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Nuclear Bunker Busters

An Interview with Jack Spencer

Jack Spencer is a senior policy analyst for defense and national security in the Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

Briefly describe what your areas of focus are as an analyst for national defense and security.

I focus on all issues of defense and national security. In the past two weeks, I have written on the U.S. bomber and modernizing the U.S. bomber force, as well as bringing into better balance bombers and fighters and what Secretary of State Colin Powell should be speaking about when he meets with his NATO partners in couple of weeks. So basically, I run the whole gambit of defense issues. I look at issues that are important in terms of national security and what problems are out there, and I pose solutions for them. What I am not is a regional expert. I am not a Russian or Chinese expert; my job is purely functional in nature.

If you had to pick one reason to support nuclear bunker buster creation, what would it be?

I would not say there is just one reason. It oversimplifies the issue to say there is just one reason. There is an array of reasons for the bunker busters. That said, if you were to choose one reason, it is that there could possibly be an emerging set of targets out there that we would need to be able to address and that that might be the way to address it. Things like deeply buried bunkers, hence the name bunker busters, but it could be a deeply buried anything. One thing that history should teach us is that military technology evolves over time, and those who choose to challenge someone else militarily will take what the people are trying to challenge, what they bring to the table and how best to challenge them. If the U.S. has information superiority, they can see anything, anywhere, anytime and destroy it anywhere, anytime. One of the things that potential adversaries may attempt to do is bury things underground. That's what we see happening. That is just a fact of the matter. We have to understand potential adversaries will use the cover of the earth to hide command and control, chem/bio, WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction] facilities, maybe conventional facilities, who knows what. We need to be able to address that problem-- whether it is with nuclear bunker busters or something else, is irrelevant to me. My problem is just saying not to even look at nuclear weapons. We should look at the problem with what is the best way to address it, whether it be nuclear or otherwise. That is the nuclear bunker buster side, but there is the whole issue of smaller nuclear weapons, which is appropriate given today's world in terms of trying to achieve some kind of deterrent capability. Our nuclear deterrence right now is Cold War deterrence, which does not have a whole lot of credibility right now as far as I am concerned, because essentially what we are saying is that a country like North Korea, for example, will be deterred from acting belligerently because we will threaten to annihilate that country-- assured destruction to them. I do not think that is legitimate anymore-- maybe during the Cold War, but right now we are in a unique situation where actually the US and any western coalition power often cares more about the people of a potentially adversarial nation than that nation's government. That has led us to really try to minimize civilian casualties. A country like North Korea could take that into its calculations. It could say "well, we could act belligerently and we can even use a weapon of mass destruction against the United States, and we do not think they will respond in kind because they are not going to kill 20 million North Koreans for my actions." Whether we will or not is up for debate, but what is not up for debate is that that begins to break away at the credibility of deterrence if they [other countries] are not sure how we will respond. A more credible thing might be if we had smaller nuclear weapons that are not going to absolutely destroy the country, but will destroy any underground bunker. That may add to the credibility of us responding in kind. So the reason to have these smaller nuclear weapons is not to use them, but to advance deterrence. It is part of the evolving nature of nuclear weapons into flexible response to the international environment we live in.

Do you believe the Spratt-Furse low yield ban will be repealed any time soon?

Sure. I do not see any utility in taking away flexibility in terms of national security. I am not for building nuclear weapons for fun, but if there is a requirement for those things, I think that we should develop those things, bottom line. To have this sort of ban on research and development of low yield nuclear weapons, a ban that was really rooted in a different time in a different era, really does not make much sense to me, certainly as we are entering a very unpredictable world where we do not know what we might need. If we find ourselves in a situation where it would be nice to have a low yield nuclear weapon in order to maintain the security of our country and our friends and allies, then I think we want to have to that capability, if that is what is required.

A main argument against nuclear development is that a new nuclear arms race could be sparked with other countries such as India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Do you feel that there is any merit to that claim?

There is no merit to it and we should not be concerned by it. North Korea, India, and Pakistan are going to develop nuclear weapons if they want to, regardless of nuclear weapon development going on in the U.S. We have not tested weapons since 1992. Since that time, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel have all developed nuclear weapons, and Iran and Iraq have attempted to develop nuclear weapons. There are six countries that have been developing nuclear weapons while we were not. The reason we would test is wholly independent and different from why North Korea and Pakistan would develop nuclear weapons; there is no causation there. The same is true with missiles. We see the same thing with missiles all the time. People say, "If you get rid of the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty everyone is going to start building missiles." Well these people evidently are not watching the news because, if you look at history, we had the ABM Treaty and the Cold War at the same time from 1972-1991. In 1972 we had about 2000 warheads, in 1991 we had about 12000 warheads, while we did not have missile defense, did have the ABM treaty. So the ABM treaty evidently did not stop proliferation; it did not stop development of missiles between the United States and the Soviet Union. Then you have from 1991-2002, the years where we did have the ABM Treaty, the Cold War was over, and we still did not have missile defense. You see North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and China all going full speed ahead with missile development. That argument is convenient and it seems at first glance to be logical, but the reality is that countries develop these things if it appears to be in their own interest, regardless of these treaties. The bottom line is the U.S.'s legitimate requirement for nuclear weapons is wholly different from North Korea's illegitimate requirement for nuclear weapons.

