Tuesday, April 13, 2004

The War: Defense Science Board Calls for Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons

It seems the Pentagon wants low-yield nuclear weapons. Consider this excerpt from the Defense Science Board's Report on Future Strategic Strike Forces:

Over a decade ago, new nuclear weapons production ended. Plutonium fabrication--a key requirement for making nuclear weapons--came to an abrupt halt when Rocky Flats shut down in 1989 and is just now planned to be restored at very modest levels. Nuclear testing stopped in 1992 and the U.S. continues to observe a testing moratorium. A sense of "nuclear drift" characterized the early post-Cold War period, with falling budgets, personnel upheavals, no clear mission for the nuclear complex, and the like. . . .

. . . The current vision for the nuclear stockpile is focused on refurbishing legacy nuclear weapons from the Cold War, and modifying some to lower yield. What has been severely curtailed, however, is work to push the envelope in nuclear design. For deterrence to be effective, we at a minimum must be seen as having the capability to destroy what an adversary values most, as well as having the will to use this capability. We join others in judging that a credible force should include, for ex-ample, some nuclear weapons that cause much less collateral damage to achieve their desired effects against the highest priority targets. The problem is that the current plan embedded in the SSP consumes virtually all available resources simply to sustain the aging stockpile of declining relevance. The sole exception is the proposed Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), including the low-yield options, which is a step in the right direction. . .

. . . We envision a future nuclear stockpile that retains (1) some legacy weapons (by which we mean the high-yield weapons that were designed for the Cold War threat), (2) some legacy weapons modified for lower yields, and (3) some number of new weapons based on previously tested nuclear devices and designs. Currently the plan is almost exclusively oriented toward refurbishing the legacy weapons through life-extension programs and the more recent RNEP activity. We would significantly scale back on the former effort in order to shift focus, and free up resources, for acquiring weapons based on previously tested devices and designs that have quite different characteristics than the legacy weapons: lower yields, special effects (all with greatly reduced fission yield), robust performance margins, and ease of manufacture and maintenance under today’s conditions.
In short, the board wants practical nuclear weapons for use against today's threats.

Although the Defense Science Board's does not make radical calls (the board did not recommend the US withdraw from the nuclear test ban treaty), it is refreshing to see it address a long neglected fact: the US's current nuclear arsenal does not deter everyone, and against those enemies, the US needs more advanced and precise ways to strike.

Not everyone is pleased with the Defense Science Board's newfound determination. According to one news report:

"Pre-emptive nuclear war, that's what they're pushing, and it's absolute madness," said Bob Peurifoy, a former Sandia National Laboratories weapons manager. "Nuclear weapons are the absolute weapons of last resort. If we're losing American cities, then we should respond (with nuclear strikes). Short of that, I can't see any use of weapons with any nuclear yield, I don't care how low."
Madness? Hardly. Allowing terror states like North Korea and Iran to arm themselves with nuclear weapons because the US did not have the right deterrent that could destroy the nuclear facilities of each is the real madness.

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