The Washington Post ran a story Friday headlined Pentagon to Test a Huge Conventional Bomb.
According to the Post,
“A huge mushroom cloud of dust is expected to rise over Nevada’s desert in June when the Pentagon plans to detonate a gigantic 700-ton explosive — the biggest open-air chemical blast ever at the Nevada Test Site — as part of the research into developing weapons that can destroy deeply buried military targets, officials said yesterday.”
It appears possible, however, that the Post missed the real story. There is considerable evidence that one of the main purposes of the “Divine Strake” test, if not the only one, is to use a large conventional high explosive charge to simulate the effect of a low yield nuclear weapon, although the picture is blurred a bit by recently released budget documents. February 2005 Department of Defense budget documents reveal plans to conduct a “Full-Scale tunnel defeat demonstration using high explosives to simulate a low yield nuclear weapon ground shock environment at Department of Energy’s Nevada Test Site” in fiscal year (FY) 2006. The descriptions of the same program in February 2006 (FY 2007) documents continue to state that the program of which the test apparently is a part “will develop a planning tool that will improve the warfighter’s confidence in selecting the smallest proper nuclear yield necessary to destroy underground facilities while minimizing collateral damage.” But the descriptions of specific activities in the current budget document deletes references to nuclear weapons, substituting vague general language about weapons effects (details and document links below; click on “more” to continue).
According to the Washington Post, the objective is to study conventional weapons effects:
“The test is aimed at determining how well a massive conventional bomb would perform against fortified underground targets — such as military headquarters, biological or chemical weapons stockpiles, and long-range missiles — that the Pentagon says are proliferating among potential adversaries around the world.”
Further, the Post piece implies that this is its only purpose:
“Such a bomb would be a conventional alternative to a nuclear weapon proposed by the Bush administration, which has run into opposition on Capitol Hill. The Pentagon for several years has sought funding for research into the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) — also known as the “bunker buster” — after the administration’s 2001 Nuclear Posture Review stated that no weapon in the U.S. arsenal could threaten a growing number of buried targets. Congress, however, has repeatedly refused to grant funding for a study on a nuclear bunker buster, instead directing money toward conventional alternatives.”
So far as I know, however, that Congress has not prohibited the study of nuclear weapons effects on underground targets.
The “Divine Strake” test appears to be part of the Tunnel Target Defeat Advanced Concept and Technology Demonstration series, apparently the “full scale” event described in the budget document excerpts below:
Department of Defense,Exhibit R-2, RDT&E Budget Item Justification, Defense-Wide/Advanced Technology Development BA-3, Proliferation Prevention and Defeat 0603160BR Project BK- Counterforce, February 2005
…”The Tunnel Target Defeat Advanced Concept and Technology Demonstration(s) (ACTD) will develop a planning tool that will improve the warfighter’s confidence in selecting the smallest nuclear yield necessary to destroy underground facilities while minimizing collateral damage. The focus of the demonstration is to reduce the uncertainties in target characterization and weapon effect/target response. Target characterization uncertainties include those related to determining the target function, layout, operational status, and the geological and geotechnical features. Weapons effects/tunnel response uncertainties are associated with predicting ground shock and tunnel response in layered and jointed media.”
FY 2005 plans …
“Complete Tunnel Target Defeat Advanced Concept and Technology Demonstration(s) (ACTD) high explosive, low yield, nuclear weapon simulation planning and design.”
FY 2006 plans
“Conduct the Tunnel Target Defeat Advanced Concept and Technology Demonstration(s) (ACTD) Full-Scale tunnel defeat demonstration using high explosives to simulate a low yield nuclear weapon ground shock environment at Department of Energy’s Nevada Test Site.
– Deliver validated analysis and planning tools to conduct the end-to-end use of nuclear planning tools to characterize and “weaponeer” the full-scale Tunnel Target Defeat Advanced Concept and Technology Demonstration(s) (ACTD) event.
– Provide Military Utility Assessment on the overall performance of the Advanced Concept and Technology Demonstration(s) (ACTD) and transition the updated planning capabilities to USSTRATCOM.
