The new American posture

Print edition : January 17, 2003

Penetrator bombs, known as "bunker busters", stored in a bunker at the U.S. Army Ammunition Plant in McAlester, Oklahoma, in November. The plant, built in 1943, is now replenishing its stocks and, at the height of a conflict, can send 400 of 20-foot-long bomb containers to the military every day for a month. -

The United States is all set to embark on a venture to develop new nuclear weapons for the 21st century under the pretext of targeting hardened and deeply buried targets in Thirld World countries that are hostile to it.

THE United States' Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) of January 2002, parts of which were leaked to the media in March, marked a major shift in the its nuclear strategy beyond the Cold War doctrines of deterrence. There is now a discernible move towards making nuclear weapons "usable" in the battleground. That is, the policy now seeks to make the threat to use a nuclear weapon credible. The NPR talks of credible nuclear policies "over the coming decades" that include "new generations of weapon systems". These have been conceived as "low-yield deep earth penetration nuclear weapons", popularly described as ` bunker-busters', and "mini-nukes" (with yields less than 5 kiloton) that proponents believe will cause limited civilian casualties and collateral damage.

A 1994 U.S. legislation prohibits the development of warheads with yields less than 5 kt. However, in November a Congressional Committee, while retaining the 1994 law, authorised research into the feasibility of modifying existing warheads (above 5 kt) into bunker-busters and a funding of $15 million to the weapons laboratories to study modified designs. But given the shift in the overall nuclear policy and Bush's predilection to unilateralism, it may not be long before the 1994 prohibition is repealed to develop "mini-nukes" too. The "defence infrastructure" for that appears to be already being put in place. At a special briefing of the U.S. Department of Defence (DoD) following the NPR, J. D. Crouch, Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Policy, said: "[W]e are trying to look at a number of initiatives. One would be to modify an existing weapon, to give it greater capability against deep and hard targets and deeply buried targets. And we are also looking at non-nuclear ways that we might be able to deal with those problems." In a February letter to President George Bush, 76 members of the House had expressed "deep concern" over "the development of a new generation of low-yield nuclear weapons and the resumption of underground nuclear testing." With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Third World countries hostile to the U.S., variously labelled as "rogue states" and "axes of evil" with imagined scenarios of production facilities of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), buried deep underground or in deep rocky tunnels, are the new targets of Washington's 21st century nuclear policy. Counter-proliferation is the central agenda of this policy for the post-Cold War situation. Of course, these new generation nukes would perhaps become operational only in a decade or so from now. If the currently held out threat of war against Iraq and North Korea is realised, it is unlikely to go nuclear. In all likelihood, the effectiveness of "the non-nuclear ways" that Crouch referred to may be tested for the present (see box). But the NPR indicates that under similar situations in the near future the U.S. will not hesitate to carry out unilateral attacks with the new nukes.

BUSH'S aggressive nuclear policy would also render arms control measures meaningless. Already the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) stands dismantled with the U.S. walking out of it. The development of these weapons would most certainly require testing, which would mean that the present moratorium on testing would be lifted. This is perhaps imminent given NPR assertion that maintaining the moratorium "may not be possible for the indefinite future". The U.S. administration might, therefore, also consider pulling out of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).Although a signatory, the U.S. has not ratified the CTBT but has committed itself to upholding the test ban. Significantly, the U.S. did not attend the CTBT entry-into-force meeting held in early 2002, and has threatened to withhold its contribution to the CTBT secretariat. The move also signals the U.S.' rejection of the commitment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to disarmament, and of the pledge of "total elimination of nuclear arsenals" made by the five declared nuclear weapon states (NWSs) at the NPT Review Conference in 2000.

Bush's statements even before the September 11 events had indicated the emergent nuclear policy change. In his widely commented upon May 1, 2001, address at the National Defence University, Bush said: "Cold War deterrence is no longer enough... Nuclear weapons still have a vital role to play in our security and that of our allies. We can, and will, change the size, the composition, the character of our nuclear forces in a way that reflects the reality that the Cold War is over." In an address on February 13, 2001, at the Norfolk Naval Air Station, Virginia, he said: "Safety is gained in stealth and forces projected on the long arc of precision-guided weapons. The best way to keep peace is to redefine war on our terms... Our goal is to move beyond marginal improvement to harness new technologies that will support a new strategy." The NPR seeks to incorporate these two strategies and the "long arc of precision-guided weapons" extends from the conventional to the nuclear.

