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San Jose Mercury News March 15, 2002

Bush policy on nuclear weapons traced to Cheney after Gulf War

By Daniel Sneider

SAN JOSE, Calif. _ Revelations that the Bush administration is developing new nuclear weapons to target Iraq, North Korea and others have been greeted with alarm as a radical departure from established U.S. policy.

In reality, the Bush administration's nuclear strategy marks only the next step in the evolution of a policy that originated more than decade ago, during the previous Bush administration, and continued during the Clinton administration. Pentagon officials and nuclear planners have already put this into action, as revealed in government documents, including previously classified material made available to the San Jose Mercury News.

"What is new is that it's on the front page of the newspapers," said Jacqueline Cabasso, head of the Western States Legal Foundation, an anti-nuclear organization. The Bush policy is laid out in a classified Pentagon report called the Nuclear Posture Review, excerpts of which an anti-nuclear group revealed online Thursday. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the review, which is intended to guide the U.S. use of nuclear weapons, "puts in motion a major change in our approach to the role of nuclear offensive forces." The focus moves from deterring traditional nuclear-armed foes such as Russia toward coping with the spread of weapons of mass destruction _ nuclear, chemical and biological _ to countries such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya and Syria.

A shift in this direction began in 1990 under Vice President Dick Cheney when he was secretary of defense, and was accelerated after the Persian Gulf War. By the mid-1990s the Pentagon already was working to integrate the possible use of nuclear weapons to respond to biological or chemical attacks.

The Clinton administration issued a secret presidential directive in 1997, PDD-60, to retarget nuclear weapons toward rogue nations, experts say. The following year, as revealed in a previously classified document, the 4th U.S. Air Force Fighter Wing carried out an exercise testing its ability to withstand a North Korean chemical attack in South Korea and retaliate with nuclear weapons dropped from U.S. aircraft.

According to the excerpts, the review stresses the need to develop weapons that can burrow into and destroy buried bunkers where biological or chemical arms might be stored. It states that neither conventional weapons nor existing nuclear weapons "provide a high probability of defeat of these important targets." The document does not mention whether the United States would ever use nuclear weapons first to prevent a possible attack, a point of concern among opponents.

Bush administration officials have described this as the beginning of a policy review, denying there is a "day-to-day target list" for nuclear attack, as Secretary of State Colin Powell put it. "There is no new design out there," he told Congress earlier this week.

Some critics, however, have assailed the review as a dangerous change in U.S. nuclear doctrine.

"The NPR reflects a major shift in the military and ethical rationale for nuclear weapons, no longer defining them as devices of deterrence, but as weapons of war," said the San Francisco-based Global Security Institute.

But nuclear specialists, including some who are critical of this policy, argue that in one sense Powell is right _ this is not new.

"There is a substantial history of statements and declassified information that provides overwhelming documentation that _ declared policy or not _ a shift occurred very early on," says Hans Kirstensen, a nuclear researcher at the Bay Area-based Nautilus Institute who provided some materials to the San Jose Mercury News.

He traces the roots of this to 1990 when, with the Cold War winding down, Cheney told Congress that U.S. nuclear forces were needed not only to deter the Soviet Union but also "because there is a growing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and sophisticated weapons technology in the Third World."

During the Gulf War, the United States hinted directly to the Iraqi leadership that any use of biological or chemical weapons would trigger a U.S. nuclear response, although then President George Bush revealed later in his memoirs that he had ruled this option out. But the policy of keeping the enemy guessing _ "calculated ambiguity" _ remained intact.

"For obvious reasons, we choose not to specify in detail what responses we would make to a chemical attack," Clinton's defense secretary, William Perry, told Congress in 1996. "However, as we stated during the Gulf War, if any country were foolish enough to use chemical weapons against the United States, the response would be 'absolutely overwhelming' and 'devastating.' "

In the wake of the Gulf War the military grew increasingly concerned about programs to develop chemical and biological weapons and place them in protected underground bunkers, as the Iraqis had apparently done. During the Bush administration the U.S. Strategic Command, which controls nuclear forces, began to do "adaptive planning," allowing them to flexibly respond to emerging crises rather than rely on a fixed set of targets.

In 1993 the Clinton administration initiated the first review in an attempt to radically reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It met substantial resistance from the military and the nation's nuclear labs, and its 1994 Nuclear Posture Review ended up largely endorsing the status quo.

In a previously secret working paper from the review, the strategic command argued for the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons close to a "potential proliferator."

"An 'on-the-scene' or rapidly deployable nuclear force offers the potential of providing a more 'visible' and viable theater response than a force residing in the U.S.," the command wrote.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff codified this use of nuclear weapons in a "Doctrine for Joint Theater Nuclear Operations," issued in 1995 and revised the following year. While the dissolution of the Soviet Union has reduced the possibility of a nuclear exchange, the threat from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has grown, the Pentagon warned. The document details the use of specific nuclear weapons in places such as Europe, the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula and how they can be integrated into the battle plans of regional commands.

During this same period, the nuclear labs _ Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia _ began developing new weapons that could penetrate deep into the earth. In 1993 they began a program to modify the B-61, an older bomb dropped from aircraft, for this role. The redesigned bomb entered the nuclear stockpile by 1996, when a Clinton administration defense official described it as the "weapon of choice" to take out a buried Libyan chemical weapons plant. The nuclear review, however, says that more capable nuclear weapons still must be developed.

As reported Thursday by the San Jose Mercury News, programs to design these weapons are well underway. This broad effort is detailed in a "Report to Congress on the Defeat of Hard and Deeply Buried Targets," issued in July 2001 and made public recently by a New Mexico anti-nuclear watchdog group.

The report says there are hundreds of targets with shielding equivalent to 70 to 300 feet of concrete protecting command and control facilities and possible weapons of mass destruction. Only nuclear weapons, the report says, may be able to reach such targets and destroy the biological and chemical agents stored there without dispersing them into the surrounding environment.

"Nuclear weapons have a unique ability to destroy both agent containers and (chemical and biological) agents," the report tells Congress. "Lethality is optimized if the fireball is proximate to the target." The report says that regional commands must be ready to carry out attacks on such targets on short notice.

The Bush administration's nuclear review is the product of policymakers who have been longtime advocates. Stephen Younger, who heads a key Pentagon planning agency, is a Los Alamos nuclear weapons designer who argued publicly two years ago for deploying such bunker-busters. Others now in senior positions authored a study published in January 2001 arguing for developing new weapons for this purpose.

"This is a continuum, not an abrupt break with the past," said Janne Nolan, a specialist on nuclear weapons policy and the director of the Eisenhower Institute. "The whole policy just crept along like a slow-moving car accident."


Excerpts of the Nuclear Posture Review are available at http://www.globalsecurity.org.


(c) 2002, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).