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Nuclear Junkies: Those Lovable Little Bombs

Nuclear Junkies:
Those Lovable Little Bombs

By William M. Arkin
The Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists

When former Los Alamos scientist and noted nuclear weapons adviser Richard Garwin met with Russian Minister of Atomic Energy Victor Mikhailov in Moscow earlier this year, Mikhailov brought up U.S. research on micro-nukes. The linkage is clear: the seemingly harmless doodlings of U.S. nuclear scientists justified similar programs in Russia.

Until recently, references to these new weapons, intended for use on Third World battlefields, had diminished-at least they had disappeared from the Energy Department's public testimony. In 1992, when I asked a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory about the program on "mini," "micro," and "tinynuke" development (see Bulletin, April 1992), he said, "You're blowing it way out of proportion. . . . This is just research, doing no harm."

But the programs are far from dead. Support for them has spread like a virus, infecting the nuclear laboratories, the air force and the navy, Strategic Command (formerly SAC), the Defense Nuclear Agency, and the Central and European Commands. What is more, now that public fear of nuclear war has practically disappeared and nuclear strategy and policy no longer command presidential attention, planning for this new generation of nuclear weapons has managed to evade close scrutiny, and the weapons have acquired a false legitimacy inside nuclear circles.

Nuclear enthusiasts publicly describe continued nuclear testing and research as a way for the laboratories to maintain "nuclear competence" and to prevent technological surprise in the future-with the side benefit of improving weapon safety. They say they have no hidden agenda. Given the congressional hammerlock on ending nuclear testing, new-nuke advocates don't dare promote future weapons too openly. But behind the traditional "safety" advocates hides a new, post­Gulf War constituency-nuclear zealots intent on developing a new generation of small nuclear weapons designed for waging wars in the Third World.

The mini-nukers justifications are strictly military-new nuclear weapons would be more capable than conventional weapons, yet they would be so small that they would cause minimal collateral damage. In other words, they would be practically conventional. Invoking the latest Pentagon buzzword, one lab proponent has even argued that they would be "nonlethal." Proponents also claim their small size should eliminate any nagging political problems associated with their use.

That anyone would make such arguments in the 1990s-either that nuclear weapons should or could be used on the battlefield, or that deploying new warheads for Third World conflicts would benefit U.S. or international security-is astounding. Just conducting research on these weapons harms U.S.-Russian relations and feeds anti-democratic military and nuclear mafias in Russia. And it undermines non-proliferation efforts by signaling that the United States is contemplating nuclear missions around the globe. Finally, the enthusiasm emerging for extremely small nuclear weapons is a part of the philosophy of attempts to kill the nuclear test ban.

Yet civilian leaders in the White House and the Defense Department tolerate, even support, new weapons research. The Clinton administration's fiscal year 1994 budget request includes a full menu of nuclear designs for new warfighting weapons for regional conflicts. Energy's fiscal 1994 nuclear weapons research and development budget request contains the language: "continue to support Phase 1 and 2 studies for High Power Radio Frequency warhead; Precision Low-Yield warhead; Cruise Missile-type warhead; and B-61 diameter bomb. Supports new Phase 1 efforts for new, more robust designs; new designs with advanced concepts for use of nuclear materials; and support of the requirements in the NWDG [Nuclear Weapons Development Guidance] document."

The laboratory research request includes virtually every idea that has ever been floated by mini-nuke advocates, as well as two new "generic" low-yield warhead prototypes for cruise missiles and bombs. (The B-61 diameter bomb is presumably a design to re-use the pits from already manufactured B-61 bombs in new weapons of the same diameter.)


The Nuclear Phoenix

All through the 1980s, as dozens of new warheads were stalled in the blueprint or development stage for political or financial reasons, the list of weapons under development grew smaller and smaller. With the end of the Cold War and with the demonstration in the Gulf War of what conventional weapons could do, President Bush decided in September 1991 to virtually eliminate tactical nuclear weapons. The last non-strategic nuclear research program was finally canceled in early 1992.

