Pentagon panel calls for update of nuke arsenal

Experts argue that weapons should be upgraded to provide best defense in 21st century

By: Ian Hoffman
Oakland Tribune
Tuesday, March 30, 2004

An influential Pentagon panel wants to cut back maintenance of the nation's 1970s and 80s-vintage thermonuclear weapons and create a new, more flexible arsenal capable of killing, disarming or influencing a foreign adversary worldwide in a matter of hours.

In a report obtained by the Federation of American Scientists, a panel of the Defense Science Board suggests retooling the nation's strategic forces -- limited in the Cold War to nuclear weapons aimed at enemy leaders and their nuclear forces -- to rely more than ever on highly precise conventional and exotic weapons, including lasers in space, unmanned hypersonic craft and earth penetrators up to 10 tons.

"U.S. interests are best served by preserving into the future the half-century-plus non-use of nuclear weapons," stated the board's Task Force on Future Strategic Strike Forces.

Yet for its most lethal and decisive forces, the panel said the United States still should expand its nuclear arsenal beyond late Cold War-era nuclear warheads to add new nuclear weapons tailored for lower yields and special effects.

"This is moving away from anything ordinary people would understand as deterrence," said Andrew Lichterman, an arms researcher at the Western States Legal Foundation, an Oakland-based disarmament group. "This is talking about developing strategic weapons for new purposes, and it's something that should get a deep national debate before it goes further."

The Bush administration's drive for new, low-yield nuclear weapons has been highly controversial. Critics say the new weapons hold little military use, could spur other nations' interest in nuclear arms and could blur the line between nuclear and conventional combat.

"Pre-emptive nuclear war, that's what they're pushing, and it's absolute madness," said Bob Peurifoy, a former Sandia National Laboratories weapons manager. "Nuclear weapons are the absolute weapons of last resort. If we're losing American cities, then we should respond (with nuclear strikes). Short of that, I can't see any use of weapons with any nuclear yield, I don't care how low."

Peurifoy and many other weaponeers say the current arsenal of about 7,600 weapons is well-tested and capable against a wide array of targets.

Since 1995, the nation's three nuclear-weapons labs have studied those weapons for aging defects and found the essential nuclear components last for at least 45 to 60 years. Scientists are engaged in the bread-and-butter work of "stockpile life extensions" for all eight basic designs of warheads and bombs, upgrading them and adding decades to their shelf life.

The Defense Science Board said that program is "on the wrong track" and should be scaled back to free up scientists and money for adding new weapons to the arsenal.

Echoing the Bush administration's Nuclear Posture Review of December 2001, the Defense Science Board said current U.S. weapons would create so much blast and radioactive fallout that rogue nations or terrorists might doubt a president would use them in response to attack on the United States or its allies.

The panel argued that fielding lower-yield weapons makes the threat of their use more believable. This broader, more capable arsenal also is designed to keep Russia and China from trying to compete with the United States and discourage allies such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan from seeking weapons to counter North Korea, for example.

"Assuring U.S. allies in Europe and Asia that they need not develop nuclear arsenals of their own in anticipation of deterioration in their security environment remains an important U.S. objective," the task force said.

The panel, composed largely of retired senior Navy and Air Force officers, nuclear-weapons scientists and think-tank analysts, recognized that creating a new nuclear arsenal will demand wholesale political and military commitment from U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha to Capitol Hill.

"Ultimately, the issue requires deep White House involvement and the difficult creation of a consensus in Congress that can be sustained over a number of years if not decades," the panel wrote.

In recent months, however, the Bush administration has softened its rhetoric on new weapons. Top U.S. weapons executives sought to mollify Congress last week with assurances that its new $9 million "advanced concepts" design program will "investigate new ideas, not necessarily new weapons."

Linton Brooks, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said scientists might redesign warheads for longer life and easier manufacture. So far, the military has not formally requested a specific, new nuclear weapon.

The Defense Science Board called on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to "provide guidance" to the commander in charge of U.S. nuclear forces on the need for new weapons research. STRATCOM's commander would list his needs to the Nuclear Weapons Council, which in turn would assign research into the weapons to scientists in California and New Mexico.

These weapons are mostly not new but resurrections of 1960s and 70s thermonuclear designs produced by University of California scientists at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos labs.

None were deployed, primarily due to political opposition or dubious practical utility for the military.

The Defense Science Board envisions using them largely against underground bunkers, to shake, crush or incinerate the leaders or weapons inside. Panelists suggested that by driving the weapons dozens of yards into soil, small nuclear explosions could be contained. But the panel stressed, that doesn't mean the weapons would be used.

"It is, and will likely remain, American policy to keep the nuclear threshold high and to pursue non-nuclear attack options whenever possible. Nothing in our assessment or recommendations seeks to change that goal," the panel stated. "Nonetheless, in extreme circumstances, the president may have no choice but to turn to nuclear options."

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The task force stressed beefing up U.S. human intelligence and creating new kinds of tags and sensors to hunt and identify enemy leaders and weapons.

"These physically small entities are essentially impossible to find in situ, intrusive sensors and probably HUMINT (human intelligence) as well," the report states.

Special forces would plant "cyberspies" and tag vehicles for targeting, while ballistic missiles or unmanned aircraft might deliver "interrogation rounds" or other sensors to detect underground facilities and guide in munitions to destroy them.

The task force also called for developing a new, intermediate range ballistic missile for submarines and for keeping Peacekeeper missiles for convential uses. About 70 heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles that are slated for retirement in 2005 would be installed at Vandenberg Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral. That would add California and Florida to the three states hosting ICBMs: North Dakota. Wyoming and Montana.