19/02/03 - News and city section
US considers 'mini-nukes'
By Ben Leapman, Political Reporter, Evening Standard
American defence chiefs are drafting secret plans for a new generation of nuclear weapons, in a move which could set back attempts to win international backing for a war in Iraq.
Leaked Pentagon plans suggest that the new devices could include "mini-nukes" which would be considered more "usable" than giant warheads, making them more effective as a deterrent.
American government officials acknowledged the authenticity of the leaked papers but said their contents were "what-if scenarios and very long range planning".
The move will be seized on by opponents of American policy towards Iraq, who will cite the weapons plans as another example of President Bush acting with disregard for world opinion and for internat ional treaties on nuclear nonproliferation.
In Britain, Labour MPs are certain to use the revelations to press their case that Tony Blair should be far more cautious in his dealings with the American administration.
Opinion polls show that many Britons already see President Bush as a bigger threat to world peace than Saddam Hussein.
A paper published by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last year identified potential targets for American nuclear weapons and raised questions over what kind of armaments would be best suited to the purpose. The leaked papers show that a "future arsenal panel" will meet in August at the Omaha headquarters of the US Strategic Command to consider "requirements for low-yield weapons, earth-penetrating weapons, enhanced radiation weapons, agent defeat weapons".
Some of the newgeneration weapons would be "bunker-busters" allowing enemy stock of conventional, chemical or biological weapons to be destroyed in their underground stores.
Building the new nuclear devices would risk breaching a range of treaties.
Greg Mello of Los Alamos Study Group, an American nuclear watchdog organisation which obtained the leaked papers, said: "It is impossible to overstate the challenge these plans pose to the comprehensive testban treaty, the existing nuclear test moratorium and US compliance with article six of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty."
The looming row over the nuclear plans echoes the controversy over America's plans for a "star wars" missile defence shield, first floated by President Ronald Reagan and revived by President Bush.
The missile defence programme has already sparked a round of Labour infighting, with the Government overriding objections from many backbench MPs to approve the siting of equipment on British soil.