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FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
Summer 2003
Volume 56, Number 2
FAS Home | Download PDF | PIR Archive
Front Page
Nuclear Terror: Ambling Toward Apocalypse
21st-Century Physics: Grand Challenges
The Afghan Housing Crisis: Can New Technology Make a Difference?
Congress Permits Research on Smaller Nuclear Weapons
Molecular Manufacturing: Start Planning
Progress Report for FAS Learning Technology Initiatives
Challenging Conventional Wisdom on Arms Exports
How Well did TOPOFF2 Prepare Us?

Congress Permits Research on Smaller Nuclear Weapons

by Ivan Oelrich

In 1993, Congress prohibited the research and development of "low-yield" nuclear weapons. The prohibition was included in the Defense Authorization Act and is usually known as the Spratt-Furse Amendment, after its sponsors. The amendment defined "low-yield" as anything at or below five kilotons, which is roughly one third the explosive force of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. The Bush Administration specifically asked Congress to repeal this prohibition in the 2004 Defense Authorization.

The Department of Defense's (DoD) draft legislation explained that the ban "undercuts efforts that could strengthen our ability to deter, or respond to, new and emerging threats." What they usually mean by "new threats" are deeply buried or otherwise hardened facilities that might be used to store chemical or biological weapons. The DoD draft also argues that the ban has an overall "chilling effect" on nuclear weapons research and thus inhibits the training of new nuclear weapons designers and generally degrades our ability to respond "rapidly and decisively to changes in the international security environment."

"The Administration's Nuclear Posture Review...tries to portray nuclear weapons as theoretically useable and militarily useful."

The Administration went to some lengths to argue that repealing Spratt-Furse would only affect R&D, it would not allow production or deployment. In fact, separate statements indicated that the Administration was not even interested in development, only research. For example, on May 20 Secretary Rumsfeld was quoted in USA Today as saying "It is a study. It is nothing more and nothing less." He went on to add "And it is not pursuing. And it is not developing. It is not building. It is not manufacturing. And it's not deploying. And it is not using." The next day, Senator Kennedy, one of the leaders of the effort to preserve the ban, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, "If we build it, we'll use it." Kennedy and others who wish to keep the ban point out that the Administration's Nuclear Posture Review, only parts of which have been released to the public, tries to portray nuclear weapons as theoretically useable and militarily useful. The New York Times quoted Senator Reed of Rhode Island saying "We have tried for 50-plus years to make these weapons unthinkable and now we're talking about giving them a tactical application. It's a dangerous departure." Indeed, one of the Administration's motivations for building smaller weapons is to overcome current hesitation to use many weapons from the current arsenal precisely because they are too large, some of them having yields of hundreds of kilotons.

Efforts to preserve the R&D ban failed in the Senate Armed Services committee, typically on straight party line votes, including an amendment from Senator Levin that would allow research but ban development. Thus, repeal of the ban moved to the Senate floor. Senators Feinstein and Kennedy introduced an amendment on the floor that would have retained the ban and this effort also failed on largely party line votes, three Democrats voting against the amendment and no Republicans voting for it. At this point a tactical retreat seemed the only recourse in the Senate.

While Democratic Senators were trying to preserve the ban on R & D, the House had already inserted language in the authorization bill that would allow research but maintain the ban on development of "low-yield" nuclear weapons. (Technically, the ban was lifted completely, but any development work would require the Administration to come back to Congress for explicit approval and funding.) Senator Reed submitted an amendment to the same effect in the Senate. Before this could come to a vote, Republican Senator Warner submitted his own amendment and used Senate rules to bring it to a vote before the Reed amendment. Senator Warner's amendment was essentially identical to the amendment that Senator Levin had presented in committee, which had earlier lost on a party line vote. Although forced to accept a compromise, the Democrats did not want to support legislation that would allow research, so the amendment was passed overwhelmingly, based on Republican votes with a few Democrats crossing. All of the votes against the compromise were Democratic.

The Administration did not accept the compromise, however. The day after the Senate vote, the Office of Management and Budget released its comments on the legislation allowing research but not development. There is no ambiguity, "The Administration appreciates the support for research of low yield nuclear weapons in section 3111. However, maintaining the prohibition on development will hinder the ability of our scientists and engineers to explore technical options to deter national security threats of the 21st century. A complete repeal of section 3136 of the FY 1994 National Defense Authorization Act is needed." This statement supports the "slippery slope" arguments of Feinstein, Kennedy and others and draws into question Rumsfeld's assurances that the administration only wants to conduct studies of the utility of smaller nuclear weapons. The final bill must go through House-Senate conference. With the intent of the two chambers so close, one would normally expect no surprises from the Congressional side, but it is possible that Administration pressure could revive the development question even in this authorization bill.

The Administration's statements on nuclear strategy point toward a robust nuclear posture that includes at least the possibility of using nuclear weapons in disarming first strikes against chemical and biological weapon stockpiles. It is usually posited that these weapons will be stored in very hard or deeply buried bunkers, hence the need for nuclear "bunker busters." Whatever one thinks of the Administration's motives, they cast the issue largely in technical and tactical terms. For example, they want to investigate whether new nuclear weapons may be able to fulfill this and other missions. They repeat that they have not made any decisions; they just want to explore possibilities and options. FAS is ideally suited to engage in a debate framed in this way. If the Administration wants to treat this as a technical exploration, then our technical analysis focuses directly on the core of the debate. For example, Michael Levi's paper, Fire in the Hole, examines the utility of nuclear weapons for attacking buried targets and concludes that only under limited combinations of circumstances would nuclear weapons be better than conventional ones, and the problems of fallout are formidable. As part of the Federation's ongoing review of US nuclear posture, we plan technical analyses of several proposed nuclear missions. We will address such questions as how the targets can be found in the first place, what the effectiveness of nuclear weapons is in destroying chemical and biological weapons compared to conventional alternatives and what the effectiveness is of obvious countermeasures, such as dispersing targets or digging deep targets even deeper.

Author's Note: Ivan Oelrich is the director of the Strategic Security Program at FAS.