U.S. research into new nuclear weapons designs will not spur other states to do the same nor impede U.S. nonproliferation efforts, the Bush administration asserted in a March 31 report to Congress. Other world officials suggest otherwise.
The Bush administration sought and won a repeal last year of a decade-old legislative ban on research into low-yield nuclear weapons with explosive power equal to or below five kilotons. (See ACT, December 2003.) Although granting the administration’s request, Congress demanded the administration assess by March 1 of this year how the repeal might affect efforts to halt worldwide nuclear proliferation.
Summing up its findings, the administration reported, “[T]here is no reason to believe that repeal has had or will have any practical impact on the pursuit of nuclear weapons by proliferating states, on the comprehensive diplomatic efforts ongoing to address these threats, or on the possible modernization of nuclear weapons by China or Russia.” The Departments of Defense, Energy, and State jointly submitted the report.
This conclusion contrasts sharply with the view of the United Nations top nuclear official, International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei. In a Feb. 12 piece in The New York Times, ElBaradei wrote, “We must abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue weapons of mass destruction yet morally acceptable for others to rely on them for security—and indeed to continue to refine their capacities and postulate plans for their use.”
Top foreign officials from other states, such as Canada and Sweden, have echoed ElBaradei. Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds lamented March 16, “[W]e see a trend towards an increased emphasis on nuclear weapons as part of security strategies and signs that a new generation of nuclear weapons might be in the making. Such pursuits would undermine the credibility of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and could prompt a new arms race.”
In addition to researching new low-yield weapon designs, the Bush administration is exploring possible modifications to existing nuclear weapons to destroy targets buried deep underground better.
Administration officials justify the development of new nuclear weapons on the grounds that they are responding to changes in threats to U.S. national security. They cite the necessity of convincing terrorists and rogue regimes that the United States would use nuclear weapons if need be. They claim that, in the absence of smaller or modified nuclear weapons, U.S. enemies may nurture a dangerous doubt about the willingness of U.S. policymakers to unleash a nuclear attack, fearing large numbers of civilian casualties or international censure. “Nuclear modernization efforts may well strengthen deterrence by altering an adversary’s perception of what the United States is able to do, or might be prepared to do in a crisis,” the report declared.
Yet, development of newer or smaller nuclear weapons would not translate into an increased willingness to actually use them, according to the report.
During an April 6 appearance in Washington, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov deemed it a “dangerous thing” to advance nuclear weapons as a possible tool to thwart terrorists. The Russian newspaper Izvestia quoted Yuri Baluyevskiy, another leading Russian defense official, in an April 9 article as contending, “If the nuclear weapons which were formerly seen only as a political instrument of deterrence become battlefield weapons, that will be not simply scary but super scary.”
To be sure, Russia could be subject to the same criticism. Russia possesses the largest arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons and concluded a nuclear exercise predicated on countering terrorism in February that the Kremlin touted as its largest in 20 years.
Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Feb. 18 that Russia might match U.S. arsenal changes. “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,” Putin said.
Nevertheless, the Bush administration insisted in its report that “we believe there is relatively weak coupling between Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons [research and development] efforts.”
Already anticipating how its new nuclear weapons research will be received at a review conference of nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) states-parties next year, the administration set out to blunt the expected condemnation in its report. “Nothing in the NPT…prohibits the United States from carrying out nuclear weapons exploratory research or, for that matter, from developing and fielding new or modified nuclear warheads,” the report asserted. It further dismissed criticisms of U.S. nuclear policy as misguided because the United States has consistently reduced its nuclear arsenal and “[t]he nuclear arms race has, in fact, been halted.”