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"Forget the Rest" blog

Beware the Nuclear Warrior

This response was first published by the Albuquerque Tribune on April 12, 2001.

Greg Mello

What does Paul Robinson, the director of Sandia National Laboratories, want?

Perhaps not surprisingly, Paul wants more kinds of nuclear weapons. But that's not all he wants. He also wants specific nuclear guidance, or "doctrine," as it is called in the nuclear priesthood, and he wants that doctrine blessed by the Commander-in-Chief. This doctrine would lay the basis for the actual military use of nuclear weapons in the Third World.

Such guidance already exists, to some extent, in secret form. Paul wants this kind of guidance made explicit. Explicit to whom? To the Joint Chiefs, who might doubt the value of nuclear weapons; to Congress, who funds these weapons; to the American public, who must at least passively acquiesce; and to the world, for whom such guidance is correctly understood as a threat. In other words, Paul would like the highest national authorities to publicly endorse the permanent value of nuclear weapons as the absolute arbiter of conflict. They also happen to be his laboratories' primary products. Such an endorsement would aid Paul's enterprise in every way, not just in recruitment and retention of staff, but also in funding and in providing a clear set of missions around which weapons managers can organize activity and contrive a sense of meaning.

The whole package would consist of the nuclear weapons, modified for their new roles, associated doctrines for their use, and pre-planned attack strategies for every potential aggressor country. He calls this "Capability Two," or the "To Whom It May Concern" nuclear arsenal. Such a formal structure does not currently exist. It would be created to complement what he calls "Capability One," the arsenal and war plans we have today.

Paul is "worried," he says, that the American public may not value nuclear weapons properly. He would have the public esteem the weapons made by his laboratories absolutely, not just as a temporary expedient, or liability as it may be, but as a unique, permanent, and irreplaceable cornerstone of our national life. He recognizes that we are a nation which likes its security in absolute terms, and suggests that our liberty be founded not so much on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as on the threat of nuclear annihilation for anyone who might successfully threaten our military forces anywhere on the planet. To achieve such absolute security, Paul offers us the absolute weapon.

The 1-kiloton "Ess" shot was conducted on 3/23/55 at the Nevada Test site by the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. It was a "crater" shot; this photograph shows the excavation at an early stage.

The Ess device had a yield somewhat smaller than the weapons Dr. Robinson proposes for his "Capability Two," i.e. Third World, arsenal.

A 1-kiloton explosion occurring at a depth of 50 ft in dry soil would create a crater of about 75 ft. in depth with a radius of about 135 ft.

A bunker located 200 ft. deep directly beneath the blast would probably ride out the explosion, and a very shallowly buried thin concrete arch structure 200 ft or more from ground zero almost certainly would . The air blast would, however, knock down nearly all homes and apartments -- and kill nearly all the people in them -- out to distances of greater than half a mile from the blast.

Those survivors of the blast who were exposed to the fission products incorporated in the dirt shown and in early fallout from the resulting cloud, could expect to receive anywhere from many hundred rems to a few thousand rems of radiation. Any such dose would be acutely fatal.

Fallout would also extend farther downwind to more distant and unpredictable locations, creating both acute and chronic casualties. To take a specific example, if the target in question were the Iraqi presidential bunker located in south-central Baghdad, there would be very roughly 20,000 people located within one-half mile of this target, making this number a rough lower bound for the estimated civilian causalties in this case.

In order to better communicate his ideas to the public and the world, Paul would like them to be enshrined in the "Nuclear Posture Review" now under way in the Bush Administration. This document will receive the imprimatur of the President, and possibly of Congress as well, and it will guide the actions of both Congress and the Executive, since it will be treated as a consensus national statement about nuclear weapons. In reality, it will have been written in secrecy by a few people like Paul Robinson.

After this, the next step for Paul and his friends would be to start embodying these ideas in new hardware, in revised military force structures and revitalized institutional cultures at the nuclear labs and plants, in new diplomatic relationships (or the lack of them), and in our military and trade alliances. If this could be accomplished to any degree, Paul and his friends, and their successors in the business, will indeed get what they want, and it will be very difficult to take it away from them and return to a semblance of democratic control.

Such actions as Paul recommends would collectively imply the abrogation or devaluation not just of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but the entire fabric of humanitarian law that constrains the violence of war. Such a shift need not require any painful political debate that would make us conscious of our precipitous decline as a culture and a nation. With Paul's program in place, it would just happen.

One day we might wake up and find ourselves having nuked a city full of real families near a military facility in Iran, let's say, to prevent a possible nerve gas attack on our soldiers, who were sent there to secure an oil field. It was regrettable, but the wind shifted, and there you have it. We would then turn a deaf ear to the outcry from every quarter, bully our way forward, and prepare for the revenge attacks here at home.

