it's deciding if you want to package one so it can penetrate deeper without destroying itself by detonating."
Ellis has said he plans to build a nonnuclear strategic force around the country's long-range bomber force. The B-1 bomber, which was removed from the nuclear mission years ago, is "back into our force structure in its purely conventional role," Ellis said. The modification of four Trident strategic ballistic missile submarines into launchers for Tomahawk conventional cruise missiles will "improve joint war-fighting effectiveness," he added.
Ellis said studies are looking at putting conventional warheads atop intercontinental ballistic missiles and at developing hypersonic aircraft, aerospace vehicles and unmanned aircraft to deliver conventional arms. He said the military's use of precision-guided bunker-busting bombs and other conventional weaponry delivered by Strategic Command's B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers during the Iraq war was a sign of the trend toward conventional weapons.
One reason that Strategic Command may not be as focused on nuclear weapons as it was during the Cold War is that it has been given additional responsibilities. For example, Ellis also runs military space operations and Pentagon computer and information networks, which involves planning offensive and defensive electronic warfare. This comes on top of the command's traditional global strategic planning and counter-proliferation activities.
There is also a practical war-fighting fact in play as the Afghanistan fighting hinted and the Iraq war showed: In this new century, there will be few if any situations where a president of the United States will threaten to reach for nuclear weapons of any size or shape, despite repeated statements that such use cannot be ruled out or taken off the table.
Ellis has a different background from his predecessors at Strategic Command in that he came to the job with no experience in the strategic nuclear field. He is a navy aviator versed in aircraft carriers but has little experience on ballistic missile submarines.
As he told the Senate Armed Services Committee before his confirmation hearing, he has "not worked regularly" with the key agencies involved with strategic nuclear operations. These include the National Security Council; the Department of Energy, which develops and builds nuclear weapons; the Nuclear Weapons Council, the group of officials from the Pentagon and Energy Department that determines nuclear weapons needs; and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which assesses the effects of nuclear weapons.
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