Don’t Make Mini-Nukes

June 9, 2003

By John Holum

International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON, DC–Even as U.S. forces struggle to consolidate victory in a war justified largely to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the White House is preparing to build and test new nuclear weapons for America’s own arsenal. The administration supports provisions in the 2004 Defense Authorization Bill eliminating a 1994 ban on low-yield nuclear weapons, funding research on them, and compressing the time needed to prepare nuclear tests.

Supporters argue that low-yield nuclear weapons, so-called mini-nukes, could be an answer to the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The reasoning goes that conventional weapons are too weak to destroy deeply buried bunkers and existing nuclear weapons are too strong. Mini-nukes, though, would be just right – they could destroy such targets but limit collateral damage. The president could then credibly threaten rogue states with nuclear attack – expanding the “preemption” doctrine to explicitly embrace the first use of nuclear weapons. So in Iraq, for example, rather than invading, we could simply have launched nuclear warheads against those 40-odd sites thought to hold Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

In fact the Iraq experience reveals why the case for mini-nukes is technically dubious as well as politically foolish – a spur, rather than an impediment, to the spread of weapons of mass destruction. No adversary will conveniently stockpile such weapons in a single remote site – and even if they did, it’s unlikely the U.S. would have intelligence reliable enough to justify a preemptive nuclear strike. As is increasingly and painfully obvious, we certainly didn’t have it in Iraq.

Moreover, mini-nukes would not fill the bill. An explosion capable of destroying hardened underground sites would, by definition, rip up massive quantities of earth, contaminate it with radiation, and disperse it into the atmosphere, generating fall-out that would kill and sicken many thousands of civilians. Even a 5-kiloton mini-nuke, roughly one-third the Hiroshima bomb, would be massively more than a surgical strike. In Iraq, again, imagine the political and economic rebuilding job after several dozen “small” nuclear explosions.

The political effect of mini-nukes, meanwhile, would be to foster proliferation and undercut international efforts to prevent it. It’s no accident that, after Iraq, the other two members of President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” have both intensified their efforts to make nuclear weapon ingredients – North Korea by moving to reprocess spent fuel into plutonium, Iran by preparing to enrich uranium. When you put countries in the crosshairs, you should not be surprised when they hasten toward a deterrent.

Putting nuclear weapons even more explicitly in the picture would be used to legitimize other countries’ nuclear answers. Further, after decades of steady progress to reduce the numbers and roles of nuclear weapons, U.S. development of new kinds of weapons, with new missions, and lowered barriers to use – together with the resumed nuclear testing required to build them – would surely stimulate an unraveling of the international consensus against nuclear arms.

The security case for mini-nukes is so weak as to suggest perhaps a different motive. In Fort Greeley, Alaska, the administration is slapping up an “operational” national missile defense site that no president in his right mind would ever seriously rely on to intercept an incoming missile. It does, however, intercept the hated ABM Treaty, justifying and solidifying the president’s withdrawal last year. Perhaps mini-nukes have a comparable purpose – to manufacture a need to end the moratorium on nuclear testing initiated by Bush’s father in 1992 and to formally repudiate the hated Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996. The four years from 1989 to 1993, the first Bush presidency, were arguably the most productive time ever for arms control and nonproliferation. It will be a sad thing if that legacy is now being dumped by the first President Bush’s son for the sake of checking boxes on an extremist agenda. Worse, it will be a defeat for nonproliferation, and a dangerous thing for the country.

The writer served as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security during the Clinton administration.

John Holum is currently a member of the Bipartisan Security Group, a program of the Global Security Institute.

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