Relearning to Love the Bomb
It's difficult to pinpoint the genesis of this line of thinking within the military community, but one important document is Paul Robinson's 2001 white paper, "Pursuing a New Nuclear Weapons Policy for the 21st Century." In this apologia for atomic weaponry, Robinson, director of Sandia National Laboratories, laments that "far too many people (including many in our own armed forces) were beginning to believe that perhaps nuclear weapons no longer had value." He warns that atomic bombs play an important role in global security and that since they cannot be uninvented, they must be adapted to respond to biological or chemical attacks and targeted at the leaders of rogue states and their arsenals. "I believe that we would desire primarily low-yield weapons with highly accurate delivery systems for deterrence in the non-Russian world," he writes.
Perhaps the best example of this drive to bring nuclear weapons into the ambit of conventional war-fighting is the move to develop so-called mini-nukes, or precision-guided atomic warheads with yields of five kilotons or less--weapons that could generate explosions smaller than the conventional "daisy cutter" bombs used by US forces in Afghanistan. (The nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima had an explosive yield of fifteen kilotons.) Over the past several years, proponents of mini-nukes, who can be found in different parts of government, have defended these weapons with different shades of reasoning, but all appear to agree that the decades-long taboo surrounding the bomb must be reconsidered. "All I'm advocating is public discussion of what the parameters should be as we fight an unconventional war," says Representative Steve Buyer, an eight-year member of the House Armed Services Committee, who called for the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Osama bin Laden's Afghan fortifications late last year.
Destroying hard and buried targets, such as bunkers built beneath mountains or tunnels placed hundreds of feet below ground, is the main justification behind the bid to develop new low-yield, earth-penetrating nuclear weapons. American intelligence estimates cited by people who are worried about these threats say there are currently 10,000 hard and buried targets worldwide, and that number is expected to increase over the next decade. Stephen Younger, head of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which is part of the Defense Department, has argued that some hard and buried targets can be destroyed with nothing less than a nuclear blast. "A 5-kiloton nuclear explosive detonated on a 30-foot-thick missile silo door will vaporize that door, destroying the missile," he wrote in an influential study published in June 2000. "A benefit of lower-yield weapons is that the collateral damage sustained by the near-target area may be reduced, an important factor in attacks near urban areas."
Younger's ideas were echoed in a similar report by the National Institute for Public Policy, a nonprofit defense think tank, which was published last year and which forms the bedrock of the Bush Administration's nuclear policy. A number of that report's authors were brought into government with the Bush Administration, and they have taken influential positions in shaping policy. Last July Adm. Richard Mies, commander in chief of the US Strategic Command, told Congress the NIPP report was a "good blueprint to follow" in drafting future nuclear policy. That same month a government study was convened to explore new ways to destroy hard and buried targets, including the use of mini-nukes.
That government study was sent to Congress last fall. In it, the Defense and Energy Departments explained that they had taken an initial look at how to use nuclear weapons against hard and buried targets, and that they were "investigating potential options and costs" of developing new atomic bombs to deal with these threats. According to the study, "Nuclear weapons have a unique ability to destroy both agent containers and CBW [chemical and biological weapons] agents."
This January the Pentagon delivered to Congress its top-secret Nuclear Posture Review, outlining a revised US nuclear-weapons policy. The review hews closely to the NIPP report and the work of Robinson and Younger. It states that the country's nuclear arsenal will be cut, but many warheads removed from deployment will be kept in storage as a hedge against future threats. It also explains that nuclear weapons will be "integrated with new non-nuclear strategic capabilities," according to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Moreover, it suggests that nonnuclear adversaries could now face nuclear retaliation. According to the posture review, atomic weapons must offer "a range of options to defeat any aggressor."
When the posture review was completed earlier this year, Assistant Defense Secretary J.D. Crouch said in an unclassified briefing that "at this point, there are no recommendations in the report about developing new nuclear weapons." He then added, "Now we are trying to look at a number of initiatives. One would be to modify an existing [nuclear] weapon, to give it greater capability against...hard targets and deeply buried targets." Some observers, though, found this highly troubling, because the government has often used the term "modify" as a fig leaf under which new weapons are designed without appearing to violate international commitments. By 1997, under the banner of "modification," the US military had developed a sort of prototype earth-penetrating low-yield nuclear bomb, the B61-11.
In March, it became clear that Crouch was making just such a semantic distinction. A copy of the classified document was obtained by the Los Angeles Times and later by the New York Times, which indicated that the review "argues that better earth-penetrating nuclear weapons with lower nuclear yields would be useful." It also said that "new earth-penetrating warheads...would be needed to attack targets that are buried deep underground."