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Debate: Mini-nukes development in the United States

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Should the United States conduct research into mini-nukes?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Jonathan Bailey. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

In the cold war period the philosophy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was central in all thinking on nuclear weaponry. MAD would prevent a nuclear attack from the other side of the iron curtain because the attacker would know that if they launched missiles first, the inevitable retaliatory strike would lead to both sides being almost completely wiped out. The nuclear weapons developed for MAD were ‘strategic’ and over the course of the cold war became increasingly powerful and sophisticated. These strategic weapons were mounted on the top of missiles, carried by bombers or placed in submarines. The other group of nuclear weapons, ‘tactical’ ones (because they were smaller in force and could be used on the battlefield), were rarely mentioned, although it was discovered after the Cuban Missile Crisis that Cuba had been given battlefield-nukes by the Soviet Union to use on any invading US force, and it is now known that had the Soviet Union launched an attack on Western Europe, nuclear mines would have been buried in the West German soil. Had ‘tactical’ weapons been used against the USA or USSR, it is likely that MAD would have kicked in and ‘strategic’ nuclear weapons would have been used in retaliation. However, such a philosophy may not apply in the post-cold war world. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of international terrorism and rogue nations as the key concerns of the USA, President George W. Bush has funded the development of a new generation of ‘tactical’ nukes which have been christened ‘mini-nukes’. These would have small yields (about 1 kiloton - equal to 1,000 tonnes of explosives) as compared to the 15 kiloton weapon dropped on Hiroshima and the 470 kiloton weapons found in the US’s Trident missile system today. These could be used on the battlefield or, perhaps most importantly, as ‘bunker-buster’ bombs (with yields nearer 5 kilotons) which would be dropped by air, slam through the ceilings of underground bunkers and then explode. The administration argues that with Osama Bin Laden hiding out in the Tora Bora hills of Afghanistan, North Korea developing nuclear weapons in underground laboratories, and other nasty regimes stockpiling chemical and biological weapons in bunkers, they need weapons that are powerful enough to destroy such threats. Congress banned research and the testing of such weapons in 1993 but changed its mind in 2003. Opponents of mini-nukes claim that their research and development would mean breaking many treaties, require renewed nuclear testing and only serve to increase the threat of a nuclear attack on the United States. It should be noted that in 2004 Congress passed cuts of $388bn in a multi-agency spending bill to ease the budget deficit, including cutting the $38m of funding for the mini-nuke programme. This has significantly slowed the research programme and it is unclear whether President Bush will be able to divert other funding towards his pet project.

Argument #1


The US is no longer faced with a situation where it is dealing with a single enemy who either will or will not launch a wave of annihilating 45 kiloton missiles, and it needs to change its arsenal to reflect a different world order. The possibility of multiple threats from rogue nations launching regional strikes on the interests of the US and her allies (e.g. an Iranian attack on Israel or US troops in Iraq, an invasion of Taiwan by China or an attack on South Korea by North Korea) requires a range of much smaller scale arms.


Adopting a new approach to nuclear weaponry marks a dangerous break from tradition. Dangerous because it means that the US is developing nuclear weaponry which is, at its simplest, more likely to be used, and because it is likely to prompt similar action from other nations. Nuclear weapons have two key features which make it desirable that they never be used. Firstly, even the smallest of the mini-nukes under consideration are a hundred times more powerful that the most powerful conventional weaponry. This means they are not ‘smart’ bombs able to be used selectively against purely military targets, but weapons which will inevitably result in massive devastation to soldiers and civilians alike. Secondly, all nuclear weapons produce dangerous levels of radiation which significantly increase the long term damage of the initial blast and make an area uninhabitable for decades.

Argument #2


George W. Bush’s signing of the Moscow Treaty in 2002 (which requires the USA to cut its strategic nuclear arsenal from 6,000 to 2,000 weapons by 2012) shows that the US is not bent on nuclear aggression, simply an arsenal which is relevant to today’s threats. While the development of mini-nukes may well breach the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, ultimately the states that are likely to threaten the US either do not care about international arms treaties (such as North Korea or Iran) or have already developed enough weapons that they can keep these treaties without their security being put at risk (Russia or China are both thought to already possess tactical nuclear stockpiles). While it is obviously important to try and stop other states from developing nuclear weapons, it should not stop the US from being able to defend itself. It was for that reason that the US broke the Anti-Missile Defence Treaty and mini-nukes should be no different.


