Congress has given the Bush administration the green light to conduct research — not engineering or development — for low-yield, earth-penetrating nuclear weapons, a.k.a. mini-nukes, to destroy targets that are too deeply buried and heavily reinforced for conventional bunker busters. Advocates of these mini-nukes say they are needed because adversaries are building underground facilities to conceal and protect their weapons of mass destruction (WMD). They also contend that because mini-nukes would produce less collateral damage, they would be seen as more credible weapons and, thus, be able to deter rogue states from using WMD. Mini-nukes might even dissuade those states from developing such weapons in the first place.
But a headlong rush in quest of mini-nukes should be tempered by the experience of the Iraq war. Prior to going to war, the administration alleged that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, including the possibility of acquiring a nuclear weapon. More ominously, the administration claimed that Saddam Hussein could give WMD to al Qaeda terrorists. But more than six months after the president declared an end to major combat operations on May 1, 2003, WMD have yet to be found. David Kay, in charge of the U.S.-led, 1,400 person inspection team in Iraq, testified before Congress that the United States has “not yet found stocks of weapons,” has only discovered “WMD-related program activities,” and that Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was only in “the very most rudimentary” state. Moreover, the CIA has found no evidence that Hussein tried to transfer WMD to terrorists, al Qaeda or otherwise. In other words, all the hoopla about Iraqi WMD amounted to next to nothing.
That hardly creates confidence that mini-nukes would only be used when circumstances warrant. In fact, the Iraq war suggests the opposite. If the administration had mini-nukes (which it wants), it might have used them in a preemptive fashion on the slim pretext of alleged WMD - that apparently don’t exist - which supposedly would be given to al Qaeda terrorists, who weren’t in league with the former regime in Baghdad.
The inability to find any WMD, to date, highlights another problem with the possible use of precision mini-nukes to destroy WMD facilities: very precise delivery of weapons to the wrong place. Before and during the Iraq war, administration officials implied that they were relatively certain where WMD were located, including aerial photographs shown by Secretary of State Colin Powell at the U.N. Security Council when he made the administration’s case for military action in February. But suspected WMD locations are now turning up empty. So even if Iraq had WMD and the United States had used mini-nukes, it might have used nuclear weapons against the wrong targets, i.e., facilities that did not contain WMD.
The Iraq war also calls into the question the usability of mini-nukes. Presumably, the existing B61-11 nuclear bunker buster (most people don’t know that the United States has such a weapon in its inventory) can be configured with yields low enough to be categorized as a mini-nuke. Outfitted with GPS guidance, it has the potential to be used as a precise, earth-penetrating low-yield nuclear weapon against high value underground targets.
On at least two occasions U.S. intelligence indicated that Saddam Hussein was thought to be in underground bunkers that were subsequently attacked with conventional weapons. If Hussein was arguably the highest value target in Iraq during the war, then a good case could be made for using a nuclear weapon like the B61-11 to assure killing him and decapitating the regime, which was part of the overall U.S. war strategy. But the fact that the United States chose not to use the B61-11 during the Iraq war suggests that either (a) even a relatively low-yield nuclear weapon detonated underground would produce too much damage, particularly if located in a densely populated urban area such as Baghdad or (b) there is a real stigma or aversion to U.S. first use of nuclear weapons, even against adversaries who cannot retaliate in kind.
Thus, the Iraq war demonstrates some practical problems and real limitations associated with mini-nukes. And rather than spending money for weapons that would have next to zero utility in some future war, the United States would be much better off improving its intelligence and analysis to know whether a real threat exists.