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U.S.: Pentagon Wants To Study Feasibility Of Battlefield 'Mini Nukes'

  • Kathleen Moore

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he wants to study the feasibility of small, "low-yield" nuclear weapons. The idea is that they may be useful in destroying chemical and biological agents like anthrax. As RFE/RL reports, Rumsfeld is stressing that the administration only wants to research, not develop, these weapons. But what exactly is a "mini nuke," and what are the risks of even pushing for their study?

Prague, 21 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The weapons the Pentagon wants to study are so-called "mini nukes" -- nuclear weapons with an explosive force of less than five kilotons of TNT.

At their maximum, that's about one-third of the force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II. Some 45,000 people are believed to have been killed in the initial blast.

The idea is that these "mini nukes" would be more effective than conventional weapons in destroying chemical or biological agents, especially such agents stored or manufactured in hardened underground bunkers.

General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke about the issue at the Pentagon yesterday.

"Nuclear weapons can have some effect on those [chemical and biological agents]. In terms of anthrax, it is said that gamma rays can destroy the anthrax spores, which is something we need to look at. And in chemical weapons, of course, the heat can destroy the chemical compounds and not develop that plume that conventional weapons might do that would then drift and, perhaps, bring others in harm's way," Myers said.

Proponents of low-yield nuclear weapons also say they're needed because America's bigger nuclear weapons are no deterrent against rogue states or terrorist groups. The argument goes that these bigger weapons are capable of causing mass death and destruction, so they are "too terrible to use" against an enemy.

Smaller weapons, such as low-yield nuclear devices, would be less devastating, so an enemy may believe the United States could use them. And that, arguably, makes them more of a deterrent.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that the government only wants to conduct research and it has no intention of developing these weapons, which were mentioned in the controversial "nuclear posture review" published last year by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.

But critics are already warning of the dangers of a new arms race. "The nuclear genie is a very difficult one to keep in the bottle," says Robert Hewson, the editor of "Jane's Air-Launched Weapons."

"If the U.S. decides that it's OK to do something, what is to stop anyone else following the lead of the world's only superpower? There has been a general moratorium on nuclear weapons development in the U.S. since the early 1990s. That lead has been followed by all of the world's major powers with the exception of India and Pakistan. Some people will put forward a very convincing argument why it is right for America to do this, [but] there is simply no way that you can then turn around to other people and then say, 'This is bad and you shouldn't do it,' " Hewson says.

Other critics say the Bush administration has its science wrong. An open letter yesterday by prominent weapons scientists says small nukes would actually be more likely to scatter biological or chemical agents than to incinerate them.

If the United States does decide to develop them, experts say Washington would not be violating any treaties. That's because the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty doesn't specifically ban the development of new types of weapons.

Still, Gary Samore, a senior fellow for non-proliferation at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, says such development would arguably violate the spirit of that treaty.

"A full development of a new type of nuclear weapon would probably require a resumption of nuclear testing so that scientists would be confident in the new design. If the U.S. were to resume nuclear testing, that wouldn't violate any treaties because the Comprehensive Test Ban [Treaty] is not in force, but it's very likely that a number of other nuclear powers would follow suit. Russia, China, India, and Pakistan and so forth would be likely to resume nuclear testing if the United States did," Samore says.

Samore says it would be much wiser for the United States to develop specialized conventional weapons instead.

"I think the political ramifications of using nuclear weapons, even mini nuclear weapons in a conflict, are so high that it makes their use very questionable. And I think the president is much more likely to decide to use precision conventional arms rather than mini nukes in any real conflicts in the future," Samore says.

The U.S. Senate last night voted to lift 10-year-old restrictions on research and development of small nuclear weapons. The House of Representatives is scheduled to consider a compromise that would allow research -- but not development.

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