Saturday, August 09, 2003

Oooooo let's not worry about the consequences of nuclear proliferation and start building a new class of smaller, better nukes!
This week, ten minutes by car south of Omaha, Neb., the United States Strategic Command is holding a little-advertised meeting at which the Bush administration is to solidify its plans for acquiring a new generation of nuclear arms. Topping the wish list are weapons meant to penetrate deep into the earth to destroy enemy bunkers. The Pentagon believes that more than 70 nations, big and small, now have some 1,400 underground command posts and sites for ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

Determined to fight fire with fire, the Defense Department wants bomb makers to develop a class of relatively small nuclear arms — ranging from a fraction the size of the Hiroshima bomb to several times as large — that could pierce rock and reinforced concrete and turn strongholds into radioactive dust.

"With an effective earth penetrator, many buried targets could be attacked," the administration said in its Nuclear Posture Review, which it sent to Congress last year.

Welcome to the second nuclear age and the Bush administration's quiet responses to the age's perceived dangers.

While initiatives like pre-emptive war have gotten most of the headlines (understandably, given the invasion of Iraq and its shaky aftermath), the administration is hard at work on other ways to counteract the spread of weapons like nuclear arms. Federal and private experts agree that with the notable exception of North Korea, diplomacy and arms control, for now, have taken a back seat to muscle flexing.

For instance, as part of its missile defense program, on which nearly $8 billion is being spent this year, the administration is erecting a rudimentary system of ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California. By late next year, 10 interceptors are supposed to be ready to zap any warheads that North Korea might lob at the United States. Whether the system would work as advertised is open to doubt. But, then, so is whether North Korea could — or would — ever directly attack the United States.

Skeptics are more likely to think that North Korea has nuclear blackmail in mind, and that what the White House really is doing is an election-year bit of showing its determination, even as it moves toward negotiating with Pyongyang. Late last week, there were even signs that the North Koreans were beginning to consider a principal American demand — that they accede to talks not with the United States alone, but including other powers like China, Russia and Japan.

Still, while critics may berate the administration's plans and responses, the long-term dangers are considered real. Most alarming are the declared effort by North Korea to build a nuclear arsenal and a presumed effort by Iran. Experts talk of wide repercussions — of an atomic Iran inspiring nuclear ambitions in other Middle Eastern countries, and of North Korea prompting rapid proliferation in the Far East.

Japan is considered a likely flash point, despite its historic disdain for things nuclear after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nisohachi Hyodo, once seen as part of the lunatic fringe for promoting a plan by which Japan would quickly acquire nuclear arms, now has his own radio program on a major Tokyo station and is a popular speaker on college campuses.

And if Japan went nuclear, experts say, China might feel compelled to expand its own arsenal.

In your heart, you know he might...