Andrew Lichterman

There have been two related sets of news stories in the past week involving nuclear weapons. Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, and the Washington Post ran stories regarding planning for a possible use of nuclear weapons in an attack on Iran. The reported rationale for considering nuclear weapons use is that some underground Iranian facilities might be difficult to destroy with conventional weapons. A scattering of newspapers have reported that a large conventional test explosion called “Divine Strake,” planned for June at the Nevada Test Site, will simulate nuclear weapons use. One purpose of the program of which that test is a part, according to Department of Defense budget documents, is to “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.”

Both reports subsequently were denied by government sources. Nonetheless, It is virtually certain that they are to a large extent true. There undoubtedly are plans being prepared for possible attacks on Iran, and that process likely includes examining (if not choosing) nuclear options for hard to destroy facilities. All the evidence except the government denials themselves suggests that data from the “Divine Strake” test will be used to refine understanding of nuclear weapons effects on underground structures, and that such understanding will be incorporated into the tools and procedures used to plan and execute nuclear strikes (In a previous post I provided a summary of the Divine Strake coverage, including government denials and responses to them).

What is important is what these two chains of events mean. They can be understood along a continuum that ranges from the normal grinding along of an immense military apparatus that always is refining its understanding of nuclear weapons and always is preparing contingency plans to attack a variety of potential adversaries, to danger signs of a near-term attack on Iran that could involve nuclear weapons use if certain factions within the government have their way. I would place these events somewhere in the middle of this range, with nuclear weapons use still highly unlikely but some kind of attack on Iran growing steadily more likely, although not on the immediate horizon. This is an extraordinarily secretive administration, making its intentions difficult to discern. It is also a very fluid political moment domestically, with an ongoing constitutional crisis that evidently is viewed by the incumbent government mainly as a political problem to be managed using all the tools at its disposal, which could include the distraction of a conveniently timed, and, from its perspective, “manageable” use of military force. This is a government that has shown itself willing to roll the dice, and it may include dominant elements (and not only in the Executive branch) who believe that the worst outcome– widespread war in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region and some measure of global economic chaos– will one way or another allow it to consolidate an increasingly autocratic form of rule.

The relationship between the talk of possible nuclear weapons use against Iran and the Divine Strake low-yield nuclear simulation manifests long-time truths about the nature of the nuclear age, as well as aspects of the nuclear dilemma that are relatively new. In confrontations involving one or more states possessing nuclear weapons, the potential for nuclear weapons use always looms in the background, regardless of what may be said. And given the fearsome nature of nuclear weapons, every nuclear-related act, no matter how small, can be read as a signal of some kind: leaks regarding war planning, deployment patterns of nuclear-capable delivery platforms, the pace and nature of military exercises involving nuclear forces, the character and timing of tests of nuclear weapons and related weapons systems. All of these played significant roles in the ebb and flow of tensions throughout the Cold War, often making it difficult even for those on the inside to disentangle cause and effect.

I am not saying that Divine Strake was timed to send a signal to Iran. The available documentary evidence, including budget requests and Department of Defense technology planning documents stretching back more than half a decade (into the Clinton administration), suggests that a test of this kind was slated to happen right about now, although the schedule may have slipped a few months. But even the “normal” operation of an immense nuclear apparatus, which includes a constant retooling of nuclear weapons, the infrastructure supporting their use, and also the justification for their existence, has consequences. So too, as William Arkin points out, does constant war-gaming by the most powerful military in world history against thinly disguised versions of countries that find it all too easy to recognize themselves, in the context of a declared policy and practice of “preventive” war.

The reason that a U.S. nuclear attack on Iran appears a possibility–including to those who may be its target– is that the United States never has stopped modernizing its nuclear arsenal and the infrastructure that is used to plan and execute nuclear strikes. Further, the rationale for this modernization, and for the kinds of nuclear weapons and techniques for using them now under development, increasingly has been “counterproliferation”– the use of nuclear weapons to destroy nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the facilities where they might be made, stored, and deployed. (This too extends back before both 9-11 and the Bush Administration; for an overview of U.S. nuclear weapons programs and their relationship to “counterproliferation” policies at the end of the Clinton years see “Looking for New Ways to Use Nuclear Weapons: U.S. Counterproliferation Programs, Weapons Effects Research, and ‘Mini-Nuke’ Development,” Western States Legal Foundation Information Bulletin, Winter 2000-2001).

The result has been nuclear planning and technology development that envisions the use of small numbers of nuclear weapons, and that aims to make nuclear weapons as useable as possible, by refining understanding of their effects and by crafting both nuclear weapons and delivery systems to allow use of nuclear weapons with the lowest possible yields. At the same time, the government is trying to expand the range of targets it can destroy from a distance using conventional weapons. What is little discussed is the relationship between the two. There is considerable overlap between technology development that will allow the use of conventional weapons to more effectively destroy things and technology development that will allow the use of reduced yield nuclear weapons, should conventional weapons be unable to accomplish the desired level of destruction.

Achieving greater accuracy for delivery systems or understanding of how to make projectiles penetrate into the earth, for example, may reduce the amount of energy needed to destroy the target. But if the energy needed can only be provided by a nuclear weapons, the military still will plan to use them. As Strategic Command (StratCom) Commander General James Cartwright told Inside the Pentagon, “It’s more than just precision; I can’t generate enough [conventional explosive] energy for some of these targets to destroy them. So I’m not leading you down a path that I can get rid of nuclear weapons.” And again: “My priority is not reduced yield,” Cartwright told ITP. “It’s to take the accuracy to the point where conventional can substitute for nuclear. That’s my first priority. My second point is: If I can’t get more precise or the energy is just not enough for the conventional explosion [to destroy targets in the nuclear plan], then again we can go to the lower yield discussion.” “U.S. General: Precise Long-Range Missiles May Enable Big Nuclear Cuts,” Inside The Pentagon, April 28, 2005, Pg. 1.

Global Strike: not your father’s deterrence

Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists notes that

“Divine Strake, moreover, is an integral part of STRATCOM’s new Global Strike mission, which is otherwise said to provide mainly non-nuclear means of defeating time-critical targets. Divine Strake is the first nuclear effects simulation of this kind against underground targets since President George W. Bush in Summer 2004 directed STRATCOM to ‘extend Global Strike to counter all HDBTs [Hard and Deeply Buried Targets] to include both tactical and strategic adversarial targets.’”(see also Kristensen’s comprehensive Global Strike Chronology).

The uses of force, including nuclear weapons, for which “Global Strike” capabilities are being developed are not “deterrence” as most Americans would understand it. Deterrence in general public discourse has meant preventing a nuclear attack on the United States by threat of retaliation in kind– with nuclear weapons. Deterrence, and even more narrowly nuclear deterrence, always has in fact encompassed far more in U.S. military planning, doctrine, and force structure. It long has included the threat to stop a conventional attack that threatens to overwhelm U.S. forces, and also the capability to conduct “damaging limiting” nuclear strikes against another nuclear-armed country, a capability largely indistinguishable from the ability to launch a first strike that would destroy some or all of an adversary’s strategic weapons and leadership.

But those in power today in the United States want to change the role of strategic weapons, including nuclear weapons, and are crafting an arsenal suited to their policy– and practice– of preventive war. This round of strategic weapons planning and technology development is driven by a new set of scenarios that reflect both an aggressive U.S. foreign policy and the possibilities opened up by continuing developments in the ability find targets and hit them accurately from a great distance. As discussed above, military planners hope that increased accuracy will allow them to substitute conventional for nuclear weapons in some instances, but still plan to use nuclear weapons when nothing else will destroy a target they want to destroy. The new mix of more accurate, powerful long-range conventional weapons and a nuclear arsenal adapted for “post-Cold War” missions also is changing the way that strategic warfare is planned, and the infrastructure for its execution. As the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review stated,

“The current nuclear planning system, including target identification, weapons system assignment, and the nuclear command and control system requirements, is optimized to support large, deliberately planned nuclear strikes. In the future, as the nation moves beyond the concept of a large, Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) and moves toward more flexibility, adaptive planning will play a much larger role….

