NY Times
December 14, 2003
Bite-Size Nukes

For 50 years the United States has maintained nuclear weapons with the express intention of not using them. Nukes keep the peace, the thinking goes; they are more about threatened payback than military utility. But there’s a new school of thought among military thinkers: maybe we should all learn to stop worrying and love the Bomb — at least in miniature.

With America battling new enemies, some Pentagon hawks want to reimagine the nation’s nuclear arsenal on a smaller and more usable scale, building more precise ”low yield” nuclear weapons with payloads a fraction of the 15 kilotons of explosive force that erased Hiroshima. And these hawks have influence. At the Bush administration’s urging, Congress not only voted this year to lift a 10-year U.S. ban on research and development of new forms of nuclear weapons; it also approved financing for the research.

One argument for mininukes, of five kilotons or less, is a new version of an old concept: deterrence. The old nukes built during the cold war to roast millions of Russians are probably too destructive to se before Doomsday, and our potential enemies know that. Sub-Hiroshima bombs, however, could be used on limited targets — the suspected hideout of Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora region a couple of years ago, say.

Bite-size nukes could be the answer to another one of the military’s most worrisome problems: the suspicion that Axis of Evil types, like Iran and North Korea, are brewing their most sinister weapons in superhardened bunkers deep underground. Some planners think that only a nuclear payload can deliver the punch needed to knock them out. What’s more, the ferocious heat of a nuclear blast would incinerate deadly stocks of chemical and biological agents, rather than spread them into the air (although there may be a trade-off — critics claim that substantial radioactive fallout would be impossible to avoid).

Democrats are having bad cold-war flashbacks. Ted Kennedy says that ”you’re either for nuclear war or you’re not.” On the stump, John Kerry has warned that the Bush administration is ”poised to set off a new nuclear arms race.” And others fret that even a ”precision” nuclear strike requires absolute certainty about your target. ”It turns out that this is still about having great intelligence,” says Joseph
Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ”What if we’d detonated one on what we thought were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?”