In a move likely to spark congressional debate, the Bush administration is seeking the repeal of a decade-long ban on research and development of nuclear weapons with a yield of five kilotons or less, according to fiscal year 2004 Department of Defense budget materials presented to Congress March 4.
The 1993 Spratt-Furse legislation, sponsored by Representative John Spratt (D-SC) and former Representative Elizabeth Furse (D-OR), prohibits studies on low-yield nuclear weapons at even the research level. In its appeal, the Pentagon claims that the law “has negatively affected U.S. government efforts to support the national strategy to counter [weapons of mass destruction (WMD)].” Bush’s strategy, released in December 2002, calls for a “robust strike capability” in the U.S. arsenal to destroy underground bunkers or as part of a plan “to respond with overwhelming force—including through resort to all our options—to the use of WMD.” (See ACT, January/February 2003.) Rescinding the ban would permit “exploration of weapons concepts that could offer greater capabilities for precision, earth penetration,…defeat of chemical and biological agents, and reduced collateral damage,” according to the defense request.
Everet Beckner, deputy administrator of defense programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration, testified at a March 6 House Armed Services Committee hearing that it is not necessary to repeal the legislation this year “in order for us to conduct the program that we have outlined in fiscal year ’04.” Beckner later explained that the law has prevented the “natural extension of our work” stemming from high-yield nuclear weapons research and asserted, “In later years, we will need that repeal…I think it is the prudent thing…for that legislation to be repealed.” He also reminded the committee that Congress would have to approve future development and deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons beyond the design phase.
Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) argued that the request gives the impression of “talking out of both sides of our mouths as we’re attempting to prevent other people from securing nuclear weapons.” Calling it “an ideology in search of a justification,” Tauscher stressed that the law has not prevented the United States from maintaining its national security with its current nuclear weapons research and capabilities.
The prohibition on research into low-yield nuclear weapons has been the subject of debate in Congress for the last three years. The repeal faces a stiff battle in the evenly divided Senate, although it is likely to gather support in the Republican-controlled House.