Sunday, June 1 1997
Page C01, The Washington Post
The Cold War is over and the U.S. government says it is no longer
in the business of building new nuclear weapons. So why is it
deploying a versatile new kind of nuclear bomb intended to penetrate
the earth and destroy underground facilities?
This spring, the United States began fielding the first new nuclear
capability added to the U.S. arsenal since 1989 -- a slim, 12-foot-long
weapon known as the B61 "mod-11" gravity bomb. It was developed
and deployed without public or congressional debate, and in contradiction
to official assurances that no new nuclear weapons were being developed
in the United States. The government contends the B61-11 is merely
a "modification" to the B61-7 gravity bomb. And yet, these modifications
provide a substantial new military capability. This is significant
for three reasons:
From a military standpoint, the B61-11 is uniquely able to destroy underground
targets, and it can be set to do so with a small nuclear yield. With
such an underground blast, much of the resulting fallout might be relatively
localized. For these reasons, there are those who might be tempted
to rationalize using the bomb. Even before it was fully developed,
it was used to threaten Libya over its construction of an alleged underground
chemical weapons factory.
From a diplomatic standpoint, this new weapon violates the spirit of
the delicately forged international ban on nuclear testing. And
it further undermines the long-standing U.S. commitment to nuclear disarmament
embodied in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
From a development and production standpoint, the B61-11 may be the
first such new capability, but it will not be the last. It opens
the way for other new weapons now under development in the Department
of Energy's massive "stockpile stewardship and management program."
Current funding for this program exceeds the average spent by
DOE during the Cold War. Last month, nuclear pioneer Hans Bethe,
joined by Frank von Hippel of Princeton and others, warned that some
of this research could lead to entire new classes of weapons and should
But the B61-11 is a reality now, and raises fundamental questions about
the sincerity of the U.S. commitment to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
(CTBT), signed by President Clinton last September and due to be considered
for final ratification by the Senate this fall.
While producing the B61-11 apparently did not involve modifications
to the "physics package" -- the nuclear explosive itself -- there is
no question that the bomb provides a new nuclear capability. Although
the treaty is silent on the question of new weapons, U.S. negotiators
have explicitly said it is intended to prohibit such development.
The B61-11 fulfills a longstanding desire of the military for an earth-penetrating
weapon, a bomb that can get at command centers or other installations
designed to be invulnerable to all but the largest nuclear weapons.
The previous weapon with this mission was the B53, the highest-yield
weapon in the U.S. arsenal. Although not a true earth penetrator,
it was capable of taking out underground targets through brute force;
a nine-megaton bomb makes a large crater. The huge B53 weighs
8,900 pounds and can be delivered only by lumbering B-52 bombers.
The smaller and lighter (1,200-pound) B61-11 can be delivered by the
B-2A Stealth bomber, or even by F-16 fighters. It is far more
suitable for post-Cold War missions, penetrating as it does tens of
meters into the earth and creating devastating shock waves with substantially
less explosive power -- anywhere from just 300 tons to about 340 kilotons.
These lower yields are said to enhance its credibility as a deterrent.
The B53, goes the tortured logic, was too big and too dirty to use.
It would cause massive "collateral damage" above ground -- or,
in simpler language, the death of many innocent civilians. The
more modest B61-11 is considered relatively "useable" in such a context.
But useable where? What is the mission of the B61-11? For
years, nuclear planners sought to develop a weapon to hit deeply buried
Soviet command-and-control centers. But today Russia and the United
States are no longer adversaries.
Increasingly, U.S. nuclear strategists speak of holding targets at risk
in "rogue states." But since 1978, U.S. policy has expressly forbidden
U.S. forces from using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that
are signatories to the NPT, unless they are allied with a nuclear state
engaged in an act of aggression. Given this, the events surrounding
the arrival of the B61-11 are, at best, difficult to explain.
Interest in a B61-based earth penetrator appears to have been revived
with an October 1993 request by Harold Smith, assistant to the secretary
of defense for atomic energy, to explore alternatives to the B53. On
Nov. 29, 1994, the Nuclear Weapons Council Standing Safety Committee
endorsed the B61 plan. And on Feb. 6, 1995, Deputy Defense Secretary
John Deutch signed off on it.
On April 18, 1995, DOE submitted a classified request to six key members
of Congress to find funds for the B61-11. All necessary approvals
were in hand by late July. On Nov. 15, 1995, shortly after work
on the B61-11 was formally approved, Smith requested that the schedule
be accelerated. He asked that the first unit be delivered "as
soon as possible, with a goal of Dec. 31, 1996."
The response from the nuclear labs was positive. As the Los Alamos
employee newsletter "Weapons Insider" put it: " NWT [the Los Alamos
Nuclear Weapons Technology program] is committed to meeting the aggressive
schedule, and a significant reprogramming of resources has allowed us
to accelerate our progress."
The project is one the labs are keenly interested in. In recent
years, some military strategists have advocated deployment and possible
use of very small tactical nuclear weapons against Third World adversaries,
especially in earth-penetrating roles. Some of this advocacy --
perhaps most of it -- has come from the weapons labs. In the fall
1991 issue of Strategic Review, for instance, Los Alamos strategists
Thomas Dowler and Joseph Howard wrote: "Would policymakers employ
nuclear weapons to protect U.S. contingency forces if conventional weapons
proved inadequate, or would the nature of our present nuclear arsenal
`self-deter' policymakers from using those weapons?
