Nuclear Checks and Balances

Daryl G. Kimball

Four years ago, Congress called on the president to reassess the military requirements for nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era. Yet, rather than reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons, President George W. Bush launched a costly and counterproductive campaign to research and develop new, more “usable” nuclear weapons and to expand the repertoire of U.S. nuclear attack options.

After narrowly approving funding requests for research on new weapons for the last two years, Congress has finally begun to rein in Bush’s worst nuclear excesses. Last month, congressional appropriators denied the administration’s fiscal year 2005 requests for $9 million to investigate “advanced concepts,” such as new low-yield warheads, and $27 million to enhance the bunker-busting capability of an existing high-yield warhead.

The outcome is a stunning, bipartisan rejection of the administration’s flimsy arguments for new nuclear weapons and new nuclear missions. Opposition came from an array of House and Senate Democrats, as well as from Republicans, including Rep. David Hobson (Ohio), the powerful chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees Energy Department weapons spending.

Using twisted logic worthy of “Dr. Strangelove,” administration officials claim that the United States needs to adapt its existing Cold War nuclear arsenal to deter and defeat new adversaries and to make them available for use in conflicts that could begin as conventional wars. Enhancing the ability of nuclear warheads to penetrate underground and reducing their yields, they say, would make it more plausible that an American president might actually use nuclear weapons in a conflict with a country such as Iran or North Korea. At the same time, the administration claims the new weapons would only “slightly complicate” U.S. nonproliferation efforts.

Congress did not buy it. Hobson and others realized the nonproliferation costs of trying to enhance the credibility of U.S. nuclear threats are high and the benefits illusory. As another leading opponent of the new weapons initiative, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), put it, “If we are to convince other countries to forgo nuclear weapons, we cannot be preparing to build an entire new generation of nuclear weapons here.”

Maintaining and expanding the role of U.S. nuclear weapons not only violates accepted international norms of nonproliferation behavior, but it invites countermoves by former adversaries and would-be nuclear powers. The devastating power and collateral effects of the proposed new weapons also make it clear that their use or threat of use is no more credible, necessary, or justifiable than existing nuclear weapons.

Destroying a deeply buried bunker requires a high-yield blast too large to avoid dispersal of radioactive debris and fallout even if the weapon is designed to penetrate tens of meters before detonation. If new, smaller-yield nuclear weapons are used against suspected chemical or biological weapons sites, the fallout would still be significant, and small errors in intelligence and targeting could disperse rather than destroy deadly chemical or biological material. Improvements in specialized conventional munitions offer significant and more practical capabilities without the risk of crossing the nuclear threshold.

“Other than a Cold War ‘Russia gone bad’ scenario, I don’t believe our nuclear stockpile is useful against our new foes,” Hobson told a National Academy of Sciences gathering in August. “What worries me about the nuclear penetrator is that some idiot might try to use it.”

The Departments of Energy and Defense sought to retain the support of waivering congressional members by claiming the controversial programs were only “research.” Citing the Energy Department’s $485 million, five-year plan for nuclear earth penetrator research and development, Hobson rejected what he called “superficial assurances that the activity is only a study and that advanced concepts is only a skills exercise for weapons designers.”

The 2005 freeze on new weapons research is the result of three years of growing opposition and strong leadership from key lawmakers. It could also be the beginning of the end for the program. If the administration tries to revive these nuclear weapons research programs, it will reignite opposition in Congress and further complicate efforts to strengthen the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at the May 2005 Review Conference.

Rather than continue to pursue its obsession with a new generation of nuclear weapons, the White House should cut its losses and focus the Energy Department on its primary mission: maintaining the reliability of the remaining nuclear stockpile, while dismantling the growing number of excess weapons here and abroad.

Today’s greatest security challenges are shutting down global terrorist networks, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, and reducing the likelihood that they are someday used by other countries or terrorists. The logical response is not to invent new missions and find new targets for U.S. nuclear weapons but to reduce their allure and, so long as they remain, strictly limit the role of nuclear weapons to deterring nuclear attack by other states.