The view of weapons laboratories and nuclear strategists in the administration is that the non-nuclear precision weapons will not be able to destroy buried WMD facilities. A deliberate ambiguity in the posture vis-a-vis non-nuclear weapon states (NNWSs) is also apparent. There is also the stated policy that the U.S. will not use nuclear weapons against NNWSs unless they attack the U.S. or its allies in cooperation with an NWS. The current posture, on the other hand, makes it explicit that it will consider using nuclear weapons in response to attack by biological and chemical weapons by any country, whether it is an NWS or an NNWS. This flies in the face of "negative security assurances" given to the NNWSs in the context of the NPT regime. While the NPR itself did not mention pre-emptive action, the U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS), released in September, incorporates a pre-emptive strike policy.

"We will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defence by acting pre-emptively," the NSS states. The NPR calls for a "new triad" comprising nuclear and non-nuclear offensive strike systems, active and passive defences and a revitalised defence infrastructure. It is intended to provide a greater range of strategic options by creating a more flexible structure, incorporating missile defences and blurring the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear forces, "required for the diverse set of potential adversaries and unexpected threats the U.S. may confront in the coming decades". In particular, the NPR recommends the development of "improved earth-penetrating weapons" to destroy hardened and deeply buried targets (HBDTs). The NPR notes that non-nuclear weapons, while robust, may not have enough force to defeat many of the HBDTs.

A report sent to the Congress in October 2001 by the DoD and the Department of Energy (DoE), defines the HBDT as "an adversary's threatening and well-protected assets in structures ranging from hardened surface bunker complexes to deep tunnels." According to the report, there are over 10,000 HBDTs worldwide, many of them possibly containing chemical and biological weapons, and the number is likely to increase significantly in the coming decades. Given the limitations of conventional weapons to destroy these, it has recommended the development of nuclear capabilities in this direction.

The only earth-penetrating weapon in the U.S. arsenal at present is the gravity bomb B61 modification 11, which was introduced in 1997 with a yield range of 0.3 to 340 kt. This consisted of the nuclear explosive from an earlier bomb design put into a hardened steel casing with a new nose cone to provide ground penetration ability. The deployment of this itself had been controversial because of the official policy then to not develop new weapons. The introduction was, however, defended on the grounds that it was merely a modification of an existing "physics package". However, Princeton physicist Robert W. Nelson, writing a report of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) on low-yield weapons in 2001, commented that the earth penetration ability of B61-11 was fairly limited. According to him, tests have shown that it penetrates only 6 metres or so into dry earth when dropped from an altitude of about 12,500 m. The NPR too has noted that B61-11 "cannot survive penetration into many types of terrain in which hardened underground facilities are located." Given these limitations of B61-11 as a bunker-buster, NPR called for improved earth penetrating weapons. It has argued that "many buried targets could be attacked using a weapon with a much lower yield than a surface burst weapon and achieve the same damage with less fallout and reduced collateral effects".It is towards this objective that the NPR has directed the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to "re-establish advanced warhead concepts teams at each of the national laboratories and at its headquarters in Washington." These teams were disbanded in the early 1990s after the nuclear testing moratorium in 1993. The re-established teams will allow the "next generation of weapons designers and engineers" to be trained and will allow the administration to "review potential programmes to provide nuclear capabilities and identify opportunities for further study, including assessments of whether nuclear testing would be required to field such warheads," the NPR says. A joint nuclear planning group of the DoD and the DoE will examine the feasibility of earth-penetrating weapons over the next two to three years. The study, which will examine three options, is estimated to cost about $45 million. The options are: conventional weapons, modification of existing nuclear weapons and development of new nuclear weapons. In the 2003 budget, there is a provision of $15.5 million for the study of a "robust nuclear earth penetrator (RNEP)", a low-yield warhead that would knock out HBDTs without any significant radioactive fallout. Although physicists have argued convincingly that such weapons are not technically feasible, the push for their development by the Pentagon and weapons laboratories seems to have found favour in Bush's new-found nuclear strategy.

