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The Pentagon is conducting research into development of a device called the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. It sounds fairly innocuous, really: perhaps a sort of zippy, hi-tech, fence-post digger that will be useful to those who want to burrow deep into the ground for the benefit of all mankind. Well, it’s no such thing. It is a lunatic, Larry-light-bulb, Strangelovian excursion into nuclear proliferation that will boost the US nuclear arms’ industry, warm the hearts of nuke-lovers everywhere, and add yet another hellish weapon of mass destruction to an already bulging arsenal.
The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT; 1970) is ignored with total impunity by three nuclear-armed countries, India, Israel and Pakistan, none of which have signed it or ever will but nevertheless receive generous military assistance from the United States. No penalties are imposed by the Bush administration for a country’s failure to support international arms control agreements, providing these are regarded as a joke by Washington’s ultra-right-wing, and the countries concerned are not Iran or North Korea. The terms of the NPT were extended indefinitely in 1995 when it was declared by the five nuclear weapons’ states (defined as those having manufactured and exploded a nuclear device before January 1, 1967) that they would "determinedly pursue . . . systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons and . . . [ensuring] general and complete [nuclear] disarmament under strict and effective international control." How principled and civilised, to be sure. Or it would be if these governments meant anything they said. It is difficult, to put it mildly, to imagine Washington, Paris, London, Moscow or Beijing agreeing to "strict international control" over the price of eggs, never mind examination of their nuclear arsenals.
So, with the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons at the forefront of its international policy the Bush administration is forging ahead to . . . well . . . , develop more nuclear weapons. According to Senator Wayne Allard (R. Co), however, it isn’t really doing that. Not at all, huffs the senator, because ". . . we are not producing new nuclear weapons. We are doing a modification. It is a continuing modification." Ah. So that’s all right, then. There’s nobody there but us nuclear modifications.
Allard has never met a nuke he didn’t like and, as with most of the Senate, was violently opposed to ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (voting against it in 1999), which is still not approved by Washington and never will be for so long as the nuke-happy regime continues. (In 1997 he voted against US ratification of the UN Chemical Weapons’ Convention banning production and use of CW. A real humanitarian progressive.) He is a vet, but not a military one. He graduated as a veterinarian in 1968, aged 25 at the height of the Vietnam war, but did not don uniform. His lack of exposure to matters military at the sharp end has not affected his contributions as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee in which he chairs the Strategic Forces Subcommittee and from which he mounted his recent successful defence of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), that cosy-sounding little ‘bunker-buster’ whose development will in some mysterious fashion "reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons . . . " under an international treaty obligation that not even Bush has managed to wriggle out of. Yet.
As the senator explained, no doubt with his copy of Alice in Wonderland ready to hand, marked at relevant passages, "Somehow the other side [led by Senator Byron Dorgan; D. ND] is trying to imply that we are building new nuclear weapons and we are going to add to the number of warheads we have. We are continuing to reduce the number of nuclear warheads under the Moscow Treaty." Of course Senator Dorgan stated the intention is to build new nuclear weapons, because the RNEP is a new type of weapon. He did not labour the point about adding to an already enormous nuclear arsenal because he knows quite well that the whole thing is a pea and thimble trick. When a new capability is added, an old one is removed. The numbers of effective and deliverable weapons remain the same, diminishing only when out-of-date nukes are retired or placed in storage supposedly under the terms of the toothless, unenforceable and thus meaningless Moscow accord.
Senator Allard admitted that there are nuclear earth-penetrators already stockpiled. As recorded in June 2002 by Lisbeth Gronlund and David Wright of the US Union of Concerned Scientists there were then some fifty nuclear bombs of the B61-11 class that will vaporise "a target buried roughly 15 meters under rock or concrete." But this isn’t enough for Allard the Nuke. "We are looking" he says, "to see if perhaps we can’t do a modification" on another, bigger (in fact the biggest) nuclear bomb, the B-83, itself a development paralleling the B61-11.
Of course this will not add to the total number of nuclear weapons, because the nuclear cores of existing B61-11 or B-83 penetrating bombs can be removed from their present casings and placed inside other metal shields with greater tensile strength. These will be the more "robust" earth-penetrators that will not break up (they hope) when plunging even deeper into the earth. It isn’t the nuclear explosive capacity that matters, according to Allard: it’s the capability to go deep. But he ignores what happens to people and places around the enormous impact that even 10 kiloton nukes make when they penetrate the planet. (Of course they might not go deep. And we might bear in mind that intelligence concerning existence of deep shelters containing weapons of mass destruction will come from the same people who gave us incontrovertible evidence concerning existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.)
