Smaller, deeper, hotter – the new nukes

What has surprised most people is the apparent US willingness to consider using nuclear weapons first, and using them on a small scale.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
14 March 2002

The leaking of details from President Bush's Nuclear Posture Review has caused apprehension and surprise, not least because it appears so open about nuclear targeting policy in the post-Cold War world. Some of the details were covered in this series two weeks ago, but it makes sense to put the development in a wider context if we are to get a clear idea of where US nuclear policy is heading.

When George Bush Sr. was in the White House at the end of the Cold War, there was surprising progress with the Russians in strategic nuclear cut-backs, and both states also withdrew the great majority of their thousands of tactical nuclear weapons from deployment. This policy was also followed, on a much smaller scale, by the British and the French, but only the Americans and Russians actually codified their strategic nuclear reductions in treaties.

Russia rethinks, America plans

Even so, as the Russian conventional forces fell into disarray in the 1990s, Russian strategic analysts actually placed more emphasis on the need to maintain nuclear forces, as they recognised that if there was ever a major conventional threat to Russia's security, then nuclear weapons would provide one of the few military options available. As the chair of the Duma's Defence Committee, Roman Popkovich, put it:

'Russia's new military doctrine should include a provision stating that if the threat of the use of general-purpose forces of any state against Russia considerably exceeds the ability of the national general-purpose forces to defend Russia, it shall have the right to deliver a pre-emptive nuclear strike, rather than only a reply or a retaliation strike.' (Izvestia, 23 March 1999).

There were no such problems for the United States as it emerged as the sole superpower, but even as early as 1991 the establishment was quick to look to new uses for nuclear weapons in the more complex world of the post-Cold War era. In that year, Strategic Air Command commissioned a Strategic Deterrence Study, known more commonly as the 'Reed Report', and an early draft of this was leaked to a Washington newspaper. While the final version is believed to have been toned down, the language of the draft gives a remarkable indication of the attitudes that were already taking shape.

Its terms of reference, it 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 world tranquillity". The study itself called for a new nuclear targeting strategy that would include the ability to assemble a "Nuclear Expeditionary Force...primarily for use against China or Third World targets".

Before the end of the Bush administration in 1992, there were indications that the weapons laboratories were beginning to investigate new kinds of small nuclear weapons, including some that might target missiles fitted with biological warheads. Earth penetrating warheads for destroying underground bunkers were also investigated, as were electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) warheads for disabling electronic equipment.

A seminal article in Strategic Review, written by two researchers at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory was specific in its recommendations for nuclear use in third world conflicts. Its blunt title was: 'Countering the Threat of the Well-Armed Tyrant: A Modest Proposal for Small Nuclear Weapons'.

Much of this momentum was lost when Clinton came to power, with a Democrat-controlled Congress and bringing with him many people from Washington's arms control community. Congress specifically banned further work on 'mini-nukes', many of the nuclear weapons plants were closed, though often on safety grounds, and the idea of fighting 'small nuclear wars in far-off places', receded somewhat.

The nuclear future

It was a short-lived change. In the mid-term elections of 1994, the Republicans took control of Congress and this ended further progress on nuclear disarmament. Indeed, the mid-1990s even involved the development of a new kind of nuclear weapon, a modification of a standard tactical nuclear bomb to give it the ability to penetrate the ground and produce an earthquake effect.

This was the B61-11, with a hardened nose-cone and a new fusing system. Proponents claimed that it was not 'new', since it contained an unmodified nuclear warhead at its core, but others pointed out that it was rather like taking an engine out of a truck, using it to power a boat, and claiming that it was really still a truck.

While the Democrat administration maintained a policy of limiting nuclear weapons research, Republican attitudes in Congress in Clinton's last year hardened further, notably with the refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

When Bush came to power, he brought with him very hard-line security advisers, some of whom had worked in think-tanks that had been diligently investigating new nuclear strategies that were uncannily like those of the early 1990s. Once in power, they were given their head, with the results that have been reported so widely this week.

What has surprised most people is the apparent willingness to consider using nuclear weapons first, using them on a small scale, and doing so on the assumption that this is a reasonable component of an international security policy. In reality, there should be very little surprise at this - a long-term feature of nuclear planning throughout the Cold War years was the idea that a limited nuclear war could be fought, and controlled, even when facing a heavily-armed opponent such as the Soviet Union.

Throughout that era, independent analysts would always distinguish between a declaratory nuclear policy and a deployment policy - the first placing emphasis on deterrence through mutually assured destruction (MAD), the second indicating the actual weapons and their possible uses.

There was a famous exchange at a Senate Armed Services Committee in 1979 when the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was asked about MAD:

Senator Tower: General Jones, what is your opinion of the theory of mutual assured destruction?

General Jones: I think it is a very dangerous strategy. It is not the strategy we are implementing today within the military but it is a dangerous strategy

Senator Tower: Your professional military judgement is that it is a dangerous strategy and it is not one that we should follow?

General Jones: I do not subscribe to the idea that we ever had it as our basic strategy. I have been involved with strategic forces since the early 1950s. We have always targeted military targets. There has been a lot of discussion about different strategies. We followed orders, but basically, the strategy stayed the same in implementation of targeting.

General Tower: I am not sure that your opinion was always shared by your civilian superiors.

More than twenty years later, we have a particularly hard-line administration which states emphatically that it is not prepared to allow potential opponents to develop weapons of mass destruction. As past of the widening 'war on terror', such states must be prevented from getting such capabilities, even if that means pre-emptive action and even if that might involve the use of small nuclear weapons. It may seem far-fetched. In fact it is a development of thinking that has been around since the start of the nuclear age.

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