If the US were to conduct research and possibly deploy mini-nukes, states like Russia and China would feel they would have to do the same in order to be able to respond effectively. They would also have no qualms about breaking the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which President Bush is trying to get states like Iran to take more seriously) because the US would have broken it first. There is a significant risk that while the strategic nuclear arms race may have come to an end, mini-nukes might prompt a tactical nuclear arms race as US weapons placed to defend Taiwan, South Korea and Israel might force neighbouring states to develop their own weapons in response. The United Kingdom is supposedly considering adopting any US mini-nuke program by replacing its existing Trident system of submarines (due to retire in 2012) with the cheaper mini-nukes. If other nuclear states like France and Israel did this too, surely China and Russia would have no option but to do the same.

Argument #3


Given that the smallest of the strategic nuclear weapons the US has is powerful enough to obliterate an entire city, the arguments against ever using such a weapon are strong. For deterrence to work, rogue nations and other states with WMD must believe that the US will retaliate if attacked, however this is becoming increasingly unlikely. Given that the most realistic threats come from rogue nations who are likely to be only able to develop relatively low yield nuclear weapons, would the US chose to destroy the whole of Pyongyang in response to a small yield nuclear attack which only damaged the suburb of a US city? Perhaps more importantly, the relative difficulty of developing deliverable nuclear weapons means that rogue nations are increasingly looking towards other WMD. If the US was attacked with a chemical, biological or radiological weapon (a dirty bomb for example) it would be unlikely to retaliate by destroying Pyongyang with a nuclear strike. Thus to maintain deterrence the US needs to shift from MAD to a ‘Flexible Response’ philosophy and have an arsenal, including mini-nukes, which its enemies honestly believe might be used. By equipping itself with a range of responses which are appropriate to the range of threats levelled against it, the US is far more likely to deter potential aggressors in future.


The problem with a deterrence program based around the idea that you have to convince your enemies that you are capable of using nuclear weapons, is that it makes you more likely to actually use nuclear weapons. The January 2002 Nuclear Posture Review made it clear that the US should change the way it viewed nuclear weapons as different from other arms, and integrate nuclear with non-nuclear tactical weaponry. Yet a moral stigma has been associated with nuclear weaponry since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, meaning that world leaders have been desperate not to use them - so they are different. With the world’s only superpower breaking the nuclear taboo, they lose any moral leverage they have over countries who do not have nuclear weaponry but are seeking to acquire it. Even worse, states like North Korea and Iran can justifiably see the development of mini-nukes as an aggressive step by the US to develop weapons designed for use against them, thus giving them a greater justification for developing their own nuclear weapons in response. The US should remember that nuclear weapons are the great leveller: a state like Iran will never have the funds or technology to match the conventional weaponry that the US can bring to bear, but with just one nuclear weapon all that conventional weaponry becomes almost irrelevant. The more states which feel the nuclear taboo has been broken or that they are under threat from the USA, the more states that will develop their own nuclear weapons and the less able the US will be to use its conventional forces as a genuine deterrent.

Argument #4


Aside from dealing with tactical threats on the battlefield, the other main use for mini-nukes is as ‘bunker-buster’ bombs to destroy underground bunkers. The US estimates that there are some 10,000 Hardened and Deeply Buried Tunnels (HDBT) spread over 70 countries and that around 10% of them house chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, or command and control facilities. US scientists claim that existing conventional weaponry can only disable or disrupt HDBTs and even then only if there is accurate intelligence for targeting. The current alternative is the B61-11 nuclear bomb; however, it has a high yield and thus produces excessive explosive force and radiation. As a result it has never been used and instead ineffective conventional bunker-buster bombs have been deployed in combat arenas like Iraq and Afghanistan. A 5 kiloton mini-nuke bunker-buster would provide sufficient yield to destroy most HDBTs as well as to vaporise any chemical, biological or nuclear stockpiles within them. Perhaps more importantly, US Strategic Command (StratCom) estimates it would have between 10 and 20 times lower radiation fallout than the B61-11 while still achieving similar levels of damage despite its lower yield. This would make it a politically and morally viable option, particularly when it is used against stockpiles of WMD; even the most sceptical scientists concede that the potential casualties from any fallout would be lower than if the WMD was used aggressively. Obviously these bunker-busters have not been fully researched and developed yet, that is why this motion calls for support for research into them, and so we should be wary of claims that they will never be able to work. Yet if the choice is between sending a land invasion to destroy underground nuclear laboratories with the inevitable casualties as compared to using mini-nuke bunker busters, it seems clear the research is worth doing.