Deep nuclear penetrators will protect America, says Allard, because "Our potential enemies are trying to avoid any vulnerability to targets by going deeper and deeper underground. In order to destroy deeply buried targets that could be hiding weapons of mass destruction or command and control assets, this new technology needs to be an option." But, adds Allard, soothingly, although the nuclear penetrator bomb is an option, "we are not necessarily going to use it." Oh, that’s all right then. It isn’t a new weapon, it is only new technology ; and in any event it is not going to be produced to be actually used against anyone. It is only an option. The man does not understand that a weapon’s option balance is weighted in favour of use. Simply because the weapon exists it will be attractive for the Pentagon to propose nuking a nation for Bush.
Then Senator Allard displayed his deep knowledge of international affairs and world nuclear developments to a presumably awestruck, if tiny, audience. (It is said that one senator was autographing PR photographs of himself throughout the proceedings. Who could possibly want a signed photograph of a senator, for Pete’s sake?) Anyhow, he declared, above the scrape of narcissistic scribbles, that "We are continuing to set the example for the rest of the world by reducing the number of nuclear warheads. The problem is countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan don’t care what we are doing. Despite our best efforts to set an example, they are continuing to develop nuclear warheads. They are doing more than we are today so far as the triggering mechanisms for nuclear warheads. If that continues, where will that put us as far as the defence of this country is concerned?" Fortunately there was nobody in the press gallery at the time this portentous crap was delivered, otherwise there might have been horse laughs causing considerable embarrassment. (See transcript of proceedings at www.ananuclear.org/)
So Afghanistan is developing nuclear warheads, is it? And doing more than the US concerning nuclear triggering mechanisms? Well, well, well. No doubt there have been statements made in the Senate that have been more ringing in their urgency for preparedness against potential enemies. There have probably been more dramatic and passionate speeches intended to rally support for creation and induction of new weapons’ systems essential for defence of the nation. But there cannot have been many pronouncements of such astounding ignorance, inanity and imbecility as the Allard declaration that Afghanistan leads the United States in development of triggering mechanisms for nuclear devices.
Afghanistan is under American and Nato occupation and its president is a Washington puppet. The country has the technological sophistication of a medieval blacksmith’s workshop and a nuclear capability approximating that of the Bahamas. Its entire scientific resources couldn’t produce a triggering device for a Starbucks’ coffee machine.
Allard spoke vehemently in support of creating an enhanced nuclear capability for the United States, having had detailed supportive briefings by the Pentagon. One wonders who in the Pentagon told him Afghanistan was "continuing to develop nuclear warheads". And this was no mistake, no slip of the tongue : the veterinarian Allard could have castigated Israel or India instead of Afghanistan, for the straightforward reason that they (and Pakistan, indubitably), are developing nuclear warheads. But the claim that any country in the world can be "doing more than we are" about nuclear triggering mechanisms is bizarre and ludicrous. The Senate should have roared with laughter, but it didn’t. It voted down the line to give Allard and Bush their nukes.
There is a major problem with robust earth penetrators. (See an excellent analysis at http://www.clw.org/.) This is that after they slam deep into the ground their explosion releases vast amounts of radioactivity instantly introduced into thousands of tons of earth, water, rock fragments, building dust and other detritus including what might be left of those human beings who are not vaporised at the moment of post-impact detonation. Up goes the muck, down comes the radiation, and if anyone is unlucky enough to be a few miles downwind of the crater they will not die immediately. They will die gradually and horribly. Senator Allard’s claim that "we are talking about the defense of this country" is grotesque. He is talking about killing — annihilating — human beings who know nothing of their country’s place in the world according to Bush.
The Strangelove side of the Senate ignored the better-informed and rational observations of Senator Dorgan who argued "We must . . . [in] the world populated by 30,000 nuclear weapons, find a way to keep them out of the hands of the wrong people, to stop the proliferation, and to begin to reduce their number. That ultimately represents our security. That is the way to defend this country: to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, not to build more . . . I so strongly believe this country is sending a terrible signal to the rest of the world – Russia, China, Pakistan, India, you name it. I think this [motion of the nuclear and international affairs' expert, Senator Allard] is a dreadful mistake. It does not strengthen this country. In my judgment, it makes this country more vulnerable in the long term . . . I support a strong, robust defense. Nuclear weapons are different. They are different. They threaten the very existence of the world as we know it, and that is why it must be dealt with differently. That is why I offer this amendment."
Tough luck, decent and honourable Senator : the Strangeloves won again.
BRIAN CLOUGHLEY writes about defense issues for CounterPunch, the Nation (Pakistan), the Daily Times of Pakistan and other international publications. His writings are collected on his website: www.briancloughley.com.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org