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Nuclear Bunker Busters:
Improvement or Detriment to US Nuclear Policy?

Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrators, more commonly known as nuclear bunker busters, have been highly debated this past year. The debates focus on the feasibility of adding these weapons to the United States' nuclear arsenal and the possible ramifications from their creation and testing.

Bunker busters are designed to penetrate deep into the earth before exploding, making them capable of destroying "hardened and deeply buried targets" (HDBTs). The general composition is that of an extremely strong tube that is very narrow for its weight. As the missile is fired from the air, the velocity it gains from the drop gives it a great deal of kinetic energy, which adds to the power of the weapon. The metal typically used is depleted uranium, which is much denser than both lead and steel, improving penetration into the earth.

HDBTs are usually facilities that are buried deep underground, as the name suggests, or are simply covered with earth and reinforced with material such as steel and concrete. These facilities are being created in multiple countries supposedly as potential centers for command and control, leadership, or even weapons of mass destruction (WMD). As a result, the interest in developing weapons to penetrate these kinds of targets has risen in recent years.

The nuclear version of the bunker busters is coded as B61-11, and can hold a nuclear charge of anywhere between 1 kiloton and 300 kilotons of explosive. When the nuclear bunker buster penetrates the surface and detonates underground, it is believed that the shock wave from that explosion would lead to the general destruction of even the most fortified bunkers. Skeptics of this technology believe, however, that no nuclear missile of any type could ever burrow deep enough to contain nuclear fallout, making the repercussions of the creation of this weapon too great to justify its use in any situation.

There are several implications behind the research of nuclear bunker busters. One such implication deals with nuclear testing, a practice that has not been conducted in the United States since 1992. A general fear of critics is that through testing of these weapons, the United States may spark a new nuclear arms race with other nuclear powers such as China, India, and Pakistan. These critics believe the United States should be leading the movement to put an overall end to nuclear proliferation and that the Bush Administration should adhere to the guidelines of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), thus improving international relations and promoting stability. With the new pre-emptive strike policy that the Bush Administration has adopted, the creation of nuclear weapons may make other nations, particularly those on the "Axis of Evil," such as North Korea, nervous about their security. As a result, nuclear bunker buster development may take the United States a step away from international stability, and one step closer to international disaster.

Proponents, however, give a number of reasons for nuclear bunker buster development. They state that the United States would never make nuclear weapons a "first use" weapon in military action, pointing out that nuclear weapons are always a last resort for the United States and that their primary function is to act as a deterrent to aggressive powers. In response to the argument that a new nuclear arms race may result from testing nuclear bunker busters, proponents believe that all nuclear powers continue to improve upon their nuclear weapons regardless of what the United States does with its own nuclear arsenal. Proponents claim that the older, larger nuclear weapons were made for a different age against a different kind of enemy. These weapons were made with the intention of mass destruction, which is becoming a less viable solution to international crises. Nuclear bunker busters, it is argued, maintain the same ability for deterrence that these larger nuclear weapons had during the Cold War. According to proponents for nuclear bunker buster creation, the new century demands technological advancement to keep nuclear weapons as a viable deterrent for the United States.

The arguments both for and against nuclear bunker buster creation will not fade any time in the near future. This is a critical time for this debate, with development of these weapons in progress and eventual testing looming on the horizon. The consequences articulated by both sides must be taken into account before nuclear testing resumes for the first time in over a decade.

Submitted by: Matt Merker, Susquehanna University, 2003 Fall Intern