Nukes Are Back!

The Bush administration plans for the next (little) nuclear wars

Nukes Are Back!
Illustration By Jason Stout

1830 hours. All are in uniform: the military brass, their crew cuts periscoping above their dress whites or blues or greens; the retired military brass turned defense contractors, in dark suits with American-flag lapel pins, pivoting around the three- and four-star admirals and generals like so many schools of fish; the astronaut in his royal-blue NASA jumpsuit; Miss Nebraska, who teeters winningly, even with aplomb, between high heels and a silver tiara. Several hundred conferees are mingling and mixing over cocktails and hors d'oeuvres on the ground floor of the Strategic Air & Space Museum, a monument to military aviation on the Nebraska prairie, conveniently located (if you're a cornfield) between Omaha and Lincoln. Across from the two- and three-deep bar, tucked near the escalator well, a trio hangs jazz wallpaper. Over at a corner cocktail table, the wholesome (think young Kevin Costner), teetotaling Nebraskanaut autographs 8-by-10 glossies. "Aim High!" he exhorts.

Welcome to Strategic Space 2003, a three-day Strangelove-in devoted -- deeply, hopelessly devoted -- to touting the latest and greatest innovations in space warfare. We're in Omaha, a well-scrubbed town on the west bank of the Missouri River, the fabled Heartland of America. Agribusiness remains front-page news, particularly during the ongoing drought, but the biggest cash crop is not corn or beef or soybeans; it's the military. The largest employer is Offutt Air Force Base, 10 miles south of town. Deep within Offutt, in 14,000 square feet of reinforced steel and concrete, is the nerve center of the U.S. Strategic Command, or StratCom, arguably the world's most important and powerful military installation. StratCom, a co-host of the conference, has long been the command-and-control center for the U.S. military's nuclear-weapons capabilities. In 2002, as part of a Defense Department reorganization, it also assumed responsibilities for U.S. Space Command, giving StratCom control over all U.S. strategic forces. Whether from land, air, sea, or, as these 500 glad-handing conferees would have it, space, if the United States launches a strategic attack, it will do so a grenade's throw from the stage on which Miss Nebraska -- a digital flag flapping in the digital breeze on the digital-video screen behind her -- belts out "America the Beautiful."

The Pentagon reorganization signifies more than a promotion for the StratCom commander, Adm. James O. Ellis Jr. It also positions StratCom at the center of the Bush administration's efforts to overhaul nuclear America. Those efforts center on developing a new generation of "usable" nuclear weapons, a topic about which I aspired to learn more during panel discussions on "The Warfighter's Toolkit" and "From [Operation] Iraqi Freedom to Tomorrow's Battlefield." One thing I already knew from the opening reception. War planners not only are rethinking the unthinkable -- how and when to use nuclear weapons -- they're discussing it. Out loud. Over drinks and cheese balls.

Nukes First, Questions Later

Their discussions are based on the "Nuclear Posture Review," the blueprint for the Bush administration's overhaul of nuclear America. The classified document (portions of which were leaked, initially to the Los Angeles Times, and now reside online at ) urges a fundamental, radical shift from the principles of deterrence and restraint that date to the early days of the Cold War, when a superpower not named the United States also roamed the globe with visions of empire. In August 1949, four years after Harry Truman incinerated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Union successfully tested its own atomic bomb. So began the long-lived era under the Cold War cloud of mutually assured destruction: We got nukes, you got nukes; let's do nothing stupid. Nonproliferation treaties, bilateral and multilateral, were signed; nuclear test bans implemented; arms reductions agreed to. But the Soviet Union fell off the map in 1991, and a decade later, 19 men armed with boarding passes and box cutters brought the U.S. to its knees.

Three months after the 9/11 attacks (although clearly in preparation much earlier), the Bush administration delivered its "Nuclear Posture Review" to Congress. The Pentagon-authored text is couched in recommendations, but its tone and direction are unmistakable. It buries alive all those quaint Cold War holdovers -- diplomacy, arms-control treaties, test bans -- in some figurative fallout shelter, never to be heard from again. In their stead, war planners bellow and yearn for a doctrine that strikes first and evades questions later. "The need is clear," the posture review states, "for a revitalized nuclear weapons complex that will be able ... if directed, to design, develop, manufacture, and certify new warheads in response to new national requirements."

Every president since Truman relegated the bomb to a category unto itself, to be locked away unless the nation's very survival were at stake. Not so George W. Bush. In the introduction to his administration's "National Security Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction," Bush wrote that the U.S. "will continue to make it clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force -- including potentially nuclear weapons -- to the use of WMD against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies" (emphasis added).

