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Pentagon wants mini-nuke ban to be lifted

Julian Borger in Washington
Friday March 7, 2003
The Guardian

The Pentagon has asked the US Congress to lift a 10-year ban on developing small nuclear warheads, or "mini-nukes", in one of the most overt steps President George Bush's administration has taken towards building a new atomic arsenal.

Buried in the defence department's 2004 budget proposals, sent to congressional committees this week, was a single-line statement that marks a sharp change in US nuclear policy.

It calls on the legislature to "rescind the prohibition on research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons".

If passed by Congress, the measure would represent an important victory for radicals in the administration, who believe the US arsenal needs to be made more "usable", and therefore a more meaningful deterrent, to "rogue states" that have weapons of mass destruction, or WMD.

A Pentagon official said yesterday the research ban on smaller warheads "has negatively affected US government efforts to support the national strategy to counter WMD, and undercuts efforts that could strengthen our ability to deter or respond to new or emerging threats".

Democrats fought off earlier Republican attempts to lift the ban on researching and developing warheads under five kilotons (a third of the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima), fearing they would lead to an end to the US moratorium on nuclear testing, and to a new arms race.

Since the Republicans won back control of the Senate last year, the administration believes it is in a strong position to lift the "Spratt-Furse restriction", named after two Democrat congressmen who proposed the ban in 1993.

"It's significant because this is the first time the administration - and it comes from the department of defence - has said it wants low-yield weapons," said Kathryn Cran dall, a nuclear weapons expert at the British American Security Information Council.

She said the policy statement contradicted denials from administration officials that they had any ambitions to build new weapons.

The Pentagon official, who did not want to be named, said a repeal of the ban would not commit the US to producing and deploying low-yield warheads. "Such warhead concepts could not proceed to full-scale development, much less production and deployment, unless Congress authorises the substantial funds required," the official said.

Congressional Republicans approved $15m (9.4m) last year for research on nuclear "bunker busters", designed to penetrate reinforced underground targets before exploding; but the weapons, the B83 and the B61, are modifications of high-yield bombs. Developing low-yield devices would probably require testing.

The Senate never ratified the comprehensive test ban treaty, but the US imposed a moratorium on testing in 1992.

"Here we have the administration in one of its more open steps so far," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based arms control association. "The only reason why the administration might want to pursue low-yield nuclear weapons is to develop a weapon they believe is less damaging to the immediate environment. "In the strange logic of these people, it would be more 'usable' - the political costs, they believe, will be lower," he said.

John Spratt, one of the ban's two authors, said: "Some in the administration and in Congress seem to think that the US can move the world in one direction while Washington moves in another - that we can continue to prevail on other countries not to develop nuclear weapons, while we develop new tactical applications for such weapons, and possibly resume nuclear testing."

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