On US Wish List: Ability to Detect Nuclear Arms Diplomacy, Sanctions Are Seen as Inadequate
Peter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 search."
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 fails.
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. …