At a time when all eyes are on fighting what the Pentagon calls
the "Global War on Terrorism," the United States is having to
address the past, present, and future of nuclear conflict.
* Sixty years after the Manhattan Project produced the first and
only atomic bombs ever dropped on an enemy, the US continues to
struggle with how to permanently dispose of the radioactive and
chemical byproducts of its cold-war weapons of mass destruction. The
Senate recently voted to allow the Energy Department to reclassify
such waste so that it could stay in place, even though some of it is
leaking into the air and ground water.
* As the nature of warfare changes, the Bush administration is
considering new kinds of nuclear bombs. These include smaller
"tactical nukes" meant to pack a bigger punch than any conventional
weapon, as well as "bunker busters" designed to penetrate an enemy's
deep command and weapons-storage sites.
* And in case Russia, North Korea, or some other nuclear power
should fire missiles at the US, the administration is pushing ahead
on ground-based systems to try to knock down incoming warheads.
Some experts see signs that space-based missile defenses - of the
type envisioned in former President Reagan's "star wars" initiative
20 years ago - may be in the works as well.
All of this is highly controversial and very expensive.
Defending against missile attack
Last month, 31 former government officials urged the Bush
administration to delay the national missile-defense deployment
scheduled for later this year. Interceptor missiles are to be
deployed in Alaska and California. These former senior defense and
arms-control officials, representing every administration since
Dwight Eisenhower's, say the Bush program is "missing major
components." "This is like rolling out a new automobile that is
missing tires, steering wheel, and brakes and hasn't been tested on
the open road," says Philip Coyle, former Pentagon chief of
operational test and evaluation.
In his first year as president, Mr. Bush unilaterally withdrew
the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty,
which had been designed to preserve the longstanding regime of
"mutual assured destruction" by denying either the US or the former
Soviet Union the ability to launch a first strike and survive. Like
Mr. Reagan, Bush and other critics of the ABM Treaty believe the US
should be able to defend itself not only from Russian missiles but
from those launched by North Korea or other "rogue states."
Critics point to more likely threats not addressed by ballistic
missile defenses: low-flying cruise missiles or "dirty bombs" filled
with smuggled radioactive material.
Still, many see deployment of missile defenses as logical if not
required for national security. "The threat has changed since the
cold war," says military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington
Institute. "There are more countries with ballistic missiles, and
their behavior is less predictable."
Nukes that go smaller, deeper
This same concern about a more complicated and more dangerous
world also drives the administration's desire to accelerate research
on nuclear weapons designed for 21st-century threats. …