Why spend money on useless weapons?

Military analysis.
Nov. 21 2003 4:51 PM

Low-Yield Nukes

Why spend money on useless weapons?

(Continued from Page 1)

This statement is as valid today as it was back then—more so, given that precision-guided munitions, or "smart bombs," are now vastly more accurate and less costly.

The 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty, which commits its signatories to refrain from developing nuclear weapons, is not just a prohibition but a pact. Article 6 states that, in exchange for this restraint, the nations that already have nuclear weapons shall "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to … nuclear disarmament." In 1995, as an inducement for the signatories—who now number 186—to extend the treaty indefinitely, the U.S. and other nuclear-weapons states signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.


Few political leaders ever took Article 6 literally (its language—"relating to"—is purposefully vague). But the '95 extension was a serious matter, and it was accomplished only because the nuclear powers, in effect, proclaimed that they no longer viewed nuclear weapons as legitimate tools of warfare. The development of mini-nukes—nuclear weapons designed to produce relatively small explosions, precisely in order to make them more usable—reverses that stance; it implies an intention to restore their legitimacy. And if Bush or any other president says they're legitimate for us, it won't be long before other nations' leaders say they're legitimate for them.

None of these cautionary points would matter much if a good case could be made that mini-nukes or earth-penetrating nukes or renewed nuclear tests were vital for national security. (Most international treaties contain escape clauses if vital national interests are at stake.)

In its budget statement earlier this year, the Bush administration stated that the 10-year-old ban on low-yield nuclear weapons "has negatively affected United States Government efforts to support the national strategy countering weapons of mass destruction and undercuts efforts that could strengthen our ability to deter, or respond to, new or emerging threats."

What is this "national strategy" to counter weapons of mass destruction? It's the Bush administration's "Nuclear Policy Review" of December 2001, which was classified top secret but subsequently leaked. Among other things, the review advocated the development of low-yield, earth-penetrating nuclear weapons. So, yes, the ban does impede that proposal's fulfillment. But saying so is a tautology. There was nothing holy about the Nuclear Policy Review; it was the daydream of a small elite in the Pentagon and National Security Council, not the articulation of a consensus.

But what about the second, more substantive point—that the ban undercuts "our ability to deter, or respond to, new or emerging threats"? A Department of Energy report of July 2001 elaborated: "Potential adversaries," it argued, were increasingly hiding weapons and missiles in "networks of hard and deeply buried facilities." Thus, "If the United States does not have the means to destroy these facilities and the threatening assets they protect, adversaries may perceive that they have a sanctuary from which to coerce or attack the United States, its allies, or its coalition partners."

True, only a nuclear warhead has the explosive power to destroy a site buried deeper than, say, 100 feet. But, for all practical purposes, an attack would be successful if it merely disabled such a target—buried it under a mountain of rubble, covered its air vents, closed off its entrances; in short, made the site unusable as a "sanctuary" and put its "threatening assets" out of action. As the 1992 congressional report put it, given the growing accuracy of smart bombs, nukes aren't needed for this mission.

In fact, two non-nuclear smart bombs—the GBU-24, a 2,000-pound laser-guided weapon, and the BLU-109 JDAM, a 2,000-pound satellite-guided bomb—were recently modified to dig into the earth before exploding. A U.S. Navy program called Vulcan Fire (later changed to the less provocative-sounding HTI-J-1000) involves filling these earth-penetrators with incendiary explosives that would burn up whatever biological and chemical agents might be stored in an underground WMD site.

Another argument for low-yield earth-penetrating nukes—that they would minimize the radioactive fallout and therefore kill fewer people in the target-country—is also a bit misleading. Under certain circumstances, underground nuclear explosions produce slightly more fallout than groundburst explosions. (For more on this point, click here.)

In its budget proposal, the Bush administration advanced one more rationale for a nuclear revival. "A revitalized nuclear weapons advanced concepts effort is essential," the document stated, "to: (1) train the next generation of nuclear weapons scientists and engineers; and (2) restore a nuclear weapons enterprise able to respond rapidly and decisively to changes in the international security environment or unforeseen technical problems in the stockpile."

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