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Nuclear Bunker Busters

An Interview with Dr. Charles Ferguson

Dr. Charles Ferguson is a Scientist-in-Residence at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS). Before joining CNS, he was a Foreign Affairs Officer in the Office of the Senior Coordinator for Nuclear Safety in the Bureau of Nonproliferation in the State Department.

You explain in your article, "Congressional Debate on Nuclear Weapons Policy: From the Nuclear Brink to the Slippery Slope," the radioactive fallout that would result in the detonation of a nuclear bunker buster. This is a central argument from people who disagree with creating nuclear bunker busters because of their limited utility. Do you see it as possible for such fallout to be contained, or is that just a fantasy on the part of the people who want to create it?

Some administrative officials disavow that radioactive fallout could ever be contained in a bunker buster. We are faced with really demanding constraints here. If we really want to destroy the bunker and if it's deeply buried and it's hardened, then you would have to use a high yield nuclear weapon or some type of high yield weapon, and the only type that is in the 100's of kilotons or greater yield range are nuclear weapons. In order to contain the fallout from that kind of weapon, you would have to bury it very deeply, and there is no known way of doing that when dropping it from the air from a bomber. You would have to force the bomb in the ground a few hundred feet or more for high yield weapons. However, in doing that, you are creating a tunnel and that in itself is a mechanism to allow radioactive debris to be forced out through that tunnel into the environment and the atmosphere and to settle down in the surroundings. So I do not think there is any conceivable way to contain the fallout.

I listened to a very knowledgeable weapon scientist recently and he said that there is really no known way to drop a bomb deeper than 50 feet. Even very small yield nuclear weapons would have to be buried deeper than 50 feet to contain the radioactive fallout. Still, there is this notion out there that there is a strong interest in containing the fallout. There have been other administration officials who have spoken about containing the fallout. There is a mixed message out there, but once you look at the physics and the engineering challenges that the U.S. faces, there is no way to contain the fallout if you use a weapon with high enough yield to destroy the bunker.

Another large argument that is put forward by opponents to the creation of the nuclear bunker buster states that if the United States continues to develop new nuclear weapons, it could spark a new nuclear arms race with other countries, such as North Korea. Do you think there is merit to that claim or do you think it is mainly other factors that lead to proliferation?

Well, I think in general the decision for a nation to develop nuclear weapons or to increase their nuclear arsenal if they already have nuclear weapons, is very complicated; there are a lot of factors at play. I hinted at some of that in my article. I think that opponents to the administration's request for new funds for nuclear weapons research and development tend to simplify the argument and think there is a direct cause and effect relationship between the United States considering the development of new nuclear weapons and other nations, whether it be Russia, China, or North Korea, feeling compelled to develop nuclear weapons to counter our nuclear weapons. It could happen that way, but there are a number of other things to consider, other political decisions to factor in.

As we have seen in the history of the nuclear age, other nations have made decisions as to whether or not to build nuclear arsenals. India, for instance, decided on domestic political considerations in 1998 to announce to the world that they had a nuclear arsenal. The United States really did not have a role to play in that position. They [the Indian government] pointed to China as a security threat and there may have been some validity to that, so that could have been one factor. China, for instance, could point to the United States and say that they should modernize their nuclear arsenal in response to U.S. development of missile defense. I believe that type of decision is probably being made or has been made in China. But I think it is less clear to me whether the US decision to develop low yield nuclear weapons would have the same effect on China, or even Russia, to do likewise and develop low yield nuclear weapons.

A common argument against nuclear weapons is that these weapons are for an older time, meaning the Cold War; and that these sorts of weapons just will not work in today's foreign policy. Do you think that the creation of low yield nuclear weapons would increase the deterrent factor for the United States?

I think it depends on who the United States is trying to deter. There may be something to that argument. We can imagine scenarios where war with North Korea or other areas of the world would not be an all out nuclear war such as it might have been with the Soviet Union where we designed these high yield weapons to destroy ICBM [Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile] silos and those kinds of targets. The question comes back to, even with low yield nuclear weapons, would the United States still be self-deterred in some sense? Would a United States President really want to cross that nuclear threshold? It is a tremendous decision to make whether it is a one-kiloton nuclear weapon or a one hundred-kiloton nuclear weapon. I do not think the yield has a whole lot to do with it. And then when you get down to very low yield, some people have been talking about ten to hundred-ton nuclear weapons, much lower than a kiloton. This idea came up over ten years ago published by two Los Alamos scientists termed as "micro-nukes" and "tiny nukes". Once you get down that low, why not just turn to conventional weapons? There is no political burden to conventional weapons as long as there is a justified use of military force.

Since it would be a major decision to use nuclear weapons against another country for the first time since Japan, does it make sense to develop these weapons with the slim likelihood they would be used? Should the United States focus on conventional weapons only, in order to ease tensions with the other nuclear powers by going along with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)?

