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Panel Backs 'Battlefield' Nukes - Bill Would Remove Prohibition on Smaller Low-yield Warheads
Published on Friday, November 7, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Panel Backs 'Battlefield' Nukes - Bill Would Remove Prohibition on Smaller Low-yield Warheads
by James Sterngold
 

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.

The Bush 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 deterrents.

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.

The 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.

Spratt 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 forces.

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 programs.

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.

In 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.

2003 San Francisco Chronicle

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