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Whither Nuclear Weapons?

Build more usable nuclear weapons or work to eliminate them all: A debate that needs to be joined

May 10, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 19

According to a newly released report (PDF) by a task force of the Department of Defense's influential Defense Science Board (DSB), it includes the continued application of science and technology to develop ever more sophisticated conventional and nuclear weaponry.

According to responses to a carefully crafted pubic opinion poll conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) of the University of Maryland in March, international cooperation and arms control agreements offer a more promising route.

At the heart of these two long-standing and divergent philosophies are very different perceptions of the role of nuclear weapons. The first sees such weapons as the cornerstone of national security for the foreseeable future. The second calls for the U.S. to live up to its commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to help prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to work toward the eventual elimination of nuclear stockpiles, including its own.

The DSB report is on strategic strike forces through the next 30 years. It offers the tantalizing promise of the ability to precisely, reliably, and almost instantly destroy any target anywhere in the world with either nuclear or nonnuclear weaponry.

The task force states that its recommendations are designed to give future presidents "an integrated, flexible, and highly reliable set of strike options with today's tactical-level flexibility but on a global scale."

One recommendation is to shift defense planning from threat-specific scenarios to a capabilities-based approach. The premise is that threats can't be predicted 30 years out. But the ability to destroy any target anywhere on the globe within minutes gives a base for handling specific threats as they evolve.

Attaining such capability would involve the creation of weapons systems and processes that do not now exist. These would include strengthening all the links in the "kill chain" of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, command and control, weapons and weapons delivery, and battle damage assessment.

According to the task force, new weapons should include a submarine-launched missile that, at any time and in any weather, could in 15 minutes hit within 5 meters of a target 1,500 miles away.

The search for security through new nuclear weapons could well become the impossible nightmare.

The most sweeping task force recommendation is to change the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP). Today, this program's primary charge is to ensure the continued safety, security, and reliability of the U.S.'s arsenal of 6,000-plus high-yield nuclear warheads.

The proposal is that the major focus of SSP be shifted to designing and providing specialized nuclear warheads that are lower in yield and so more usable. This would avoid the sledgehammer/gnat overkill dilemma with today's warheads.

The new nuclear stockpile would include a revival of the neutron bomb. This is a weapon designed to kill people effectively while doing relatively little property damage. Also recommended is an earth-penetrating nuclear bomb that could bust deeply buried bunkers without obliterating everything else in the neighborhood and generating widespread radioactive fallout. This will be very difficult to do.

Respondents to the PIPA survey, which goes to considerable pains to present the issues in a balanced way, are more ambivalent toward developing new nuclear weaponry. Although 55% of respondents are convinced by the argument that, as long as the U.S. deems nuclear weapons to be necessary, it is okay to improve them, 65% agree that it is not necessary for the U.S. to develop new types of nuclear weapons beyond those it already has.

Fifty-nine percent agree the U.S. should not develop small nuclear weapons. And 63% agree that production of new weapons would set a bad example for other nations and fly in the face of the U.S.'s vital interest in containing nuclear proliferation. A high 84% of respondents believe it is a good idea for the U.S. to agree to work toward eliminating nuclear weapons as part of NPT.

Even with today's intense focus on worldwide terrorism and the conflict in Iraq, the public's concern over the proliferation of nuclear weapons comes out in responses to what to do about Pakistan's sale of nuclear weapons technology to other nations. Twice as many respondents (64%) agree that the U.S. should put pressure on Pakistan to allow inspections to ensure it won't happen again as agree that such pressure should not be applied because it might result in an end to Pakistan's cooperation in the hunt for members of al Qaeda (32%).

The elimination of nuclear weapons can readily be derided as the impossible dream. But the search for security through new nuclear weapons could well become the impossible nightmare.

Nuclear weapons are inherently destabilizing. As has been demonstrated in Iraq, even a false alarm over nonexistent nuclear weapons can play a critical role in starting a war. And just the image of nuclear devices in the hands of terrorists--and what to do about it--is already a nightmare.

Isn't it time for genuine and serious consideration of the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, however long it may take? The PIPA survey suggests the public is beginning to believe it may well be. And doing so successfully will be one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century for the scientific and technological community.



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