If we do buy the argument that deterrence may somehow be buttressed if we develop low yield nuclear weapons, we need to think of the scenarios. The scenarios I have thought through seem to lend to us marginal benefit and tremendous political cost in going against the international norm against having nuclear weapons. Over 30 years ago, the United States signed the NPT to pursue nuclear disarmament. That established a global norm against nuclear weapons. In my view, it is time to live up to that norm; to consider developing nuclear weapons runs diametrically opposite to that norm. For that reason, I am strongly opposed to developing low yield nuclear weapons.

You also mentioned in your article, "Congressional Debate on Nuclear Weapons Policy," about the Spratt-Furse Low-Yield ban and how there was a compromise in allowing these kinds of weapons to be researched but not made. What kind of time frame do you foresee regarding the physical creation of these weapons, if at all, under the Bush Administration?

Well, talking about time frames, I do not think in 2004 we will see a movement on part of the administration to actually push toward development, for a number of reasons. One reason being we are still in the midst of the research phase of both the "robust nuclear earth penetrator" bunker buster weapons and the advanced concept low yield nuclear weapons. The administration still has not quite researched all its options yet. I think that will have to play out at least through next year. The main reason I think they are not going to move next year toward development is that the presidential election has not occurred yet, and they are hoping obviously to win the election in November 2004, and if President Bush does win that election, the victory would increase the likelihood of that happening. I think the Bush Administration might see that victory as some type of mandate for their national security policy, and they could use that over the next four years to start implementing a more robust nuclear agenda.

Since you are opposed to the creation of the nuclear bunker busters, taking the other side, if you had to choose one good argument by people who are for its creation, what would you select?

We might find ourselves in scenarios in the future in which we have very high confidence from our intelligence capabilities that a state like North Korea had hidden their nuclear weapons in a certain site, deeply buried and in a hardened target and we feel that it is an imminent threat. The country is getting close to actually employing those weapons, perhaps even have used one of those weapons against us. In such a scenario, I think having an option to be able to call upon a nuclear bunker busting weapon to destroy that hardened target could increase deterrence or in a case where deterrence has failed, it could limit the damage from their other weapons.

Notice I put a lot of caveats in this. We have to have a very high demanding intelligence to know where these weapons are; we have to be able to assess the bomb damage to ensure their destruction. I cannot rule out the possibility that having one of these bunker buster type weapons as an insurance policy could strengthen United States military force in such a scenario. Do we have such a weapon? Yes, we do. The B61-11 was modified in the mid 1990's. Maybe it could not destroy very deeply buried bunkers, but it is a relatively high yield weapon and the administration is looking at modifying the B-83, which is also a high yield weapon. However, these modifications can be done without nuclear testing. I think that is a compromise position. We can keep pursuing research and development of these robust nuclear earth penetrating programs just looking at current nuclear bombs in the US arsenal and trying to imagine how we could further modify them without nuclear testing to ensure that we have the capability of destroying deeply buried bunkers.

On the flip side of this question, what would you think is the greatest argument against the creation of nuclear bunker busters and low yield nuclear weapons?

The first reason is that the United States is a world leader and we should uphold the international norm against nuclear weapons. The second reason is that we out distance all of the other conventional militaries combined. If there is any nation that does not need nuclear bunker busters, it is the United States because we have a conventional military that far outclasses all the rest. That being the case, we do not want another country to turn to us and say if it is okay for the United States to develop these new nuclear weapons and they are so strong militarily in the conventional and the nuclear sense already, then why can we not develop? The third compelling reason against this is that time and time again we have seen intelligence failures. We have one of the best intelligence gathering agencies in the world, but still it is not perfect. We have seen these failures in Iraq and the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD); the inability to predict India's nuclear test in 1998, the third stage of the North Korean Taep'o-dong missile launched in August of 1998. There have been numerous other examples where we have been caught by surprise. What incredible hubris that we think we have the intelligence capabilities to be able to precisely identify where these bunkers are that contain WMD, and that we can destroy them without causing massive civilian collateral damage.

Do you believe in the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, or do you think that the US should follow a policy of disarmament, continually decreasing our nuclear arsenal?

I am whole-heartedly for disarmament. I am not saying that tomorrow we should unilaterally disarm, but I think we need to seriously develop a practical workable plan for nuclear disarmament. I am not defining zero as two hundred, as some other groups have done; I really mean zero as zero.

Do you think that should be in done in conjunction with the other nuclear powers?

Absolutely it must be done in conjunction with the other nuclear powers. I do not think we really have a good plan for how we are going to get from here to that desirable goal and that is one of the things that I want to keep working on and I think we need other people to think really hard on how to do that.

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