U.S. Eyes Mini-Nukes

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The U.S. government will convene a conference later this year to discuss the need for small-scale nuclear weapons, and determine whether the ban on nuclear testing poses an obstacle to maintaining America's nuclear force, a leaked Pentagon document says.

The document, obtained and posted on the Internet by the nuclear watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, is the minutes of a meeting last month planning for a conference in August. It was first reported by Britain's Guardian newspaper.

An official at the National Nuclear Security Administration, which maintains the national weapons stockpile, confirmed the authenticity of the document to the Guardian. But the official insisted the conference was concerned only with "long-range" planning.

The document says the results of the conference would be "forwarded, as appropriate, to the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Energy." Pentagon conferences often consider a range of policy options that never become policy.

Since entering office, the Bush administration has employed a multifaceted approach to revising U.S. nuclear policy to meet what the White House considers modern, as opposed to Cold War, threats.

To that end, President Bush and Russian president Vladimir Putin have agreed to large cuts in their countries' nuclear arsenals.

At the same time, the administration's January 2002 Nuclear Posture Review stated the need to consider North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria as countries where "contingencies" may develop that required considering the use of nuclear weapons.

The posture review also stated that while the U.S. has not tested nuclear weapons since 1992, and "is making every effort to maintain the stockpile without additional nuclear testing, this may not be possible for the indefinite future."

The review also stressed the need for a range of nuclear options. "Nuclear attack options that vary in scale, scope, and purpose will complement other military capabilities," read a forward to the report.

The leaked planning document says the conference was spurred by an October 2002 memo that discussed "the risk associated with not testing our nuclear weapons."

The minutes state explicitly that, "it is not the policy of the Administration to return to nuclear testing." However, one of the questions the conference will address is "what would demand a test?"

The conference will consist of four panels addressing different aspects of U.S. nuclear capability and strategy.

One will confront problems posed by the ban on testing. "What existing, and new … tools coming on-line could provide enhanced capabilities to quantify and minimize performance risk both for the (existing nuclear) stockpile, and potential new or modified weapons?" is a question the panel will address.

That panel will also consider "What is the role of nuclear testing in reducing risk in the stockpile? …What is the uncertainty in confidence and potential risk threshold for a test recommendation—what would demand a test? "

A second panel will look at the possibility of fielding smaller nuclear weapons, addressing "Requirements for low-yield weapons, (earth-penetrating weapons), enhanced radiation weapons," — the type referenced in the Nuclear Posture Review.

A third working group is set to focus on administrative challenges facing the Nuclear Security Administration, like "design, research and development, production, maintenance." The last panel will deal with policy issues surrounding nuclear weapons — namely how they fit into the U.S. defense goals of "assurance, dissuasion, deterrence, and defeat."

Representatives from U.S. Strategic Command, the NNSA, national nuclear laboratories, the Joint Staff and the military branches will staff the various committees. The conference is tentatively scheduled for August 4 at Strategic Command headquarters in Omaha.

The review of U.S. nuclear policy is part of a broad overhaul of American military doctrine undertaken by the White House.

The president this summer announced that the U.S. doctrine would no longer rule out preemptive strikes against perceived threats.

This fall, the administration reiterated a standing U.S. policy that an attack using weapons of mass destruction on the United States or its troops would be met by a response employing the full range of American resources, which includes nuclear weapons. That was seen as a warning to Iraq.

Last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in a possible war with Iraq, although he indicated that "we can do what needs to be done using conventional capabilities."

By Jarrett Murphy