Another argument put forward by opponents to nuclear bunker buster creation is that there should be more of a focus on intelligence, air superiority and the like. Do you think such things should be developed at the same time, or should one aspect take priority over the others?

That is another one of these arguments that they make that seem convenient but are irrelevant. You cannot look at national security as, "one thing is more important than the other, and therefore we should just invest in one and not in the other." Let us go back to the missile defense debate. People say we have terrorism, and that therefore we should not invest in missile defense because the terrorist threat is greater than the missile threat. Well that does not make sense to me-- you have to address both issues. Look at the terrorist threat prior to September 11. We knew there was an emerging terrorist threat on the United States. We had a policy in the U.S. to try and prevent terrorism. We did not have an open-door policy saying "if you have terrorists send them over, we will take them," as what essentially was our policy with missiles because we did not have a defense and we proclaimed we were not going to have a defense against them with the ABM Treaty. Yet, September 11 still happened-- so even with a policy that was specifically directed towards preventing terrorism, it still happened. What it comes down to is that you see all these emerging threats, and you need to prioritize, but you cannot ignore one for the other.

Speaking in regard to terrorism, since most terrorist organizations do not have a defined territory and such, do you think that development of new nuclear weapons helps deterrence against terrorist threats?

Terrorists are often non-state entities that operate globally. I believe they cannot operate efficiently without state sponsors. They are not going to get nuclear weapons without state sponsorship at some level. So, where the nuclear deterrence would come in, in terms of terrorist activity, is that link of the state sponsors to the terrorists. It is not to say a global terrorist organization cannot operate for a certain amount of time, but it cannot be effective over time without state sponsorship. That is one part of my argument. My other part would be if we were only facing the global terrorist threat, nuclear deterrence may be irrelevant, but it is not that case. We do not know what future threats we might face. What we do know is that nuclear weapons exist and that other states are looking to achieve greater nuclear capability. We know that throughout history we have been really bad about guessing where the next threat was going to be. We have no idea what threats we are going to see in the next 10, 20, 30 years, and that is what sort of time frame you need to think about in terms of nuclear deterrence. If there is one word to describe what I would advocate, it is flexibility. I do not believe in having a rigid national security policy that says no low yield nuclear weapons because we do not like nuclear weapons. I think that we need maximum flexibility so that we can respond and react to whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.

In regard to funding for nuclear weapons development, do you believe adequate funds are being put towards such development?

I think that asking for 15 million dollars to study and understand what utility low yield nuclear weapons have is an investment worth making. The money that was up for question in the recent defense authorization bill was not about developing new nuclear weapons, but understanding what the threat was and how best to address it. I want to deter people and countries from being aggressive to the United States and its interests, and I am going to do what I can to maintain stability and avoid warfare. What I think largely stands in our way of achieving stability and deterring aggression is not seeing the world as clearly as we could. And what that prevents us from doing sometimes is making decisions that are the right ones, and I think this is an example--that people are so afraid of talking about nuclear weapons that they will not even consider them. If they are not considered, how will we know what role they may play in achieving greater deterrence in the future? That is why opposition to the few million dollars in question to study what roles these [bunker busters] might have does not make sense to me, since it will help us better understand the value of nuclear weapons.

What are your feelings on the utility of nuclear weapons, since the radioactive fallout would likely affect the civilian population around the targeted area?

Well, dropping 60 tons of conventional weapons does not do a whole lot of good for the local population either. First of all, we do not know the extent of radioactive fallout. You have people who support low yield nuclear weapons, saying that they could reduce the fallout, and those against it saying that there is no way to decrease the fallout. You have two sides of the argument, this side has their scientists and the other size has their scientists. What is the answer to this? I do not know what the answer is. It probably lies somewhere in the middle. You can probably engineer them so there will be less fallout.

Is there an amount of fallout that is acceptable, given the risks of not doing so [using low yield nuclear weapons]? It is all about consequence/risk management. Ultimately, if you are in a situation where you are even contemplating the use of nuclear weapons, let us hope to God that the people who got us into this situation are there because it is an issue of vital national security, one in which the survival of this nation is at stake. If that is the case, should we be worried about how much fallout is going to come as a result of a low yield nuclear weapon dropped somewhere that may or may not be in a populated area? I would suggest no, it is not really my concern at that point. People act as if once we have low yield nuclear weapons we will be firing them off all the time for multiple purposes. That is not what they are for. It simplifies the debate too much. What we need to consider first is when it is legitimate to use force. We have used force too much in the past 15 years-- Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans. Were all these things legitimate uses of force? Whether they were or not, we have to ask that question. I would suggest that the bar should be very high concerning when it is legitimate to go in and to kill people for a national objective. Too often, that bar has been lowered. Once you reach that level of threat is high enough and you commit military forces, you are not about to just go drop nuclear forces. You would need to be in a situation that is dire, that requires some amount of force to protect the nation. If you are in that dire situation, in which the survival of your nation is at stake, would you rather have a nuclear weapon than not have one, if that is what you need? And if you do need one, should we be thinking if there will be too much radiation? That would not be in the thought process because we would be so far down that road that it would not be considered at all. If you are out there fighting wars where your country is not risk, then you should not be out there fighting in the first place. To me, you do not commit military forces unless it is a serious national issue, such as ending World War

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