No one in the government asked for it and the Air Force says it
does not need it.
Yet the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, one of
America's nuclear-weapons research facilities, is working on an
atomic bomb that would have capabilities beyond those in the
current United States arsenal.
The bomb, carrying an "old" nuclear explosive device and a new
guidance system, would soar on wings like a glider after its
release from a radar-dodging B-2 bomber. It would drill deep into
earth or concrete, its explosion crushing "hardened" bunkers
hundreds of feet below ground while causing little surface damage.
The project symbolizes US determination to maintain the most-
advanced arsenal possible absent global disarmament and amid rising
concerns over a growth of deeply buried command-and-control and
armsmaking complexes in Russia, Iran, Libya, Iraq, and North Korea.
But it also comes as President Clinton is using American power and
prestige to support global efforts to curb the proliferation of
weapons of mass destruction and reduce the number of nuclear
Caught between these contradictory goals, the project, known as
the Bomb Impact Optimization System (BIOS), embodies a fierce
debate over the direction of post-cold-war US nuclear-arms policy.
At issue is whether BIOS would breach a pledge not to design or
build new warheads. If other countries perceive such a breach, they
could be less willing to adhere to US-backed arms-control
initiatives, some experts warn.
"It is not in the best interest of the US if the rest of the
world thinks it is still business as usual, as this will undermine
support for nonproliferation," warns Jeremiah Sullivan, a
University of Illinois physicist and member of the JASONS,
independent experts who advise the government on nuclear-arms
policy. "We don't need better nuclear weapons."
BIOS raises other questions, including the accountability of the
scientists, military officers, bureaucrats, and defense contractors
who make up the nuclear-weapons complex. The complex is in the
throes of a post-cold-war overhaul, and some experts have doubts
about its willingness to stop after 50-plus years producing nuclear
weapons. The way BIOS has been funded may fuel those concerns.
While Sandia has spent $16 million since October 1995 on BIOS,
the project has no separate listing in the budget of the Department
of Energy (DOE), which runs the nuclear laboratories. Instead, the
name of the account from which the funds have been drawn has been
different for each of the past three fiscal years. The DOE is
unable to say how much money it expects to spend on BIOS in the
coming fiscal year.
The nuclear-weapons complex has had a "history of fiscal
inattention" and absence of sufficient executive-branch and
congressional oversight, says Stephen Schwartz of the Brookings
Institution in Washington. He recently completed the most
comprehensive study ever of the costs of the US nuclear program.
BIOS is still in the concept stage, although scientists have
used a new computer-driven process to produce a prototype nose
cone. That and other aspects of the program were briefly detailed
by C. Paul Robinson, the head of Sandia, in a statement to a House
subcommittee April 10.
"Sandia is investigating the feasibility of modifying a B61
payload," Dr. Robinson said. "This effort includes analysis,
design, model fabrication and testing, and ground and flight
testing of a functional prototype."
A safer version
BIOS would be a follow-up to the B61-11, a conventionally
dropped bunker-buster that replaced the B53 in February. The B53 is
a 9,000-pound behemoth that produces a blast equivalent to 9
million tons of TNT, according to Pentagon sources. The government
decided the stockpile of these bombs had become unsafe after some
30 years in the armory.
By contrast, the B61-11 weighs 750 pounds. It is the atomic
payload of an existing bomb "repackaged" inside a needle-nosed body
made from depleted uranium, which is extremely hard and more dense
than lead. …