Originally Published in the San Francisco Chronicle
With mounting casualties in Iraq and other news of the war dominating headlines, it’s no wonder that President Bush’s drive for a revolutionary breed of new nuclear weapons has gone largely unnoticed. Since Bush first came to office and presented the so-called Nuclear Posture Review, it has been clear that this White House has a dramatically different view of nuclear weapons compared with previous administrations.
The Nuclear Posture Review actively sought to find new uses for nuclear weapons, emphasized pre-emptive military action and shortened the timeline to restart nuclear tests in Nevada. The Bush administration has been actively pursuing new nuclear weapons that are explicitly for use on the battlefield. These tactical weapons — the powerful “bunker buster” Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator and “mini-nukes” less than 5 kilotons — turn the notion of strategic deterrence on its head and create a world in which nuclear weapons are seen as legitimate offensive alternatives.
Neither of these weapons was asked for by the Pentagon. They were not driven by a real threat. They will not make the United States any safer. Instead, the administration’s actions are having the opposite effect by erasing the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons. Russia has already indicated that it will develop new “tactical” weapons in response, and no one doubts our enemies will follow suit.
This is a major departure from where we were as a country only a few years ago and deserves serious debate. Do we want a world in which the United States is spurring a new global arms race with our own development of a new generation of nuclear weapons? Or do we want a world in which the United States, confident in the proven deterrence of our existing nuclear stockpile and the success of our conventional forces in every conflict since the Cold War, is able to lead the world in preventing the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons?
At the same time the administration is hunting for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it is paving the way to test nuclear weapons in Nevada and reigniting America’s nuclear weapons industry. This is like throwing gasoline on a fire.
What is perhaps most troubling is that the intense desire for these new weapons is fueled by ideology rather than a national security need. A recently leaked classified report by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board recommended pursuing new nuclear weapons, writing that the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator “has been requested, but much more needs to be done,” in spite of the fact that the Department of Defense has “neither clear requirements nor persuasive rationale for changing the nuclear stockpile.”
In fact, the administration’s two main arguments — that new nuclear weapons are needed so American scientists can think and excel and that the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator is needed to defeat terrorists — don’t stand up to scrutiny. The utility of bunker-busting nuclear weapons is highly questionable. Even the most powerful nuclear weapons cannot destroy every bunker, as there is virtually no limit to how deep enemies can tunnel. They will never surgically destroy targets, offer no guarantee of destroying chemical and biological agents without releasing them into the atmosphere and hinder our ability to gain valuable reconnaissance in the bunkers by making them radioactive. Moreover, even a 1-kiloton nuclear bomb — many times smaller than the warheads under consideration for a bunker-buster — would kill tens of thousands of civilians if detonated in an urban area.
These are not theories in a vacuum. Congress recently repealed the decades-old law forbidding research and development of nuclear weapons smaller than 5 kilotons and soon will provide millions of dollars for researching nuclear bunker-busters. Simply put, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, America is back in the business of developing new nuclear weapons.
A handful of my congressional colleagues and I tried to counteract the push for new nuclear weapons, but we were defeated by near-unanimous Republican support for the administration. I am gravely concerned that our minor successes in requiring the administration to provide a long-term plan for our nuclear weapons stockpile pales in comparison to what is to come on this perilous path.
We should learn from history. Nearly half a century ago, President Eisenhower rejected the counsel of advisers who wanted a new variety of nuclear weapons they said would allow the United States to fight a winnable nuclear war. Eisenhower responded, “You can’t have this kind of war. There just aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.” As we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, our conventional weapons can do the job. There is no military, scientific or strategic reason to go nuclear at this time — and every reason not to.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek, sits on the House Armed Services Committee and is a leader on nonproliferation.