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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Denver Post December 20, 2002

U.S. unlikely to use nukes against Iraq

By Greg Seigle

Although the White House has indicated a willingness to use nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive strike against an enemy planning a chemical or biological attack on U.S. soil or troops, military analysts say Bush would be extremely hesitant to unleash nuclear weapons in any war with Iraq.

"You'd have to be insane to use such an unpredictable, dangerous weapon when you can (destroy Iraqi forces) with plain old, garden-variety precision weapons," said Edward Luttwak, a nuclear-strategy expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington.

"Any attack by an enemy using weapons of mass destruction would have to be very perverse" in order to justify a nuclear response, Luttwak continued. "Conventional weapons would be much more effective anyway."

Late last week the administration announced a strategy that called for the U.S. to "respond with overwhelming force," including "all options," to the use of biological, chemical, radiological or nuclear weapons on the nation, its troops or its allies. Authorized are pre-emptive strikes on states and terrorist groups that are close to acquiring weapons of mass destruction or the long-range missiles to deliver them.

The policy is the president's way of reminding Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and all other adversaries that the U.S. military is capable of devastating an opponent who attempts to use or actually uses dastardly weapons first, analysts said.

But implementing such a policy may be somewhat more difficult than the rhetoric. Currently, most nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal are decades old and not fitted with the accurate precision guidance systems that most conventional bombs and missiles have, analysts noted. In the event of a war with Iraq, it is believed that about 80 percent of the U.S. bombs and missiles aimed at Iraqi targets would be satellite- or laser-guided smart bombs, as opposed to the roughly 20 percent used during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"From a military perspective, there's just no sense in using nukes," said Tim Brown, a senior analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, another think tank. "In terms of tanks destroyed or troops killed, smart bombs would meet or exceed the damage levels of nukes - and there's no political downside.

"I think the Iraqis will use chemical weapons, but I don't think we will respond with nukes. If they fire Frog missiles to gas Kuwait City ... or U.S. troops approaching Baghdad, we will annihilate the units that used them with precision munitions (fired) from 30,000 feet," Brown said.

But Frank Gaffney, a hard-line conservative who is president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, strongly disagreed, saying the United States should consider using chemical weapons in response to any used against its troops or allies, including Israel.

And concerning nuclear weapons, Gaffney said, "It would be my hope that we would have appropriate targets in mind and that we would use them" in response to any mass-casualty chemical or biological attacks."

While Gaffney stressed that he prefers that the United States does not ever use nuclear weapons, even after a chemical or biological attack, he did add: "Would we be justified? In principle, yes."

The fact that Bush is willing to even consider employing nuclear firepower has many analysts wondering just what weapons in the U.S. arsenal would be suitable for conducting tactical strikes, which aim to wipe out military objectives such as an armored regiment of the Republican Guard.

The United States virtually eliminated its supply of tactical nukes during the past 20 years because they are costly and dangerous, analysts said. As a result, the United States is left with mostly strategic warheads, which could incinerate a whole city or region if used. Some of these strategic weapons, particularly MX intercontinental ballistic missiles, are based in silos in the Rocky Mountain region. Trident missiles can be fired from U.S. submarines and a host of others could be delivered by a variety of bomber aircraft.

The only nuclear warhead in the U.S. arsenal that analysts said would be suitable for tactical strikes that limit collateral damage - civilian deaths - is the B61, a gravity or dumb bomb developed in the late 1960s. The B61 can be configured to pack up to 150 kilotons of power, although the yield can be minimized to 0.3 kilotons. By comparison, the weapons used against Japan in 1945 were 20-kiloton devices.

Copyright 2002 The Denver Post