NUCLEAR AGENDA 2005
Bush Charts New Generation of Warheads
by Chesley Hicks
Despite the Cold War's conclusion 15 years ago, the United States' being
party to several anti-nuclear proliferation treaties, and President Bush's
strident commands for the cessation of all nuclear weapons programs in the
Middle East and Asia, the current administration is promoting domestic
nuclear programs that could initiate another arms race.
In November 2004, anti-proliferation advocates felt a jolt of optimism when
the Republican-majority congress hamstrung the Bush administration's
proposals for the institution and expansion of four controversial nuclear
programs. However, during its recent February 2005 federal budget request,
the administration revived efforts to fund the programs.
During the 2004 session, Congress eliminated funding for two programs:
research into the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), or "bunker
buster," a nuclear bomb that can tunnel deep beneath the earth's surface,
and "advance concepts" research that would seek to design a new generation
of nuclear weapons. Similarly, funding was severely curtailed for the
development of a new "Modern Pit Facility." A pit facility is a factory
that produces the fissile cores--the plutonium detonators--for nuclear
weapons. Presently, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico
produces small numbers of these plutonium pits, but the National Nuclear
Security Administration (NNSA) seeks to a build a larger, advanced factory
(at a still undisclosed location) that will produce them in greater numbers
and with new designs.
With bipartisan support, Representative David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), Chairman
of the House Energy Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water
Development, spearheaded the 2004 opposition, emphasizing that the
country's current security issues do not call for more nuclear warheads,
and that the government's mandate should be to reduce the absurdly
redundant nuclear stockpile rather than add to it.
Congress also requested a revision of the nuclear "Stockpile Plan," which
describes the size and structure of the country's nuclear arsenal.
Congress' message was that new money will not be allocated to nuclear
programs that do not articulate definitive goals--which is how many of the
Bush Administration's nuclear pursuits have been characterized.
Hobson redirected $9 million the administration had requested for the
advanced concepts research toward studies to instead improve the
reliability and lifespan of existing warheads. Calling it research for a
"reliable replacement warhead," the initiative acknowledges nuclear
advocates' contention that the country's aging arsenal needs fixing, but
underscores Hobson's hope to ultimately reduce the arsenal, albeit with
fewer but better weapons.
Which is where matters get murky. In the president's budget released the
first week in February 2005, the Energy Department sought--reportedly at
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's behest--$4 million to continue the
"bunker-buster" study. If the DOE request passes, presumably Pentagon
appropriations will follow for the second phase of the project. Ostensibly,
the project meets Hobson's "reliable replacement" plan, as the new study
seeks to put an already existing warhead, now in the B-83 nuclear gravity
bomb, into a new delivery system-one that is capable of deeply penetrating
the earth's surface. Critics are now asking how this plan differs in any
meaningful way from either the bunker buster or the advanced concepts
programs shot down by congress last November.
All of which further begs the question: If a new bomb is developed, won't
it need to be tested? Though the U.S. signed the Comprehensive Nuclear
Test-Ban Treaty in 1996, replacing field explosions with computer-simulated
tests based on data collected from decades of nuclear detonations, in the
ensuing years Congress has refused to ratify the treaty, effectively
preventing it from going into force. While the U.S. hasn't conducted a full
nuclear explosion since 1992, in recent years the NNSA has conducted a
series of "subcritical" tests at the Nevada Test Site, which stop short of
a full detonation-but which use real plutonium pits, and which critics call
a threat to the languishing Test-Ban Treaty. The White House has recently
sought approval from Congress to shorten the amount of preparation time
legally required between completion of a new nuclear weapon and the
field-testing of that weapon in an underground explosion--which, despite
official denials, seems to indicate an intention to resume full testing.
So far Congress has contained the most aggressive of these ambitions. But
while Hobson has been quoted as praising the cooperative institution of the
reliable replacement warhead plan, Donald Rumsfeld's Defense Department
seems to have found a way to twist that plan into serving its own nuclear
goals. The often inscrutable bureaucracy that surrounds the Defense
Department and federal budget allocation in general could very well allow
it to succeed.
"The reality is that the federal budget is a huge morass," says Stephen
Young, senior analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The
Congressional budget requests we're discussing are in the millions, the
overall nuclear Stockpile Stewardship program's budget is 6.3 billion." He
added that the outcome of this year's budget request "depends on how
closely the issues are tracked."
