New classes of "usable" nuclear weapons are on the Pentagon's menu. Who's buying?
Bunker Buster the Friendly Nuke was launched by the Friends Committee on National Legislation recently. "He's cute; he's small; and he won't blow up the world" is FCNL's satirical introduction to this adorably animated little nuke, but the Quakers' ironic rhetoric is not far off from the actual verbiage the Pentagon and White House have deployed to improve the palatability of their longed-for retooling of America's nuclear weapons.
Turns out the problem with the nation's current nuclear arsenal is that it was designed for the era of Mutually Assured Destruction, those MAD, halcyon days when nukes were intended to end civilization as we know it with a Strangelovian exchange of nuclear megatonage. These days the Pentagon is more interested in limited nuclear capabilities-big enough to knock out bunkers full of weapons of mass destruction and scurrying Al Qaedis, but not big enough to whip up a radioactive dust storm across, say, the entire Middle East.
The bunker buster, or Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP)-and other new weapons like 5-kiloton, "usable" mini-nukes-keep showing up on Pentagon budget proposals like unappealing chef's specials. Proponents argue an RNEP detonation offers substantially less likelihood of large-scale radioactive fallout. Dropped from afar, the bunker buster allegedly drills toward its underground target where its smallish nuclear warhead detonates with devastating effect on the enemy below the surface.
Sadly this new and improved nuke simply may not work as advertised. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the RNEP is not likely to penetrate deeper than 30 meters, a depth at which its 1.2 megaton warhead would throw up a radioactive cloud that would Chernobylize the atmosphere for hundreds of miles around. In a computer simulation run by the Union of Concerned Scientists, one RNEP strike claimed 3 million lives.
There are a couple of other slight problems with the hoped-for bunker buster. First, after getting their toraborealis blown off in Afghanistan, our Islamic fascist antagonists may be seriously rethinking their hunker-in-the-bunker strategy; B, we're still waiting on the 411 for those weapons of mass destruction the RNEP would be hunting down; and 3, wagging fingers at Iran and North Korea about nuclear proliferation while poring over "Bunkie's" blueprints may turn out to be not the smartest arms-control strategy.
The Bush administration claims it can develop new nukes without lowering the overall threshold for the use of nuclear weapons, but that strategic doublethink doesn't last long under an analytical microscope. The deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons will surely help make the unthinkable at least ponderable when a tricky strategic threat presents itself-as one surely will-in the future. And how are other nations to esteem America's big talk on nonproliferation while it develops new classes of nuclear weapons? If the world's greatest military needs mini-nukes and bunker busters, lesser powers will surely wonder why their national security interests shouldn't require them as well.
We are poised today at the precipice of an unprecedented outbreak of nuclear proliferation with indications of weapons research taking place in both Koreas, Japan, and Iran. Pakistan and India are already laying the radioactive foundation for their regional version of mutually assured destruction. How long will it be before other small powers throughout Southeast Asia and the Islamic world begin their own nuclear weapons programs?
There is a world of need at our doorstep, hungry for leadership, desperate for new solutions to the seemingly intractable problems of the past, and anxious over the new confrontations lurking in the future. What the world needs now is not better nuclear weapons but better ideas about economic justice, managing cultural clashes, and responding to the deprivation of two thirds of the planet's inhabitants.
Having somehow survived the most violent century in human history and as the only nation to have ever actually used nuclear weapons for their intended and dreadful purpose, let's not place the development of a more user-friendly nuke at the top of the geopolitical agenda for the next century--even one that won't destroy all of God's green creation, just a little piece of it.