Busting out

The Pentagon's new nukes undermine non-proliferation. Is that the point?

| Thu Jun. 17, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

With little fanfare and less notice, the Senate marked up the new Pentagon bill on Tuesday with new funding for research into "bunker busters" and other tactical nuclear weapons. Last year Congress lifted a decade-long ban on the development of "low yield" nuclear weapons, and the project is now well underway. The nukes are still in the research stage at this point, and Congress is still demanding that Bush come back and seek final approval before actually producing the weapons. Nonetheless, it's clear: new nukes are on the way.

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As Mother Jones has noted many times in the past, the development of a new generation of nukes threatens to undermine non-proliferation regimes. But here's a scary thought: What if that's the point?

It's difficult to see any other rationale for the project. Over the past year, scientists have written up countless studies on earth-penetrating nuclear weapons. The conclusions? Low-yield nukes aren't even remotely defensible on scientific grounds. Distressingly, the weapons will likely create far more nuclear fallout than the Pentagon predicts. The whole idea, furthermore, presumes that rogue nations might hoard their weapons of mass destruction in bunkers deep underground. Maybe so. But as Slate's Fred Kaplan, echoing scientists, has pointed out:

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 … nukes aren't needed for this mission.

If the weapons don't work, and if they aren't even necessary, why is the Bush administration--and Congress for that matter--so willing to tear up a ten-year ban on testing new weapons? Why spend the money? Industry interests no doubt play some small role--Senators John Warner (R-VA) and Wayne Allard (R-CO), the main proponents of the new research, both rake in hefty sums from defense industries. That deserves closer scrutiny. Another explanation is that, through research like this, the administration might be intentionally trying to undermine the current international consensus on nuclear non-proliferation.

Back in 2002, the White House released its National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction. The document was startling in its relative inattention to non-proliferation, highlighting instead the idea of "counter-proliferation." According to this new doctrine, the U.S. military should "be prepared to deter and defend against the full range of possible WMD employment scenarios." Prevention gives way to deterrence, through military action if necessary. Writing in The American Prospect, Drake Bennett noted that many top current administration officials--including Paul Wolfowitz, Stephen Cambone, and I. Lewis Libby--have publicly favored "not only updating [our nuclear arsenal] but expanding its role beyond deterrence."

The neo-conservatives at the Pentagon and in the White House have never had much faith in treaties and U.N. missions as a means of thwarting terrorist threats. That goes for nuclear weaponry as well. Since September 11, the administration has continued to lose enthusiasm for multilateral non-proliferation strategies. A Harvard University study reporting on efforts to keep nuclear missiles away from rogue states noted that "less fissile materials were secured in the two years after September 11 than in the two years before." The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has observed that the Energy Department's plan to gather up loose Soviet nuclear material is operating on a disturbingly lackadaisical ten-year schedule. Likewise, Bush has shown little interest in negotiating with North Korea. And, although the administration announced a new non-proliferation strategy in response to news that Pakistan's top scientist had been peddling nuclear secrets, the White House scarcely seemed interested in making sure that further proliferation from Pakistan would cease.

In isolation, these events might be chalked up to simple incompetence. Taken together, they seem to evince a comprehensive strategy to steer away from nonproliferation by "proving" that it doesn't work. The thinking goes like this: If, despite our "best" international efforts, North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, and other rogue states still develop and sell nuclear weapons, then perhaps it's time to move to another, more robust and more force-oriented strategy. What better way to prepare for this new, violent world order, than by developing a new set of nuclear weapons?

At the moment, administration officials are continuing to pay lip-service to international treaties, going so far as to scoff at the potential damage the new nuclear research might have on existing non-proliferation strategies. Linton Brooks, administrator of the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration, told Congress, "There is no reason to believe that [new weapons research] will have any practical impact on the pursuit of nuclear weapons by proliferating states."

No reason? How about Russian President Vladimir Putin's reaction to Bush's tactical nuke project, early last year, when he told lawmakers at the Kremlin, "I can inform you that at present the work to create new types of Russian weapons… is in the tactical implementation stage." Putin wasn't talking about ordering a fresh round of Hummers.

The Bush administration must know this sort of thing will occur. It's hard to believe they are crazy enough to intentionally try to kick off a new global arms race. But what other explanation do we have?

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