Nuclear daydreams and the Pentagon

Bunker-busters: Looking for a rationale now that rogue states present such a satisfying target.

March 28, 2002

IS A LITTLE nuclear bomb more dangerous than a big one?

Sure, the big ones can do a lot of damage, but they have a way of not being used. We've never had to flatten Moscow. It was unthinkable - and unnecessary.

But what if we changed our thinking, and started making little ones - with low fallout, precision guidance and a doctrine that, for instance, calls a bioweapons bunker in Iraq a legitimate nuclear target? Under the right circumstances, wouldn't we be tempted to give one of them a try?

That is precisely what is worrying a lot of people. The Pentagon commissioned something called a Nuclear Posture Review, which is classified but has been leaked, and it amounts to a thorough rethinking of the ways the United States could use its nuclear bombs.

It points out that Russia is no longer an adversary, and that there are bad actors out there among lesser nations who know we'll never drop a big one on them, but who just might be deterred by a dose of nuclear-lite jitters - or who, if it came to it, could be neutralized by a few well-placed missiles.

Fine. If you think of a nuclear bomb as a weapon to use and not some totem of horror, and if you think of a nuclear explosion as just a bigger version of a conventional one, then why should we tie one hand behind our back? Since our great big nuclear weapons aren't of so much use these days, surely it's only prudent to give ourselves some small ones in their place.

Inside the Pentagon, that makes sense.

Out here, it's a different story.

There's only one reason to have small usable nukes, and that is if they can do something that would otherwise be impossible.

The Nuclear Posture Review points with alarm to hardened underground bunkers in such places as Libya, North Korea, Iraq and Iran, where potent biological or chemical weapons that could be directed against us might be brewing.

But the United States can already do tremendous damage with conventional weapons. It can probably destroy any bunker in those countries, and it can certainly cut off access to bunkers and render them ineffective. America can pre-empt evildoers as effectively with the arms we now have as we could with nuclear ones, and if we should again suffer catastrophic terrorist acts, the means of terrible retaliation and retribution are at hand.

Now, consider the possibility of bad intelligence. Certainly, even if we could have, we probably wouldn't have dropped a nuke earlier this year on those Afghans who turned out to be on our side, or on the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan that was thought back in 1998 to be producing chemical weapons, or on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. But how would we be sure of our targets? And what would we say, after a mistake?

This is getting at the real problem. A nuclear weapon is one thing in the military mind, but something else entirely in the minds of everyone else, both here and abroad. Nuclear weapons are, in some emotional way, out of bounds. A military objective could be achieved with a mini-nuke, and maybe even with limited civilian casualties, but the political fallout would be immense and poisonous.

No American president would use a nuclear bomb in a first strike, unless the continuing existence of the United States was at stake. In the real world, that's the way it is.

And that's good to know. But the Pentagon has done the country a disservice in compiling such a provocative document, one that was sure to be leaked. It makes the administration look dangerously irresponsible, and it could perversely lead other countries into their own nuclear buildups.

The thinking behind it harkens back to the Reagan years, even while it stoutly maintains that the Cold War is done with. (We're still going to have 2,000 warheads pointed at Russia, by the way)

In the early 1980s, Pentagon thinkers suggested that the United States could "win" a nuclear war. Hardly anyone bought it, but now the new review talks about using nuclear weapons to "provide greater flexibility in the design and conduct of military campaigns to defeat opponents decisively."

That sounds reasonable, until you reflect that Russians, Chinese and others will interpret this as an American determination, yet again, to win a nuclear war.

Well, it's better than losing a nuclear war. But there really is another way, which is to cut out the robust fantasies of weapons intellectuals and acknowledge that we don't really have to find a new use for a lot of nuclear weapons. If we don't need all of them, there's a simple solution: Get rid of them.

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