Teetotaling Nebraskanaut  Clayton C. Anderson 
autographs  8-by-10 glossies with Aim High!
Teetotaling Nebraskanaut Clayton C. Anderson autographs 8-by-10 glossies with "Aim High!"

In addition to 9/11, two major factors account for the nuclear revival. One is the stream of intelligence indicating that the remaining axis of evildoers (Iran, North Korea) as well as the other Usual Suspects (Syria, Libya) are going deep -- building and storing weapons of mass destruction in hard, underground bunkers. Such facilities, the posture review claims, are impervious to conventional weapons. At the top of the weaponeers' wish list, then, are Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrators, commonly known as "bunker-busters." These are supposed to burrow where no conventional weapon can -- down, down, down through hundreds of feet of hard rock tunnels and reinforced concrete to the presumed command-and-control centers of rogue leaders, and to their stashes of WMDs and ballistic missiles. Only then would they explode, theoretically annihilating only the targeted bunker. But there seems to be a physics conundrum: A low-yield nuke will not burrow deep enough, and a high-yield behemoth, say, anywhere from 100 kilotons (almost five times the force of the Hiroshima bomb that immediately killed 140,000 people) to a megaton, "would likely shower the surrounding region with highly radioactive dust and gas," Robert W. Nelson, a Princeton University physicist, writes in a report for the Federation of American Scientists.

Call it a midlife crisis. When the U.S. nuclear stockpile looks in the mirror, it sees a dowdy, obsolete 20th-century arsenal in need of a 21st-century face lift. That is the second factor driving the administration toward proliferation. It gets no respect; rogues pay the once fearsome stockpile no mind. There is no obvious flaw with the 2,000 warheads StratCom maintains on hair-trigger alert, 15-minute launch time. Or with the other 10,000 intact warheads, or the 5,000 more in "strategic reserve." It's just that they're big boppers: high-yield, limited-precision, doomsday nukes that can reduce Moscow to mincemeat but couldn't hit the broad side of a bunker in broad daylight. "If we want to deter an opponent from attacking, the opponent must actually believe our threats to some degree," Keith B. Payne, an architect of the Bush nuclear blueprint, has written.

Get 'Em by the Gross

So is smaller better, or at least a more credible deterrent?

"The world of nuclear weapons policy is kind of Alice in Wonderland," says Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch of New Mexico. "In many ways, the lower the yield of the weapon, the more dangerous the weapon, because it is more likely to be used." That's where mininukes come in. A one-kiloton mininuke (a kiloton equals 1,000 tons of TNT) may sound cuddly -- and it is relatively low-yield: about one-13th the force of the Hiroshima bomb. But a one-kiloton warhead would generate a crater roughly the size of the Ground Zero site where the World Trade Center used to stand, and would spew a million cubic feet of radioactive fallout, estimates Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the nonprofit Arms Control Association.

The "Nuclear Posture Review" gives short shrift to such drawbacks. It advertises mininukes (defined as no more than five kilotons) as precision weapons capable of "surgical strikes" that would reduce "collateral damage" from blast, heat, and radiation. A grab bag of uses is envisioned: in retaliation for the use of nuclear weapons, or as reprisal against non-nuclear states for biological or chemical weapons, or, vaguely, "in the event of surprising military developments." That sort of hazy language pervades the document. It may be helpful in preparing for "immediate, potential, or unexpected" contingencies, but critics say it also is a ploy that affords war planners and weapons designers great latitude to take out of it whatever they wish. "It's kind of like a fundamentalist reading the Bible," says Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog organization.

In one respect, however, the posture review is unambiguous: It considers the new generation of nukes potential weapons of first resort. Not only does that lower the threshold for using them, it blurs the line between nuclear and conventional weapons. And it vaporizes the international principle, based on nearly 60 years of diplomacy, law, practicality, and morality, that nuclear weapons are exponentially more lethal. "A nuclear weapon is a unique entity," says Jon Wolfsthal, deputy director of the Non-Proliferation Project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "There is no such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon in the eyes of 99 percent of the world's population."

