August 12, 2003 | WebMemo on National Security and Defense

A Strong National Defense Commands New Nuclear Research Funding

Senate appropriators are rightly concerned with attempts by certain members of Congress to curtail critical nuclear national security programs by amending pending "energy development" appropriations legislation.

 

The House already only partially fulfilled the Administration's funding request for research toward understanding the role of nuclear weapons in today's changing world.

 

Decreasing these funds even further would seriously inhibit America's ability to transform its Cold War nuclear arsenal into one more appropriate for the 21st century.

 

A Nuclear Force for the 21st Century

The United States must develop a nuclear arsenal that adequately reflects the modern world. The U.S. maintains a Cold War nuclear arsenal, despite the following developments over the past 12 years:

  1. The Cold War has ended,
  2. Russia has taken control of the Soviet nuclear arsenal and agreed to drastic reductions in strategic arms,
  3. China has begun a nuclear modernization program,
  4. India and Pakistan have tested nuclear weapons, and
  5. Nations like Iran and North Korea have edged closer to becoming nuclear states.

All this in addition to Al-Qaeda's demonstration that America's adversaries are willing and capable of inflicting mass casualties on U.S. soil.

 

It is time to reevaluate the role of nuclear weapons in national security policy, especially the utility of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons. Traditionally, these weapons have been necessary to counter an adversary with very large land forces that could overrun America's more expeditionary forces. While this requirement endures, tactical nuclear weapons may also be the best way to address the new set of threats.

 

New Battlefield Conditions

A tactical nuclear force, for example, would counter any battlefield advantage an adversary may gain from striking U.S. and allied forces with weapons of mass destruction and thus deter an adversary from using such weapons.  An enemy leader may not fear America's conventional response to the use of such weapons, believing that his forces could withstand or defeat the United States. Indeed, his use of chemical or biological weapons may be central to his strategy. 

 

The United States finds itself in a unique historical position where it actually cares more about the local populations of adversarial states then its own leaders do.  The result is that any threat to retaliate with a strategic nuclear weapons loses credibility because the an enemy leader may calculate that the United States would not kill millions of innocent civilians do to his actions.

 

The flexibility that would result from introducing smaller nuclear weapons into the strategic equation will increase deterrence by giving added credibility to America's arsenal.  Arguably, this is precisely what happened in the first Gulf War.  During that conflict, the Bush Administration purposefully gave the impression that any use of chemical or biological weapons by Saddam Hussein may result in a tactical nuclear response.

 

Low-Yield Tactical Options

There are emerging battlefield requirements that may require a tactical nuclear response.  For example, America's application of information technology has given it unprecedented advantages on the battlefield. With precision-guided munitions, the U.S. armed forces are able to target almost anything, anywhere, at any time. America's enemies will adapt to this advantage by placing their troops, weapons, command and control, and other combat elements underground. Until adequate conventional weapons and/or forces can be developed to destroy these underground targets, the United States must explore a low-yield tactical nuclear option.

 

Then there is the problem of proliferating biological facilities.   Research may demonstrate that low-yield nuclear weapons are the best way to target large, underground biological-weapons production facilities. Unlike a conventional bomb, which may destroy the facility but could spread the biological agent, a nuclear device would incinerate the agent as well.  Although the possibility of spreading radioactive material and long-term contamination are legitimate concerns, it would be irresponsible for the Pentagon to identify these emerging targets without conducting a comprehensive investigation into how to address them. 

 

Critics have argued that a nuclear device would simply replace the chemical or biological agent with radiation. This is not necessarily true. First, a two-kiloton weapon engineered to minimize fallout used in an unpopulated region would clearly have far less secondary impact on surrounding populations then a 350-kiloton weapon.  To further reduce the negative secondary effects of a nuclear explosion, the weapons could perhaps be engineered to burrow into the ground before detonation, thereby containing the radiation below ground.

 

Finally, the explosion itself can be engineered to reduce the harmful radiation that is normally associated with a nuclear explosion. Research, however, is required to establish whether any of this is viable as well as identifying how long there would -- if at all -- be ground contamination. Even if the Pentagon would conclude that a new family of nuclear weapons were appropriate for this emerging target set, it would likely be necessary to conduct nuclear and non-nuclear testing to assure that these weapons are safe, reliable, and effective before any such weapon were fielded.

 

Funding the Research

While nuclear capabilities will continue to serve as a deterrent in a world where biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons are proliferating at a dangerous pace, the United States must pursue advanced concepts research to ensure that the weapons complex can provide credible nuclear deterrence options in the post Cold War era.

 

The Bush Administration has requested essential levels of funding for feasibility studies that would begin to define the role that nuclear weapons should play in the 21st century. Congress should meet, or exceed, those funding requests.

About the Author

Jack Spencer Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity