by William J. Broad / The New York Times –
(August 3, 2003) — This week, ten minutes by car south of Omaha, Neb., the United States Strategic Command is holding a little-advertised meeting at which the Bush administration is to solidify its plans for acquiring a new generation of nuclear arms. Topping the wish list are weapons meant to penetrate deep into the earth to destroy enemy bunkers. The Pentagon believes that more than 70 nations, big and small, now have some 1,400 underground command posts and sites for ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
Determined to fight fire with fire, the Defense Department wants bomb makers to develop a class of relatively small nuclear arms — ranging from a fraction the size of the Hiroshima bomb to several times as large — that could pierce rock and reinforced concrete and turn strongholds into radioactive dust.
“With an effective earth penetrator, many buried targets could be attacked,” the administration said in its Nuclear Posture Review, which it sent to Congress last year.
Welcome to the second nuclear age and the Bush administration’s quiet responses to the age’s perceived dangers.
While initiatives like pre-emptive war have gotten most of the headlines (understandably, given the invasion of Iraq and its shaky aftermath), the administration is hard at work on other ways to counteract the spread of weapons like nuclear arms. Federal and private experts agree that with the notable exception of North Korea, diplomacy and arms control, for now, have taken a back seat to muscle flexing.
For instance, as part of its missile defense program, on which nearly $8 billion is being spent this year, the administration is erecting a rudimentary system of ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California. By late next year, 10 interceptors are supposed to be ready to zap any warheads that North Korea might lob at the United States. Whether the system would work as advertised is open to doubt. But, then, so is whether North Korea could — or would — ever directly attack the United States.
Skeptics are more likely to think that North Korea has nuclear blackmail in mind, and that what the White House really is doing is an election-year bit of showing its determination, even as it moves toward negotiating with Pyongyang. Late last week, there were even signs that the North Koreans were beginning to consider a principal American demand — that they accede to talks not with the United States alone, but including other powers like China, Russia and Japan.
Still, while critics may berate the administration’s plans and responses, the long-term dangers are considered real. Most alarming are the declared effort by North Korea to build a nuclear arsenal and a presumed effort by Iran. Experts talk of wide repercussions — of an atomic Iran inspiring nuclear ambitions in other Middle Eastern countries, and of North Korea prompting rapid proliferation in the Far East.
Japan is considered a likely flash point, despite its historic disdain for things nuclear after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nisohachi Hyodo, once seen as part of the lunatic fringe for promoting a plan by which Japan would quickly acquire nuclear arms, now has his own radio program on a major Tokyo station and is a popular speaker on college campuses.
And if Japan went nuclear, experts say, China might feel compelled to expand its own arsenal.
Paul Bracken, a Yale political scientist who described the second nuclear age in “Fire in the East” (HarperCollins, 1999), argued that the danger lies not just in the spread of nuclear arms but in the culture of the second age. He said most of the new powers are poor, unlike their atomic predecessors. Thus, India, Pakistan and North Korea are cannibalizing their conventional forces to finance their atomic and missile ambitions. In a crisis, he said, the military repercussions of that trend could erode the traditional restraints on nuclear arms. Pakistan, he said, “will be forced to use them earlier.”
Perhaps least-known of the administration’s responses to the second age is its effort to fight arms of mass destruction with arms of mass destruction. Advocates say that relatively small nuclear weapons that burrowed deep into the ground to destroy enemy bunkers would cause reduced collateral damage — that is, less accidental destruction beyond the intended target.
“These kinds of capabilities could contribute to our ability to prevent attacks by deterring them,” said Keith B. Payne, who from April 2002 to this May argued for the new arms as deputy assistant secretary of defense for forces policy. “If an opponent thinks he has a sanctuary, he could be emboldened to aggression.”
Dr. Payne, who plans to be at the Omaha meeting, is now president of the National Institute for Public Policy, a Washington research group. He added that the new arms might dissuade an enemy from ever building deep bunkers. “It’s not worth the investment,” he said.
Critics hate the proposed arms, fearing that their relative smallness will breech the firewall between conventional and nuclear war and pose a new threat to world security. They also question whether radioactive fallout can be contained and denounce the project’s overall secrecy.
“We worked hard to get civilian control over nuclear arms,” said Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a private organization in Albuquerque that monitors arms labs. “Even though nuclear weapons are inimical to the democratic spirit, the idea of these being made by a small minority is especially dangerous.”
Dr. Payne challenged the idea that small weapons would lower the bar for nuclear war, saying America had deployed very small atomic arms in the past. “There’s no evidence I’ve seen,” he said, “that these made any U.S. president anything other than very reluctant to think about the use of nuclear weapons.”
If the arms are ever built, critics say, the biggest hurdle to bunker busting may be targeting. Atomic intelligence is notoriously crude, as the failed weapons hunt in Iraq suggests. Recently, America’s spies have also had trouble tracking nuclear arms production in Iran and in North Korea, which has a maze of secret sites and buried bunkers.
Congress, too, is uneasy about the new weapons, which are still in the research stage. Last month, a House appropriations subcommittee cut back on the administration’s 2004 budget request for the arms, citing organizational disarray among the nation’s bomb makers and calling “pursuit of a broad range of new initiatives premature.”
Robert S. Norris of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private group in Washington that monitors nuclear trends, said the rebuff from the Republican-led House was surprising. “But they may buy it,” he added, “if the administration comes up with a clearer plan.”
That tops the agenda this Wednesday and Thursday at Offutt Air Force Base south of Omaha. Air Force Maj. Michael Shavers, a Pentagon spokesman, said the meeting will involve some 150 people from weapons labs, the Defense and State Departments, the Energy Department, its National Nuclear Security Administration and the White House.
The United States Strategic Command, the host, controls the nation’s deployed nuclear arms and writes the war plans for their use.
Eager to shed light on the secretive meeting, peace advocates organized a descent on Omaha this weekend to protest the new arms with educational workshops, a rally, a commemoration of the Japanese bombings, a peace concert and a vigil.
Dr. Bracken, the Yale political scientist, said the administration has a historic opportunity, of the Nixon-in-China variety, to pioneer a new kind of arms control that actually lowers the risk of war.
For instance, he said, the United States could renounce the first use of nuclear arms. He said that step would help counteract the current downward spiral toward a lower nuclear threshold. “In the cold war you needed to retain that,” he said of the threat to use nuclear arms first. “But today, with more players in the game, there’s a lot to be gained by giving it up.”
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