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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 50, September 2000

Concerns Rise in US over Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons

On September 11, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) wrote to Senator Carl Levin (Democrat - Michigan), the Ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, urging his active opposition to a section in the proposed Senate Authorization Bill for Fiscal Year 2001 (S. 2549) widely interpreted as signalling a green light for US development of new, low-yield nuclear weapons. The section of the Bill (Sec. 1018), known after its sponsors as the Warner-Allard Provision, is entitled 'Report on the Defeat of Hardened and Deeply Buried Targets.' As adopted by the Armed Services Committee, it instructs the Secretaries of Defense and Energy to:

"(1) review the requirements and current and future plans for hardened and deeply buried targets and agent-defeat weapons concepts and activities;

(2) determine if those plans adequately address all requirements;

(3) identify potential future hardened and deeply buried targets and other related targets;

(4) determine what resources and research and development efforts are needed to defeat targets identified under paragraph (3) as well as other agent-defeat requirements;

(5) assess both current and future options...including any limited research and development that may be necessary to conduct such assessment; and

(6) determine the capability and cost of each option."

The Provision sets a date of no later than July 1, 2001, for the submission of the report to Congressional Defense Committees.

In its letter to Senator Levin, signed by Frank von Hippel, Steve Fetter, Henry C. Kelly and Richard Garwin, the FAS argued that while "the legislation does not specify that the analysis should consider the development of a new nuclear weapon for such a mission, it is clear that this is the intention of the legislation." The letter continues:

"By passing this legislation, the Congress would send a clear signal that the US is searching for ways to use nuclear weapons in practical combat situations. This is an absurd and dangerous quest. No sane US commander would use, or even threaten to use, nuclear weapons in theater warfare. Turning a conventional war into a nuclear war would risk a calamity. No conceivable tactical gain could justify taking such a risk. The notion that such weapons could be used with minimal damage to surrounding population is fantastic. Highly radioactive fallout would be generated even by a small nuclear weapon detonated just below the Earth's surface. US pursuit of small nuclear weapons for theater wars would, moreover, grant legitimacy to similar pursuits by other nations and undermine worldwide non-proliferation efforts. These efforts are already in a perilous state because of US failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The amendment seems cynically designed to provide legitimacy to new nuclear weapons designs and nuclear testing - steps that would return us to the dangers of Cold War nuclear competition - but with a larger number of nations participating. Please do everything you can to block this reckless legislation."

In late June, Stephen M. Younger, Associate Laboratory Director for Nuclear Weapons at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, wrote a paper, Nuclear Weapons in the Twenty-First Century, extolling the virtues of low-yield nuclear weapons, or 'mininukes'. In the Executive Summary, Younger writes: "Some targets require the energy of a nuclear weapon for their destruction. However, precision targeting can greatly reduce the nuclear yield required to destroy such targets. Only a relatively few targets require high nuclear yields. Advantages of lower yields include reduced collateral damage, arms control advantages to the United States, and the possibility that such weapons could be maintained with higher confidence and at lower cost than our current nuclear arsenal." Later in the paper, Younger warns that "reliance on high-yield strategic weapons could lead to 'self-deterrence', a limitation on strategic options and consequently a lessening of the stabilizing effect of nuclear weapons..." Commenting on the paper in the Albuquerque Journal on August 15, Frank von Hippel argued:

"This is all premised on the notion that you can cross the nuclear threshold if you don't make too much of a mess... This isn't deterrence: this is trying to use these things." Von Hippel added, however, that it "would be great" if Younger's paper "was a first word in a discussion of what nuclear weapons are really for."

Note: the full text of Younger's paper is available on the FAS website, http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/doctrine/doe/younger.htm.

Reports: Low-yield nuke bomb endorsed, Albuquerque Journal, August 15; Letter from Federation of American Scientists to Senator Carl Levin, September 11 http://www.fas.org.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.