Pentagon Foresees Preemptive Nuclear Strikes
by Jim Lobe
increasing tension between the United States and Iran over Tehran's
nuclear program, and growing concern about overstretched U.S. ground
forces, the George W. Bush administration is moving steadily toward
adopting the preemptive use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear
states as an integral part of its global military strategy.
to a March document by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that was recently
posted to the Pentagon's Web site, Washington will not necessarily
wait for potential adversaries to use what it calls "weapons
of mass destruction" before resorting to a nuclear strike against
document, entitled "Doctrine
for Joint Nuclear Operations [.pdf]," has yet to be approved
by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, according to an account published
in Sunday's Washington Post. However, it is largely consistent
with the administration's 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which
was widely assailed by arms control advocates for lowering the threshold
for the use of nuclear weapons by the U.S.
we see as significant is that they are considering using nuclear
weapons against non-nuclear powers in preemptive first strikes,"
said Ivan Oelrich of the Federation for American Scientists (FAS)
about both the NPR and the new Doctrine.
Doctrine would also appear to contradict the administration's oft-stated
claim that it is significantly reducing the role of nuclear weapons
in its global military strategy.
new doctrine reaffirms an aggressive nuclear posture of modernized
nuclear weapons maintained on high alert," according to Hans
Kristensen of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
new doctrine's approach grants regional nuclear-strike planning
an increasingly expeditionary aura that threatens to make nuclear
weapons just another tool in the toolbox," he wrote last week
in Arms Control Today.
result is nuclear preemption, which the new doctrine enshrines into
official U.S. joint nuclear doctrine for the first time, where the
objective no longer is deterrence through threatened retaliation
but battlefield destruction of targets," according to Kristensen.
Doctrine is the latest in a series of documents adopted by the administration
that has moved the U.S. away from the traditional view that nuclear
weapons should be used solely for the purposes of defense and deterrence.
with the NPR, which called for the development of new delivery systems
for nuclear weapons and noted that China, North Korea, Iraq, Iran,
Syria, and Libya could all be targets, the new view was expounded
by Bush himself in his September 2002 National Security Strategy
document. "We cannot let our enemies strike first," he
warned at the time.
mid-2004, according to national security analyst William Arkin,
Rumsfeld approved a top-secret "Interim Global Strike Alert
Order" that directed the military to be prepared to attack
potential adversaries, notably Iran and North Korea, that are developing
strike," according to a classified January 2003 presidential
directive obtained by Arkin, is defined as including nuclear, as
well as conventional, strikes "in support of theater and national
new document is the first to spell out various contingencies in
which a preemptive nuclear strike might be used, including:
- If an
adversary intended to use WMD against the U.S. multinational
or allied forces or a civilian population;
- In cases
of an imminent attack from an adversary's biological weapons
that only effects from nuclear weapons can safely destroy;
adversary installations, including WMD; deep, hardened bunkers
containing chemical or biological weapons; or the command-and-control
infrastructure required for the adversary to execute a WMD attack
against the U.S. or its friends and allies; and
- In cases
where a demonstration of U.S. intent and capability to use nuclear
weapons would deter WMD use by an adversary.
previous Doctrine, promulgated under the Clinton administration
in 1995, made no mention of the preemptive use of nuclear weapons
against any target, let alone describe scenarios in which such use
would be considered.
the new Doctrine blurs the distinction that existed during the Cold
War between strategic and theater nuclear weapons by "assign[ing]
all nuclear weapons, whether strategic or nonstrategic, support
roles in theater nuclear operations," according to Kristensen.
particularly worrisome aspect of the latest Doctrine, according
to Oelrich, is its conflation of biological, chemical and nuclear
weapons as one "WMD" threat that could justify a U.S.
nuclear strike, particularly given the huge disparity in destructive
and lethal impact between chemical weapons, on the one hand, and
nuclear arms on the other.
we are seeing now is an effort to lay the foundations for the legitimacy
of using nuclear weapons if [the administration] suspects another
country might use chemical weapons against us," he said. "Iraq
is a perfect example of how this doctrine might actually work; it
was a country where we were engaged militarily and thought it would
deploy chemical weapons against us."
also fear that resorting to nuclear weapons may have become increasingly
attractive to the administration as the Army and Marines have become
bogged down in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan.
Strategic Command] planners, recognizing that U.S. ground forces
are already overcommitted, say that a global strike must be able
to be implemented 'without resort to large numbers of general purpose
forces,'" according to Arkin's account of recent directives
received by commanders charged with contingency planning.
new strategy may also be relevant to the situation in Iran, which
is known to have chemical weapons but whose nuclear program Washington
insists is being used to produce weapons as well.
in The American Conservative last month, columnist Philip
Giraldi, a former CIA officer who also worked at the Defense Intelligence
Agency, reported that Vice President Dick Cheney's office had tasked
the United States Strategic Command with drawing up a contingency
plan for a "large-scale air assault on Iran employing both
conventional and tactical nuclear weapons" in the event of
another 9/11 terrorist attack.
of the targets are hardened or are deep underground and could not
be taken out by conventional weapons, hence the nuclear option,"
fact, it is questionable whether even U.S. nuclear weapons could
reach their hardened targets underground, which is why the Pentagon
has been pressing Congress for several years to finance research
into the development of the so-called Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator.
and a small minority of Republicans in the House of Representatives
have so far blocked the administration's request, although it will
be taken up later this fall by a joint House-Senate conference committee.
The new Strategy may be aimed in part at exerting pressure on the
lawmakers to approve the request.
however, administration critics warn that instead of deterring potential
adversaries from pursuing nuclear weapons, the new Doctrine is almost
certain to have the opposite effect.
make it seem that nuclear weapons are essential to our security,"
noted Oelrich. "So it immensely enhances the cachet of nuclear
weapons to others."
Lobe [send him mail]
is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2005 Inter Press Service