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Pentagon Wants New Generation Of Smaller Cheaper Nukes

decades ago
 by Pamela Hess
 Washington (UPI) Apr 02, 2004
A panel of independent advisers is counseling the Pentagon to develop smaller, specialized nuclear weapons using money saved from cutting back on the number of older nuclear warheads and their attendant maintenance costs.

The Pentagon has already earmarked $500 million over the next five years for research into a "Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator," a nuclear missile that could burrow into underground bunkers to attack an enemy's nuclear or chemical missile programs.

The program is controversial: The United States has not produced a new nuclear weapon in more than a decade, and has not tested its warheads with an actual explosion since 1992. Congress put significant restriction on spending for RNEP, requiring two separate approvals before Congress before a new weapon can be built.

The Pentagon insists the weapon is needed.

"Underground facilities are proliferating throughout the world," said Linton Brooks, the director of the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration, at a meeting with reporters Thursday. "Generic dictators are only deterred by (the United States) holding what they value at risk. They tend not to value their population but their instruments of power."

Those instruments of power are likely to be hidden deep underground where a conventional military assault can't reach them.

"We want to make it absolutely clear he doesn't have any invulnerable sanctuary," Brooks said.

Brooks said the missile is intended to deter a dictator from developing his own nuclear capabilities in underground facilities. Militants are unlikely to be dissuaded from their nuclear ambitions no matter what weapons the United States has, Brooks said.

The new missile is still in the investigative stages. Under the current concept, it would be encased in an extremely hard shell and detonate a explosions to sequentially break through layers of rock or concrete and then discharge its nuclear warhead.

Because the warhead would, notionally, be buried, the radioactive fallout and collateral damage to surrounding civilian areas would be far less than a standard surface detonated nuclear weapon.

There would be some fallout, however, Brooks told PBS in a television show to be aired April 2.

"This will be a weapon that will still cause collateral damage. It will still cause fallout. It will still be a hugely serious decision. But it will be quantitatively and qualitatively different from conventional weapons," Brooks told "Now, with Bill Moyers."

He said Thursday the United States would consider the "generic dictator's" population to be hostages that must be protected in a war. Taking out the dictator's capabilities underground might be the best way to do that, he said.

"Do we want a future president to have a capability like this in his hip pocket? I don't know," Brooks said.

But the question should be investigated, he insisted.

"Let get me the money I've asked for and let me study the weapon," he said. "If we decide it is technically feasible, and the president decided to refine the design, then Congress has to approve that."

If after it is designed, the White House wants to build it, Congress also requires that it have approval power for production, he said.

Not everyone agrees the new weapon would be needed.

Retired Air Force Gen. Chuck Horner told PBS he is not convinced.

"I'm not necessarily in favor of developing a small penetrating low-yield nuclear weapon," he said, according to a transcript made available to United Press International.

Horner, who commanded the air assault during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, warned that nuclear weapons carry "political baggage."

"During the Gulf War, I said to myself, what would I use these weapons for? How would I use them? We weren't gonna do it, but I had to say to myself, if I was (going) to do it, what would I do? So I sat down with a nuclear planner. ... The only thing nuclear weapons were good for, really, was busting cities. And if we go around killing women and children in cities, we've lost the war."

The new report from the Defense Science Board says that for a bunker-busting nuclear weapon to be a dissuading factor against a dictator with nuclear ambitions, that dictator would have to be convinced the United States would be willing to use the weapon.

"We join others in judging that a credible force should include ... some nuclear weapons that cause much less collateral damage to achieve their desired effects against the highest priority targets," the report states.

According to the report, the problem with developing this capability is one of both politics and money.

"The problem is that the current plan embedded in the Stockpile Stewardship Program consumes virtually all available resources simply to sustain the aging stockpile of declining relevance," the report states.

The United States has about 7,000 strategic nuclear warheads and has agreed with Russia to draw them down to about 2,000 over a course of several years. Those weapons have to be maintained and an expensive computer modeling program run to determine whether the weapons could be safely used if they were needed.

"Changing this plan requires ... leadership from the Defense Department to state clearly and persuasively the specific requirements for a different nuclear stockpile," the report states.

Brooks report to the Congress on the size and state of the nuclear stockpile is two weeks overdue. He said it is being reviewed by the Pentagon before being sent to the White House and then will go to Capitol Hill.

Brooks also said nuclear material from old weapons currently stored at Los Alamos, N.M., would be moved to a facility in Nevada. The Los Alamos site could not be properly defended because it sits at the bottom of a canyon.

"The material couldn't be secure there," Brooks said.

One half the special nuclear material stored at Los Alamos will begin to be moved in September over an 18-month period. The Washington-based Project on Government Oversight said the move to the Device Assembly Facility at the Nevada Test Site will save the government about $30 million a year. POGO recommended the movement of the material for security reasons in October 2001.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2004 by United Press International. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by United Press International. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of by United Press International.

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