Andrew Lichterman

In my Friday March 31 entry “Did the WashPost miss an explosive story?” I provided evidence that the “Divine Strake” experiment which will detonate 700 tons of explosive in the Nevada desert is intended to simulate the effects of a low-yield nuclear blast on underground structures. Since then, there has been a round of investigation and commentary by various reporters and arms control experts, summarized below. In the early rounds the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) confirmed that Divine Strake was indeed the “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” described in last year’s budget request. Later, DTRA changed its story, claiming that language suggesting that the purpose of the “Divine Strake” test had changed, and that language regarding its nuclear weapons applications had been left in this year’s budget request by mistake.

In the initial round, John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal wrote the first piece on April 2, drawing on material from this site. Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists got the first official confirmation that the Divine Strake test is the one referred to in the budget documents provided in my analysis last Friday. He wrote on the FAS Strategic Security Project Blog that

“The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) today confirmed to FAS that the upcoming Divine Strake test widely reported in the media to be a non-nuclear event is in fact a low-yield nuclear weapons calibration simulation against an underground target….

In response to an email earlier today, a DTRA spokesperson confirmed that Divine Strake is the same event that is described in DTRA budget documents as being a low-yield nuclear weapons shock simulation designed to allow the warfighters to fine-tune the yield of nuclear weapons in strikes on underground facilities.”

On Tuesday, David Ruppe wrote a detailed piece on Global Security Newswire, including further confirmation of the nature of the test:

“‘Yes … the event that is described [in the budget document] is Divine Strake,’” DTRA spokeswoman Irene Smith said after checking with agency officials.’” David Ruppe, U.S. Test to Model Low-Yield Nuclear Bomb Effects, Global Security Newswire, April 4, 2006. provided a quick response, drawing in large part on DOE’s draft environmental assessment for Divine Strake. (U.S. Department of Energy, Environmental Assessment, Large Scale, Open Air Explosive Detonation Divine Strake at the Nevada Test Site, pre-approval draft, November 2005) and on a SAVIAC symposium abstract on “Non Ideal Airblast Effects from Urban and Natural Terrain.” They highlighted the additional data Divine Strake is designed to produce, including information useful for modeling surface effects, and hence perhaps the “collateral damage” that a low yield nuclear earth penetrator might cause:

“Ejecta studies would be conducted to characterize how the ejecta is “shot out” by the detonation and how far it travels. The studies would evaluate both large debris (softball size) and fines. Collection panels (possibly of tarp) would be placed at various distances from the charge hole to collect debris. The large debris would be evaluated for distance traveled, size, condition, and other parameters. For the fines, powdered dyes (tracers) would be placed on the ground around the crater site, most likely on one quadrant on the northern side. The powder would be lofted with the dust cloud during detonation. The fines would be evaluated for travel distance, size distribution, and dispersion.” (See also DOE, Divine Strake Draft Environmental Assessment, p.2-6)

On Tuesday William Arkin weighed in with a piece dedicated mainly to Divine Strake’s code name, and to the derivation of code names generally. Long an admirer of Arkin’s chronicling of the inner workings of the U.S. military, I had hoped for something a bit more substantive regarding the nuclear weapons simulation angle (particularly given the fact that the paper whose web site carries his blog, the Washington Post, had missed this aspect of the story entirely in its Divine Strake coverage). I dropped him an e-mail to this effect; you can find his response here.
The Salt Lake Tribune had a detailed piece on April 6, “Test blast in Nevada: A nuclear rehearsal.” Hans Kristensen was quoted there, saying among other things that:

“‘It’s not a step toward nuclear testing. It is nuclear testing. It’s just nuclear testing the way it’s done today, since actual nuclear tests are banned by treaties.’”

In addition to his short piece on the Federation of American Scientists blog, Kristensen also provides an in-depth analysis of Divine Strake on his Nuclear Information Project site, where he has archived some of the extensive primary source material on U.S. nuclear weapons program he has gathered from years of Freedom of Information Act work, along with his own commentary. He notes that

“Contrary to most of the media reports, Divine Strake is not testing a conventional bomb but simply detonates a huge pile (700 tons) of Ammonium Nitrate and Fuel Oil (ANFO). For comparison, the largest conventional weapon in the U.S. inventory is the MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast) bomb, which contains nearly nine tons of explosives with a yield of approximately 0.12 kt TNT.

The explosive power of Divine Strake will be approximately 593 tons of TNT equivalent, or roughly 0.6 kt. This is about double the lowest yield option on the non-strategic B61 nuclear gravity bomb, and suggests that Divine Strake may be intended to fine-tune use of the B61 bomb. There are three modifications of the non-strategic B61 bomb in the U.S. stockpile with yields ranging from 0.3 kt to 170 kt.”

The Washington Post ran a second Divine Strake story on April 7, consisting mostly of denials by Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) officials that the test had anything whatever to do with nuclear weapons:

“(DTRA director James) Tegnelia has consistently described the test as applying solely to conventional weapons. ‘The purpose of the test is to advance conventional weapons,’ he said in an interview Wednesday.

He acknowledged that it would not be feasible for the U.S. military to create or deliver a single conventional bomb large enough to duplicate Divine Strake’s huge blast — and that the only U.S. weapon today capable of destroying such a tunnel would be a nuclear device. ‘If you had to do it today . . . and you have to break this tunnel, and you’re going to have to do it with one pass and one weapon, the physics says the only way you can do it is with a nuclear weapon.’” Ann Scott Tyson, “Pentagon Clarifies Nevada Intent, Explosives Test Not ‘Nuclear’,” The Washington Post, April 7, 2006.