Deliberate planning creates executable war plans, prepared in advance, for anticipated contingencies. Adaptive planning is used to generate war plans quickly in time critical situations. Deliberate planning provides the foundation for adaptive planning by identifying individual weapon/target combinations that could be executed in crises.” Nuclear Posture Review Excerpts, at, p.29.

“Divine Strake” is one of many experiments and studies going on across the U.S. military research and development complex, aimed at learning how best to combine nuclear and non-nuclear weaponry in the new round of “small” wars that powerful, perhaps dominant, factions in the United States appear determined to fight. A solicitation to contractors for work on Hard and Deeply Buried Target Defeat stated that

“STRATCOM [Strategic Command] needs to consider and evaluate the option of using nuclear weapons against its most difficult targets, and to compare whether such weapons provide an enhanced targeting posture or alternately provide the exclusive means to eliminate some particularly difficult targets. Because these strategic targets may themselves contain WMD, STRATCOM, as part of its assessment, needs to predict the extent and spread of chemical, biological or radiological contaminant released by virtue of the attack. In a post-attack environment, STRATCOM also needs to determine the effectiveness of the attack based on sampled physical and inferential variables produced by the attack.” Statement of Objective For The Hard, Deeply Buried Target Defeat ACTD 29 January 2003, p.1

This is part of a larger effort to provide the kind of information that military and political decision makers want in order to be able to fight wars in which they might use a small number of nuclear weapons, wars after which they believe there might be a future in which concepts like “collateral damage” will still matter:

“Collateral effects and recuperation times are vital in the definition of combined nuclear and conventional scenarios that are required under the Global Strike mission. Recuperation time is the time after an attack during which a target cannot perform its original mission. It has been less relevant in low-fidelity, high volume, attack planning scenarios where the Damage Level Required (DLR) is severe or greater and the number of targets is enormous. The recuperation time for destroyed or severe damage mechanisms require complete reconstruction so recuperation time is long after conflict, but for lighter DLR (i.e., a functional kill that might be required because the collateral effects are unacceptable), recuperation time is for a ‘military significant period of time’ as defined by the Commander.” Lara D. Leininger, “Derivation Of Probabilistic Damage Definitions From High Fidelity Deterministic Computations,” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, November 17, 2004, p.12

The influential Defense Science Board also noted the different kind of planning and technology development that employing strategic (including nuclear) weapons in small (or at least smaller) wars entails:

“During the Cold War–when massive arsenal exchanges were anticipated–assurance of success was to be achieved statistically. Even though the probability of success of individual weapons was high, we still planned to allot multiple weapons–generally to be delivered by different platforms—to each target. Under the new paradigm, where one or two weapons may be launched against each of a small number of targets, very high assurance of success is necessary. This includes a requirement for near real-time BDA[battle damage assessment] and additionally demands high functional reliability and confidence in target location accuracy.” Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Future Strategic Strike Forces, February 2004, p.5-10

Loosely translated, all of this means: Cold War nuclear planning assumed that the main priority was the certainty of destroying the target; many targets were slated to be hit with several nuclear weapons. Whether or not this would utterly devastate a large chunk of an adversary’s country was not a primary concern. But if nuclear weapons are to be fully integrated into the spectrum of violence that a global empire uses to threaten, discipline, and at times invade and occupy lesser powers, there will be a need to be be able to use nuclear weapons in a more ‘discriminate’ fashion, which requires a different kind of understanding of their effects. As a 2000 Defense Department technology planning document put it,

“Technical challenges are presented by the rapidly developing need to hold evolving enemy targets at risk using the reduced stockpile, and recognizing greatly increasing political and environmental constraints.” Department of Defense, “Defense Technology Objectives for the Joint Warfighting S&T Plan and the Defense Technology Area Plan,” 2000, p.II-372. (Obtained by Western States Legal Foundation via the Freedom of Information Act).

