Mini‐​Nukes and Preemptive Policy: A Dangerous Combination

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Currently, the United States relies on conventionalbunker-busting bombs--such as the GBU-28,which was used in both Afghanistan andIraq--to destroy hardened, underground targets.Legislation is pending in Congress that wouldprovide funding for research--but not engineeringor development--for low-yield, earth-penetratingnuclear weapons for targets that cannot bedestroyed by conventional bunker busters.

Advocates of these mini-nukes argue that theyare needed for underground targets that potentialadversaries are building, largely to concealand protect their weapons of mass destruction(WMD) programs. They also argue that mini-nukeswould deter rogue states from using WMDand even dissuade them from developing suchweapons in the first place.

Critics contend that even very small-yield war-headsdetonated deep underground will producesignificant blast damage as well as fairly widespreadradioactive fallout. They also believe thatmini-nukes would threaten international armscontrol and nonproliferation efforts.

The reality is that mini-nukes won't detercountries from taking actions that they perceiveto be in their self-interest, such as the acquisitionof nuclear weapons thought to be the only way todeter the United States from engaging in preemptiveregime change. And neither will arms controlagreements and a nonproliferation regime.

In the final analysis, mini-nukes and preemptionare a dangerous combination that couldundermine deterrence and make the UnitedStates less secure. If rogue state leaders believethat the United States has targeted them forregime change--regardless of any actions theymight take short of abdicating power to a newleader deemed acceptable by the United States--and is willing to use nuclear weapons preemptively,they may feel they have nothing to lose byusing what they can--including WMD--to strikeat the United States first.

Furthermore, if rogue state leaders do not possessthe long-range military capability to directlyattack the United States, and if preemptiveregime change is thought to be inevitable, thenatural barriers for those leaders to form allianceswith terrorist organizations will be eroded andthe incentive for them to see terrorism--and possiblysupplying terrorists with WMD--as the onlyway to retaliate against the United States willincrease.

Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.