Socialism Today           Socialist Party magazine

Bush’s secret nuclear plans

Usable nukes?

Nuclear weapons for all?

Is a US first-strike possible?

Repudiating the Test Ban

Warehousing outdated strategic weapons

The US superpower, under Bush’s direction, is developing a new range of so-called tactical, war-fighting nuclear weapons. Secretly, the Pentagon has drawn up plans for possible pre-emptive nuclear strikes against a list of states – now exposed in leaked sections of the Nuclear Posture Review, analysed by LYNN WALSH.

THERE ARE TWO layers to the Pentagon’s latest Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) submitted to Congress late last year. The public section was released early in January. The top-secret section, which reveals an horrendous new turn in the Pentagon’s nuclear weapons policy, was leaked to the press at the beginning of March. The document shows that the US superpower, which already possesses an historically unprecedented military predominance, is determined to acquire still greater power. Seizing on the post September 11 mood in the US, Bush is pushing ahead with an enormous expansion of the military apparatus and the implementation of an even more aggressive military strategy. The new US policy will trigger a renewed nuclear arms race and aggravate international conflicts.

The Pentagon proposes a New Triad, composed of "offensive strike systems (both nuclear and non-nuclear); defences (both active and passive); and a revitalised defence infrastructure that will provide new capabilities in a timely fashion to meet emerging threats". This means a massive build up of new weapons systems and of the military-industrial complex generally. "Nuclear strike capabilities" will be developed for a number of "immediate, potential or unexpected contingencies", an example of the latter being "a sudden regime change by which an existing nuclear arsenal comes into the hands of a new, hostile leadership group, or an opponent’s surprise unveiling of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] capabilities".

The NPR threatens a potential unilateral, pre-emptive nuclear strike against a number of non-nuclear-weapon countries: "North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Libya are among the countries that could be involved in immediate, potential, or unexpected contingencies. All have long-standing hostility towards the US and its security partners [eg South Korea, Israel]; North Korea and Iraq in particular have been chronic military concerns. All sponsor or harbour terrorists, and all have active WMD and missile programmes". If adopted as policy by US imperialism, this commitment to aggressive, nuclear action will create an entirely new and much more dangerous international situation.

China is also on the target list: "Due to the combination of China’s still developing strategic objectives and its on-going modernisation of its nuclear and non-nuclear forces, China is a country that could be involved in an immediate or potential contingency" – eg threatening Taiwan. Russia, with its huge nuclear arsenal, remains on the list. Still regarded as a strategic rival, it is not seen as an immediate threat.

Usable nukes?

THE PENTAGON IS pushing to develop a range of so-called tactical nuclear weapons. They would no longer be a last resort, but war-zone weapons to be used in combination with conventional arms. "Composed of both non-nuclear systems and nuclear weapons", says the NPR, "the strike element of the New Triad can provide greater flexibility in the design and conduct of military campaigns to defeat opponents decisively". These plans are based on the grotesque fantasy that a new generation of small, precisely guided missiles could be used without causing civilian casualties on an horrendous scale. "Desire capabilities for nuclear weapons systems in flexible, adaptable strike plans include options for variable and reduced yields, high accuracy, and timely employment. These capabilities would help deter enemy use of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] or limit collateral damage, should the US have to defeat enemy WMD capabilities".

The Pentagon claims that small, tactical nukes are necessary to "defeat emerging threats such as hard and deeply buried targets (HDBT)". They claim that there are over 10,000 underground facilities worldwide, 1,400 marked as key WMD or ballistic missile facilities or top command centres. No doubt the authors also had in mind the Tora Bora caves of Al Qaeda. Late last year, Representative Steve Buyer, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, called for the use of tactical nuclear weapons against bin Laden’s Afghan redoubts.

The Pentagon already has the earth-penetrating nuclear B61-11 gravity bomb, developed under Clinton’s presidency. Apparently, however, this has disappointing powers of penetration. "With a more effective earth penetrater, many buried targets could be attacked using a weapon with a much lower yield than would be required with a surface-burst weapon. This lower yield would achieve the same damage while producing less fallout… than would a much larger yield surface burst". An earlier Pentagon study, published in June 2000, claimed that "a benefit of lower-yield weapons is that the collateral damage sustained by the near-target area may be reduced, an important factor in attacks near urban areas". The NPR admits, however, that "for defeat of very deep or larger underground facilities penetrating weapons with larger yields would be needed to collapse the facility".

The claim that such ‘low-yield’ weapons could be used without devastating ‘collateral damage’, in plain language, mass death and destruction, is preposterous. Non-military scientists and nuclear experts completely reject these disingenuous claims. "Robert Nelson of the Federation of American Scientists argues that there is no way an atomic bomb could penetrate the earth deeply enough to contain the explosion, even if its yield were 1% of that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Such a bomb would create a fireball that would blast through the earth’s surface, carrying a cloud of radioactive dirt and debris, according to Nelson, who notes that five kilo-tonne atomic bombs had to be detonated at the Nevada test site at a depth of 650 feet to be fully contained – far deeper than any mini-nuke could travel". (Katchadourian, The Nation, 1 April) According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, dropping a B61-11 nuclear bomb on Saddam Hussein’s presidential bunker in Baghdad "could cause upwards of 20,000 deaths".