The problem for nonproliferation advocates and the rest of the world is that the U.S. Congress is at the forefront of the other 1%. Despite a summer and fall of hemming and hawing on both sides of the aisle, just before Thanksgiving Congress passed two spending bills that granted virtually every new nuclear weapon program Bush asked for (with some token budget reductions). This includes $7.5 million to study bunker-busters; $6 million to research mininukes (last spring, Congress repealed a 10-year-old ban on such research); $24.9 million to expedite plans for the resumption of underground nuclear testing in Nevada (there have been no such tests since the first President Bush declared a moratorium in 1992); and $10.8 million to develop the Modern Pit Facility -- fedspeak for a new nuclear bomb factory. (Pantex, near Amarillo, is one of five sites under consideration for that huge slab of atomic pork. See "Braying for Plutonium," July 11, 2003.)

GLOBAL MILITARY spending comparisons 2002

<i>* Other NATO includes Belgium, Canada, Czech 
Republic, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Italy, 
Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, 
Spain, and Turkey.

Sources: The Military Balance 2003-2004, 
International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2003. 
Budget of the United States Government, FY 2004, 
Office of Management and Budget. Center for 
Defense Information.

</i>Click <a href=largechart.jpg target=blank><b>
here</b></a> for a larger image of this chart.
GLOBAL MILITARY spending comparisons 2002
* Other NATO includes Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Turkey.

Sources: The Military Balance 2003-2004, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2003. Budget of the United States Government, FY 2004, Office of Management and Budget. Center for Defense Information.

Click here for a larger image of this chart.

During Senate debate on a Democratic amendment to slash funding for nuclear weapons research and development, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., reminded her colleagues that next year the U.S. will spend "more on our military than all of the other 191 nations on the planet combined." She let that astounding statement sink in, and then added: "If we can't protect ourselves without thinking about nuclear weapons, who can?"

The senator's question cuts to the heart of the concern over the administration's nuclear ambitions. It also demands a further one: By what moral authority can the U.S. expect to stop international proliferation even as it readies record spending -- $6.38 billion in the 2004 fiscal year -- for core nuclear weapons research, development, and production programs? As Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., quipped during House debate last spring on nuclear weapons spending, "We are like those that would preach temperance from a barstool."

Feinstein and Markey, both veteran members of Congress, surely understand that questions of reckless military spending, immorality, and hypocrisy are irrelevant on Capitol Hill during times of war, even manufactured war. So how about one question more: Do George Bush's nuclear ambitions make for a safer, more secure nation and world?

Staying on Message

I figured by now I knew what I'd hear from the president's oft-quoted proponents and critics, some of whom I spoke with, too. But as the country marches inexorably toward building "usable" nukes, I wondered what the uniformed military -- the front-line folks who would actually use the weapons -- might be thinking. And so it came to be that StratCom commander Adm. James Ellis' hand, which normally rests on the nation's nuclear button, is squeezing mine.

We are standing in the lobby of the Embassy Suites in downtown Omaha, where the space-cowboy conferees have just emerged from rousing panels on ballistic missile defense and defense-contractor prognostications on the future of strategic space. It's nearly lunchtime on the final day of the confab, cheer is in the air, and yet this embedded reporter, after three days of exchanging pleasantries about "full-spectrum domination," "global-strike capability," "flight-kill vehicles," "blue force tracking," and so on, cannot escape the voice of George C. Scott's nuke-lovin' Gen. Buck Turgidson in the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove. "Mr. President," he began, briefing his commander in chief on the benefits of nuclear war, "I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say ... no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops."

Just as the admiral and I get reacquainted (we'd said hello at the opening-night reception) a Navy captain who keeps a close eye on the admiral pulls him away. Ellis is the luncheon speaker, and even though I'll be late for my flight and am ripe to kiss Omaha goodbye, I want another crack at him, one of the few people on the planet whose job description includes the capability to destroy it.

Following Ellis' platitude-larded speech, a military flack hustles me and several fellow scribes to a small room for a brief "press availability" with the admiral. Now, finally, was my chance. A local reporter beats me to the punch, asking Ellis if he sees mininukes as part of the solution to fighting terrorism. He ducks. "This conference is not about the 'Nuclear Posture Review,'" he says. "I'd like to stay on message here." He calls on a reporter from a defense industry publication, who lobs a softball. I raise my hand again, but the admiral appears not to notice. After another question or two, the watchful Navy captain thanks us for coming. And then, poof, Adm. Ellis is whisked away, returned, no doubt, to his secure, underground bunker. end story

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nuclear weapons, nuclear posture review, Strategic Space 2003, StratCom, U.S. Strategic Command, James O. Ellis Jr., Robert W. Nelson, Keith B. Payne, Jay Coghlan, Daryl G. Kimball, Arms Control Association, Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group, Jon Wolfsthal, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Dianne Feinstein, Ed Markey

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