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We Keep Building Nukes For All the Wrong Reasons
[FINAL Edition]
The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.
Subjects: Research & development; R&D; Weapons of mass destruction; Politics; Nuclear weapons
Author: Blair, Bruce G
Date: May 25, 2003
Start Page: B.01
Section: OUTLOOK

Yet last week Congress approved further research on nuclear bunker busters, weapons that can penetrate deeply into the ground before exploding, and "mini-nukes," weapons with explosive yields below five kilotons. Although spending on these programs will remain minuscule by Pentagon standards, the stakes are higher than the dollars suggest. America's nuclear future hangs in the balance. The underlying question: If the United States wants to reduce nuclear tensions and arsenals, why is anyone at the Pentagon even thinking about building new nuclear weapons?

In the public debate over bunker busters and mini-nukes, it is commonly assumed that the weapons' primary targets are the states still turning on the "axis of evil" -- Iran and North Korea -- as well as the other leading candidates for that dubious distinction: Syria, Sudan, Libya and Algeria. All have aspired at one time or another to acquire chemical and biological, if not nuclear, weapons. These countries indeed have come into the nuclear cross hairs of the U.S. Strategic Command (SAC) in Omaha, Neb. Nuclear targeting of a dozen or so countries is a cottage industry now that President [Bush] has blessed the notion that U.S. nuclear weapons can, and should, be adapted for use against a growing list of enemy weapons in a widening array of circumstances. That notion was floated by Bush's 2001 Nuclear Posture Review, and codified in presidential nuclear guidance issued in 2002.

This argument is self-serving for the national laboratories. Officials there recognize that their mission is shrinking. Where nuclear weapons once offered unique military solutions, precision conventional weapons now can do the job. As long as two decades ago, a SAC study found that most of the Soviet "soft" targets, such as electricity generating plants located east of the Ural Mountains, could be destroyed by cruise missiles armed with conventional warheads. SAC actually proposed replacing nuclear weapons with such warheads in the U.S. strategic war plan. But both Strategic Command and the nuclear laboratories are peddling the case for bunker busters and mini-nukes because of their own stakes in new nuclear weapons.

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