US proliferation and bunker busters
By Katrin Dauenhauer
WASHINGTON - The Strategic Command (Stratcom) meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, this week, behind closed doors, will involve some 150 people from weapons laboratories, the US Energy, Defense and State departments, and the White House. The weapons labs of the Pentagon and the Department of Energy have already proposed developing low-yield nuclear earth-penetrating weapons, also referred to as nuclear bunker busters.
Since President George W Bush last year announced plans to deploy a limited missile defense system at several sites in the US, counter-proliferation has moved center-stage.
Under current administration plans, new strategic nuclear forces will remain in the US arsenal until at least 2070, the 100th anniversary of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, under which the United States and other nuclear-weapon states promised to disarm.
"In my view, proposals for new nuclear weapons provide no military value for the United States and it would result in enormous political, diplomatic and proliferation costs," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based non-governmental research organization.
"To pursue the development of new types of nuclear weapons would make the task to ban the spread of nuclear weapons even more difficult," he said. "There is a 'do as I say, not as I do' philosophy implied. In order to develop and produce them, testing would be required that by itself would trigger a global reaction cycle that would harm international security. China might resume testing, or Russia."
Meanwhile, a 112-page report by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), an advocacy group based in Washington, states, "The 2002 National Security Strategy is radical in its prescription for a preventive or preemptive use of force in halting NBC [nuclear, biological, chemical] weapons proliferation."
That strategy to fight weapons of mass destruction (WMD) "is a dramatic extension of the policy of counter proliferation, and gives a far greater role than in the past to nuclear weapons within that strategy", continues the report, "What Wrongs Our Arms May Do", presented at a conference on Tuesday.
Critics also oppose bunker busters, fearing that their relative smallness will blur the line between conventional and nuclear war, posing a new threat to world security.
They also question whether radioactive fallout can actually be contained. "Constraints of physics stop bunker busters from being effective, as there are limits to how far the bomb can penetrate. In order to hit the deepest bunker - meaning 20-30 feet [six to nine meters] - it has to be a large bomb to send shock waves to penetrate down," said Martin Butcher, director of security programs at PSR and author of the report. "However, this will lead the fireball ... to disperse and radiate dust particles up into the atmosphere, creating a dirty bomb - the most dangerous weapon there is," he said. "These questions just weren't addressed by those who are in charge of the development of these weapons," added Butcher.
In the 2003 federal budget, Bush requested US$15.5 million for research on bunker busters. The administration is spending almost $8 billion on missile defense this year, which will include equipping a California air force base with interceptor missiles.
Washington's missile-defense plans are also intricately linked to its preemptive-war policies aimed at countering proliferation of WMD, say critics.
While the administration argues that the missile-defense system will increase protection against a missile attack, experts question that assumption. "Missile defense will encourage the United States to pursue preemptive attacks, possibly with tactical nuclear weapons," said Martha Clar, author of another PSR report, "A False Sense of Security: The Role of Missile Defenses in Counter-Proliferation Doctrine", at a conference on Tuesday. "Missile-defense deployment will actually encourage proliferation as rogue states attempt to develop the number of weapons necessary to overwhelm a US missile defense," she added.
If the United States resumed new nuclear testing, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would be severely harmed, critics charge. Washington signed the treaty in 1996, but the Senate denied its ratification in 1999. Still, the United States' current status as a signatory places considerable political constraint on future testing, experts say.
"If the United States started testing again, it would destroy the treaty, which has been the goal of American administrations for 40 years. To throw this away would be reckless," said Butcher.
Coinciding with the Stratcom meeting are countrywide commemorations of the August 1945 US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which 215,000 people were incinerated instantly or died from injuries that year.
"It's actually a tragic thing that in the week when people across the world remember the two uses of nuclear weapons in war in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that this administration should get together hundreds of its top officials and have them examine how to develop new nuclear weapons and test new nuclear weapons and maintain America's nuclear arsenal for the rest of the century," said Butcher.
(Inter Press Service)