With the nuclear complex idle, and a test ban looming, nuclear advocates in the military and the laboratories began highly creative efforts to identify new "requirements" for nuclear weapons. Seemingly exotic technologies began to appear on the scene.

Before the end of the Cold War, the Defense Department's highly classified 1989 Nuclear Weapons Development Guidance, the official biennial statement of future requirements, suggested a number of nuclear technologies that the labs should investigate: "tailored" and "enhanced" effects warheads; electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and high-powered microwave (HPM) weapons; and insertable nuclear components (INCs) or "generic" warheads. In 1990, before the Gulf War, the interagency Nuclear Weapons Council endorsed new low-yield earth-penetration warheads for hard targets and surface attacks. After the Gulf War, George Miller, associate director at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said that "the kind of precision demonstrated there certainly admits the possibility of significantly reducing the yields required of our [nuclear] weapons."

In March 1991, according to partially declassified minutes of the annual nuclear weapons development meeting (released under the Freedom of Information Act), the Pentagon's European Command-the traditional pacesetter in calling for tactical nuclear weapons- pressed for new weapons with lower yields. Soon after, in an April 30, 1991, report, Los Alamos proposed the mini-nuke concept. A statement of need was missing, but enthusiasm for a new generation of weapons was beginning to take hold in classified nuclear circles.

A few months later, the Defense Science Board supported these nuclear advocates, recommending that the Energy Department create a prototype warhead development capacity in case the United States would need to "regenerate forces" in the future. Unknown threats in the Third World replaced the Soviet threat as the reason behind the need for these new weapons. By October 1991, the so-called Reed Panel (named for former air force secretary Thomas C. Reed) reported to the Strategic Air Command that, upon investigation, it had concluded that missions for nuclear weapons should be expanded, even against non-nuclear foes.

A "requirement," based on a "threat," was in the process of creation, and the laboratories went off in search of military scenarios that might involve the use of mini-nukes. According to laboratory documents, Livermore's new Center for Conventional Warfare Studies began looking at "specific situations where nuclear weapons could be highly useful," given "the benefits and shortcomings of existing or conceptual non-nuclear response options."

The air force took the lead in 1991, establishing its own program-"Project PLYWD." (Pronounced "Plywood," the acronym stands for Precision Low-Yield Weapons Design, which subsequently appeared in Clinton's fiscal 1994 budget request.) Among other things, the project was to investigate "a credible option to counter the employment of nuclear weapons by Third World nations." The laboratories got busy briefing military audiences, and at a December 17, 1991, briefing before a joint Defense Science Board and Defense Policy Board task force, they presented "potential NSNF [non-strategic nuclear forces] weapons concepts for the 21st century." The air force was first to bite.

Phase one of the PLYWD study, scheduled to be completed this year, includes a "detailed mission area analysis" to provide the "warfighting CINCs" (commanders in chief of regional unified commands) with new nuclear weapons. In other words, if the commands couldn't think up new requirements on their own, the air force and the laboratories would suggest the nuclear weapons they needed.

The June 22, 1992, Defense Week revealed a letter from the science adviser to Central Command (responsible for the Middle East and the command with overall responsibility for Desert Storm) that recommended a crash program on "fourth generation" or "tailored effects" nuclear weapons. This was not a formal "requirement," but finally, a combat command responsible for parts of the Third World had joined the bidding. Input from General Schwarzkopf's command had evidently been influential in the December 1991 joint meeting of the Pentagon's top scientific and policy-making boards.

In July 1992 staff officers from the European Command briefed the Defense Department's Joint Requirements Oversight Council on their proposal for a new nuclear-armed air-launched standoff missile (ALSOM). Air force officials wrote in a secret background briefing that they should try to combine the efforts of PLYWD and ALSOM and stress what they consider to be more usable mini-nuke designs, lest low-yield weapons get tainted by the European Command's "old" nuclear proposals. Livermore Laboratory had every reason to state in its February 1992 Energy & Technology Review that "the expectation [is] that new military requirements might emerge for nuclear weapons in a multipolar world."