Regarding the nuclear references in the budget request, The Post story quoted DTRA spokesperson Irene Smith to the effect that “although DTRA was not ‘disavowing’ the budget documents, ‘things change. That has changed and the wording got left in’ improperly, she said, meaning the references to ‘nuclear.’” provided a comprehensive “degarbling” of the Post’s coverage, worth reading in its entirety if you have an interest in this issue. now has a set of pages up devoted to Divine Strake, providing additional analysis and links to documents and press coverage.’s John Pike also was quoted in David Ruppe’s account of the DTRA denials for Global Security Newswire:

“ Director John Pike, whose Web site on Saturday claimed the test was intended to support nuclear planning, called the explanation described in the Washington Post ‘a hoax, a fantasy, patently unrelated to reality….’

The reported denial also contradicts statements by Defense Threat Reduction Agency spokeswoman Irene Smith on Tuesday and Wednesday to Global Security Newswire. Smith, after inquiring with the program’s manager and chief scientist, made it clear the test was intended to inform decisions on nuclear yield in war planning….

Nongovernmental experts say there is nothing in the U.S. conventional arsenal or under development that could possibly produce the amount of explosive blast used in the test, equivalent to 593 tons of TNT.

‘Its insulting people’s intelligence,’ Pike said.”

David Ruppe, “Pentagon Denies Blast Will Test Nuclear Capability,” Global Security Newswire, April 7, 2006

As Ruppe notes, DTRA has created a “Divine Strake” web site. The site is a workmanlike bit of public relations misdirection, avoiding outright lies, never actually denying that test data will be used for nuclear weapons applications, but all the while trying to distract attention from that question by answering questions that already have been answered, e.g. that it will not be a nuclear explosion.

DTRA continued its round of denials that Divine Strake is a nuclear weapons simulation, with stories appearing in several outlets. The Las Vegas Sun ran an extensive piece April 11 titled “Bush’s denial of plans for Iran hit wrong chord before Test Site blast,” discussing the test in relation to reports (such as those by Seymour Hersh appearing in the New Yorker) that the U.S. is considering nuclear weapons use against hard to destroy targets in the event of a U.S. strike against Iran. Several independent experts, including John Pike, Hans Kristensen of FAS, and Christopher Hellman, a policy analyst with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, were quoted, all taking issue with DTRA’s denials that the test had as one of its goals the simulation of a low-yield nuclear blast. The Sun also quoted a letter of inquiry sent by Utah Congressman Jim Matheson, saying that

“The June 2 blast ‘will not simulate an actual conventional bomb because no bomber in the U.S. fleet has the capacity to carry a weapon of this size,’ said Matheson, who represents southwest Utah. He also noted that budget documents refer to the test as part of a nuclear development program.

‘In my experience, budget documents and the stated intent of planned experiments do not typically change on a whim,’ Matheson said in the letter, in which he asked for a response from the agency.”

Launce Rake, “Bush’s denial of plans for Iran hit wrong chord before Test Site blast,” Las Vegas Sun, April 11, 2006.

My personal favorite among the DTRA denials, however, was reported April 11 in a piece titled “Others in Congress question test, Delegates from Nevada search for motives of defense threat agency” in the St. George, Utah Spectrum:

“‘DTRA has no plans to conduct a nuclear test,” [DTRA Spokesperson Irene] Smith said. ‘Recent advances in high-energy explosives have made the need for nuclear weapons redundant.’”

I am looking forward to DTRA’s announcement of when nuclear weapons will be taken out of the U.S. arsenal, now that they are “redundant.”

When evaluating DTRA’s general level of credibility, it is notable that on April 3 DTRA Director Tegnelia was quoted in an American Forces Press Service piece, denying as well that the Defense Department’s Hard Target Defeat program manifested anything more than a theoretical interest in developing a large conventional earth penetrator:

“One weapon Tegnelia commented on is the HTD program’s Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a multi-ton bomb. He stressed that it’s a defensive, not offensive, weapon. He told AFPS that the MOP is a test article meant to understand the design principles on which a country might build a weapon to counter hard targets. ‘We are not in the process to convince anybody to field a large earth penetrator,’ he said.” Steven Donald Smith, “U.S. Agency Works to Reduce WMD Threat,” American Forces Press Service, April 3, 2006

Budget request documents filed in February 2006, however, listed among the FY2005 accomplishments of the “CP operational warfighter support” program the following:

Analyzed effectiveness of massive ordnance penetration against hard and deeply buried targets and completed preliminary design.
Refined Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) concept and began detailed weapon development and testing. Planned statically- emplaced Proof-of Principle test of effectiveness of Massive Ordnance payloads. Planned demonstration of massive ordnance airblast lethality against a full-scale tunnel target.
Exhibit R-2a, RDT&E Defense-Wide/Applied Research - BA2 , 0602716BR Project BF - CP Operational Warfighter Support February 2006

LATEST: The Las Vegas Review-Journal reports today that Divine Strake is temporarily on hold, until the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection receives assurance that the test will comply with state air quality standards.

In an upcoming post, I will address the relationship between the Divine Strake test, other weapons research, and the reports regarding U.S. planning for possible nuclear weapons use against Iran.

Update: That post can now be found here: