The Bush administration has directed the military to prepare contingency plans to use nuclear weapons against at least seven countries and to build smaller nuclear weapons for use in certain battlefield situations, according to a classified Pentagon report obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
The secret report, which was provided to Congress on Jan. 8, says the Pentagon needs to be prepared to use nuclear weapons against China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria. It says the weapons could be used in three types of situations: against targets able to withstand nonnuclear attack; in retaliation for attack with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons; or “in the event of surprising military developments.”
A copy of the report was obtained by defense analyst and Times contributor William Arkin. His column on the contents appears in Sunday’s editions.
Officials have long acknowledged that they had detailed nuclear plans for an attack on Russia. However, this “Nuclear Posture Review” apparently marks the first time that an official list of potential target countries has come to light, analysts said. Some predicted the disclosure would set off strong reactions from governments of the target countries.
“This is dynamite,” said Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear arms expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “I can imagine what these countries are going to be saying at the U.N.” Arms control advocates said the report’s directives on development of smaller nuclear weapons could signal that the Bush administration is more willing to overlook a long-standing taboo against the use of nuclear weapons except as a last resort. They warned that such moves could dangerously destabilize the world by encouraging other countries to believe that they, too, should develop weapons.
“They’re trying desperately to find new uses for nuclear weapons, when their uses should be limited to deterrence,” said John Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World. “This is very, very dangerous talk . . . Dr. Strangelove is clearly still alive in the Pentagon.”
But some conservative analysts insisted that the Pentagon must prepare for all possible contingencies, especially now, when dozens of countries, and some terrorist groups, are engaged in secret weapon development programs.
They argued that smaller weapons have an important deterrent role because many aggressors might not believe that the U.S. forces would use multi-kiloton weapons that would wreak devastation on surrounding territory and friendly populations.
“We need to have a credible deterrence against regimes involved in international terrorism and development of weapons of mass destruction,” said Jack Spencer, a defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. He said the contents of the report did not surprise him and represent “the right way to develop a nuclear posture for a post-Cold War world.”
A spokesman for the Pentagon, Richard McGraw, declined to comment because the document is classified.
Congress requested the reassessment of the U.S. nuclear posture in September 2000. The last such review was conducted in 1994 by the Clinton administration. The new report, signed by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, is now being used by the U.S. Strategic Command to prepare a nuclear war plan.
Bush administration officials have publicly provided only sketchy details of the nuclear review. They have publicly emphasized the parts of the policy suggesting that the administration wants to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons.
Since the Clinton administration’s review is also classified, no specific contrast can be drawn. However, analysts portrayed this report as representing a break with earlier policy.
U.S. policymakers have generally indicated that the United States would not use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states unless they were allied with nuclear powers. They have left some ambiguity about whether the United States would use nuclear weapons in retaliation after strikes with chemical or nuclear weapons.
The report says the Pentagon should be prepared to use nuclear weapons in an Arab-Israeli conflict, in a war between China and Taiwan, or in an attack from North Korea on the south. They might also become necessary in an attack by Iraq on Israel or another neighbor, it said.
The report says Russia is no longer officially an “enemy.” Yet it acknowledges that the huge Russian arsenal, which includes about 6,000 deployed warheads and perhaps 10,000 smaller “theater” nuclear weapons, remains of concern.
Pentagon officials have said publicly that they were studying the need to develop theater nuclear weapons, designed for use against specific targets on a battlefield, but had not committed themselves to that course.
Officials have often spoken of the advantages of using nuclear weapons to destroy the deep tunnel and cave complexes that many regimes have been building, especially since the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Nuclear weapons give off powerful shock waves that can crush structures deep in the Earth, they point out.
Officials argue that large nuclear arms have so many destructive side effects, from blast to heat and radiation, that they become “self-deterring.” They contend the Pentagon needs “full spectrum deterrence"--that is, a full range of weapons that potential enemies believe might be used against them.
The Pentagon was actively involved in planning for use of tactical nuclear weapons as recently as the 1970s. But it has moved away from them in the last two decades.
Analysts said the report’s reference to “surprising military developments” referred to the Pentagon’s fears that a rogue regime or terrorist group might suddenly unleash a wholly unknown weapon that was difficult to counter with the conventional U.S. arsenal.
The administration has proposed cutting the offensive nuclear arsenal by about two-thirds, to between 1,700 and 2,200 missiles, within 10 years. Officials have also said they want to use precision guided conventional munitions in some missions that might have previously been accomplished with nuclear arms.
But critics said the report contradicts suggestions the Bush administration wants to cut the nuclear role.
“This clearly makes nuclear weapons a tool for fighting a war, rather than deterring them,” said Cirincione.