"One possible answer to these questions might be the development of
nuclear weapons of very low yields...The existence of such weapons --
weapons whose power is effective but not abhorrent -- might very well
serve to deter a tyrant who believes that American emphasis on proportionality
would prevent the employment of the current U.S. arsenal against him.
"We doubt that any president would authorize the use of the nuclear
weapons in our present arsenal against Third World nations. It
is precisely this doubt that leads us to argue for the development of
In July 1992, Los Alamos conducted a high-level briefing called "Potential
Uses for Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons in the New World Order." One
theme of the briefing was that in future showdowns with Third World
states, "we need options besides defeat or use of inappropriately large
One option, suggested the briefing, was to develop and deploy "micronukes"
with a yield of some 10 tons of high explosives; "mininukes" with a
yield of 100 tons; and "tiny nukes" with a yield of 1,000 tons.
An earth penetrator with a yield of just 10 tons could, according to
a Los Alamos briefing chart, "hold buried leadership and C3 at risk."
And it could do that while keeping "collateral damage very localized."
Translation: You could threaten to blow up an enemy's headquarters
bunker and disrupt his command, control and communications without destroying
the surrounding area. Why did Smith insist in November 1995 on
setting such "aggressive deadlines" for the B61-11 project? Perhaps
the answer can be found in a series of statements offered the following
spring by administration officials, including Defense Secretary William
Perry. On March 28, 1996, Perry testified in the Senate in support
of the Chemical Weapons Convention. At one point, he said: "We
have an effective range of alternative capabilities to deter or retaliate
against use of the CW [chemical weapons]. The whole range would
be considered ...We have conventional weapons, also advanced conventional
weapons -- precision guided munitions, Tomahawk land-attack missiles
-- and then we have nuclear weapons." A few days later, Robert
Bell of the White House National Security Council spoke about the United
States having signed on to the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone (ANWFZ)
Treaty, a treaty that Libya had signed. "Each party pledges not
to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against an ANFWZ party. However,
[the treaty] will not limit options available to the United States in
response to an attack by an ANWFZ party using weapons of mass destruction."
At a breakfast meeting with defense writers, Smith went further. He
was quite specific regarding the possible preemptive use of nuclear
weapons. He spoke of the potential menace presented by a Libyan
chemical weapons factory under construction underground at Tarhunah,
40 miles southeast of Tripoli. At present, said Smith, the United
States had no conventional weapon capable of destroying the plant from
the air, and such a weapon would not be ready in less than two years.
However, by the end of the year, the United States would have a nuclear
warhead based on the B61 that would be able to do the job.
At the same time, administration officials began hedging on the "no-first-use"
pledge that President Clinton had reaffirmed only a year earlier.
When arms-control advocates questioned this apparent change in attitude,
the Pentagon tried to clarify matters. At a press briefing on
May 7, 1996, Defense Department spokesman Kenneth Bacon said there had
been some "confusion" in the press regarding the issue. "Should
military options be necessary [against Libya], we can accomplish this
with conventional means. There is no consideration to using nuclear
weapons and any implication that we would use nuclear weapons against
this plant preemptively is just wrong."
"Preemptively" seems to have been the operative word at the May 7 briefing.
Bacon also reiterated that the United States for years had reserved
the right to respond with "devastating force" if weapons of mass destruction
were ever actually used "against us or our forces."
Bacon went on to quote Perry, who said on April 26 at Maxwell Air Force
Base: "In every situation that I have seen so far, nuclear weapons
would not be required for response. That is, we could have a devastating
response without the use of nuclear weapons, but we would not forswear
Whatever message the administration spokesmen were trying to send regarding
the nuclear option, work on the B61-11 project continued on schedule.
At the same time, President Clinton was signing the test-ban treaty.
That treaty bans nuclear testing, but does not specifically address
weapons development or new deployments. However, stopping new
weapons is clearly a part of the treaty's intent.
Consider, for example, a January 1996 statement made in Geneva by John
Holum, director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, as
he pushed for completion of the CTBT: "Even the open literature
points to a broad array of new weapons developments...Many would involve
directed energy weapons -- ways to focus the release of energy with
greater precision than is now possible, to enable military effects well
beyond those available now. Without nuclear testing, the nuclear
weapon states will not be able to pursue confidently such technologies
as the nuclear-explosion-pumped X-ray laser, the so-called nuclear shotgun,
enhanced electromagnetic pulse weapons, microwave weapons, and enhanced
radiation weapons...And the true zero [yield] test ban will also place
out of reach new `mininuke' and `micronuke' concepts.
"So let there be no mistake -- the CTBT will help impede the spread
of nuclear weapons. But its great practical impact will also be
for arms control -- to end development of advanced new weapons and keep
new military applications from emerging."
The B61-11 may be a mere modification, a new shell for an older physics
package. It may not be the kind of exotic new weapon that Holum
listed. But it is a weapon with a new capability. Should
the need arise, it will allow U.S. military forces -- to borrow Holum's
words -- to "focus the release of energy with greater precision," in
a "new military application."
Why was it developed and deployed now? That's a question the Clinton
administration needs to answer. Because the real "collateral damage"
of new weapons like the B61-11 is likely to occur not in wartime, but
much sooner, through devaluation of the treaties and commitments upon
which the fragile non-proliferation regime rests.
Greg Mello directs the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear weapons
policy research and education organization located in Santa Fe. This
article is adapted from one that appears in the May/June issue of the
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
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