On the nuclear slope

Paul Rogers
27 February 2003

At the end of January 2003, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Bush administration was considering the possible use of nuclear weapons in Iraq (see an earlier column in this series).

The report, which included reference to a Theatre Nuclear Planning Document for Iraq, aroused considerable interest – not least because there was no direct denial of its accuracy from the Pentagon. Moreover, the British defence minister, Geoff Hoon, had separately said that nuclear weapons might be used in the war.

It may be difficult to comprehend that anyone would seriously contemplate using nuclear weapons in any circumstances. The thinking of the cold war era is a vital element in explaining calculations of this kind.

Then, most people saw nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent, a kind of ‘balance of terror’ ensuring a dangerous but necessary stability, rather than weapons that would actually be used in warfare. The fact that this was never the military view was scarcely recognised, nor that the post cold war period had actually involved a clear Nato commitment to the first use of nuclear weapons in a major conflict with the Soviet Union.

The continuation of this outlook was reinforced last week by a leaked Pentagon report that the Bush administration is planning a meeting later this year to discuss the development and construction of new kinds of nuclear weapons. These would include the so-called ‘bunker-busters’ – earth-penetrating warheads for destroying deeply-buried targets that conventional bombs and missiles cannot hit.

There would additionally be enhanced radiation warheads or neutron bombs emitting intense bursts of neutron radiation that kill living organisms. The claim is that they would be used against stocks of biological warfare agents, but one of the cold war purposes of the neutron bomb was to kill people while limiting the damage to physical structures.

There has been a lot of talk within the United States about the possibility of developing new types of nuclear weapons, even to the extent of considering a new round of nuclear tests, but this is the first clear sign that such talk may be translated into action. Moreover, it fits in with the Bush doctrine of pre-emption which itself is not much more than an extension of hidden aspects of cold war doctrine.

The nuclear weapons lobby: from retreat to offensive

Much of this is in the public domain. What is much less clear, and vital to understand, is that these moves of the George W. Bush administration towards upgrading its nuclear weapons have a history. There is substantial and relevant evidence, stretching back to the current president’s father’s time in office (1988–92), which tells us much about the ongoing conflict between the ‘armourers’ and those who seek arms control.

When George Bush Senior was in the White House as the cold war ended, there was a ready acceptance that the massive nuclear arsenals of that era could be substantially decreased. At the same time, many people throughout the nuclear establishment believed that there was a continuing utility for nuclear weapons outside the cold war confrontation, not least in terms of the need to be able to fight ‘small nuclear wars in far-off places’.

One consequence of this outlook was that a Strategic Deterrence Study was undertaken by US Strategic Air Command in 1991. Also known as the Reed Report after its chair (former US air force secretary, Thomas C. Reed), a draft of the report was leaked to the press and was seen to use language that is strongly reminiscent of the attitudes of today’s Washington hawks.

Its terms of reference, for example, stated the belief that “the growing wealth of petro-nations and newly hegemonic powers is available to bullies and crazies, if they gain control, to wreak havoc on global tranquillity.” The study called for a new nuclear targeting strategy, known as ‘adaptive targeting’, that would include the ability to assemble “a Nuclear Expeditionary Force…primarily for use against China or Third World targets.”

At around the same time, two researchers at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, Thomas Dowler and Joseph Howard, published a seminal article in Strategic Review that advocated development of earth-penetrating warheads, electromagnetic pulse weapons and other systems for use primarily against regional threats from Third World ‘rogue’ states.

After Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, quite a lot of this talk receded into the background. Many of the nuclear weapons facilities were closed down, although often on safety grounds, and the arms control community was sufficiently strong to ensure that Congress passed legislation limiting nuclear weapons research and development.

This did not stop the later conversion of some tactical nuclear weapons to a new earth-penetrating modification, but the early 1990s did represent a time of retreat for the US nuclear weapons industry.

A proliferating danger

It did not last long. The Republicans took control on Capitol Hill in the 1994 mid-term elections and, from then on, the nuclear weapons lobby began to regroup, so much so that Clinton did not even bother to try and get Congress to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in his last year in office.

Now, more than ten years after the Reed Report, we are just about back where we started – a neo-conservative administration is in full cry, the glory days for the nuclear weapons industry are starting to return, and one more opportunity to bring the nuclear age under control is being lost.

The United States is, of course, far from being alone in all this. India and Pakistan are developing new nuclear arsenals with great energy and commitment, North Korea has returned to the fray and Israel continues its own large-scale nuclear programme under conditions of great secrecy while its nuclear whistle-blower, Mordechai Vanunu, serves out his long prison sentence.

China may be reluctant to commit substantial resources to its nuclear weapons programme but is certainly modernising, as are the French on a larger scale. Britain, too, is very much in the game. Trident has now been modified to play either a strategic role with large warheads or a tactical role with small warheads. These latter systems are euphemistically called ‘sub-strategic’ although each one could kill many thousands of people. Together with the larger warheads they give Britain a single, versatile, adaptable weapon – truly a missile for all seasons.

The tragedy of lost opportunity

The tragedy of the nuclear age is that there have been three opportunities to bring it under control – and all have been lost. In the late 1940s, the Baruch and Gromyko plans for nuclear abolition foundered on east–west political rivalry, and the brief period of progress after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 lost its impetus within a year. The greatest opportunity of all, at the end of the cold war, was also lost for lack of political leadership and wisdom, and we are now faced with a descent into a new and dangerous nuclear age.

During the cold war, anti-nuclear activists were apt to describe our predicament as being on the edge of a precipice – a small but clear risk of an out-and-out global catastrophe that made campaigning absolutely vital. That they were right is shown by what we now know about the nuclear accidents and crises of that era; the blunt truth is that the world was very fortunate to survive the cold war in one piece.

In one sense those days have passed; a global nuclear war is today less likely than, say, during the Cuban missile crisis. But the current moves towards ‘usable’ nuclear weapons have their own huge dangers – perhaps more like a slippery slope than the edge of a precipice.

In some ways, this situation is actually more dangerous because the new strategies are more plausible, even to the extent that Geoff Hoon and officials in the Bush administration can talk readily about the possibility of nuclear use in Iraq.

Indeed, it is not at all beyond the bounds of possibility that nuclear weapons could be used in the next few weeks for the first time since Nagasaki in 1945. This is yet another reason why a war with Iraq concerns everyone, and is so dangerous for everyone.

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