The Pentagon’s plans deliberately blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional. "If military planners are now to consider the nuclear option any time they confront a surprising military development, the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons fades away", commented Ivo Daalder, a Brookings Institution foreign policy expert. (New York Times, 12 March)

The deployment of ‘handy’, tactical nukes by the US inevitably means that states that do not possess low-yield, supposedly accurate, mini-nukes may hit back with whatever they have in their arsenals. That could include so-called ‘dirty bombs’. These would combine conventional explosives with nuclear material, not to cause a nuclear explosion but to shower lethal radioactivity over the target population.

Nuclear weapons for all?

THE US UNDER Bush has withdrawn from the anti-ballistic missile treaty (ABMT) in order to develop its missile defence system, successor to Reagan’s ‘star wars’, which will give another twist to the arms race as rival powers strive to develop counter-measures. The Western powers have always been ready to make or break treaties when it suits their interests, and this is especially true of the US today. Effectively, the policies revealed in the NPR negate US support for the 30-year-old non-proliferation treaty (NPT). In 1978 the US, Britain and the Soviet Union formally pledged never to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that signed up to the treaty, except in case of an attack by any such state in alliance with a nuclear weapons state. No exception was made for response to chemical or biological weapon attacks. The pledge was renewed by the US, Britain, Russia, France and China, in support of moves to make the 25-year NPT a permanent treaty.

The US, however, is now explicitly listing Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iran and North Korea as potential targets for US nuclear weapons. They are all non-nuclear weapons states, and signatories to the NPT. The implication is clear. The US should be prepared to use nuclear weapons in a first strike against any country that poses a threat to the US, regardless of its nuclear status.

It is doubtful whether the non-proliferation treaty had any real effect in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. Lack of resources and technical capacity have been bigger factors. Nevertheless, the new US policy will inevitably spur proliferation.

Commenting on the NPR, Robert McNamara, US defence secretary (1961-67) during the Vietnam war, asks: "If a country believes that it is falling out of favour in Washington, what is it likely to do?… Perhaps a quote attributed to the Indian defence minister, George Fernandez, provides some insight: ‘Before one challenges the United States, one must first acquire nuclear weapons’." (International Herald Tribune, 14 March) India and Pakistan both conducted nuclear tests in 1998, before applying to join the non-proliferation treaty – as members of the exclusive nuclear club.

"The development of tactical nuclear weapons by the US and the threat of pre-emptive strikes", comments the Physicians for Social Responsibility, "provides the best incentive imaginable for a potential foe of the US to move to the development of nuclear weapons, since they would suffer the same consequences for nuclear use as for a chemical or biological attack". The new US policy increases the probability of target regimes threatening nuclear retaliation against the US.

Is a US first-strike possible?

THE NPR PROVOKES a fundamental question. Is it now possible that, in a crisis, the US would launch a pre-emptive, nuclear first strike against an opponent? In the period of the cold war, between Hiroshima in 1945 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the balance of nuclear terror effectively ruled out a first strike. Both sides recognised that using nuclear weapons would, in reality, be a self-destructive move. It would not only threaten the destruction of the two antagonistic social systems, but also pose a threat to the very existence of humanity.

In successive post-war crises, some US leaders nevertheless raised the nuclear option. During the Korean War in 1950-51, general MacArthur called for an all-out offensive against China, to ‘roll back communism’, advocating the use of nuclear weapons. It was a step too far, and president Truman sacked MacArthur. During the closing stages of the Vietnam war, president Nixon flirted with the idea of a nuclear strike, but was firmly dissuaded by his security adviser, Henry Kissinger. In his memoirs, Colin Powell dismisses the idea, raised again during the Gulf War of 1990-91, that nukes could be used as battlefield weapons.

Bush’s apologists, however, are claiming that they are simply following previous policy. In 1996, it is true, Clinton’s defence secretary, William Perry, warned that if any state attacked the US with chemical weapons, "then they would have to fear the consequences of a response from any weapon in our inventory… We could make a devastating response without the use of nuclear weapons, but we would not foreswear the possibility [of using them]".

There is a qualitative difference, however, between such a generalised threat, made many times before (for instance, by Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis) and the NPR’s explicit, detailed threat of the ‘unilaterally assured destruction’ of any state considered to be an immediate threat to the US. The policy, moreover, is backed up by a commitment to expand weapons-producing facilities and develop a new generation of mini-nukes.

Exposure of the Pentagon’s plans, not surprisingly, provoked angry reactions from leaders of the targeted states. The USA’s Nato allies are also voicing alarm at the new turn. In response, Colin Powell and general Richard Myers, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared on TV news programmes attempting to allay fears. "We should not get all carried away with some sense that the US is planning to use nuclear weapons in some contingency that is coming up in the near future", Powell said. The Pentagon study was merely "sound, military, conceptual planning", and the President would be giving "his directions on how to proceed". (NYT, 12 March)

The NPR, however, undoubtedly contains plans that are already being implemented. Nuclear war-fighting scenarios previously hatched in right-wing, Republican think-tanks (such as the National Institute for Public Policy) have been incorporated into the Defence Department’s strategic policies. Right-wing think-tank experts are now working in the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House. "It means the nuclear nuts have seized control of the policy apparatus", says Joseph Cirincioni of the Carnegie Endowment.

