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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