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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 60, September 2001

News Review

DoD Reported to Recommend Use of Tactical Nuclear Weapons

On September 19, the Kyodo news service reported that 'diplomatic sources' were confirming speculation that the Pentagon was including the use of tactical nuclear weapons in its list of possible military means of retaliating to the September 11 attacks on the United States. The official position, set out by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld on ABC television on September 16, is simply that the US government "will not discuss operational and intelligence matters". There was no suggestion from the Kyodo report that the use of tactical nuclear weapons was a preferred option of the Bush administration.

Writing in the Washington Times on September 14, Thomas Woodrow, who resigned from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in may this year after 22 years service as a US intelligence officer, argued fervently in favour of the use of nuclear weapons in Afghanistan:

"The time has come for the United States to make good its past pledges that it will use all military capabilities at its disposal to defend US soil by delivering nuclear strikes against the instigators and perpetrators of the attacks... At a bare minimum, tactical nuclear capabilities should be used against the bin Laden camps in the desert of Afghanistan. ... A series of low-level, tactical nuclear strikes in the Afghanistan desert would pose no risk to large population centres and would carry little risk of fallout spreading to populated areas. Also, our nuclear capabilities were designed to include such a mission, and they are capable of fulfilling such a mission. Lastly, the use of nuclear weapons against the bin Laden groups and his supporters will rightly shock the world, but it will also shock those nations that have been disposed for a variety of reasons to back the terrorist groups with economic and political support."

By coincidence, in an interview published in Government Executive magazine on September 11, C. Paul Robinson, the Director of the US Sandia National Laboratories, addressed the issue of nuclear response in the context of his well-known advocacy of the development of low-yield nuclear weapons, or 'mini-nukes':

"Question: 'If our implicit threat of nuclear retaliation deterred rogue stares such as Iraq and North Korea, why do we need new nuclear weapons?'

Robinson: 'The problem is, the strategic nuclear policy we developed during the Cold War has been stretched about as far as possible to fit a changing post-Cold War era. Today, we are threatened not only by nuclear weapons in the arsenal of peer competitors...but increasingly by biological, chemical, and radiological weapons that could kill huge numbers of people in a flash. Yet it's pretty incredible to think that the United States would respond to such an attack by vaporizing 11 million people in a rogue state just because they were poorly led. Where the hell are we going to use missiles with four to eight warheads, or half-megaton yields? Even the few "tactical" nuclear weapons that we have have high yields of above 100 kilotons. I would hope US President would think it was crazy to use such weapons in response to a rogue-state attack. After a decade of trying to sort out what we learned from the Cold War and how we might fit our nuclear deterrence and deterrent message to fit the future, I now argue that we need lower-yield nuclear weapons that could hold at risk only a rogue state's leadership and tools of aggression with some degree of confidence.' ...

Question: 'How do you respond to critics who believe that by tailoring new nuclear weapons for new types of deterrence, you would make their eventual use in a crisis more likely?'

Robinson: 'My response is that for God's sake, then, let's think this through in advance rather than doing it on the fly. ... Because I can tell you, we haven't given a lot of thought to this issue. We need to carefully think through our posture of nuclear deterrence, because whatever decision is made during the next crisis will leave a message to all of history.'"

Reports: National lab director makes the case for new nukes, Government Executive Magazine, September 11; Time to use the nuclear option, by Thomas Woodrow, Washington Times, September 14; Pentagon recommends use of nuclear weapons, Kyodo News, September 19.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.