The Weapons Catalog

Two Los Alamos scientists, Thomas Dowler and Joseph S. Howard III, first publicly aired the mini-nuke concept in "Countering the Threat of the Well-armed Tyrant: A Modest Proposal for Small Nuclear Weapons," (Strategic Review, Fall 1991). They offered four weapon alternatives: a 10-ton penetrating "micronuke" to destroy bunkers; a 100-ton "mininuke" to counter ballistic missiles; a 1,000-ton "tinynuke" for battlefield attacks; and exotic-technology warheads.

The same issue of Strategic Review contained an article by Livermore scientist Thomas F. Ramos, then science adviser to the chief nuclear weapons official at the Defense Department. Ramos suggested a new "small diameter warhead." A smaller warhead, modeled on the generic INC (insertable nuclear components) concept, and evidently included in the fiscal 1993 budget as the B-61 bomb, could be used in more types of launchers, Ramos said. "Such warheads could potentially be adapted to existing delivery systems for conventional munitions, such as those employed so successfully during Operation Desert Storm," he concluded.

The "clip-in" nuclear warhead concept had been floated on a number of occasions in the 1970s and 1980s. Naval nuclear advocates believed that clip-in warheads would ease the presence of nuclear weapons on ships and attack submarines. According to newly declassified documents, the European Command was becoming enthusiastic about an insertable warhead for a new missile at the very time that the final negotiations on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty were being conducted. A clip-in warhead, laboratory scientists argued, would allow a mobile missile (sans warhead) to be safely based on the German railroad system. These programs, and others, were canceled because the political implications of possessing weapons with ambiguous nuclear roles always overweighed the clever military attributes. Still, this did not stop Ramos and other nuclear advocates from suggesting new INC candidates.

From the broad menu of weapons suggested by Dowler, Howard, and Ramos, earth-penetrating weapons moved to the top of everyone's list. Destruction of very hard, deeply buried targets had vexed the air force in the Gulf War. The Reed Panel concluded that "the technology is now in hand to develop . . . very low yield nuclear weapons in earth penetrators." Last summer, the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board endorsed the development of earth penetrators to destroy buried command centers, shifting penetrator justifications from strategic to non-strategic missions.

Nuclear advocates argue that nuclear penetrating munitions can compensate for conventional weaknesses. In late 1991 the air force formally echoed the Reed Panel and asked Los Alamos to look at a low-yield "bunker buster." According to its fiscal 1993 budget, the Defense Nuclear Agency began its own research on "a very low collateral effects nuclear weapons concept" at about the same time. Meanwhile, PLYWD was to investigate how such a low-yield warhead could be matched to laser-guided bombs or other unboosted glide weapons delivered by F-15E fighters and B-1B and B-2 bombers.

While little enthusiasm was expressed outside of the labs for a nuclear anti-missile missile warhead or a standard one-kiloton battlefield weapon, exotic technologies appealed to the old neutron bomb set. In 1991, the labs started to look at "tailored" nuclear weapons that could neutralize military electronic equipment, destroy mobile missiles, and disable electrical power networks. Livermore began working with the air force, the Defense Nuclear Agency, and the Strategic Defense Initiative Office on high-power microwave and EMP weapons.

These new small nuclear weapons were promoted as "nonlethal." Livermore's February 1992 Energy & Technology Review mentions "EMP warheads for nonlethal attacks of targets with sensitive electronics." PLYWD's designers, grasping at justifications and taking advantage of the high level of interest in weapons of mass destruction, also suggested tailored nuclear weapons for attacks on chemical and biological weapons facilities. "PLYWD may limit the collateral damage by neutralizing or destroying the active agent (either through radiation or thermal effect)," according to a classified air force background paper dated July 15, 1992.


Business As Usual?

