America's Nuclear Stealth War

The visit of Condoleezza Rice to Europe in the past week was accompanied by notably hardline rhetoric towards Iran. In describing Iran (at a meeting with French intellectuals) as not merely an "authoritarian" but a "totalitarian" state, the new United States secretary of state was also underlining the George W. Bush administration's absolute opposition to Tehran's nuclear weapons program. In this context, recent revelations about the US's own nuclear weapons development plans are particularly significant.

When President Bush was re-elected in November 2004, many arms-control specialists feared that his administration would make rapid progress towards a national missile defence system and modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. To their surprise, both developments appeared to receive setbacks in the election aftermath.

First, and in light of the rising costs of the war in Iraq, there were indications that a number of high-tech military projects would be scaled back or even cancelled – including programs connected with missile defense, such as the airborne laser (see "Missiles and Militias," Dec. 23, 2004).

Second, and more remarkable, was Congress's decision to cut all funding for four nuclear-weapons programs (see www.basicint.org/update/WNU041124-PF.htm). These, in turn, were aimed at making it easier to start nuclear tests; developing a new production plant for nuclear warheads; creating advanced design concepts for new kinds of nuclear weapons; and designing and developing a highly specialised nuclear weapon for destroying deeply-buried underground targets.

Bunker-buster Bluster

The decision over the last of these programs, known as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), was particularly surprising, given the claims made by Bush administration officials about North Korea's and Iran's plans to situate nuclear weapons in deep underground bunkers. Several factors influenced Congress' decision, including the belief that more "boots on the ground" rather than new nuclear weapons were needed, as well as traditional horse-trading between people representing different electoral districts.

More thoughtful was the concern of some representatives that the United States could not simultaneously be seen to be investing heavily in new nuclear weapons like the RNEP while condemning other countries for merely initiating such a process. They pointed to the fact that the United States still possesses more than enough nuclear weapons to satisfy the most unlikely needs, and had already modified one of its older nuclear warhead designs to produce a rather crude earth-penetrating device.

Even though the U.S. nuclear arsenal is a lot smaller than at the height of the Cold War, the most recent estimate is that its current deployment still stands at approximately 5,300 operational nuclear warheads, with nearly 5,000 more placed in what is termed a "responsive reserve force" or else only partially dismantled (see Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 2005). Many of these weapons contain enormous destructive force; the nearly 400 W88 warheads for the Trident submarine missile fleet are each about 30 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb.

The early earth-penetrating warhead was the B61-11, a variant of the standard B61 tactical nuclear bomb, with heavily modified casing and fusing. This was put together in the mid-1990s and can be deployed on the B-2A stealth bomber. At the time it was produced, strenuous efforts were made to say that it wasn't a new weapon but merely a modification of an old one. This was true in the sense that the new weapon recycled the core of the nuclear warhead or "physics package," but to claim there is little difference is equivalent to taking the engine out of a Chevrolet, using it to power a boat, and then claiming that the boat is still a car.

A Shadowy Strategy

When George W. Bush succeeded Bill Clinton in 2001, most people assumed that the latter's cautious attitude to wholesale nuclear modernization would be discarded. The nuclear weapons laboratories certainly exerted systematic pressure in arguing for new programs. Such pressure makes Congress's decision to cut funding even more unexpected – even, to many in the arms-control community, too good to be true.

This week it became clear that it was just that, as the Bush administration decided to present Congress with a new funding request (see Walter Pincus, "Bush Request to Fund Nuclear Study Revives Debate," The Washington Post, Feb. 9, 2005).

Moreover, it turns out that programmes are already underway to design new nuclear warheads using completely different budget lines (see William J. Broad, "U.S. Redesigning Atomic Weapons," International Herald Tribune, Feb. 8, 2005). Around 100 specialists at the three U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories – Lawrence Livermore in California, Los Alamos in New Mexico and Sandia in Texas – are involved in an initial $9 million project, one that is planned to develop into a full-scale program capable of producing designs for completely new weapons within the next five-to-10 years.

An immediate question arises: given the attitude of Congress, how is it possible that the anodyne-sounding, science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program contains an element focused on producing new weapons? For the advocates of the program, the answer is straightforward – the United States stopped producing entirely new nuclear weapons at least fifteen years ago, many of the warheads in its current stockpile are far older than that, and there is no guarantee that they will work if they have to be used.

In such circumstances, these proponents say, a program overseeing the maintenance and reliability of the nuclear arsenal has an obligation to produce new designs capable of replacing the ageing arsenal. They also argue that producing new, robust and reliable weapons means that the United States will be able to manage with fewer weapons.

Arms-control experts, by contrast, claim that the U.S.' nuclear stockpile is sufficiently up-to-date in design terms, could be reduced much further, and has no need of a new bout of modernization. Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of prominent Washington-based group the Arms Control Association, comments: "The existing stockpile is safe and reliable by all standards, so to design a new warhead that is even more robust is a redundant activity that could be a pretext for designing a weapon that has a new military mission."

This is the crux of the matter – that the Bush administration seems to have found a way of circumventing Congress's decision to cut funding for what were clearly intended to be major new nuclear weapons programs.

It is now only three months until the next review conference for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which meets in New York in May. Yet even as it approaches, the United States is insisting that Iran cannot even begin the process of developing a nuclear infrastructure, let alone produce small numbers of weapons. For George Bush, who says that a nuclear-armed Iran would be "a very destabilizing force in the world," this is a sensible policy; many citizens in the United States and other countries will question whether the same characterization may equally be applied to current American nuclear policy (and Iranians too may see things very differently, not least given the size and reach of the Israeli nuclear arsenal).

The Bush administration wants to build a coalition for countering Iranian nuclear ambitions. This means it needs to avoid giving the impression of furthering its own nuclear developments. The Congressional decision in November helped serve that purpose. The more recent reports on what is actually happening in terms of U.S. nuclear developments do not. They lend support to those analysts who believe that the United States will take a singularly hardline stance at the NPT review conference. This may be typical of the unilateralist tendencies of the Bush administration, but will certainly not further the control of nuclear proliferation through international cooperation.

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