A B-83 mockup loaded on the B-2 "stealth bomber'' at the United States Air Force's Whiteman base. A file picture.-GAMMA

Nuclear weapon designers' interest in such ground-penetrating warheads is not new. In a 1991 article (in the wake of the Gulf war) titled "Countering the Well-Armed Tyrant", Thomas Dowler and Joseph Howard II suggested that a 10-tonne ground-penetrating "micro-nuke" 1,000 times smaller than the Hiroshima bomb could be used to destroy HBDTs and facilities containing chemical and biological weapons. They argued that such weapons would not run the risk of escalation into a nuclear war because their targets would not be nuclear armed and, further, such weapons would have a greatly reduced nuclear fallout and collateral damage. In 1993, however, the Congress passed the Furse-Spratt amendment to the 1994 National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) that forbids any research and development that would lead to a new nuclear weapon with a yield of less than 5 kt. In 2001, senators John Warner and Wayne Allard had proposed a small provision to the 2001 Defence Authorisation Bill that would have removed many of the restrictions under the 1994 law. The final 2001 NDAA, however, only required that the DoE and DoD undertake a study of low-yield nuclear weapons and the defeat of HBDTs. It is this report that was submitted to Congress in October 2001.

In 2002, Representative Curt Weldon proposed a provision in the 2003 Defence Authorisation Bill that would have partially repealed the Furse-Spratt legislation and allowed studies on mini-nukes but not deployment. In November, however, the House-Senate Conference Committee of Congress on the final 2003 NDAA concluded against the repeal of the 1994 law. But it has authorised research into the feasibility and cost of developing such RNEPs or bunker-busters by modifying the existing nuclear warheads with up to $15.5 million to be appropriated by weapons laboratories to work on modifying existing nuclear warheads. The 2003 NDAA also calls for the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study assessing the short and long-term effects on civilian populations of RNEP use against the use of conventional weapons or nuclear weapons that explode above ground.

In March, Everett Beckner of the NNSA told the Senate Armed Services Committee that possible modification of two existing warheads, the B61 and the B83, would be studied. According to him, since both weapons had yields "substantially higher" than 5 kt, an RNEP derived from these would not be a "low-yield nuclear weapon" as defined by U.S. law. According to the NNSA head John Gordon, the administration's proposal involves "simply taking an existing design and packaging it in a way that gives you the opportunity to penetrate to depths greater than existing systems".

But how correct are the claims of the DoD and DoE and the weapons laboratories that lower yields would reduce weapon-related fallout and collateral damage? Nelson, in his report, has examined the impact of a potential weapon and the probability of containing the radioactive fallout underground. He points out that shallow nuclear impacts such as with the B61-11 would create a huge crater of radioactive material, creating lethal gamma-radiation field over a large area and intense local radioactivity. The fireball would break through the surface of the earth, carrying into the air large amounts of dirt and debris. According to Nelson, even if an earth-penetrating weapon were somehow able to drill hundreds of feet into the ground and then detonate, the explosion would fill the air with radioactive dust and gas.

He has further argued that the depth of penetration needed, combined with protecting the warhead and accompanying electronics from damage at impact, posed technological obstacles. The weapon, he has shown, would need to be fitted with a rod 10 times the missile's length to sufficiently penetrate earth, concrete and steel. He has also pointed out that impact at too high a velocity would melt the warhead from the heat built up as it drills through the earth. The claim of "reduced collateral damage" too is a myth and "the mission does not appear possible without causing massive radioactive contamination," says Nelson. According to his calculations, the use of an earth-penetrating nuclear weapon in an urban environment such as Baghdad would result in thousands of civilian fatalities.

Despite such evaluations of the proposed RNEPs, and the experience with B61-11, the targeting of HBDTs of Third World countries hostile to the U.S. seem to provide sufficient rationale for the U.S. administration to embark on a venture to develop new nuclear weapons for the 21st century. As one non-governmental organisation, Nuclear Disarmament Initiative, put it, it is a shift from the threat of a Third World war to a threat of a nuclear war in the Third World. As long as it lasts, the 1994 legislation would act as an important barrier to the development of the mini-nukes, the true new generation weapons. But the emerging U.S. nuclear posture is evidence of the administration dismantling all restraints to pursue a nuclear policy that stems from its strident unilateralism.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor