WASHINGTON — During the Cold War, the purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons was straightforward: to deter an attack on the United States by the other nuclear superpower, the Soviet Union.
But now the most frightening threats to American security come not from nuclear powers, but from terrorists such as Osama bin Laden and rogue states such as Iraq. The Pentagon's proposed new nuclear strategy, outlined in a secret report that came to light last week, is intended to make atomic weapons useful again--by making them threatening to a new set of enemies.
The report, called the Nuclear Posture Review, proposed building a new generation of atomic weapons designed not to destroy the nuclear arsenals of Russia or China but to attack underground command posts and biological weapon facilities.
The overall purpose, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld wrote, is "to provide the president with a range of options to defeat any aggressor."
But the study has provoked vigorous debate among nuclear strategists on several counts.
Should the United States use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear forces, a significant change in policy? Will the new strategy make it more likely that the United States--or any other nuclear power, a group that includes China, India and Pakistan--would use atomic weapons in a crisis? And do we even know that nuclear weapons would successfully deter terrorists or tyrants?
"We thought we could deter the Soviet Union, because the Soviets had a lot of people and other assets to protect," said Hans Binnendijk, a nuclear weapon expert at the Pentagon's National Defense University. "But we're not sure that theology works anymore. . . . Rogue states and non-state actors [such as terrorists] have less to lose."
Bush administration officials acknowledge that it will be difficult to deter attacks by rogue states or terrorists. But they said the report's emphasis on new kinds of nuclear weapons is intended to make that kind of deterrence possible--not to make a nuclear war easier to start.
"We all want to make the use of weapons of mass destruction less likely," National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said in a television interview. "The way that you do that is to send a very strong signal to anyone who might try to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States that [they] would be met with a devastating response."
But liberal critics argue that the administration's new course is hazardous too.
"This is a very dangerous policy," said Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The test is: How would we feel if other countries adopted the same policy? I'm not talking about rogue states. What if India developed nuclear weapons to go after terrorists in the Himalayas? Would we feel safer then?"
Administration officials said the new policy, which is still evolving, wasn't designed principally to deal with terrorists but rather with the threat of biological weapons, especially in the hands of a regime such as Saddam Hussein's in Iraq.
A Counter to Threat of Biological Warfare
If a hostile regime attacked the United States with a virulent biological agent such as smallpox, the casualty figures could resemble those from a nuclear exchange, one official said.
"Because the facts of biological weapons are so enormous, we have to do all we can to deter their use," a senior official said. "One of the ways you deter is to make it clear you're not ruling any options off the table."
Thus, in the administration's view, building new nuclear weapons designed for use against smaller countries doesn't make their use any more likely. Instead, it should make their use less likely by deterring attacks against the United States.
The same logic is behind the Pentagon's interest in building new "Earth-penetrating weapons" with nuclear warheads to destroy underground bunkers, such as those Bin Laden used in Afghanistan.
"If we were in a conventional war with a country that used biological weapons against our soldiers or our homeland, I can envision a president retaliating by using these weapons against their leaders," Binnendijk said. "And if that becomes a credible threat--if their leaders know it's there--then it also becomes a deterrent."
But critics don't buy that argument.
"The administration has . . . eliminated the line between nuclear weapons and chemical and biological weapons," Cirincione said. "They talk about 'weapons of mass destruction' as if mustard gas were the equivalent of a nuclear weapon that could destroy a city. It just isn't true.
"The United States used to tell countries that if they did not acquire nuclear weapons, we would not attack them with our nuclear weapons. This administration has abandoned that policy. . . . Now there's no reason for other countries to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons."
U.S. military strategists considered using nuclear weapons several times in the last half century but always shied away.