Ready for 'Mini-nukes'?
Jude Wanniski
February 13, 2001


Memo To: Don Rumsfeld, Defense Secretary
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: You Better Tell the Boss

Gordon Prather, a nuclear physicist who was deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for science and technology in the Reagan administration -- and who was scheduled to become Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Atomic Energy in a second Bush-Quayle Administration, has figured out that you better let President Bush know that he has to start thinking about making some “mini-nukes.” That is, if you guys are really serious about building a national missile-defense shield of the kind you are talking about, you will never get past the argument that it won’t work unless you acknowledge the need for low-yield nukes to intercept an incoming nuke. Dr. Prather wrote about this a few weeks back in his weekly column for, but it did not get the attention it deserves. Because this is national security week on the President’s issue-a-week agenda, it seems a good idea that I re-run his piece here as a Memo on the Margin to you.

You have been getting a lot of flak from the Right over the announcement that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld were going to make unilateral reductions in the U.S. nuke stockpile. As Prather notes, Bush-Quayle began getting rid of the nukes we no longer needed for a Fulda Gap war and President Bush promised during the campaign that he would get rid of all the other nukes we no longer needed. So if for no other reason than to quell the insurrection from the Right, you need to announce that if you need to develop mini-nukes, you will. In his column, Don, he points out that Congress this year gave the Pentagon permission to develop -- if they decide they need them -- bunker-killing, micro-nukes. You might as well get permission and the elbow room to develop -- if you decide you need them -- mini-nukes for anti-ballistic missiles, or I do think you will not be able to talk Congress out of the first $60 billion you will need for this effort. I doubt the argument some of the national BMD backers are throwing out -- that we need this to protect against an accidental launch in Russia or China -- is going to hold up. The likelihood of accidental launch of a Russian or Chinese ICBM seems minuscule, and even if one occurs, you may not be able to neutralize it without a mini-nuke.

Ready for 'mini-nukes'?

By Gordon Prather

What the Clinton-Gore administration thought "we" had learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union (brought about not by Clinton-Gore, but by Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II) and from "our" stunning victory in the Gulf War (brought about not by Clinton-Gore, but by Bush-Quayle and Cheney-Powell) was that "we" no longer needed "nukes."

So, for the past eight years, the Clinton-Gore administration has been getting rid of the nukes we had in stockpile and trying to make it impossible for us to ever design, build, test and stockpile any new ones.

Conversely, what the Bush-Quayle administration had learned from their experiences was that we still needed nukes in our stockpile in the post-Cold War, post-Gulf War era -- but we needed different types of nukes.

Different types of nukes? What types? And how different?

Well, Los Alamos National Lab scientists Dowler and Howard described four new types of nukes in "Countering the Threat of the Well-armed Tyrant: A Modest Proposal for Small Nuclear Weapons" (Strategic Review, Fall 1991):

* 10-ton-yield penetrating "micro-nukes" to destroy bunkers.

* 100-ton-yield "mini-nukes" to counter ballistic missiles.

* 1,000-ton-yield "tiny-nukes" for battlefield use.

* High power microwave and electromagnetic pulse generating nukes.

In 1991-92, both Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore nuke weapons designers found a receptive audience in the Pentagon for their new nuke concepts.

At the same time that the Bush-Quayle administration began to dismantle our obsolete "battlefield" nukes -- designed for use against massed Soviet armor in the Fulda Gap -- the Cheney-Powell Pentagon began to look at how nukes should be designed for use on the "battlefields" of the post-Cold War era. It was clear to them that new types would be needed, especially the "micro-nuke" for destroying underground factories, bunkers and headquarters. The Bush-Quayle administration, therefore, vigorously opposed the efforts of the disarmament crowd in Congress to sign-on to an indefinite "zero-threshold" nuke test ban.

But then the Clinton-Gore disarmament crowd came to power and began not only to get rid of our entire existing nuke stockpile, but also vowed to never again design, build or test new nukes. Clinton-Gore also began a full-court press to persuade Congress and the whole world to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

For two years, until the Republicans took control of both Houses, the Democrat-controlled Congress did Clinton-Gore's bidding on nukes. They even adopted a total prohibition against "research and development which could lead to the production by the United States of a low-yield nuclear weapon ... [that is] a nuclear weapon that has a yield of less than five kilotons." That Democrat-controlled Congress essentially banned -- for all time -- even research by Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore nuke designers on micro-nukes, mini-nukes and tiny-nukes (all of which have since been referred to, generically, as "mini-nukes").

Fortunately, for us, the Clinton-Gore administration -- which sold the CTBT to the rest of the world as a commitment by all signatories to never again develop a new nuke, and a commitment by the United States to disarm (as Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty suggests that we will someday do) -- was not able to get the CTBT ready for signature until 1997, by which time the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate was solidly opposed to ratifying it.

And now, perhaps in anticipation of a Bush-Cheney administration, Congress has effectively repealed the total prohibition against research on what Dowler and Howard referred to as "micro-nukes." Included within the Conference Report for the 2001 National Defense Authorization Act is this language:

The conferees note that a recent legal interpretation of existing law raised questions regarding whether DOE [Department of Energy] could participate in, or otherwise support, certain Department of Defense (DOD) studies and options assessments for defeating hardened and deeply buried targets. This provision expressly allows DOE to assist DOD with a review of these targets and the options for defeating such targets. The conferees believe that DOE should provide information and other assistance required to help DOD make informed decisions on whether: (1) to proceed with a new method of defeating hardened and deeply buried targets; and (2) to seek any necessary modifications to existing law.