Adoption of these atrocious policies by the presidency reflects a strengthening of the executive power against checks previously exerted by Congress and the judiciary. Anger at September 11 created an overwhelming public mood ready to give blanket approval to all security and defence measures. Neither the Democrats nor the Labor union leaders (who are mostly tied to the Democrats) offer any opposition. Bush has seized the opportunity to reclaim powers stripped from the presidency in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Nixon’s Watergate scandal.

There is clearly a new situation regarding nuclear policy. It can no longer be assumed, as it could be during the Cold War, that the US will not, under conditions of extreme international tension, launch a nuclear first strike. Unless Bush is reined in by the ruling class or, more decisively, checked by a movement of the working class, it must now be considered a frightening possibility that the US superpower could resort to the first use of nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive strike against one or other of its enemies.

Alarm bells are sounding within the inner councils of the ruling class. Under the heading, ‘America as Nuclear Rogue’, the New York Times, the country’s most authoritative capitalist paper, warned on 13 March that the government has lost sight of the reality "that [nuclear] weapons should be used only when the nation’s most basic interests or national survival is at risk, and that the unrestrained use of nuclear weapons in war could end life on earth as we know it". Nuclear weapons, the editorial says, are not weapons like any other but qualitatively different: "Lowering the threshold for their use is reckless folly".

The use of even a single low-yield nuclear bomb, however localized its immediate impact, would cross the threshold – provoking possible nuclear retaliation with unpredictable, unimaginable consequences. Do the Pentagon planners believe that US military forces and the US population would be immune from the effects of any nuclear exchange?

Resort to nuclear weapons, moreover, would provoke an explosive political reaction, even if the initial strike involved a so-called mini-nuke. Even a NATO statement admits: "Any nuclear weapons use would be absolutely catastrophic in human and environmental terms… such human cost would ensure an enormous political cost for any nation that chose to use nuclear weapons, particularly in a first strike". (Guardian, 12 March) This is an understatement. Resort to nuclear weapons would reveal, like nothing else, the inhumanity and ruthless class egotism of capitalist leaders who would rather destroy the planet than relinquish their monopoly of wealth and power. A nuclear exchange, even if limited to one or two low-yield explosions, would demonstrate the pathological morbidity of present society. Capitalism perverts advanced technology into grotesque weapons of annihilation but is incapable of meeting the most basic needs of most of the people currently inhabiting the planet. The political cost to the existing system would indeed be enormous, arousing an urgent worldwide demand for a new social order that would eliminate war and the social-economic roots of war.

Sources: Information for this article has been drawn from: Briefings of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace ( and Physicians for Social Responsibility (, and from Raffi Khatchadourian, ‘Relearning to Love the Bomb’, The Nation (US), 1 April 2002 (


Repudiating the Test Ban

THE NPR CALLS for an early resumption of nuclear testing, breaking the moratorium observed by the US since 1992. Tests are needed, it is claimed, to maintain the safety of existing warheads, a blatant excuse. "There is no scientific justification for testing for the safety of our arsenal", says Joseph Cirincione, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: "The only reason you would need new tests is to verify new designs, new types of weapons, period".

If the US resumes testing, other nuclear states, like France, China, India and Pakistan (and some would-be nuclear powers) will also carry out tests, accelerating the nuclear arms race. The radioactive fallout from tests, even if carried out underground, will add to the long-term contamination of the environment and lead to more radiation-linked illnesses.


Warehousing outdated strategic weapons

WHEN THE non-secret sections of the NPR were released, Bush made great play of the USA’s unilateral decision to cut its arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons from 6,000 to between 1,700 and 2,200. These are inter-continental ballistic missiles of the cold-war era. Since the collapse of the Soviet superpower and Russia’s transition to capitalist chaos, US imperialism no longer feels the same need for an over-kill capacity of destroying the planet several times over. Instead of dismantling the warheads (and attempting to safely store the fissile material), however, the US will warehouse the weapons (adding them to 8,000 already mothballed) keeping them ready for redeployment within weeks.

The Russian regime, which can no longer afford to maintain its former nuclear arsenals, welcomed the US cuts. But Putin is totally opposed to warehousing. If the US will not destroy its old warheads, neither will Russia. This is an alarming prospect, given the reported deterioration of Russia’s nuclear weapons infrastructure and doubts about the stability and safety of its warheads. There have been repeated allegations of ‘missing’ warheads and weapons-grade plutonium. This raises the appalling possibility of militaristic regimes or terrorist organisations obtaining nuclear material to use in ‘suitcase bombs’ or ‘dirty bombs’ delivered by missile.

The US is modernising its arsenal, not reducing its reliance on nuclear weapons. Humanity already lives under the dark shadow of an estimated 32,000 existing nuclear weapons. Bush will be adding even more.


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