Saturday, April 08, 2006

ONE PART OF SEYMOUR HERSH'S current New Yorker piece that I did not comment on in my immediately preceding post is Hersh's revelation that the Bush administration is including the possible use of nuclear weapons in its planning for war against Iran.

One of the military's initial option plans, as presented to the White House by the Pentagon this winter, calls for the use of a bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon, such as the B61-11, against underground nuclear sites.
There is a Cold War precedent for targeting deep underground bunkers with nuclear weapons. In the early nineteen-eighties, the American intelligence community watched as the Soviet government began digging a huge underground complex outside Moscow. Analysts concluded that the underground facility was designed for "continuity of government" -- for the political and military leadership to survive a nuclear war. (There are similar facilities, in Virginia and Pennsylvania, for the American leadership.) The Soviet facility still exists, and much of what the U.S. knows about it remains classified. "The 'tell' " -- the giveaway -- "was the ventilator shafts, some of which were disguised," the former senior intelligence official told me. At the time, he said, it was determined that "only nukes" could destroy the bunker. He added that some American intelligence analysts believe that the Russians helped the Iranians design their underground facility. "We see a similarity of design," specifically in the ventilator shafts, he said.

A former high-level Defense Department official told me that, in his view, even limited bombing would allow the U.S. to "go in there and do enough damage to slow down the nuclear infrastructure -- it's feasible." The former defense official said, "The Iranians don't have friends, and we can tell them that, if necessary, we'll keep knocking back their infrastructure. The United States should act like we're ready to go." He added, "We don't have to knock down all of their air defenses. Our stealth bombers and standoff missiles really work, and we can blow fixed things up. We can do things on the ground, too, but it's difficult and very dangerous -- put bad stuff in ventilator shafts and put them to sleep."

But those who are familiar with the Soviet bunker, according to the former senior intelligence official, "say 'No way.' You've got to know what's underneath -- to know which ventilator feeds people, or diesel generators, or which are false. And there's a lot that we don't know." The lack of reliable intelligence leaves military planners, given the goal of totally destroying the sites, little choice but to consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons. "Every other option, in the view of the nuclear weaponeers, would leave a gap," the former senior intelligence official said. " 'Decisive' is the key word of the Air Force's planning. It's a tough decision. But we made it in Japan."

He went on, "Nuclear planners go through extensive training and learn the technical details of damage and fallout -- we're talking about mushroom clouds, radiation, mass casualties, and contamination over years. This is not an underground nuclear test, where all you see is the earth raised a little bit. These politicians don't have a clue, and whenever anybody tries to get it out" -- remove the nuclear option -- "they're shouted down."

In other words, and once again, U.S. military planning will be driven by policy, not intelligence. And once again, just as in World War II, the decision of whether, when, and how to use nuclear weapons is being made by military and political types without the input of the scientists whose initial discoveries led to the development of such weapons and who have a better understanding about the full human consequences of nuclear bombs than do senators, generals, and even presidents.

Steve at No More Mister Nice Blog tells us, Just because bunker busters don't appear to act in the same way as atomic bombs, doesn't mean they can't have similar effects.

Now, this isn't a big mushroom-cloud-producing nuke we're talking about. This is a nuke that's supposed to go below surfaces and not release radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. But if one scientist quoted in this Popular Mechanics article from 2002 is right, that's far from a guarantee:

Rob Nelson, a physicist with the Princeton University Program on Science and Global Security, and an expert on nuclear weapons design, ... argues that the ... deep penetrator ... would, in fact, release rather than contain radioactive fallout. While it is true that most material would remain within the blast area, a radioactive cloud seeping from the crater would release a plume of gases that would irradiate anyone in its path.

He has calculated that a weapon with a yield of about 0.1 kiloton--about one two-hundredth the energy of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima--would have to penetrate to a depth of 230 ft. to fully contain the explosion...

And how deep does the B61-11 penetrate?

The only ground penetrator in the current nuclear arsenal is the 1200-pound B61-11 gravity bomb.... It can penetrate about 20 ft. into a dry lakebed.


And this is precisely why scientists should be making the damage assessments, not politicians or military commanders.

1 comment:

JasonSpalding said...

The fact is that either we choose to allow the Islamic Republic of Iran to develop the nuclear system that would allow for nuclear weapons or we don't. Bring on the apocalyptic rhetoric.:)