We should be sceptical of claims by StratCom and other nuclear hawks in the US military about the potential benefits of mini-nuke bunker busters. Low yield is not no yield; these weapons are always going to result in some radioactive fall out. Even using the US military’s own research, it is clear that unless the bunker buster buries very deep and then explodes some radioactive fall out would escape. Current estimates suggest they would need to reach 100 metres underground (current test missiles have only managed to penetrate up to 10 metres) and it is thought that the force necessary for such penetration would probably result in the weapon melting under the heat created by the penetration. Furthermore, given that the claim is that it would be justifiable to use such powerful weapons because they would be destroying other WMD, we should be sure that mini-nuke bunker busters would actually succeed in such missions. Firstly, intelligence accurate enough to justify using nuclear weapons is unlikely to be available. Secondly, scientific studies suggest that there is a high likelihood that the weapons would not be completely destroy any biological stockpiles and that it might even disperse the biological agents into the surrounding area. There is, of course, an alternative to mini-nukes; firstly the US can try to cut down the number of states developing places to hide WMD stockpiles through strengthened arms controls (like supporting attempts to include better inspection and monitoring in chemical and biological weapons treaties), and attempts to limit proliferation and arms trading. Secondly, in dealing with HDBTs where they have been built, existing conventional weaponry like the Daisy Cutter fuel-air bombs used by the US against Al Qaeda operatives hiding in the Tora Bora caves of Afghanistan or by Russian forces in Chechnya provide immense explosive force (admittedly with only 0.6% of the force of a 1 kiloton mini-nuke) but without the long term radioactive fallout or problem of blurring the line between conventional and nuclear weaponry.

Argument #5


It would be possible to research and potentially to develop a new range of nuclear weaponry without actually having to conduct live tests. Since the 1992 nuclear testing moratorium, the USA has been developing increasingly sophisticated supercomputers designed specifically for simulated nuclear weapons tests. These would be sufficient for most of the research into the nuclear device itself. The second key part of the research into mini-nukes focuses on producing a delivery missile for the bunker-buster bombs. These missiles would be dropped from 20,000 feet or more by aircraft and then smash through the ceiling of underground bunkers. Developing such delivery vehicles is probably the most technically complex part of the research and accounted for most of the funding voted through by Congress in 2003. Testing these missiles would not breach the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Even if the US did decide to mount a mini-nuke on one and test it, given the administration’s vocal opposition to the Treaty and the way other states around the world have ignored it or chosen not to sign up to it, it is unlikely to lead to a flood of states deciding to start nuclear testing.


At some point it is highly likely that live testing will have to take place. Indeed Congress authorised such testing in 2003 and the NPR covered upgrading the testing facilities and retraining staff at sites like Los Alamos. With almost all of the scientists who have first hand knowledge of nuclear testing from the last round of live testing now retired, the idea of being able to develop new weapons based solely on computer simulations and academics’ calculations seems unlikely. While the US has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Congressional moratorium on testing has given some support for the treaty. Vocal US criticism of states like India, Pakistan and France for testing nuclear weapons has also helped to limit testing and development mainly to rogue states which have been isolated and condemned by the international community. A change of the USA's position on testing would certainly lead to other countries following its lead. We should also not forget that nuclear testing itself causes huge damage to the environment and any resumption would only serve to obliterate more Pacific atolls and parts of New Mexico.

Argument #6


There is a fear amongst the US scientific community that the US is losing its dominance of the academic nuclear field because the US is not funding research for its scientists. Meanwhile states like China (which is developing new missile delivery systems and more sophisticated nuclear weapons) and Russia (which recently announced it had developed a new rocket system which would be able to avoid the proposed US National Missile Defence shield) are stealing a march on the USA. Furthermore, ex-Soviet nuclear scientists are being attracted to work for states like Pakistan, North Korea and China. The mini-nuke program would not only maintain US dominance of nuclear technology but, just as with German scientists in the post-WW2 era, provide an ideal way to ensure that top nuclear scientists from the old Soviet bloc were not employed by rogue nations or potential enemies of the USA.


Surely it would be far better to engage nuclear scientists in something of more benefit to humanity, like safer nuclear power stations or nuclear fusion? The risk of a massively funded nuclear program within the USA is that, just as with the Manhattan project, it is likely that any new technology would simply end up being stolen. The fact that scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory repeatedly lose laptops with sensitive information and that the FBI had to investigate allegations of spying at the facility in July 2004 makes research into mini-nukes look like a good way to spread new technology to China and Russia, not maintain US dominance. Secondly, there is the risk that whereas strategic nuclear weapons are kept under great security in missile silos, on submarines or at aircraft bases often on the US mainland, tactical weapons are likely to be placed near potential threats and in larger numbers. This makes it more likely that they will be stolen, lost or involved in accidents. Given that mini-nukes have yields low enough to make them practical for terrorist groups to use for political ends, combined with the almost inevitable adoption of mini-nukes by states other than the US, the possibility of a terrorist group acquiring them, potentially for an attack on the US itself, looks high.



  • This house would develop mini-nukes
  • This house would put nuclear weapons on the front line
  • This house would restore funding for research into mini-nukes
  • This house would break the comprehensive test ban treaty in order to research mini-nukes
  • That the USA should develop nuclear bunker-busters

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