by: David Muller
While it preaches global arms control, the US Clinton Administration is stepping up the technological and nuclear arms race against the third world. In early April 6 radar-evading B-2 "stealth" bomber were officially commissioned into the U.S. nuclear strike force with a new generation of Penetrator N-bombs. The weapons are the biggest enhancement of U.S. nuclear capability since the cold war's end. The Pentagon can now launch precision raids from its own soil against command bunkers in Iraq or the kind of chemical-weapons factory the US says Libya is building inside a mountain.
The 12-foot-long B61-11 drills deep into the earth before exploding in a small blast whose shockwaves can crush targets hundreds of feet below, according to information from the Los Alamos Study Group and Greenpeace. The organizations charge that this new deployment is a dangerous attempt to expand the traditional role of nuclear weapons from the deterrence of rival superpowers to pre-emptive weapons for potential use against non-nuclear, Third World countries.
The B61-11 is an earth-penetrating nuclear bomb that can be delivered by variety of U.S. aircraft including F-16 fighter planes, B-1 and B-2 bombers, and possibly the B-52 bomber. As a low yield earth-penetrating "mininuke," it could provide the United States with a weapon that some say could be more realistically used than larger nuclear bombs in regional conflicts.
"This new nuclear capability makes it obvious that decision-makers in the Clinton Administration are expanding the post-Cold War role of nuclear weapons," said Greg Mello, Director of Los Alamos Study Group, a New Mexico lab watchdog group."You have to ask, who are the targets: the Russians? or Third-World countries?"
This earth-penetrating capability is intended for deeply-buried targets such as command and control bunkers. Senior Pentagon officials ignited controversy last April by suggesting that the earth-penetrating weapon would soon be available for possible use against a suspected underground chemical factory being built by Libya at Tarhunah. This thinly- veiled threat came just eleven days after the United States signed the African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty, designed to prohibit signatories from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against any other signatory, including Libya.
The deep-earth Penetrator N-bomb, reignites debate over what constitutes a "new" nuclear weapon -- a pointed issue, as U.S. policy since 1992 has forbidden development of new weapons. US Congress passed a 1993 law restricting the development of any nuclear weapons with yields less than 5 kilotons. But the Department of Energy classifies the B61-11 is outside this law as a "modification" of an existing weapon. The "11th modification" dropped from a plane to slam into the earth at the speed of a .45-caliber bullet. the B61 is engineered to explode after shallowly impacting the ground.
While weapons designers struggle against the definition of a new weapon, the weapon represents a wholly new military capability or employs substantially new technology in its nuclear package.
"This weapon is a new military capability. For all intents and purposes it is a new nuclear weapon," countered Mello. "Those who are newly targeted will not care if the weapon is 'new' or merely 'modified.'"
The earth-penetrating weapon was designed at Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories. LANL scientists designed and tested the original B61 in the 1980s and so had to certify that the changes and the stresses of earth penetration would not impair the bomb's performance. Sandia National Laboratories shipped 10 dummy versions of the modified B61 bomb to the U.S. Air Force last month as training devices, plus nine sets of customized bomb-handling gear.
The New Mexico labs and the Defense Department conducted drop tests of bomb prototypes in Alaska and Nevada. New parts for the B61-11 are being manufactured at Tennessee's Oak Ridge Reservation and at the Kansas City Plant in Missouri. Assembly is taking place at an undisclosed location.
William Arkin, columnist for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, says the project suggests the weapons labs' thirst for new work still has a role in driving the arms race at a time when former senior U.S. generals joined in December with counterparts from Russia and elsewhere to call for the elimination of atomic weapons.
Joe Cirincione of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington think tank that specializes in conflict resolution says,
"This does seem to be a sort of 'in your face' policy at a time when the U.S. is trying to convince the rest of the world not to develop nuclear weapons and to decrease their arsenals,". "For those who think that these are problems that disappeared with the end of the cold war, this is a wake-up call,"
Enhancing the US atomic arsenal flies in the face of popular domestic sentiments in America. A recent survey by the Abolition 2000 anti-nuclear coalition found that a majority of Americans support the elimination of all atomic arms.
"Countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has become the latest rationale for building and using nuclear weapons," said Greenpeace Nuclear Disarmament Campaigner Bruce Hall. "But efforts in the Pentagon and the national labs to expand the roles for nuclear weapons undercut the work of other Clinton administration officials to stem nuclear proliferation."
David Muller is President of the South Movement, Australia