At the end of this decade under current plans, a quarter of the U.S. nuclear arsenal will consist of air force, navy, and marine bombs and sea-launched cruise missiles earmarked for non-strategic missions. Given that tactical weapons will play such a prominent role in a reduced stockpile, it is not surprising that their modernization and replacement has seized the imaginations of nuclear advocates. Non-strategic nuclear weapons have not been constrained by U.S.-Soviet or U.S.-Russian arms control agreements, and- outside of Europe-they have always received less attention than strategic weapons. In short, they remain relatively hidden from public view.

Inside the nuclear weapons complex, mini-nukes have been moving steadily forward, acquiring internal legitimacy through bureaucratic survival and expansion. With nuclear policy in hiatus, scientists and nuclear planners have been able to pursue their own ideas, creating their own reality about the need for new weapons. In the words of Livermore's latest "Institutional Plan," there is a "general consensus among defense experts and government leaders . . . that different nuclear weapon needs are evolving." The lab, the plan says, will "provide weapons options that respond to changing weapon missions" to "prepare for potential 21st Century stockpile requirements."

President Bill Clinton has said many times that the spread of nuclear weapons is the biggest threat to U.S. national security. Yet the mini-nuke programs are proliferating with his administration's acquiescence. So far the Clinton team has been silent on the subject of the nuclear future-particularly on complementary nuclear research, nonproliferation, and testing policy. It has shown little commitment to nuclear disarmament.

Testifying in closed session in March 1992, Siegfried Hecker, Los Alamos's director, told Congress that his laboratory was engaged in the development of a new generation of "special purpose weapons." Only small numbers of weapons would be built, said Hecker. After all, the non-strategic weapons that will remain in a downsized arsenal "will have to be replaced" eventually: "Deterrence has never been static and unchanging, and there is no reason to suppose it will be in the future." The laboratory, said Hecker, was simply maintaining its ability to "respond in a timely way to whatever requirements arise." Surprisingly, Hecker's testimony sounded no alarms among test ban or nonproliferation advocates. It's "just the labs," one congressional staffer told me.

But it is not just the labs. Dick Cheney, in one of his last acts as Defense Secretary, submitted a report to Congress titled "Defense Strategy for the 1990s: The Regional Defense Strategy," which endorsed the development of new non-strategic nuclear weapons: "In the decade ahead, we must adopt the right combination of deterrent forces, tactical and strategic . . . to mitigate risk from weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, whatever the source. For now this requires retaining ready forces for a survivable nuclear deterrent, including tactical forces. In addition, we must complete needed force modernization and upgrades."

In the mysterious ways of the Pentagon, this statement is all the endorsement the services and nuclear advocates need to extend their mini-nuke run for another year. Thus the emergence of new weapons in President Clinton's Energy Department budget.

Testifying before Congress on April 22, Gen. Lee Butler, head of the Strategic Command, said that Gen. Colin Powell had asked him to examine the idea of removing planning and targeting of non-strategic nuclear weapons from the separate European, Pacific, Atlantic, and Central Commands, consolidating these functions under his command. (As head of the old Strategic Air Command, Butler had sponsored the Reed Panel, and it was on his initiative that the air force established PLYWD to investigate mini-nuke weapons.)

On the surface, the removal of nuclear planning from regional commands would appear to segregate nuclear weapons from conventional forces. The reality, though, is that the regional commands are straying from their nuclear addiction, and the shrinking arsenal needs a more aggressive sponsor. "We're not a bunch of Cold War warmongers out here," Butler told the New York Times in February. "Our focus now is not just the former Soviet Union, but any potentially hostile country that has or is seeking weapons of mass destruction." How much longer can the Clinton team let the new warmongers march off on their own without any orders?


POSTSCRIPT: From the Alice-in-Wonderland department

By William M. Arkin and Hans Kristensen

If nuclear weapons are ever used by the United States in a conflict with a Third World power, they almost certainly would be delivered by tactical aircraft-air force, navy, or marine. In March 1990, in an effort to follow contingency planning along such lines, Greenpeace filed a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) seeking information as to whether new fighters would be nuclear capable.

