More than a decade has passed since the end of the Cold War and President George H. W. Bush’s 1992 decision to end the production of new nuclear weapons. Today, U.S. military might is unrivaled. By far, its greatest security challenge is stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and reducing the likelihood that they are someday used.
Yet, as the current Bush administration rightly calls on others to forswear nuclear weapons, it continues to pursue a costly and counterproductive campaign to research and develop new, more “usable” nuclear weapons. It also wants to significantly expand U.S. capabilities to build nuclear warheads. These moves run counter to accepted international norms of nonproliferation behavior and trends in military strategy that de-emphasize nuclear weapons.
The administration’s fiscal year 2005 budget proposes $27 million for ongoing research to modify existing types of high-yield nuclear weapons to destroy deeply buried and hardened targets (the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator). It seeks another $9 million for unspecified research on “advanced” concepts, including new types of low-yield nuclear bombs.
The rationale for the new weapons is based on flawed assumptions and ignores physics. According to a March report from the Departments of State, Energy, and Defense to Congress on the subject, the United States’ concern for minimizing collateral damage in war diminishes the credibility of its capability and will to respond to “aggression” with nuclear weapons. By enhancing earth-penetrating capabilities and reducing yields, the argument goes, adversaries may believe than an American president might actually be willing to use nuclear weapons to take out leadership and weapons targets.
However, the notion that nuclear weapons can be developed to destroy targets with little collateral damage is highly misleading and dangerous. To contain the fallout of a relatively small, five-kiloton nuclear bomb, it would have to be detonated about 350 feet underground—nearly 10 times the depth that existing materials and force capabilities allow. Even if smaller weapons were used against suspected chemical or biological weapons sites, errors in intelligence and targeting could disperse rather than destroy deadly material.
The proposed Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator is far larger, with a yield likely more than 100 kilotons. A 1962 nuclear test blast of the same size, detonated 635 feet below the surface, ejected 12 million tons of earth and formed a crater 320 feet deep and 1,280 feet wide.
Nuclear weapons should not be seen as simply another weapon in the vast U.S. arsenal. So long as nuclear weapons exist, their role should be limited to deterring the use of nuclear weapons by others—a mission that hardly requires a new generation of weapons.
Last year, in an effort to win support from wavering members of Congress, the administration claimed that it was only seeking money and authority to research new and modified weapons. Congress was persuaded, but decided that further work would require its explicit authorization. Assurances aside, the administration’s intention to go further is now clear. In February, the Energy Department’s five-year budget outlined a plan for further research and, if Congress allows, development of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator at a cost exceeding $485 million.
As a part of its multibillion-dollar plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, the administration also wants a “Modern Pit Facility” to remanufacture (and possibly produce new) plutonium cores for warheads. It could cost up to $4 billion to build and $200-300 million a year to operate. Plans call for annual production levels of 125-450 plutonium pits. However, if the United States stays on track to reduce its nuclear stockpile to 3,000 warheads or less, such an enormous production capacity is unnecessary.
Although the administration claims new weapons and production capabilities are needed to reinforce the believability of U.S. nuclear threats and its ability to respond to threats, it claims this will only “slightly complicate” nonproliferation efforts. The reality is that these projects invite similar activity from former adversaries and proliferators.
Referring to the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Feb. 18, “As other countries increase the number and quality of their arms and military potential, then Russia will also need to ensure it has new-generation arms and technology.” We can expect that hard-liners in Pyongyang, Tehran, Islamabad, and New Delhi will also use new U.S. nuclear weapons work as a cynical excuse to develop or improve their own nuclear strike capabilities.
In order to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, it is vital that Congress and the president exercise greater leadership in diminishing the allure of nuclear weapons and the myth of their utility. They can start by curbing their own nuclear weapons excesses.