Why spend money on useless weapons?
A little-noted clause of the Fiscal Year 2004 defense bill, which both houses of Congress passed with barely a shrug last week, puts the United States back in the business—after a decadelong moratorium—of developing, testing, and eventually building a new generation of exotic nuclear weapons.
In its budget proposal earlier this year, the Bush administration asked for four things along these lines:
1) The repeal of a 1992 law banning the research and development of "low-yield" nuclear weapons (i.e., nukes with an explosive power of less than 5 kilotons);
2) $15 million for work on an earth-penetrating nuclear weapon (popularly known as a "bunker-buster");
3) $6 million for an "Advanced Concepts Initiative," in which the national weapons labs would once again explore special-effects nukes—for instance, nuclear weapons that, like the long-abandoned "neutron bomb," would enhance certain types of radiation; and
4) $25 million to gear up the weapons labs to the point where they could resume underground nuclear tests within 18 months after a presidential order to do so. (The United States unilaterally stopped nuclear testing in 1992, on orders of the first President Bush, then formalized the cessation in 1995 by signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.)
The House and Senate armed services committees, meeting this month in conference, approved all four of Bush's requests, with one caveat—that the president would have to come back for additional approval before actually producing low-yield nuclear weapons, though everyone concerned knows there's a fine line between "development" and "production."
The upshot is that, just as the Bush administration is jawboning Iran and North Korea to halt their nuclear-weapons programs (and lobbying European leaders to join in on the pressure), it is also—despite possessing 7,650 nuclear warheads and bombs already—moving to build more.
Bush officials argue that the United States needs different types of nuclear weapons from the ones we stockpiled through the Cold War. Large warheads mounted on intercontinental missiles, powerful enough to blow up Soviet ICBM silos or wipe out massive industrial complexes, are no longer of much utility. But small warheads, dropped with precision and able to burrow into the earth and destroy underground command bunkers or WMD-storage sites—that's a more plausible requirement for the 21st century.
It is worth going back to the bill imposing the mini-nuke ban, which Congress passed in December 1992. "Very low-yield nuclear weapons," its report stated, "threaten to blur the distinction between conventional and nuclear conflicts, and could thus increase the chances of nuclear weapons-use by another nation." They could also "undermine U.S. efforts to discourage nuclear weapons development by other nations." Finally, "the utility of very low-yield nuclear weapons is questionable, given the increasing effectiveness and availability of precision-guided munitions." (For a detailed chronicle of this legislation and the subsequent debate, including Bush's latest proposal, click here.)
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.