So, there is now a requirement for, not a prohibition on, "micro-nukes" to counter hardened underground sites. But what about true Dowler and Howard "mini-nukes" to counter incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles? Isn't there a requirement for them, too?

If anything, the failure of the Clinton-Gore administration to demonstrate the feasibility of a non-nuke ABM defense makes the development of a new mini-nuke ABM warhead even more important than the development of the micro-nuke bunker killer.

The Clinton-Gore administration's stated reason for going the non-nuke ABM route was that the incoming warheads -- launched at us via zillion-dollar ICBMs -- might contain, instead of a 20 kilo-ton-yield nuke, a few hundred pounds of anthrax spores and that the enhanced x-ray, gamma-ray and neutron radiation of our existing ABM nukes might not kill all the anthrax bacteria.

Now it is true that our existing ABM nuke warheads were designed to disable the sophisticated Soviet incoming nuke warheads and were not required to detonate so close as to actually totally destroy them. A near miss would generate, within even a sophisticated incoming nuke, external thermal shock, internally generated EMP and melted shape-deformed fissile materials -- any one of which would render the incoming nuke inoperable.

The no-nuke Clinton-Gore administration needed to actually hit the incoming warhead -- which they believed might contain a few hundred dollars worth of anthrax spores -- and utterly destroy it while still outside the earth's atmosphere. Clinton-Gore literally needed to hit a bullet with a bullet. Therefore, they needed far more accuracy in aiming and firing their "bullet," the hyper-velocity inert kill vehicle.

Apparently, Clinton-Gore aimed their "gun," mounted in the boost rocket, on the basis of target acquisition radar, but fine-tuned the actual trajectory of the hyper velocity "bullet' on the basis of on-board infrared sensors. The Clinton-Gore failures have apparently resulted from the inability of the on-board sensors to sufficiently fine-tune the "bullet's" trajectory so as to cause it to actually impact, head-on, the incoming warhead.

With the Clinton-Gore inert bullet, a one-inch miss is as bad as a mile. If the incoming ICBM warhead actually contains a 20-KT nuke, and Clinton-Gore misses it by one inch, a few hundred thousand Americans are going to rue that particular day.

On the other hand, if Bush-Cheney decides to field an ABM defense for the continental U.S., they would be well advised to assume that any warhead launched at us by a zillion-dollar ICBM is a nuke and take the proper action to render it inoperable while still outside the atmosphere. That means nuking their incoming warhead with one of our outgoing warheads.

But that doesn't mean that we have to use the nuke warheads we designed, tested and put in stockpile back in the late 1960s. The nuke warhead for the Spartan ABM system is reported to have weighed more than a ton and had a yield of about 5,000 KT. The Spartan nuke warhead was designed to be used against hundreds, perhaps thousands, of incoming "bogeys" -- some of which would be nukes, and some of which might be decoys. There was no "fine-tuning" of the Spartan nuke trajectory. The sensor technology to do that wasn't available 40 years ago, but with five megatons it wasn't necessary. As the old saying goes, "Close don't count -- except in horseshoes and 5 MT exo-atmospheric enhanced radiation nuclear explosions."

One of the reasons that the whole question of homeland ABM defense was examined again (by President Reagan in the 1980s) was that scientists at Los Alamos had noted that there had been significant advances in the preceding 20 years of the technology of acquiring targets and guiding missiles to them. The ABM warheads could be significantly less than 5 MT. After the successes of U.S. smart-munitions in the Gulf War, it was even more evident to scientists at Los Alamos that a homeland mini-nuke-based ABM defense was possible.

Now it appears that most of the failures of the Clinton-Gore ABM system would have been successes if only the kill vehicle had carried a mini-nuke instead of a lump of lead. Furthermore, the mini-nuke kill vehicle doesn't have to be hyper-velocity. It doesn't depend upon a high-speed collision to kill the incoming nuke. All it needs to do is get close -- and since the kill vehicle can be moving much slower, there will be much more time for the on-board sensors to tell it how to maneuver so as to get as close as possible. That is, a slower moving mini-nuke kill vehicle has a better chance of actually hitting the incoming warhead, head-on, than does the Clinton-Gore non-nuke hyper velocity bullet.

Now, all this "use-a-mini-nuke" logic does not necessarily apply to attempting to knock down Iraqi ballistic missiles launched against Israel (the Scud warhead stays attached to the missile). The Iraqi Scuds may not have nuke warheads -- none of them did during the Gulf War. And it might not apply to ballistic missiles aimed at our ships at sea (supersonic sea-skimmers carrying conventional HE warheads are probably more likely -- and just as effective as nukes of whatever size).

But President George W. Bush has pledged to field, as soon as is practical, an effective "homeland" ABM defense. He is almost certainly going to need "mini-nukes" to make good on that pledge.

© 2001 January 20, 2001

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Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-OK -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.