Bunker Busters and City Levellers

In the fall of 2004, anti-nuclear activists won what appeared to be a stunning victory when the Republican-controlled congress eliminated funding for a new generation of nuclear weapons, the so-called bunker busting nukes. Shortly after the final vote, Rep. Ed Markey called it the “biggest victory that arms control advocates in congress have had since 1992.”

In the omnibus appropriations bill passed by Congress on December 1, all funding was zeroed-out for two favored projects of the wizards of Armageddon: the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, or nuclear “bunker buster”, and for the Advanced Concepts Initiative, which provided the breeding grounds for research into so-called micro nukes.

Moreover, Congress also slashed funding for grooming the Nevada Test Site for future nuclear blasts from $30 million to $22.5. The nuclear bomb lobby has long been lobbying for a new “pit” production facility-pits are the plutonium cores of nuclear bombs that ignite the atomic chain reaction resulting in thermonuclear explosions. The Bush administration asked congress for $30 million to develop a new production facility, but congress reduced the total outlay to $7 million and included language prohibiting the Department of Energy from naming a site for the facility.

All in all, these amounted to a series of devastating defeats for the nuclear-bomb making industry and its supporters in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. But such victories tend to have a very brief half-life.

And don’t look now, but the nuclear weapons clique has launched a covert counterattack using a small provision in the very same funding bill as a kind of radioactive loophole for a new generation of nuclear weapons.

Buried in the mammoth omnibus appropriations bill was an obscure single item for something called the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. With an initial seeding of $10 million, this innocuous-sounding project will likely become the drawing room for the kind redesigned nuclear warheads that Congress tried to eliminate.

The project will fund the work of 100 nuclear weapons designers at three bomb-making laboratories: Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia. Proponents expect the project to start slowly, then gather budgetary momentum within the next five years. By 2015, they expect to unveil their new warhead design and inaugurate a new series of underground nuclear tests.

And guess what? Instead of the small, mini-nuke feared by anti-nuke activists, these weapons designers are moving in the opposite direction. These new nukes are likely to be bigger, bulkier and many times more potent than the current generation of weapons.

Once the project gets rolling, it nearly impossible to turn off the flow of money. For one thing, the beneficiaries of these doomsday funds will soon extend beyond the weapons labs and to defense contractors, the most omnipotent lobby on the Hill. That’s because the new heavier warheads will need a new generation of rockets to launch them on their path of annihilation. Here’s where Lockheed and Boeing enter the picture.

All of this was sold to congress on the grounds of reliability. The nuclear priesthood at the labs and in the Pentagon complained to congress that the current nuclear arsenal is becoming decrepit. Most of the 10,000 nuclear warheads in the US arsenal were designed to last about 15 years. The average age of a warhead is now 20 years. And some are 30 years old and older.

The bombmakers gripe that the arsenal is getting so old that the reliability of the weapons to generate city-destroying thermonuclear blasts is now in doubt. In addition, the nuclear cohort chafes that the global test ban treaty, which outlaws underground detonations of nuclear weapons, makes it impossible for them to assess what they snidely refer to as the “health” of the US stockpile–as if regular nuclear blasts in the Nevada desert were only a kind of treadmill to evaluate the vitality of geriatric warheads.

The only alternative, lament the weapons designers, is to redesign a new generation of warheads that are bigger and easier to certify as being reliable, that is ready to incinerate millions at the touch of a button.

Of course, a new generation of nukes will inevitably bring the US into stark conflict with the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, long the bane of the weapons-designers and the neo-cons in the Bush administration. And once nuclear testing begins a new arms race could follow, with Pakistan, India, China, North Korea, Israel, Russia and Iran all in the mix.

And what about those mini-nukes? Don’t count them out just yet.

In January, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fired-off a memo to the Department of Energy requesting that the agency quietly revive funding for a study on the design of bunker busting bombs.

“I think we should request funds in FY06 and FY07 to complete the study,” Rumsfeld wrote. “Our staffs have spoken about funding the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) study to support its completion by April 2007. You can count on my support for your efforts to revitalize the nuclear weapons infrastructure and to complete the RNEP study.”

The Bush budget for the Department of Energy contains $10.3 million for further work on the feasibility study, which is being conducted by weapons designers at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore. So much for the administration’s new devotion to fiscal austerity.

Rummy’s move was a brazen slap in the face to Republican congressman David Hobson of Ohio. Hobson chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on water and energy and played the key role in eliminating funding for the bunker-buster bomb after reviewing a report from the National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the nuclear program within the Energy Department, that estimated the Department would spend almost $500 million to produce the weapon in the budgets for fiscal years 2005 to 2009.

“Neither the Department of Defense nor the Department of Energy has ever articulated to me a specific military requirement for a nuclear earth penetrator,” Hobson said in a recent speech to the Arms Control Association. At the Pentagon’s urging, I even spent an entire day at Offutt Air Force Base getting briefed by STRATCOM, but I was never told of any specific military mission requiring the nuclear bunker buster.

“The Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons complex has so many fundamental management problems that have not received sufficient Federal oversight that it troubles me deeply that Congressional opposition to RNEP generate so much attention. The development of new weapons for ill-defined future requirements is not what the Nation needs at this time. What is needed, and what is absent to date, is leadership and fresh thinking for the 21 st Century regarding nuclear security and the future of the U.S. stockpile.”

Search across the arid vistas of the Clinton years and you’re unlikely to find a more caustic indictment of the archaic and demented nuclear ambitions of the Pentagon and the nuclear labs. Indeed, the mini-nuke program was initiated and nourished by Clinton and Gore. But David Hobson is a lonely voice against an industry that has never really suffered a long-term defeat. In the absence of a real anti-nuke movement in this country, his courageous legislative victories won’t amount to much.

Of course, if the demise of the Soviet Union didn’t provide a rationale for the dismantling of the US nuclear arsenal, then the budgetary meddling of a fiscally conservative congressman is unlikely to provide much of an impediment. Committee chairs come and go, but the nuclear program endures forever.

So instead of witnessing the welcome abortion a new class of nuclear warheads, the Pentagon and nuclear labs have incubated two new monsters: mini-nukes and fat nukes. Pick your poison.

Now count the months before the Bush administration invokes the “reliability” ruse as an excuse to breach the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The desert of Nevada will be ground zero, once again.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature. This essay is excerpted from his forthcoming book Grand Theft Pentagon, to be published in July by Common Courage Press.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3