– Prepare final program documentation and reports for Tunnel Target Defeat Advanced Concept and Technology Demonstration(s) (ACTD) program
– Begin transition of improved tunnel ground shock defeat planning tools to USSTRATCOM”
The general program description language in the current (February 2006) version of the same program element descriptive summary is similar to the previous year, retaining the description of the Tunnel Target Defeat demonstration as developing a planning tool for the use of nuclear weapons:
“The Tunnel Target Defeat ACTD will develop a planning tool that will improve the warfighter’s confidence in selecting the smallest proper nuclear yield necessary to destroy underground facilities while minimizing collateral damage. The focus of the demonstration is to reduce the uncertainties in target characterization and weapon effect/target response….”
But the description of specific FY2006 plans activities in the current budget document has eliminated references to nuclear weapons effects or planning, using vague language instead, for example:
“Conduct the Tunnel Target Defeat ACTD large-scale tunnel defeat demonstration using high explosives to produce the desired ground shock environment at the Department of Energy’s Nevada Test Site. Deliver validated analysis and planning tools for use in characterizing and “weaponeering” the large-scale test event. Conduct a Military Utility Assessment. Prepare final program documentation and reports. Begin transition of improved tunnel ground shock defeat planning tools to USSTRATCOM.”
It appears as well that Divine Strake is the “full scale” demonstration described above. A January 21, 2004 announcement on the Los Alamos National Laboratory Earth and Environmental Sciences Division web site stated:
“Los Alamos Participates in Tunnel Target Defeat and Advanced Concept Technology Meeting
Members of the Earth and Environmental Sciences Division, Robert Swift, David Coblentz, and Gregory Cole, along with Earl Knight and Dave Steedman of Decision Analysis Division participated in the Tunnel Target Defeat/Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration meeting on January 21-22, 2004 at the United States Strategic Command in Omaha, NE.
The Test Working Group discussed updates on Discrete Gemini (Intermediate Scale Test) and Divine Strake (Full-scale Test). In the Site Characterization Working Group Session, Cole discussed relevant issues related to Los Alamos’ work on GAMUT (Geologic Assessment Methodology for Underground Targets) applications.”
The National Research Council, in its 2005 study Effects of Nuclear Earth Penetrator and Other Weapons, also suggests that the last experiment in the Target Tunnel Defeat technology demonstration series is intended to explore low yield nuclear weapons effects:
“As part of DTRA’s program for improving GVN methodology, the global damage mode has been recalibrated to virtually the entire underground nuclear test database (i,e., EM-1) in terms of peak free-field strain in the surrounding rock, rather than peak stress, as was done in the older GVN methodology. This more physically attractive approach is made possible by modern computational capabilities. An ongoing DTRA experimental program (the Target Tunnel Defeat Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration) is intended to verify the improved vulnerability assessment method, by means of a series of tunnel experiments at various scales in jointed limestone geology, the final test being of a prototype tunnel configuration loaded by a high-explosive simulation of a low-yield EPW. This test is scheduled for late 2005.” National Research Council Committee on the Effects of Nuclear Earth Penetrator and Other Weapons, Effects of Nuclear Earth Penetrator and Other Weapons, National Academy Press, 2005, p.35.
It appears likely that the test referred to is “Divine Strake,” but that its schedule slipped a few months. In context, it also appears that simulation of a “low yield EPW” refers to simulation of a low-yield nuclear earth penetrator weapon.
This kind of research began years ago, before the Bush administration came to office. Department of Defense technology planning documents published in 2000, for example, included plans to “Demonstrate the effectiveness of nuclear weapon capabilities in defeating deep structures using precise, low-yield attacks by HE [high explosive] simulation.” U.S. Department of Defense, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Science and Technology), 2000, Defense Technology Area Plan, Table XI-3, p. XI-9. (Obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by Western States Legal Foundation).
It would be nice to see another round of digging by the Post–or somebody–to determine the purpose of the “Divine Strake” test. The U.S. is continuing to develop is ability to plan and fight wars with nuclear weapons–a part of the broad U.S. nuclear weapons research effort that receives little attention or debate. Large scale physical simulations to study the effects of low-yield nuclear weapons would appear particularly provocative, the more so in the context of a policy and practice of “preemptive”–really, preventive–warfare.