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Experts will discuss nuke policy, new threats at Neb. base
by Jake Thompson
Omaha Herald, 1 August 2003
A meeting involving 150 experts next week at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska will be the most significant examination of America's nuclear weapons capabilities since a similar event was held at Offutt in 1995, a Defense Department spokesman said Wednesday.
Maj. Michael Shavers said the Aug. 7 meeting hosted by the Strategic Command will be "fairly broad and wide-ranging," but he declined to say directly whether the topic of mini- nuclear weapons will be on the table.
Mini-nukes could be used to destroy targets such as reinforced bunkers holding chemical or biological weapons with less damage to surrounding areas, administration officials and government scientists have said.
The meeting, he said, will examine the nation's nuclear weapons systems and the role they should play in the future to serve as a nuclear deterrent to potential adversaries.
A former national security analyst on Capitol Hill called the meeting a responsible response to new threats that confront the United States, particularly worthy in light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"We have an arsenal that was to deter the Soviet Union. Now we need to figure out who we need to deter and what you need to do that," said Celeste Ward Johnson, now a fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies think tank. "The Cold War has been over now a long time, yet our forces still reflect a Cold War mission."
A focus of the StratCom conference will be what is called the Stockpile Stewardship Program, a system adopted in the 1990s to use nonnuclear experiments, computer modeling and other measures to check the viability of the nation's nuclear weapons without actual testing.
The last nuclear tests by the United States were done more than a decade ago.
In the Moscow Treaty signed by President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2002, the United States committed to reducing its nuclear weapons stockpile by 2012.
With increased reliance on a smaller number of nukes and a new focus on their offensive and defensive uses, the conference aims to take stock of the stewardship program's ability to ensure safe and reliable nuclear weapons as a deterrent to attack, Shavers said.
Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan administration defense official now at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said the meeting is "very important" given a big debate in Congress and within the Bush administration about the role of America's aging nuclear arsenal and whether to develop a new generation of mini-nukes.
The mini-nukes debate is particularly dicey, Korb said, because the United States has held a moral high ground by not setting off nuclear tests. Other nations such as India and Pakistan have earned sharp criticism from the world community for testing nuclear weapons.
If the United States seeks to build a new generation of weapons, that could lead to new tests.
"If you test again on developing new nuclear weapons, there goes the whole nonproliferation effort," Korb said.
Among those attending the Offutt meeting, Shavers said, will be officials from the Defense Department, the Department of Energy, StratCom, senior military officers, civilians from the National Nuclear Security Administration, the State Department and the National Security Agency, and representatives from the nation's nuclear laboratories, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore.
(c) 2002, Omaha World-Herald.
The Nuclear Option
by Ian Mather
Scotland on Sunday August 3, 2003
FOR the past decade they have travelled the world, haranguing its leaders about the effects of globalisation, campaigning for "fair trade" and chanting about the dangers of climate change. But in Nebraska this week, demonstrators will gather outside an orange brick building where they will rally to the cause of an old favourite - fighting the nuclear bomb.
The marchers will mass outside the headquarters of the American Strategic Air Command, where a meeting of Bush administration officials and nuclear scientists is to discuss plans to build a new generation of nuclear weapons and to resume nuclear testing. Among those who will address the protest will be four survivors of the Hiroshima bomb.
The protesters say the administration's plans will wreck treaties that limit the development and spread of nuclear weapons and give the green light to other countries to re-start nuclear weapons programmes.
The meeting of the US government's 'Future Arsenal Panel' at Offutt Air Force Base, Omaha, was supposed to be secret. But details were leaked to the Los Alamos Study Group, which monitors nuclear research at America's nuclear weapons laboratories.
The Pentagon has confirmed the meeting will be attended by its own officials, representatives from the National Nuclear Security Administration, scientists from America's two main nuclear laboratories and other nuclear experts. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is not expected to attend. It adds only that the purpose is "to discuss issues regarding the current status and future projections concerning the US nuclear arsenal".
But the agenda reveals more. The administration is considering developing a generation of small nuclear weapons, known as mini-nukes. They include nuclear 'bunker busters' - heavy, missile-like bombs with hardened noses that penetrate the ground before exploding.
Such weapons already exist, but armed only with conventional explosives. To the embarrassment of the White House, the most powerful conventional bunker buster ordnance in the US inventory failed to kill al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the caves of Afghanistan's Tora Bora, from which they later emerged and escaped. The same type of weapon was also dropped on Baghdad in attempts to kill the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
The nuclear bunker busters would be thousands of times more powerful than the conventional type. A nuclear penetrator would be built in the shape of a thin cylinder with a pointed nose. Dropped from an aircraft, its weight and speed would enable it to smash through the surface of the ground or puncture rock or concrete. It would bury itself 20ft to 30ft before exploding. The power of the explosion would 'couple' with the earth to send shock waves down towards underground targets.
Indications that the Bush administration wants to start building nuclear weapons again after a lengthy pause surfaced last year when it produced a Nuclear Posture Review, the first comprehensive analysis of nuclear weapons strategy for 10 years, in which it argued for the right to use nuclear weapons first against non- nuclear states, breaking a taboo that existed throughout the Cold War.
Among situations discussed in which the United States would engage in a first use of nuclear weapons, were "a North Korean attack on South Korea, or military confrontation over the status of Taiwan".
The review also argued for developing mini-nukes to support such a strategy. It was coupled with a request to Congress for dollars 70m to study new types of nuclear weapons.
The administration argues that America's nuclear arsenal is still made up of Cold War nuclear weapons that were designed to attack the Soviet Union. These are being drastically reduced in number, from some 11,000 warheads at the height of the Cold War to around 6,000 today, and between 1,700 and 2,200 in 10 years.
