Nuclear Experts Blast Idea of Arming Missile Interceptors With Nuclear Warheads

For Immediate Release: April 17, 2002

Contacts: Daryl Kimball, 202-463-8270 x 107 or Wade Boese, 202-463-8270 x 104

(Washington, D.C.): A senior Pentagon advisory body tasked with exploring various missile defense options will consider the possibility of arming future missile interceptors with nuclear warheads, according to an article appearing last week in The Washington Post. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who shutdown the sole U.S. nuclear-armed defense in 1976 when he served under President Gerald Ford, has reportedly urged the Pentagon's Defense Science Board to revisit the concept.

Independent arms control and nuclear weapons experts denounced the possibility, warning that such a defense would do much more harm than good to U.S. commercial, diplomatic, and military interests.

"Arming missile defense interceptors with nuclear warheads will almost certainly create more problems than it will solve," said Steve Fetter, a physicist at the University of Maryland who served as special assistant to the assistant secretary of defense for international security policy during the first Clinton administration.

One problem Fetter noted is that employing nuclear-armed interceptors would actually impair the U.S. ability to defend against missile attacks. "High-altitude nuclear explosions would blind the radars and infrared sensors that track incoming warheads," he stated.

Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky, a physicist and director emeritus at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, agreed with Fetter about the technical problems of using nuclear-armed interceptors, observing that nuclear explosions in space would "blackout communications on Earth within line of sight and produce long-lasting lethal effects on satellites."

Prior to entry into force of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits nuclear testing in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water, U.S. nuclear testing in space disrupted U.S. civilian radio and television signals and crippled some U.S. reconnaissance and communications satellites. Panofsky pointed out that a late 1950s series of small nuclear test explosions in space "generated interference with radio astronomy for a decade."

"Designing and deploying nuclear-armed interceptors would require new warheads to be tested, which would contradict the Bush administration's claim of supporting the U.S. nuclear test moratorium that has been in effect since 1992," said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. U.S. pursuit of nuclear-armed interceptors would most likely require testing that would violate the Limited Test Ban Treaty as well.

John Rhinelander, who served as the legal adviser on the U.S. SALT I delegation, cautioned that a Bush decision to develop nuclear-armed interceptors would "raise hackles around the world and be interpreted by some nations, most notably China, as further evidence of U.S. intentions to dominate space."

The Pentagon's exploration of nuclear-armed interceptors is also "an implicit admission by the Pentagon that it's concerned about whether current U.S. missile defense programs based on hit-to-kill technology can work effectively, particularly against incoming warheads with decoys and countermeasures," declared Rhinelander.

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