Relearning to Love the Bomb
by Raffi Khatchadpurian
The Nation magazine, April 1, 2002
In July 16, 1945, not long after the first atomic bomb was
successfully detonated in the desert near Alamogordo in southern
New Mexico, Winston Churchill is said to have exclaimed: "What
was gunpowder? Trivial. What was electricity? Meaningless. This
atomic bomb is the Second Coming in wrath!"
At that time, debate was under way in the United States over
whether to unleash the destructive power of nuclear weapons upon
the Japanese, and Churchill was directing his cautionary remarks
to then-US Secretary of War Henry Stimson. But the decision to
use the bomb came quickly in Washington; the country had just
suffered a devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. As Stimson later
put it, "I felt that to extract a genuine surrender from
the Emperor and his military advisers they must be administered
a tremendous shock which would carry convincing proof of our power
to destroy the Empire."
More than half a century later, it is difficult to imagine
using nuclear arms in the heat of battle, for any reason. Throughout
much of the cold war, they were largely justified as instruments
of strategic deterrence rather than as weapons usable in combat.
Since the end of the cold war new nuclear powers like India and
Pakistan have emerged onto the world stage, but the older ones
have significantly scaled back their arsenals. Moreover, as the
US-led wars in Serbia and Afghanistan have shown, conventional
US military force has become so overwhelrningly powerful that
Pentagon planners no longer "need" atomic explosives
to create the "tremendous shock" required to obliterate
Yet within the US military establishment, nuclear weapons
do not appear to be irrevocably sliding down the path to extinction.
Quite the contrary-over the past several years there has been
a growing push both within and outside government to make nuclear
weapons more "usable," or pertinent, in a world troubled
by terrorism, rogue dictators, crumbling Russian might and ascending
Chinese power. Not surprisingly, this push has brought with it
a shift in the way some members of the defense community are thinking
about nuclear arms and military strategy. The ideas defining atomic
weapons-when to use them, how and why-are in flux.
In many ways, the Pentagon's top-secret nuclear policy review-released
to Congress in January but leaked to major media in March-is the
culmination of this movement. The review states that countries
such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Libya should be added
to nuclear targeting plans. It also advocates new, smaller nuclear
weapons that would be incorporated into conventional war-making
tactics. However, these ideas have long been in the making.
If current policy does not change course, twenty years from
now we could experience the following: Rather than pursue the
path to total nuclear disarmament, Washington will command a new
class of small-scale atomic weapons intended for use on the battlefield.
The cold war arsenal will have been substantially reduced, but
in case unforeseen threats arise, the deactivated warheads will
have gone into storage, rather than been destroyed. Meanwhile,
America's remaining cold war atomic weapons will be targeted not
just at Russia but also at an array of developing countries. The
conceptual firewall currently separating nuclear weapons from
conventional ones will have largely crumbled, and the United States
will have openly abandoned its unwillingness to use nuclear weapons
against nonnuclear threats.
To see this, one need only examine recent government documents
on nuclear policy: the quietly expanding production of components
required to build new atomic bombs; the push to resume nuclear
testing within a year or sooner; and statements made by top-level
Defense and Energy Department officials explaining that our arsenal
will be more "responsive" or "capabilities-based"
to deal with ever more elusive enemies.
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.
One sign of what's being contemplated: the Energy Department's
2003 budget request for studies of a 'robust nuclear earth penetrator.'
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."
Just how far along is the government in building such weapons?
The Energy Department's 2003 budget request calls for further
studies of a "robust nuclear earth penetrator." In February
Gen. John Gordon, an under secretary at the National Nuclear Security
Administration, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that
his division of the DOE had already created work groups to develop
atomic warheads. "The teams will carry out theoretical and
engineering design work on one or more concepts, including options
to modify existing designs or develop new ones," he said.
"In some instances, these activities would proceed beyond
the 'paper' stage and include a combination of component and subassembly
Although the United States is not a signatory to any treaty
preventing it from testing, Washington has imposed a nuclear testing
moratorium on itself that is expected to expire in the next two
years. Leaks from the classified Nuclear Posture Review indicate
that this may be cut to a year or sooner. The government says
testing is required to maintain the safety and reliability of
an aging nuclear arsenal, but countless experts insist that this
is simply not credible. "There is no scientific justification
for testing for the safety of our arsenal," says Joseph Cirincione,
a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace. "The only reason you would need new tests is to verify
new designs, new types of weapons, period."
This development parallels a program under way to build facilities
for manufacturing plutonium pits, used in a warhead's trigger
mechanism. Last July, funding for a "modern pit facility"
was tripled, according to NuclearWatch of New Mexico, a watchdog
group. Yet even the Energy Department has stated that it does
not currently believe the degeneration of plutonium pits in the
existing arsenal "will become a problem in less than 50 years."
Similarly, in late January the Tennessee Valley Authority approved
$3.25 million toward the production of tritium, a gas used in
nuclear weapons to make them lighter and smaller.
Both international and domestic law constrict the development
of new mini-nukes. If the United States were to build a new atomic
bomb, it would offend the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
In 1994 Congress explicitly forbade the Energy Department from
developing or researching the weapons because "low-yield
nuclear weapons blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional
Indeed, the biggest problem with the idea of using new nuclear
weapons may be moral rather than legal. As some scientists have
pointed out, the notion that a small nuclear warhead could burrow
into the earth and destroy a bunker without causing extensive
damage above ground is flawed. Robert Nelson of the Federation
of American Scientists argues that there is no way an atomic bomb
could penetrate the earth deeply enough to contain the explosion,
even if its yield were 1 percent of that of the bomb dropped on
Hiroshima. Such a bomb would create a fireball that would blast
through the earth's surface, carrying a cloud of radioactive dirt
and debris, according to Nelson, who notes that five-kiloton atomic
bombs had to be detonated at the Nevada Test Site at a depth of
650 feet to be fully contained-far deeper than any mini-nuke could
"Nuclear weapons as now designed and employed are essentially
useless because you cannot cross this threshold between conventional
and nuclear without being unequivocal about it: If you use a nuclear
weapon, you're saying, 'We're now in nuclear phase,"' explains
retired Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll. "Whereas these people say,
'Well, this new weapon is so little, and we can apply it so precisely,
and it's for such a specific purpose that nobody can believe that
we're being irresponsible or careless or radical in our use of
such a wonderful little weapon.' But the truth is, the first use
of nuclear explosives in warfare breaches the firewall, as some
people call it, and when we go on beyond that, we're put at the
mercy of the other side, which probably doesn't have such 'useful'
or 'usable' weapons."