Much weapons research is relevant to technology development and use planning for both nuclear and conventional weapons. Studies on such things as earth penetrators, weapons fusing, more accurate delivery systems, and the effects of ground shock on underground structures inform weapons design and strike planning, including how to determine which targets might require nuclear weapons use to assure their destruction. As Strategic Command’s General James Cartwright, in remarks to the Air Warfare symposium last year, acknowledged this in connection with the controversial Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (or RNEP, now officially discontinued, at least as an explicitly “nuclear” weapons program):

“RNEP is nothing about anything going bang, it’s about running around into a cement wall on a sled and making sure that the modeling and simulation is accurate. Should we do that? Gosh, yes we should do that. Should we do it in the name of nuclear? Probably not. But to jam into the name of one particular test, one particular characteristic, really misses the point in how we do business today, and anybody in this room that’s in the private sector will tell you. I may make a discovery over here in this department, but if I don’t connect my departments, I’ll never get economic or competitive advantage. I’ve got to cross-pollinate all of my technology. That’s what we’re trying to do here.

So, from my standpoint, the great value added is that I will get to validate the environment in which my fuses and warheads, whether they be conventional or nuclear, have to live and convince myself so that I don’t have to go out and do a whole bunch of testing. Whether I’m testing a conventional weapon or a nuclear weapon.” General James Cartwright, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command, Speech at Air Warfare Symposium - Orlando, February 18, 2005

Similarly, the Defense Science Board, reported by Seymour Hersh to include advocates of nuclear weapons use against hard targets such as those in Iran, notes the overlap between research and development for conventional and nuclear earth penetrators:

“A deep underground tunnel facility in a rock geology poses a significant challenge for non-nuclear weapons. Such a target is difficult to penetrate, except possibly near an adit [entrance], and the likelihood of damaging critical functional components deep within the facility from an energy release at the adit is low….
Optimized penetrators of this size [20-30 thousand pounds] may penetrate about 5 to 8 times farther than an existing 2,000 lb. class weapon and may also be suitable for housing a clean, low-yield nuclear weapon. Using the tactic of optimum dual delivery, where a second penetrator follows immediately behind the first, and boosting the penetrator velocity with a rocket motor, a depth of up to 40 meters can be achieved in moderately hard rock. In view of the promise of such a massive penetrator for both conventional and nuclear payloads, we recommend an immediate start on an ACTD-like demonstration of this capability.” Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Future Strategic Strike Forces, February 2004, p.6-7

Despite all of this, debate over U.S. nuclear weapons programs and policies inside the Beltway and in the mainstream media has largely been limited to a narrow spectrum of questions, focusing mainly on bombs and warheads, how they are produced and maintained, and on stopping this or that particular proposal for a modified bomb or warhead. The fact that planning and technology development for a new generation of strategic delivery systems is ramping up remains largely invisible, even though the way those programs develop likely will determine the nature of the future nuclear arsenal as much or more than debates over how warheads should be produced or maintained. Changes in the way that nuclear strikes are planned and executed, from new software for strike planners to new communications systems, are well underway, supported by the kind of testing of which “Divine Strake” is only one part.

And if half of what Seymour Hersh reports this week in the New Yorker, we now are faced with a serious debate within the government over whether to use nuclear weapons in a war of aggression, against a country that has not attacked us or its neighbors. What mainstream discussion there has been in recent years about nuclear weapons has focused largely on technical issues and an abstract, backward-looking emphasis on the “uselessness” of new nuclear weapons capabilities for a vision of deterrence which, if it ever really existed, those in power have decisively left behind. Uninformed by any sustained debate in the mainstream about the fundamental moral and legal legitimacy of the uses actually envisioned for nuclear weapons, the public is poorly prepared for the crisis we now face. Americans may wake up some day in the coming years responsible for an unprovoked nuclear attack, and have no idea how they got there.

For additional information and analysis on the U.S. weapons programs and policies discussed here, see
War is Peace, Arms Racing is Disarmament: The Non-Proliferation Treaty and the U.S. Quest for Global Military Dominance, Western States Legal Foundation Special Report, May 2005


Sliding Towards the Brink: More Useable Nuclear Weapons and the Dangerous Illusions of High-Tech War, Western States Legal Foundation information Bulletin, March 2003