But the threat - particularly since September 11, 2001 - is now from 'rogue' nations such as North Korea, Iran and Libya, which require different kinds of US nuclear weapons from those developed to threaten entire cities.
President George W Bush wants his armed forces to be equipped with smaller, more accurate weapons for hitting elaborate bunkers hundreds of feet underground where leaders of 'rogue' states can now survive an attack by the biggest conventional weapons that US forces can throw at them.
Special forces or laser-guided conventional bombs could cut off a bunker's power supplies, ventilation and exits. But the only way to destroy a bunker directly is by creating powerful shock waves that travel through the ground, US defence intelligence officials say.
At the top of the bunker hit list is North Korea, despite the news last week that it has agreed to multilateral talks, which will include the Americans. The North Koreans have developed advanced tunnelling equipment and improved building materials that allow them to dig deeper, more quickly and more stealthily. They can make their bunkers stronger and put them in places where US surveillance has more difficulty in finding them.
"Without having the ability to hold those targets at risk, we essentially provide sanctuary," J D Crouch, an assistant secretary of defence, said earlier this year.
US officials also say that the vaporising blast of a nuclear bomb might be the only way to destroy an enemy's chemical or biological weapons.
General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says nuclear weapons could be crucial tools for destroying such weapons without causing widespread loss of life. "Gamma rays can destroy anthrax spores, which is something we need to look at. And the heat of a nuclear blast can destroy chemical compounds and make them not develop the plume that would drift and bring others in harm's way."
In addition to bunker busters, other new options under consideration are 'battlefield' nuclear weapons with small yields that can be used by troops, and bombs that emit high levels of radiation but less heat and blast, and so would kill people but leave buildings intact.
In another controversial move, the Bush administration is considering resuming nuclear testing, to try out the proposed new designs. Although Congress refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Bush administration has until now followed the Clinton administration in honouring its terms and the US has not tested a nuclear weapon since 1993.
But the Bush administration has already approved the resumption of the production of plutonium parts for new nuclear weapons. It has also launched a preliminary design competition between Los Alamos and the other major US nuclear weapons laboratory, Lawrence Livermore, to design a thermonuclear bunker-buster.
These moves have sparked rising concern among the arms control community as well as re-activating the anti- nuclear protest movement.
Opponents argue that the new mini-nukes will blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons because their explosive power is smaller, making it easier to take a political decision to use them. They also argue that, if the US reneges on the test ban treaty, countries such as China, Pakistan and India will also start testing again, increasing the risk of a regional nuclear war.
Countries that have signed the non-proliferation treaty, pledging not to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for self-imposed restraint by the nuclear powers, may also be tempted to try to join the nuclear club, the protesters say.
"It is impossible to overstate the challenge these plans pose to the comprehensive test ban moratorium, and US compliance with the non -proliferation treaty," said Greg Mello, head of the Los Alamos group. "This administration doesn't believe in treaties or the rule of law."
David Culp, of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, an American Quaker lobby group, said: "If we resume testing, you will see the Russians resume testing. It is no secret that there are hawks in Russia, just like there are in the United States, and for many years people in their military and in their weapons laboratories have been arguing that Russia needs to develop a new small tactical nuclear weapon that would be deployed in Eastern Europe, primarily along the Belarus-Polish border."
Critics also doubt that the nuclear bunker-busters would be able to burrow deep enough before exploding to contain the fallout they would create.
Sidney Drell, a Stanford University physicist, has calculated that destroying a target dug 1,000ft into rock would require a nuclear weapon with a yield of 100 kilotons -- more than six times that of the Hiroshima bomb.
The explosion of a nuclear bomb of that size would launch enormous amounts of radioactive debris into the air and contaminate a huge area, he says. And, to contain fallout from a one kiloton bomb, the warhead would have to penetrate an estimated 220ft - many times the depth achievable by any current earth -penetrator warhead.
The political fallout from the new Bush doctrine is not confined to the anti - nuclear fringe. A number of leading Democrats have also come out against it.
California senator Diane Feinstein said: "This administration seems to be moving toward a military posture in which nuclear weapons are considered just like other weapons. Their purpose is not simply to serve as a deterrent but they would be a usable instrument of military power, like a tank, a fighter aircraft, or a cruise missile.
"The effect of such a development could well be to legitimise the production of these new nuclear bombs by other countries and make them that much more likely to fall into the hands of enemy states or terrorist groups."
This week's meeting takes place against the background of a struggle in Congress. For 10 years all research on weapons with a payload of less than five kilotons has been banned under the Spratt-Furse Agreement. Earlier this year the Senate voted to end the ban, provided the Pentagon and Department of Energy sought authorisation from Congress before researching development of low-yield nuclear weapons. But the House of Representatives voted to keep it.
The two sides are expected to try to settle their differences in a House -Senate conference committee this month.
A bill before Congress would provide dollars 15million for research and testing of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, dollars 6million to research other advanced nuclear concepts and dollars 25million to resume the nuclear testing programme.
Officials of the National Nuclear Security Administration, a branch of the US Department of Energy responsible for the US nuclear weapons industry, say that one reason for this week's meeting is 'stockpile stewardship', making sure the US nuclear arsenal is in working order. Since the test ban was introduced, the US has tested its weapons using computer simulation.
"We have no requirements for new nuclear warheads, and we are not developing nuclear warheads," said John Harvey, NNSA's director of policy planning. "That said, part of our responsibility is to understand what the options are."
Meanwhile, after spreading the word via the activists' website, protest.net, the anti- nuclear demonstrators have begun to gather in Omaha for what they describe as an "international event full of activities, including educationals/workshops, a commemoration of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a rally, peace concert and a march".
It could feel like 1980 all over again.
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