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Huge Political Fallout for 'Mini-Nukes'

The weapons would hurt U.S. globally while offering no security benefits.

August 07, 2003|Steve Andreasen | Steve Andreasen was director of defense policy and arms control on the National Security Council from 1993 to 2001.

Forty years ago this week, the foreign ministers of the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union met in Moscow to sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty outlawing nuclear explosions in the air, space and underwater. President John F. Kennedy said the agreement was "an important first step -- a step toward peace -- a step toward reason -- a step away from war." Today, Bush administration officials are winding up a meeting in Omaha held to discuss an important step in a different direction -- whether to proceed with the development of new nuclear weapons that could require additional nuclear tests.

How can we explain the change in direction between Moscow and Omaha?

Proponents of a new, low-yield nuclear weapon argue that the president is "self-deterred" from using existing nuclear weapons because of the high probability of inflicting collateral damage. They reason that a new "mini-nuke" would be more usable because it would inflict less damage to the area outside of the target. And if it is more usable, then it would provide a more credible deterrent against outlaw states and terrorist organizations.

Other proponents say we must develop mini-nukes not as a deterrent but for flexibility in war fighting, and as a weapon of choice for preemptive strikes against chemical or biological weapons buried underground.

These rationales may explain the change in nuclear direction, but they don't justify it.

Consider the question of the credibility of our deterrent. It's hard to imagine Osama bin Laden doing anything differently on 9/11 because the U.S. had a new mini-nuke in its arsenal. The same could have been said for Saddam Hussein or, today, for Kim Jong Il. If our massive nuclear and conventional arsenal does not deter a terrorist or rogue state today, the addition of a few mini-nukes is unlikely to tip the balance.

As to the argument that mini-nukes are needed for attacking deeply buried targets filled with chemical or biological weapons, there are a multitude of technical and political arguments that suggest otherwise.

For example, we do not need a nuclear weapon to do what conventional weapons can do. Conventional munitions have become more accurate and lethal, and thus the range of options for attacking targets with conventional weapons is increasing. Moreover, a nuclear attack against deeply buried targets would inevitably lead to serious radioactive contamination spreading in the atmosphere.

Thus it is debatable that a low-yield mini-nuke (or a higher-yield nuclear "bunker buster") would provide any real military advantage over precision-guided conventional munitions in neutralizing chemical or biological weapons stockpiles.

And would the mini-nuke really expand the choices available to the president? We have seen the practical limitations of the administration's preemption doctrine in the case of North Korea, where the option of a preemptive military strike against Pyongyang's nuclear facilities has apparently been put on the back burner out of fear of sparking a wider war. Would this calculus change if the U.S. were to add mini-nukes to its battle plan? Not likely.

And then there are the political costs. Most nations would strongly oppose any U.S. attempt to develop or test a new nuclear weapon. The administration had its hands full last winter assembling a modest international coalition to wage war against Iraq, and it is now struggling to convince countries to help stabilize and rebuild that nation.

It would be even more difficult to assemble another "coalition of the willing" if that coalition had to endorse a strategy embracing a weapons program that opened up new nuclear experimentation and was tied to the strategy of preemptive strikes.

Additionally, if the U.S. moves now to develop a new nuclear weapon, it will send exactly the wrong signal at a time when international efforts to discourage the spread of nuclear weapons are under severe challenge.

If the world's greatest conventional and nuclear military power decides it cannot defend itself without new nuclear weapons, we will undermine our ability to prevent other nations from developing or enhancing their own nuclear capabilities and we will further deepen the divisions between the U.S. and other responsible countries.

Finally, if the U.S. were to announce a resumption of nuclear testing in order to develop mini-nukes, the resulting uproar at home could make recent debates over Iraq look like a neighborhood block party.

The Omaha conference could set the stage for a major shift in U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Forty years after President Kennedy took the first step out of the shadow of nuclear war, there is no reason for the Bush administration to step in the opposite direction, now or in the future.

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