After much correspondence and subsequent requests, the air force said the F-22 would have no "air-to-ground or nuclear role."

Meanwhile, the Defense Department, in its reply, claimed that it was unable to locate any records on nuclear certification of the F-22.

The latter response seemed bizarre. It didn't seem to us at Greenpeace that the Defense Department would undertake a multi-billion-dollar fighter aircraft program without considering whether it should be able to launch nuclear weapons. Had the Defense Department simply left it up to the air force to decide what it would do with its new plane?

In a follow-up request to Defense, Greenpeace asked that the records of specific nuclear policy offices be checked. Defense responded that no records were located. Further, it insisted that because "no records were located, there can be no public interest." Absent a "public interest," it insisted that Greenpeace pay $125 to cover research costs. (FOIA allows governmental agencies to recover certain costs involved in filling FOIA requests. But if the resulting information is found to be in the "public interest," those costs can be routinely waived.)

Further, the Defense Department assumed its best bill-collector stance and said that it would stop work on all other Greenpeace requests until the bill was paid. Greenpeace asked Defense to reverse its denial. Defense declined. Excerpts from the final exchange of correspondence follow:

"Fee waivers . . . may be granted when there is a public interest in disclosure of the information located in response to a search.

"In the instance at issue, no records were located. Since no records were located, no official information that sheds light on an agency's performance can be released. . . . If nothing is disclosed to the public, you are effectively asking the public to underwrite your unsuccessful FOIA request. This is not fair, since your request produced nothing which could be disseminated to the public to reveal DOD operations and activities. Hence a fee waiver would be clearly inappropriate. . . .

"Therefore, we must again ask that you provide payment in the amount of $125.00 for the above referenced case" (Defense Department to Greenpeace, March 2, 1993).

Greenpeace replied (in a letter by the authors) to the Defense Department on March 15, 1993:

"Since we cannot continue our work with the . . . [Office of the Secretary of Defense] withholding other Greenpeace FOIAs, we are forced to pay the fee. However, we do this under protest. . . .

"A fee decision is based on the public interest . . . a 'no document' result can easily be in the public's interest since the lack of documents . . . may well shed light on that particular agency's performance. . . .

"I would like to tell you the logic behind our initial request, as I think the 'public interest' was lost in the legal . . . arguments. We asked for documents relating to decisions to nuclear certify . . . a new airplane that will undoubtedly be controversial in the future. . . . In modern aircraft, nuclear capability is embedded into the aircraft design, yet we recognize that air-to-ground capability is not synonymous with nuclear certification.

"Some will argue that the Air Force should not spend the money to buy a single function (i.e., air-to-air combat) airplane, when the performance of dual function aircraft (e.g., F/A-18) seems a better value. Further . . . some will argue that current air-to-air combat aircraft be converted to air-to-ground platforms (e.g., this is already being done in conversion of the F-14 'Bombcat' or has been done in the development of the F-15E). We believe that underlying that debate are considerations relating to nuclear certification and capability. . . . If the Office of the Secretary of Defense does not involve itself in making decisions regarding that capability (e.g., embedding the wiring for future contingencies), or if such decisions are solely left to the services, that fact is in the public interest.

"In making a 'no records' response, the DOD is stating that it did not involve itself in any discussions of the potential nuclear certification of this new airplane. Since we recently received confirmation from the Air Force (under the FOIA) that the F-117A stealth fighter was nuclear certified . . . we believe that checking on the nuclear certification of other aircraft is . . . in the public interest. Perhaps an obscure Memorandum would have surfaced that stated that a decision was made to preserve a nuclear capability for a future airplane, or vetoing a perfunctory Service decision to make a plane nuclear capable. That certainly would be in the public interest. The fact that the Nuclear Weapons Council or the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary for Atomic Energy have no records is interesting and in the public interest"

A final note: In May, the air force awarded Lockheed a contract to modify the F-22's weapons capability, to incorporate air-to-ground delivery. No word-yet-on future nuclear delivery capacity.

*********** ENDS ************

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

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