Bush prepared to use nuclear weapons against Iraq

The United States is ready to use nuclear weapons against a number of countries including Iraq and the option of going nuclear is being considered more seriously than at any time since the end of the Cold War. There are also plans for new nuclear weapons. After September 11th the Bush administration conducted a Nuclear Policy Review. The result of the secret review were leaked to the Los Angeles Times.

Nuclear Targets

The countries against which the US has plans to use nuclear weapons are Russia, China, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Libya.

The threat from Russia has been downgraded since the days of the Cold War. A "nuclear contingency" involving Russia is regarded as "plausible" but "not expected". Bush recently made an informal agreement with Putin to reduce their operational nuclear weapons. However the weapons concerned are to be stockpiled and not withdrawn. The latest review says that "In the event that US relations with Russia significantly worsen in the future, the US may need to revise its nuclear force levels and posture."

The review expresses concern about China's "developing strategic objectives". China is considered to be "a country that could be involved in an immediate or potential contingency". Military confrontation over Taiwan is identified as a specific scenario which could lead to the use of nuclear weapons by the US.

With regard to Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Libya the review talks about "immediate, potential or unexpected" contingencies. It says that all of these countries could be involved in all three forms of threat. With regard to these five countries the review says: "All have long-standing hostility towards the United States and its security partners. All sponsor or harbor terrorists and have active WMD (weapons of mass destruction) and missile programs". An attack by Iraq on Israel or one of its neighbours is identified as a scenario which could lead to the US using nuclear weapons. This suggests that a repetition of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait or of the use of Scud missiles against Israel could result in a US nuclear strike. An attack on South Korea by North Korea is also idenfied as a scenario in which American nuclear weapons could be used.

Increased possibility of US using nuclear weapons

The Bush administration is giving nuclear weapons a more prominent and central role in military policy than at any time since the end of the Cold War. There has been a shift away from old theories of nuclear deterrence and the conception that these were weapons of last resort. The US Undersecretary of State John Bolton has said: "The idea that fine theories of deterrence work against everybody .. has just been disproven by September 11".

The war in Afghanistan has illustrated how current US thinking emphasises long-range strikes by aircraft and cruise missiles, alongside special and covert operations. The Review makes it clear that nuclear weapons are also a key part of the new approach. Special forces are envisaged as playing a role in gathering intelligence and targetting information with a view to the use of nuclear weapons. Cyber warfare would also be integrated into nuclear planning. There is a shift away from large scale strategic nuclear forces and towards tactical and "adaptive" nuclear capabilities - which are able to be used in a wide variety of circumstances. Planning for this is not a separate area from planning for conventional operations.

The review identifies three key areas:

The overall impression is very revealing. Missile Defence is not an isolated project but is linked to plans to have a greater offensive capability including the ability to use nuclear weapons. And this is connected to the development of new nuclear weapons. If necessary the US is prepared to ignore international opinion and resume nuclear testing.

There are three circumstances in which the review considers that the US may use nuclear weapons:

New nuclear weapons

The two main developments which are planned are:

There is a call for weapons with a lower nuclear yield which could would result in less "collateral damage". There is even talk of "surgical strikes" using these nuclear weapons - although even the smallest weapon would result in massive damage and radiological contamination. This may be achieved by designing new warheads or by "possible modifications to existing weapons to provide additional yield flexibility". There is a blurring of the distinction between nuclear and conventional forces. It has long been recognised that this would make the use of nuclear weapons more likely.

The review calls for more work to be done to produce nuclear weapons which can be used against hardened bunkers. Cold War US nuclear plans involved the use of very large, megaton yield, nuclear weapons against these types of targets. Since then the US has been developing a lower yield bomb, the B61-11, which can burrow under the ground before detonating. However this type of detonation would still involve massive nuclear fallout. It is clear that there will be more emphasis on developing this type of weapon with a view to using them against bunkers which cannot be destroyed by the most accurate conventional bombs.

The nuclear weapons designers are being asked to come up with a warhead on a missile which can burrow into the ground before it detonates. While bombs with this capability have been planned, the speed at which missile warheads approach the ground is such that this is considered a very difficult task.

The review also calls for a number of new conventional aircraft and missiles to be adapted so that they could fulfil a nuclear role. The latest air launched cruise missile is to be modified to carry a nuclear warhead and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is also to be modified to give it a nuclear capability.

All in all, the review makes it clear that although the US will have fewer operational nuclear weapons, it will be far more willing to use them.