What Paul wants, in other words, is something even more than the (im)moral equivalent of the Cold War. Even during the Cold War, nuclear weapons had no enduring legitimacy, even as weapons of last resort, as numerous polls, treaties, U.N. resolutions, and our overall cultural record testify - with exceptions of course. The $6 trillion dollar nuclear weapons enterprise is something we have patiently endured, but never loved. Paul wants to change that.

Unlike during the Cold War, nuclear doctrine wouldn't be centered around "mutual assured destruction" (although this would remain in place as well), but around unilateral assured destruction, which would have as its cornerstone the willing infliction of civilian casualties in large numbers.

Paul may be a very genteel man, but his vision is, in the final analysis, a terrorist vision, in the dual sense that it would make state-sponsored terrorism the avowed policy of this country, as well as provide a most fertile soil for terrorism to grow in other countries. Let us hope that there are a few clear-eyed souls in the Bush Administration who can see some of the implications of what Paul proposes.

They will have to pay close attention, however, because Paul uses all the right buzzwords. He casts his proposals skillfully into the highly-euphemized speech preferred by the defense community. Often he rejects the plain-truth version of his program while suggesting a euphemistic alternative. For example, Paul says, "Nuclear weapons must never be considered as war fighting tools." This seems clear enough, but just one sentence later he offers three roles for nuclear weapons, two of which are precisely war-fighting roles.

In "Capability Two," unique attack options would be prepared for each potentially-hostile nation, and targets pre-programmed into the weapons themselves where possible. All aspects of such potential future nuclear attacks would, Paul recommends, be planned ahead of time by experts, because real-time response (by duly-elected leaders or their subordinates) "just cannot rise to the same level of sophistication as we could achieve in deliberative planning." The network of satellites we ostensibly built to monitor possible proliferant explosions would be used for real-time nuclear bomb damage assessment. One has the sense that Paul's plan would, in the end, bend many other plowshares into swords as well.

The "Capability Two" weapons would in general have explosive yields in the very low kiloton range, a convenient size because such weapons can be adapted in Paul's labs from existing designs without nuclear testing. Another factor in the selection of this yield range, he says, was to achieve some military effectiveness while "minimizing collateral damage."

There are more details, but if you just imagine yourself before "The Big Board" in Stanley Kubrick's classic movie "Dr. Strangelove," you will have the general drift of Paul's thought.

"BADGER" was a 23-kiloton tower shot fired April 18, 1953 at the Nevada Test Site by LASL.

Militarily speaking, it may come as something of a surprise that the weapons Dr. Robinson proposes to use cannot accomplish the objectives he sets out for them. He suggests that for deterrence to be effective, the U.S. should hold at risk the leadership of enemy countries, or at least their "ability to govern." But low-yield nuclear weapons--even weapons in the kiloton range--just cannot confidently destroy the deeply-buried facilities where those leaders are likely to be. As Dr. Robinson delicately puts it, there are "still perplexing issues of how to hold at risk hardened or deeply buried underground targets." Put another way, in any race between low-yield nuclear attack options and bunkers, bunkers win, hands down.

The "perplexing issues" Paul mentioned include:
· Identifying the "proper" target;
· Determining the precise location of the real target - which may be moving - within that target complex;
· Ascertaining the location of surface features that could be destroyed;
· Avoiding the risk, in the event of an attack on biological or chemical weapon depots, of a near-miss which would carry toxic or infectious agents great distances downwind;
· Destroying an underground bunker at more than modest depths (it doesn't happen);
· Dealing with the total inability, for fundamental physical reasons, to deliver any light-weight nuclear warhead more than a nominal distance into the earth; and finally,
· "Minimizing," as Dr. Robinson delicately puts it, so-called "collateral damage."

"Collateral damage" is a euphemism for the civilian death and destruction attendant upon a military attack. In the case of a nuclear weapon, even a small one, such "collateral damage" will be extensive. Weapons in the low kiloton range, as Dr. Robinson suggests might be appropriate for his "Capability Two," could easily cause hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of civilian deaths, depending upon target location.

In our office we have calculated the military effectiveness of low-yield nuclear warheads against current and former underground Iraqi targets. Even using optimistic assumptions about earth-penetrating nuclear weapons, modestly deep bunkers are not destroyed.

We have also crudely begun the process of assessing the resulting civilian deaths from such an attack on these same targets. The results are simply horrendous in every way. Intense air blast effects, even from underground explosions, and nightmare levels of local fallout will kill thousands of civilians over a wide radius in most cases. Increasing the yield of the weapon to attempt destruction of a deep target would just kill more civilians. And what is perhaps most telling is that no one can predict where, or how many, the casualties will be. Paul's use of the hopeful phrase "minimizing collateral damages" in this context suggests to me that the time has come for him to retire, or be retired.

