AT a recent meeting with reporters, Air Force Chief of Staff
Gen. Merrill McPeak began ruminating on the United States
military's lack of ability to detect nuclear weapons hidden by
terrorists or rogue states.
"Can we develop an airborne sniffer that can locate nukes with
a high degree of sensitivity?" wondered the Air Force leader. "We
can't find nuclear weapons now, except by going on a house-to-house
Worried that the assembled scribes would take this remark too
seriously, General McPeak emphasized that he was only thinking out
loud. But the fact is that obtaining just such a capability is now
high on the Pentagon's wish list, as it readies for a new
post-cold-war mission: counterproliferation.
In the past, the United States government has focused on
nonproliferation, trying to keep materials and technology for
nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons out of the hands of North
Korea, Iraq, and other suspect nations. The counterproliferation
push means that the Defense Department will pay more attention to
organizing and equipping for defense if, or when, nonproliferation
This month, the administration announced a counterproliferation
policy that includes measures from developing better detectors to
new weapons for attacking nuclear sites to better intelligence
analysis. Counterproliferation is an area that "ought to be a
growing preoccupation of this department," said a defense official
at a briefing on the policy.
The importance of this policy shift is emphasized by the
situation in North Korea. Published reports indicate that the
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has found that Pyongyang has one
or two nuclear bombs.
Meanwhile, North Korea still refuses international inspections
of its nuclear sites. It has not backed off from threats that it
will pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But United
Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said Sunday after
visiting North Korea that the dispute may yet be resolved. "There
is the political will" to solve the problem, he said at a press
conference in Beijing.
Defense officials have indicated that they have few options
besides diplomacy and economic sanctions with which to deal with
the North Korean situation.
A preemptive attack on Pyongyang's nuclear program is out of the
question: The US does not have weapons capable of blowing up deep
concrete bunkers with assurance, and it would be almost impossible
to locate all bombs and nuclear materials. …