30 September 2005

Germ Bombs Redux

In my previous post about stockpiling of anthrax and bioweapons production equipment at Dugway Proving Grounds, I was remiss in failing to note one of the excuses offered: testing of "agent defeat warheads." Now, via The Poor Man, I'm reminded that these warheads might be the real reason for bioweapons production. Lest you think this might make everything a-ok, the military name for these warheads is RNEP: Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. That's right, nuclear bunker busters. This would explain why the Pentagon wants a ton of anthrax at a weapons testing ground in the middle of nowhere. The frightening thing is that nukes are the most innocent explanation; they could be using the anthrax as a target and working on biowarfare weaponization, so this is certainly not an improvement. In fact, the RNEPs are worse than useless (click through to PDF) and the given justifications for their use bogus according to the Federation of American Scientists (emphasis added):
Attacking "hard and deeply buried" targets is the chief justification for developing new capabilities for nuclear weapons or even a new generation of nuclear weapons. The proposed Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) and possible future nuclear weapons are specifically designed to destroy underground facilities. This paper very briefly examines the concept of how and why nuclear earth penetrating weapons would be used, a possible countermeasure, and the consequences of their use. We find that attacking underground targets with nuclear weapons is conceptually unsound, countermeasures are available, and the consequences of an attack would be grave.
When evaluating any new military system, we have to ask: what military problem it is meant to solve, what are the different ways of solving that problem, and how does this proposed system compare to alternative approaches? When applying these questions to nuclear earth penetrators, it quickly becomes apparent that the problem used to justify them is contrived and implausible. The problem is contrived because it is artificially constrained to make nuclear earth penetrators appear to be the only solution. The problem is implausible because it assumes a cooperative enemy, it assumes knowledge we cannot have, and it ignores deadly consequences.
Keep in mind, also, that despite popular belief, even among many opponents of RNEPs, these are not small nukes:
Much of the public debate, and many nuclear advocates, confuses earth penetrators with the Administration's discussion of research on "small" nuclear weapons. (Keeping in mind, that on nuclear scales, the definition of "small" is the equivalent of ten million pounds of TNT, or one third the size of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, or thousands of times larger than the Oklahoma City bomb.) The proposed nuclear earth penetrators are large nuclear bombs. Small nuclear weapons would not be able to destroy deep targets.
And in case you don't feel like reading through 30 pages of wonky, technical national security discussion (no, I didn't just read this today -- the paper came out in April), here's why "agent defeat" is an excuse, not a justification:
A good statement of a military requirement specifies the desired outcome but not how best to accomplish it. The "deep target problem" should be presented as a requirement to neutralize a particular type of threat. Neutralization could be accomplished, for example, by isolating the facility. But an additional constraint that is essential to justify nuclear earth penetrators is that the deep facility must be destroyed, not merely isolated. To know that a deep underground facility even exits, intelligence will have to detect at least one of the entrances. Yet attacking and sealing up the entrances, something that can be done with precision conventional munitions, presumably is not adequate. "Functional defeat," that is, cutting off the electrical power, the cooling, the communication links, and the water, fuel, and air supply is, for some reason, not adequate. It is difficult to imagine a real situation in which this condition obtains, but this assumption is essential if nuclear weapons are to be deemed essential. One reason presented for target destruction is that the facility might contain dangerous chemical or biological weapons: if a cache of such weapons were attacked with conventional weapons, the chemical or biological agents might be spread around, harming the surrounding civilian population, whereas the heat of a nuclear explosion would supposedly destroy the agents. This scenario does not apply to deeply buried targets because neither the nuclear weapon nor the nuclear fireball penetrate very far into rock; a shockwave does and that shockwave might crush the walls of a tunnel but will not produce enough heat to destroy anything. This sort of attack would be effective only against chemical or biological weapons stored on the surface or only shallowly buried.
So why are we developing these nukes when they won't work for the stated purpose, conventional bombs can neutralize underground bunkers by sealing the entrances, and an enemy can use countermeasures as simple as digging deeper? Simple: Rummy want to SMASH!

[UPDATE (10:43): Oh, yeah. About Brad DeLong's defense of Bill Bennet that The Editors linked to in that post... what Dr. Laniac said.]

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