Paul's plans are more than just ineffective and immoral. They are illegal.

In 1996, the International Court of Justice heard a case requested by the General Assembly of the United Nations regarding the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons. In brief, the Court found that all nuclear weapon use would be illegal, except possibly in the extreme case in which the very survival of a country was at stake.

Clearly, this condition would not be met in the case of an attack on U.S. troops by weapons of mass destruction, or by even the detonation of one or two nuclear weapons on U.S. soil. Even in the case of "very survival," the Court did not find for legality, but simply declined to rule.

Further, the Court found that any nuclear use would need to comply with the laws of war ("humanitarian law.") In brief, these laws - which are taught to every U.S. officer - ban the application of military force which cannot discriminate between combatants and non-combatants, or between neutral and belligerent countries, which is disproportionate to rational military objectives, or which is not actually militarily necessary.

Not even the smallest proposed "mini-nuke" can meet these tests, let alone the kiloton-range weapons Paul proposes. In fact, such use would likely be a war crime of high degree, and could be prosecuted as such. Under established principles of international humanitarian law, willful ignorance or blind obedience in such matters do not by themselves constitute a plausible defense against the assignment of responsibility for crimes carried out with such weapons. In other words, Paul himself could in theory be liable to prosecution, should the policies he advocates be put into practice.

Not only is the use of nuclear weapons, to all intents and purposes, banned by law - but the improvements Paul suggests making to the weapons, and in fact their very possession into the future, are policies that the United States has already agreed to end, in binding treaties and in official declarations pursuant to those treaties.

In 1968, the United States signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The essence of this treaty is a deal between the nuclear "haves," like us, who promised to get rid of their arsenals someday, and the nuclear "have-nots," who promised in return never to acquire nuclear weapons. It was a deal the United States strongly wanted then - and still needs today. In 1970 the treaty was ratified, making it part of what our Constitution calls the "supreme law of the land."

Some 182 countries have agreed not to possess or help develop nuclear weapons under this treaty, and the norms it establishes are vitally important, even without a direct mechanism for enforcement. Our nuclear disarmament commitment is spelled out in Article VI, which reads in full:

Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to complete nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.

This treaty establishes in law two important norms: do not improve nuclear weapons, and do not possess them - whether it is continuous non-possession, by most countries, and or eventual non-possession, by the five countries recognized as nuclear weapon states in the treaty.

It cannot be overemphasized that these norms were sponsored, advanced, and ratified by the full government of the United States, and continue to be advanced and supported in each and every international gathering reviewing the operation of this treaty.

It could be argued that to fulfill this commitment we have only to try, not necessarily to succeed, to end the arms race and to disarm. The U.S. used that argument before the International Court of Justice in 1996; it was unanimously rejected. The Court instead ruled that:

There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control. [emphasis added.]

These binding disarmament obligations have increased in political importance since the end of the Cold War. The most recent step in this process was the consensus statement reached, after an all-night session in May of 2000, by 155 NPT signatories (including the U.S. and the other nuclear weapons states), which reads in part as follows.

[To implement Article VI of the NPT, we commit to:]...An unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States and parties are committed under Article VI.

Fizeau was an 11-kiloton tower shot conducted on 9/14/57 at the Nevada Test Site by Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory.

What is important for Paul is the open abrogation of these binding commitments, and their replacement with quite different norms, ones which will make the work of his laboratories expressly legitimate. Should that happen, the nuclear nonproliferation regime established by the NPT will, unquestionably, unravel. Paul may be able to fool most of the people most of the time, but he will not fool the nations whose security is hazarded by his ideas.

For all these reasons and more, the deterrent Paul proposes would not be credible. Therefore it would not deter. Paul's "wider deterrent" would only be credible to the extent that it were - not only in perception but in actuality - mad.

Finally, any use of a nuclear weapon, whether in battle or in reprisal, would, in itself, comprise a total defeat for the U.S. military and its ideals. It is for those ideals, and not for a more passive concept of "security," still less for global empire, that our ancestors bled and died. The profession of arms acquires its dignity and its respect in society precisely because of its subservience to law and to those ideals, then and now. There is no doubt that Paul's plan, even prior to actual nuclear use, would corrode respect for the military and even for the United States itself.

If some leader or group sought to bring about the downfall of the United States, hardly a swifter means could be found than to lure some feckless U.S. leader into using a nuclear weapon. Such an act would martyr the enemy, provide a potent focus for simmering anti-U.S. resentments around the world, justify the use of weapons of mass destruction by our enemies, touch off a global scramble for those weapons and the means of their delivery, break apart the alliances on which we depend, liberate individual and organized violence in our own society, and delegitimize our government in the eyes of its citizens. It would indeed be an outlaw act; it would be widely recognized as such; and it would make of this country an outlaw nation.

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