In recent years, nuclear weapons have seemed a Strangelovian anachronism - Cold War relics from the days when Leonid Brezhnev and Ronald Reagan glowered at one another, brandishing their missiles while the rest of the world quaked.
Today, the world's collective arsenal still includes thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert at a time when the risk of accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch may in fact be increasing.
Meanwhile, as North Korea and other "rogue states" proceed with their nuclear weapons programs, the Pentagon itself is interested in a new generation of nukes designed specifically to attack an enemy's conventional military forces, including weapons of mass destruction hidden deep underground.
All of this comes as the United States, expressed in Bush administration policies, shifts its doctrine from deterrence in conjunction with NATO and other allies to unilateral preemption - attacking enemies before they become more dangerous rather than hoping to hold them off with the threat of overwhelming attack.
Many observers say the Cold War nuclear doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" (MAD) is obsolete, and so are nuclear weapons. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argues just the opposite.
"Nuclear attack options that vary in scale, scope, and purpose will complement other military capabilities.... [providing] the range of options needed to pose a credible deterrent to adversaries," Mr. Rumsfeld states in the Pentagon's most recent Nuclear Posture Review.
Included as possible targets here are weapons of mass destruction as well as conventional enemy forces, including those tied to terrorist activities.
Over the objections of Democratic lawmakers, the Senate last week moved in this direction. It approved a Bush administration request to research new nuclear weapons designed for such circumstances.
The measure would lift the ban on development of low-yield nuclear weapons (those with no more than 5 kilotons of explosive force, which is about one-third the size of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II), and it provides funding to research a much larger bunker-busting bomb called the "Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator."
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