Young and countless others contend that the administration would most
benefit the country's security by heeding its own message to de-escalate
nuclear proliferation. The number of deployed and imminently deployable
nuclear weapons in the US arsenal could destroy the entire planet. Experts
maintain that any further refurbishing is unnecessary and critically
misguided. Young describes the warhead number as "preposterous," and says,
compounding the problem, "Russia currently maintains a large arsenal
because of the US's recent unwillingness to decrease its own arsenal."
Already, Russia, China, North Korea, and India have shown that they are
closely following US nuclear developments and adjusting their postures
accordingly. Which means proliferation continues, as it seems wherever one
looks, the US still has both hands in the nuclear cookie jar.
The Natural Resources Defense Council revealed in February that the U.S.
currently has hundreds of warheads deployed across Europe. The NRDC's
report states: "U.S. nuclear arsenal in Europe is larger than the entire
nuclear weapons stockpile of any nation except Russia. The United States is
the only country that deploys such weapons outside its own boundaries…[even
though] weapons based in the United States can cover all of the potential
targets covered by the bombs in Europe." The report, which describes the
deployment as "clinging to the Cold War," notes ironically: "Nearly all of
the countries that once were potential targets for the weapons are now
members of NATO."
Also according to the report: "All the weapons are gravity bombs of the
B61-3, -4, and -10 types. Germany remains the most heavily nuclearized
country with three nuclear bases (two of which are fully operational), and
may store as many as 150 bombs… Royal Air Force (RAF) Lakenheath [in the
UK] stores 110 weapons, a considerable number in this region given the
demise of the Soviet Union. Italy and Turkey each host 90 bombs, while 20
bombs are stored in Belgium and in the Netherlands… The current force level
is two-three times greater than the estimates made by non-governmental
analysts during the second half of the 1990s. Those estimates were based on
private and public statements by a number of government sources and
assumptions about the weapon storage capacity at each base... The 480 bombs
deployed in Europe represent more than 80 percent of all the active B61
tactical bombs in the U.S. stockpile. No other U.S. nuclear weapons are
forward deployed (other than warheads on ballistic missile submarines)...
Approximately 300 of the 480 bombs are assigned for delivery by U.S. F-15E
and F-16C/D aircraft...deployed in Europe or rotating through the U.S.
bases. The remaining 180 bombs are earmarked for delivery by the air forces
of five NATO countries, including Belgian, Dutch, and Turkish F-16s and
German and Italian PA-200 Tornado aircraft."
The Bush administration has also expressed a disturbing interest in
weaponizing space. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, signed by more than 90
countries including the US, bans weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from
being put into orbit and stipulates that: "The exploration and use of outer
space…shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all
countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific
development, and shall be the province of all mankind…[and] shall be guided
by the principle of co-operation and mutual assistance…"
The UN General Assembly has passed resolutions each year for the past 22
years establishing the continued peaceful use of space and the prevention
of an arms race in space. Though most of the UN resolutions have passed
unanimously, the US and Isreal have recently abstained from the vote, and
the Bush administration has revealed intentions to exploit areas not
explicitly covered in the various international space-protection
agreements. For instance, though the 1967 treaty bans putting WMD into
orbit, it does not specifically proscribe the transit of a WMD through
space. Currently, the US is developing reentry vehicles designed to deliver
a variety of weapons, including nuclear warheads, via an interceptor in
space that would in turn redirect the vehicle toward an earthbound target,
with greater precision than traditional launch and delivery systems.
Lockheed-Martin is leading this development effort. Alongside plans to put
non-nuclear defense mechanisms into orbit (despite treaty language
discouraging it), including anti-satellite weapons and the scientifically
dubious anti-ballistic missile interceptors, the Bush administration is
sending the message that it intends to dominate and control space.
Proposals are surfacing for new commercial uranium enrichment plants,
including a $1.3 billion facility in Eunice, New Mexico, be built by
Louisiana Energy Services, a partnership of several U.S. utilities and
Urenco, the UK-based global nuclear fuels corporation. Though allegedly
intended for the generation of power, the development of such facilities
could undercut an agreement made with Russia to turn tons of stockpiled
weapons-grade uranium and plutonium into power-plant fuel. As Bush
discourages the development of similar facilities in the Middle East, it's
difficult to explain why the excess tonnage of unused plutonium and uranium
stored in thousands of US and Russian warheads would not be exhausted
before creating new reserves.
While the nuclear debate in Congress rages anew, the next review conference for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), meets in New York in May. The events of spring 2005 could presage whether the climate for the next few years will more resemble the promise of a nuclear-free future or a return to Cold War paranoia.
NRDC report on U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe:
SpaceRef.com on new space-based nuclear targeting systems: