Report Says U.S. Studying New Nuclear Capabilities

By Bleek, Philipp C. | Arms Control Today, January/February 2002 | Go to article overview

Report Says U.S. Studying New Nuclear Capabilities


Bleek, Philipp C., Arms Control Today


A REPORT TO Congress on destroying hard and deeply buried targets (HDBTs) that was made public in late December does not explicitly call for new nuclear weapons development, as some analysts had expected, but clearly indicates that the Defense and Energy departments are actively studying developing new or modified nuclear weapon capabilities.

The fiscal year 2001 defense authorization act mandated the report, requiring the Energy and Defense departments to complete a study by July 1 "relating to the defeat of hardened and deeply buried targets."

Submitted to Congress in October, the unclassified component of the report, dated July 2001, was made public by nongovernmental organizations. The report states that, although the United States currently has no programs to develop new or modified nuclear weapons to defeat hardened and deeply buried targets, the Defense Department (DOD) and Energy Department (DOE) are "investigating potential options and costs."

The report lays out two possible justifications for developing new nuclear weapons capabilities. It says that, "with the current strategy and acquisition initiatives, the United States will not be able to hold all known or suspected HDBTs at risk for destruction, especially the deep underground facilities." The report also notes, "Nuclear weapons have a unique ability to destroy both agent containers and [chemical and biological weapon] agents."

The United States currently deploys at least one low-yield nuclear weapon designed to threaten hardened targets. The B61-11 tactical nuclear gravity bomb, first deployed in late 1996, can penetrate reinforced concrete or rock to a relatively shallow depth before detonating, thereby threatening bunkers and other hardened or deeply buried targets.

But the report faults the current nuclear weapons stockpile's ability to deal with such targets. Although the stockpile possesses "some limited ground penetration capability and lower yield options," it was not developed specifically to defeat hardened and deeply buried targets or destroy chemical and biological agents, the report says. …

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