Global Policy Forum

Encouraging Nuclear Proliferation

New York Times
February 10, 2005

Link to New York Times original article

There are many things the United States military badly needs these days, like better armored vehicles for combat zones like Iraq and more unpiloted aircraft for reconnaissance and bombing. One thing it has no pressing use for is a new line of nuclear warheads being designed at America's three nuclear weapons laboratories to replace the roughly 10,000 still on hand from the overbuilding frenzies of the cold war. This is essentially a make-work project for weapons designers that risks triggering a new worldwide nuclear arms race. America's nuclear creativity should be focused on convincing nations like Iran and North Korea that nuclear weapons will not enhance their own security, not on setting a perverse contrary example.

Nuclear weapons are extremely ill suited for most conceivable battlefield situations. They are unique in their power to destroy innocent civilian lives, and there are almost always cleaner, more efficient ways to destroy purely military targets. Since the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki almost 60 years ago, they have never again been used in combat.

The American arsenal no longer serves its cold war purpose of deterrence. This is an era of conventional combat against lesser military powers, of counterinsurgency operations and global military campaigns against terrorism. American technological supremacy now finds its most effective military expressions in "smart" conventional weapons, like laser-guided bombs and pilotless aircraft and the powerful new satellite reconnaissance and computer communications networks.

Back home, however, Pentagon planners and nuclear scientists keep trying to think up new uses for nuclear arms, from miniaturized battlefield weapons to large bombs designed to pulverize underground unconventional weapons labs - provided, of course, that the targeters know where such labs are. The other main argument put forward for designing new nuclear weapons concerns reliability. With nuclear testing indefinitely suspended, some weapons scientists argue that some of the bombs in America's vast but aging stockpile may not detonate properly if they are ever used.

That is a legitimate theoretical concern, but it has already been addressed. Since the Clinton era, Washington has lavished money on elaborate programs to test and analyze critical components of stockpiled nuclear weapons and run computer simulations as a substitute for underground testing.

Since late last year, however, America's nuclear labs have been instructed to design a new line of heavier nuclear warheads that would be more rugged and long-lasting than those now available. For now, the program is limited to design, not construction and testing. But once the designs are complete, the pressure to test the bombs is sure to mount. After that will probably come calls to spend trillions of dollars for new missiles to carry these heavier nuclear warheads.

This program sends a clear message to the rest of the world: now that the superpower arms race has ended, Washington sees nuclear weapons as an important part of its military strategy against small and midsize states. It should be no surprise if those nations conclude that they must develop nuclear weapons of their own.

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