|US Could Use Limited Nuclear Weapons in Iraq|
U.S. forces could use nuclear-tipped "bunker-buster" bombs against buried terrorist weapons in Iraq, should Congress approve funding to develop the new weapons.
The enhanced bombs, called "Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrators (RNEP)," would be used to destroy caches of weapons of mass destruction hidden deep inside hardened caves and bunkers. Like the conventional "bunker-busters" used in Afghanistan against cave-hidden Taliban and al Qaeda weapons and personnel, the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator bomb will not fully detonate until deep below ground. Unlike the explosives in the conventional bunker-buster, however, the RNEP's warhead will pack a nuclear punch.
While the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator is undeniably a nuclear weapon, Pentagon officials are quick to point out that it be designed to do its job without spreading radiation into the atmosphere, and that its development would comply with all nuclear arms reduction and test ban treaties.
With full support from the White House, the Pentagon has asked Congress to fully fund $15.5 million for development of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. Lawmakers will consider the request in September as part of the fiscal 2003 defense authorization bill.
Pentagon: New threats require new weapons
In January 2002, the Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review (unclassified cover letter), its official policy statement on nuclear weapons in military planning, was amended to stress the importance of developing a weapon like the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator as vital to defending the U.S. against emerging threats posed by terrorist groups.
This change to the Nuclear Posture Review represented the earliest hints that the Bush administration would consider ordering preemptive first strikes against countries -- including Iraq -- believed to be acquiring and concealing weapons of mass destruction for potential use in terrorist attacks.
In testimony submitted to the House Armed Service Committee on June 12, Adm. John T. Byrd, Director of Plans and Policy of the U.S. Strategic Command stated, "One of the most pressing threats posed by our potential adversaries in the international arena today is the proliferation of hard and deeply buried facilities capable of protecting nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; the means of delivering them; and the leaders who would threaten the United States."
"There are facilities today which we either cannot defeat, even with existing nuclear weapons, or must hold at risk using a large number of weapons," added Byrd.
Noting that the U.S. had not produced a new nuclear warhead since 1989, Adm. Byrd told lawmakers that rapid development of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator would help the military in, "adapting nuclear weapons and strategic forces designed for Cold War missions to support deterrence in the 21st Century."
What about nuclear arms control treaties?
On June 17, 2002, the United States officially withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. In announcing the end of the famous Cold War-era treaty, President Bush stated, "As the events of September 11 made clear, we no longer live in the Cold War world for which the ABM Treaty was designed," he said. "We now face new threats from terrorists who seek to destroy our civilization by any means available to rogue states armed with weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles." Exactly the types of weapons to be targeted by the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator.
Were the ABM treaty still in effect, it could have prevented the U.S. from proceeding with development of nuclear bunker-busters.
On May 24, 2002, just prior to the demise of the ABM treaty, President Bush and Russian President Putin signed an historic agreement under which both nations agreed to reduce their remaining stockpiles of nuclear warheads by about 65 percent, to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads, by the year 2012. In addition to this arms reduction agreement, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 remains in full effect today.
In order to remain in compliance with that May 24 agreement and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator will be developed based on modifications to warheads already on hand. "This study of a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) will evaluate modifications to existing nuclear weapons that do not require nuclear testing," Adm. Byrd stated.
RNEP just part of an anti-terror weapon package
According to Adm. Byrd, the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator represented only the first in a total weapons package necessary to find and destroy the new breed of terrorist weapons concealed underground.
"Other capabilities such as advanced conventional, information operations, and special operations capabilities must be developed as well," said Byrd. "A full spectrum of capabilities strengthens deterrence and maintains the nuclear threshold by developing a range of options for the President to counter the growing hard and deeply buried target set."