Rich Lowry

Cue the outrage: The Bush administration is interested in developing and testing a new bunker-busting nuclear weapon. Earlier this year, Congress approved funds for the development of such a nuke, and one could conceivably be tested as early as 2005.

This will become one of the great foreign-policy fights of the next few years, as liberal arms controllers attack the administration for allegedly stoking a new arms race. In this debate, their paradoxical preference for indiscriminately destructive weapons and a less safe U.S. arsenal will both be on full display.

The Bush administration has fully embraced the end of the Cold War by deciding to drastically reduce the nation's operational strategic nuclear force from roughly 6,000 warheads to 2,000. But it makes no sense to react to the changed international environment only by scrapping our old nuclear force. The arsenal should be updated to deal with new realities. An earth-penetrating nuke is needed to target the kind of deeply buried sites housing weapons of mass destruction that are now favored by rogue states.

The problem is that we don't have such a weapon. Given that we have been in the nuclear business for 50 years, how is that possible? A host of strategic and technical reasons account for it, together with the perversities of arms-control orthodoxy.

Mutual Assured Destruction relied on the "balance of terror," on the willingness of the United States and the Soviet Union to hold its populations hostage. Any highly accurate or earth-penetrating weapon that instead would have been effective against specific military targets was considered "destabilizing" -- a "war-fighting" weapon rather than a weapon of generalized terror. So, U.S. nukes tended to be designed for killing lots of Russians rather than destroying narrow military targets.

This was also simply easier as a technical matter. Getting a warhead to drive into the ground, then explode, is a technical challenge on the order of getting a car to drive through a wall, then have its left-turn signal flash. The engineering problems, difficulty, however, are probably surmountable, eventually.

But arms controllers aren't interested in having these difficulties surmounted. In fact, liberal Dr. Strangeloves want U.S. nuclear weapons to be as indiscriminate as possible. In their famous 1983 letter on nuclear weapons, the U.S. Catholic bishops opposed making nukes more accurate.

Rich Lowry

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years .
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