Mother Jones | Dumb Bombs
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Mother Jones | 0aEditorial
Friday 19 September 2003
Is the war on terror fuelling a nuclear arms race? Looks 0alike it: The United States is moving to invest millions in a new generation of 0anukes; Syria, Iran and North Korea are reportedly busy with weapons programs; 0aand Saudi Arabia is taking a serious look at joining the ranks of the 0anuclear-armed
On Tuesday, the Republican-controlled Senate rejected a 0aDemocratic measure aimed at blocking funding for research into low-grade nuclear "bunker- buster" bombs and tactical "mini nukes." The 53-41 vote doles out more 0athan $20 million to the Department of Energy for nuclear weapons research, and 0aOKs the resumption of underground nuclear tests. The issue is red hot and highly 0acontroversial: in July the House voted to cut funding for the research, over 0aobjections from the Bush administration. The measure now goes to a House-Senate 0aconference, with the energy department likely to get some, if not all, of the 0afunds requested.
Edward Kennedy, the senator co-sponsoring the resolution 0ato nix the research, explained that the U.S. can hardly expect other countries 0ato hold back on nuclear weapons if we don't.
"At the very time when we are urging other nations to halt 0atheir own nuclear weapons programs, the administration is rushing forward to 0adevelop our own new nuclear weapons."
Fans of the bunker-busters and mini-nukes, like Sen. Pete 0aDomenici (also known as the "patron saint" of the nuclear industry) say advanced 0aweapons research is needed to give U.S. policymakers new options in the war 0aagainst terrorism, and that scientists need the freedom to look ahead at 0aAmerica's future national security needs. "Let [nuclear scientists] think, let 0athose people design," he said. "Don't put mental blinkers and blinders on their 0abrains."
But Kennedy, who warned that "a nuclear arms race" could 0aresult, was backed up by co-sponsor Sen. Diane Feinstein:
"By seeking to develop new nuclear weapons ourselves we 0asend a message that nuclear weapons have a future battlefield role and utility."
The world will watch and the world will respond, and the 0away they will respond is with a new nuclear arms race. How long will it take for 0aIndia and Pakistan to say, 'We should do the same thing'? How long will it take 0aNorth Korea and Iran?"
As if on cue, it emerged this week that Saudi Arabia is 0alooking into nuclear weapons program of its own.
The Guardian of London reported that Crown Prince Abdullah 0abin Abdul Aziz has responded to the destabilization of the Middle East by 0alaunching a strategic review of the nation's defense system. This review will 0apursue three defense options: acquiring nuclear capability as a deterrent, 0aentering an alliance with a protecting nuclear power, or achieving a regional 0aanti-nuclear treaty. The Guardian reports that the Saudi decision marks a 0adrastic change in Washington-Riyadh relations.
"Until now, the assumption in Washington was that Saudi 0aArabia was content to remain under the US nuclear umbrella. But the relationship 0abetween Saudi Arabia and the US has steadily worsened since the September 11 0aattacks on New York and Washington: 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudi.
Saudi Arabia does not regard Iran, a past adversary with 0awhich Riyadh has restored relations, as a direct threat. But it is unnerved by 0athe possibility of Iran and Israel having nuclear weapons. "
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's eastern neighbors look to be 0adabbling in nuclear weaponry. Iran is under increasing heat from the 0ainternational community to come clean about its nuclear energy program, which 0athe International Atomic Energy Agency says is a cover for developing nukes. On 0aThursday, Iran's foreign minister complained that European Union requests for 0athe state to cooperate with the U.N. were not founded on "mutual respect."
And the U.S. has lately been warning Syria to abandon its 0apresumed nuclear ambitions. Not to mention North Korea, of course, which has 0aperhaps one, or maybe even six, nuclear weapons.
Given all this, it seems an odd time to commit to 0aresearching nuclear weaponry.
"Mini nukes" and "bunker-busters" are scary because, as 0awell as being nuclear, they're portable. Modeled on a conventional weapon used 0ain the U.S. strikes against Iraq and Afghanistan, the bunker-buster, or Robust 0aNuclear Earth Penetrator, is designed to detonate deep in the earth and vaporize 0apotential stocks of underground weapons. "Mini nukes" are for tactical 0abattlefield use.
While some argue that the weapons would be useful, many 0athink the risk of fueling a nuclear arms race is too great. In August USA Today 0aeditorialized that developing the bunker-buster was moving modern warfare in the 0awrong direction.
"In spite of the ominous sound of the weapon, the military 0ahas strong arguments for developing it. Unlike most of the Cold War-era nuclear 0aarsenal designed to wipe out large chunks of the former Soviet Union, the 0anuclear bunker-buster could target today's threats, such as buried weapons of 0amass destruction.
But while the military utility of the bunker-buster is 0aundeniable, the logic behind building it is flawed. It would set the U.S. on an 0aunnecessary course that could trigger a new nuclear arms race.
Unlike the rest of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which was 0abuilt to deter an attack, the nuclear bunker-buster would be a first-use weapon. 0aIts development would put new nuclear muscle behind the administration's new 0apolicy of waging pre-emptive war. Considering the promise of conventional 0aweapons to handle that same bunker-busting mission, building such a nuclear 0adevice would send the wrong message to fledgling nuclear powers with itchy 0atrigger fingers."
Boosters say the bombs' radioactive elements will stay 0aunderground, but some scientists aren't buying it. Martin Butcher the director 0aof security programs at Physicians for Social Responsibility, a Washington-based 0aadvocacy group, told the Asia Times that these bombs present the possibility of 0anuclear fallout.
"Constraints of physics stop bunker busters from being 0aeffective, as there are limits to how far the bomb can penetrate. In order to 0ahit the deepest bunker -- meaning 20-30 feet -- it has to be a large bomb to 0asend shock waves to penetrate down...However, this will lead the fireball to 0adisperse and radiate dust particles up into the atmosphere, creating a dirty 0abomb - the most dangerous weapon there is...These questions just weren't 0aaddressed by those who are in charge of the development of these weapons."
But ultimately, Butcher told the Times, U.S. resumption of 0anuclear testing will destroy the relevance of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
With the rapid deterioration of U.S. relations with the 0aArab world (make that the world, period), moving forward on nuclear research 0aseems provocative, to say the least.
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