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New Nukes? No Way

August 17, 2003|William M. Arkin | William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail: warkin@

SOUTH POMFRET, Vt. — Earlier this month, more than 150 nuclear scientists, war planners and policymakers met behind closed doors at Strategic Command in Omaha to discuss the U.S. nuclear posture. Strategic-arms reductions were debated. The health of the existing nuclear stockpile was discussed. And the possibility was raised of creating a new generation of nuclear weapons suitable for combat against terrorists or rogue states possessing weapons of mass destruction.

American proponents of "mini-nukes" argue that the country needs a new weapon that can attack facilities deep underground or burn up bioweapons with less harm to civilians. They say that a new generation of limited-use nuclear weapons could be an important deterrent in dealing with rogue states, that opponents would be less likely to build underground facilities or stockpile bioweapons if they knew the U.S. had a nuclear weapon it would be willing to use.

The Bush administration is on the record supporting the concept of new, more usable nuclear weapons. But the idea is both unnecessary and dangerous.

The long-term consequence of developing new nuclear weapons might well be to push Iran, North Korea and other states to work harder and faster in developing and manufacturing their own nukes. Moreover, as we witnessed in March during the "shock and awe" phase of the Iraq war, the country's latest-generation bombs and other "smart weapons" seemed more than up to the tasks at hand. We don't need to further alienate the rest of the world by rejoining the nuclear arms race.

This is not the first time that bomb makers have proposed more specialized and usable weapons of mass destruction.

On numerous occasions in the last 30 years, nuclear weapons advocates have pushed their point of view with sympathetic administrations or when it seemed possible to turn world events to their advantage. Early in the Reagan administration, the nuclear faithful attempted to revive interest in the neutron bomb, first proposed during the Carter administration as a way of providing "enhanced radiation" with reduced blast that could be used to kill Soviet troops if necessary without destroying European cities.

During the administration of George H.W. Bush, the keepers of the nuclear flame scrambled to formulate a new rationale for developing a next generation of nukes absent the threat of the Soviet Union. A Strategic Deterrence Study Group organized by the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff predicted that "more nuclear weapons states are likely to emerge" and warned of American combat with a nuclear-armed nation such as Iraq. "We are not comfortable that we can count on deterrence to deal with many lethal Third World threats," the group stated. It proposed that the U.S. should "retain an option to leave ambiguous whether it would employ nuclear weapons" in retaliation against a variety of nonnuclear provocations.

But despite near-constant urging from the nuclear constituency for at least the last 20 years, no new tailored nuclear weapons have been produced. All that could change now. Or not.

It certainly looks like the U.S. is closer than it has ever been to building a smaller, more usable nuke. The administration's 2002 Nuclear Posture Review found a new rationale for using nuclear weapons in the unstable world revealed by Sept. 11. And the nation's fears of terrorism and of an increasingly hostile nuclear-armed North Korea may make such an extreme step more politically palatable.

But there is one powerful force that could keep a new nuclear genie in its bottle: the uniformed military. Men and women in uniform have, from the beginning, been the truest skeptics and the most important power passively opposing neutron bombs and mini-nukes.

After the 1991 Gulf War, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Carl E. Vuono wrote of the "preeminence of conventional forces" despite Iraq's chemical weapons and its nascent nuclear potential. "It was America's conventional forces, not its nuclear arsenal, that defined President Bush's response to the crisis and ultimately decided its outcome." Today, the conventional military (which is by far the dominant force in the American military) not only believes that it has the tools to deal with any threat; it also recognizes the long-term benefit of not fanning the flames of proliferation. Senior officers are privately shaking their heads about how, while they are on the front lines winning the war on terrorism, the rest of the government does little to deal with the roots of the problem. And many of them see a renewed nuclear focus as likely to aggravate the situation.

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