A House-Senate conference committee finalized an agreement Thursday that will
reverse a decade of self-imposed restraint on the development of so- called battlefield
nuclear weapons, repealing a law that had prohibited the production of smaller,
more usable warheads.
Although the repeal has not been announced officially
yet, lawmakers hammering out a final defense authorization bill said that it had
completed language that will remove the limits on the development of the low-yield
weapons. Republicans tried but failed to repeal the law last year.
administration argues that it needs the new bombs to destroy caches of weapons
of mass destruction in the hands of potential enemies. But Democrats and other
opponents say that because the warheads are smaller and thus more usable, they
make nuclear exchanges more likely and encourage foes to build their own nuclear
Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., who was one of the co-sponsors of the
Spratt- Furse Amendment, the original ban enacted a decade ago, said he was disappointed
that the restraint had been removed. But he vowed to continue the efforts to prevent
aggressive expansion of the military's still substantial nuclear arsenal.
law being written by the conference committee lifts the old prohibition, but it
also requires the administration to come back to Congress for approval if it wants
to begin the actual detailed engineering work on warhead production.
called the removal of the ban highly symbolic, since Congress must agree to manufacture
of the new warheads, but even that creates problems by sending a provocative signal
to other countries, he noted.
"The symbolic effect is not to be dismissed,"
said Spratt, adding, "We're coming back to fight another day."
The Bush administration
has pushed hard for elimination of the law, saying that the U.S. military needs
new kinds of smaller nuclear warheads that can destroy deeply buried bunkers or
other hardened targets without causing the kind of indiscriminate devastation
larger warheads would incur.
Congressional Democrats have insisted that the
United States -- which already has more than 10,000 nuclear warheads -- does not
need new weapons and that development of the smaller warheads will just encourage
potential enemies, such as North Korea and Iran, to rush and build their own deterrent
The conferees essentially adapted the version of the bill agreed on
in the Senate earlier.
But there is clear ambivalence even among Republicans
about how far the administration should be allowed to go in its aggressive nuclear
The Spratt-Furse Amendment prohibited the development of warheads
with an explosive force of less than 5 kilotons - one third the power of the atomic
bomb that killed 140,000 people when it was dropped over Hiroshima. It was put
in place after the end of the Cold War to prevent what Spratt called "backsliding"
into an arms race that would end up encouraging the spread of the weapons.
a separate conference committee working out the final details of the Pentagon's
budget for the next fiscal year, lawmakers agreed to far less money than Bush
had sought for research into several specific new warhead designs and a new factory
for producing the plutonium cores of warheads. In that instance, even many Republicans
sought to slow the president's efforts.
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