War Stories

Low-Yield Nukes

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.)

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.”

At first glance, there’s something to this argument. If the nuclear stockpile somehow deteriorated, it would be nice to have some scientists around who knew how to build some new bombs, especially if other nations still had bombs that worked.

However, the Department of Energy, which controls the nation’s nuclear arsenal, runs a large and active “stockpile stewardship program,” in which scientists continuously monitor and test the components of the weapons. The know-how, the hardware, and the physical capacity to build more bombs and warheads—these things are not going away.

So, a few common-sense questions:

Does deterrence really depend on the refinement of a nation’s nuclear weapons or on its pure and simple possession of nukes, crude or fine? (The fact that Bush hasn’t attacked North Korea suggests an answer to that question.) Will deploying a refined nuclear weapon—say, a low-yield earth-penetrator—deter a foe from even bothering to dig underground bunkers? Or will it spur him to dig deeper or to disguise the bunker better? (The few conventional bunker-busters used in Iraq did their jobs well. The problem was that the bunkers were empty when the bomb struck, if in fact they were bunkers to begin with.) Will deploying such weapons dissuade a foe from building his own nuclear arsenal—or encourage him to develop one as quickly as possible, on the theory that otherwise the United States, newly armed with more usable nuclear weapons, might threaten to lob a few his way?

Finally, is any American president really going to order the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances, for any reason, except possibly where not merely the vital interests but the very survival of the nation is at stake? (And if survival is at stake, the refinement of the weapon used is likely to be a peripheral issue.) If we’re not going to use these mini-nukes, if having them doesn’t enhance deterrence, and if developing them may encourage currently abstaining nations to build nukes of their own—for protection, if not emulation—then what is the point of speeding down this road any farther?