WASHINGTON - US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has asked for the restoration of a research program designed to create a new type of nuclear weapons capable of destroying hardened underground targets, a Pentagon official said.
The request came in a letter Rumsfeld sent to then-Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham on January 10, in which he insisted that funds for studying the feasibility of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator be restored.
"The Defense Department does support completion of the penetrator study," Major Paul Swiergosz, a department spokesman, told AFP. "We can't necessarily match Cold War weapons to the new threats. We have to adapt capabilities that we have to meet the threats."
A nuclear explosion over Mururoa atoll. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has asked for restoration of a supersecret research program designed to create a new class of nuclear weapons capable of destroying hardened underground targets. (AFP photo)
A spokesman for the Department of Energy that runs US nuclear weapons research declined to say what the response would be. Abraham was replaced by Samuel Bodman on January 11.
But military experts said they were expecting a new attempt by the administration of President George W. Bush to revive the "bunker buster" nuclear weapons program that was shelved by Congress late last year under growing international and domestic criticism.
Republican Representative David Hobson, who chairs an appropriations subcommittee in the House of Representatives, quietly removed 27.5 million dollars earmarked for the bomb study from a mammoth spending bill that was being rushed through Congress.
The White House apparently made an election-year decision not to hold up the whole budget because of one contentious item, and let it pass.
But now, according to Swiergosz, the Pentagon wants the money back because the bomb could be useful against underground enemy weapons depots and command posts.
"I think we should request funds in FY06 and FY07 (fiscal years 2006 and 2007) to complete the study," Rumsfeld wrote to Abraham, according to published excerpts of the letter, whose accuracy was confirmed by the spokesman. "Our staffs have spoken about funding the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) study to support its completion by April 2007."
Rumsfeld also assured Abraham and his successor, Samuel Bodman, that they could count on his support for "your efforts to revitalize the nuclear weapons infrastructure and to complete the RNEP study."
The program, involving leading US nuclear weapons laboratories such as Los Alamos and Livermore, sought to find the possibility of converting into "bunker busters" two existing warheads - the B61 and B83, according to administration officials.
The B61 is a tactical thermonuclear gravity bomb that can be delivered by strategic as well as tactical aircraft -- from B-52 and B-2 bombers to F-16 fighter jets.
The B83 is designed for precision delivery from very low altitudes, most likely by B-2 stealth bombers, military experts said.
Prior to the program's suspension, scientists were working on finding ways to harden the bombs' shells so they can survive penetration through layers of rock, steel and concrete before detonating, the experts said.
"Bunker busters" are seen by some experts as important tools for waging preventive wars against enemies that are secretly building arsenals of weapons of mass destruction.
According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, at least 10,000 bunkers currently exist in over 70 countries around the world.
More than 1,400 of them are used as strategic storage sites for weapons of mass destruction, concealed launch pads for ballistic missiles as well as leadership or top-echelon command and control posts, the DIA estimates.
However, International Atomic Energy Agency director, Mohamed ElBaradei, warned this week that the "bunker buster" program was sending "the wrong message" and could hinder international non-proliferation efforts.
"You can't tell everyone 'don't touch nuclear weapons' while continuing to build them," ElBaradei said in an interview with The Washington Post newspaper and Newsweek magazine.
Copyright © 2005 Agence France Presse