Build a new nuke

Posted: Jul 08, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

This would seem to be in direct contradiction to the Just War Theory, which emphasizes "discrimination" in order to minimize civilian casualties. The bishops' spirits live on in 1994 congressional language prohibiting the United States from "research and development which could lead to the production by the United States of a new low-yield nuclear weapon, including a precision low-yield warhead." (Congress is considering overturning this restriction.)

A new nuke would also require new testing, which is sacrilege for arms controllers. The first President Bush instituted a voluntary moratorium on U.S. testing in 1992 that continues to this day.

The fact is that the longer the United States goes without testing, the less safe its aging arsenal is. Our current warheads were designed to last only 15 to 20 years. Arms controllers argue that computer simulations can supplant testing, but this is a hope rather than a fact.

Moreover, liberals maintain, if the United States eschews testing, it will create a new anti-nuclear "norm" around the world. But the Chinese, French, Indians, Pakistanis and perhaps the Russians have tested subsequent to the U.S. moratorium.

The ulterior motive for the arms-control taboo against testing seems obvious: to prevent the United States from developing a new weapon, and ultimately to force the existing arsenal to die on the vine. It ensures that the United States has an aging, less and less reliable arsenal, built for a long-past strategic threat that bears little resemblance to the present one.

As usual, it's the Bush administration that wants to reject old thinking and try something new. And it is correct in its key insight: It is the arsenals of other countries, perhaps buried deep underground somewhere, that we should fear, not our own.