As United Nations inspectors fan out across Iraq - looking for
evidence of Saddam Hussein's secret arsenal - the United States is
rethinking the future of its own weapons of mass destruction.
Among the issues being discussed by US officials and the experts
who advise them in this era of stateless terrorism and other forms
of "unconventional warfare" are these: The resumption of nuclear
weapons testing; ambivalence over controlling chemical and
biological weapons at a time when advancing technology offers new
opportunities to control the battlefield; and the possible
development of tactical nuclear bombs to go after the kind of
hardened targets that more than 70 countries - especially Iraq - now
use to hide their most threatening weapons.
All of this would be happening even if the terrorist attacks of 9/
11 had not occurred, even if war with Iraq were not as close as it
is today. But the earthshaking events that have marked the beginning
of the 21st century focus attention on the most intimidating
military assets belonging to the world's lone superpower.
The US hasn't test-fired any nuclear devices since 1992.
Officials figure it would take two to three years to be ready to
resume testing. The administration wants to reduce that to a shorter
period - not only to ensure that its aging stockpile of warheads is
dependable, but also to allow the testing of any newly designed
The Pentagon's congressionally mandated Nuclear Posture Review
calls for a "revitalized nuclear weapons complex that will ... be
able, if directed, to design, develop, manufacture, and certify new
warheads in response to new national requirements; and maintain
readiness to resume underground nuclear testing if required."
More recently, a senior official urged reconsideration of the 10-
year US moratorium on testing.
"We will need to refurbish several aging weapons systems," said
defense undersecretary Edward Aldridge in an October memo to senior
nuclear policymakers. "We must also be prepared to respond to new
nuclear-weapon requirements in the future." Congress recently
authorized the nation's nuclear weapons labs to weigh the benefits
and costs of being able to test such weapons within six months.
While highly precise conventional arms - laser-guided bolts from
the blue - made headlines in Afghanistan, many experts say they will
never completely replace nuclear weapons.
"To ensure that enemy facilities or forces are knocked out and
cannot be reconstituted, attacks with nuclear weapons may be
necessary," the National Institute for Public Policy in Fairfax,
Va., reported last year.
"The United States may need to field simple, low-yield, precision-
guided nuclear weapons for possible use against select hardened
targets such as underground biological weapons."
Several of that report's authors are now officials in the Bush
administration, including Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen
Hadley and Defense Science Board chairman William Schneider. …