NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Can Nuclear Weapons Deter State-sponsored Terrorism?

September 19, 2001

Nuclear weapons showed their deterrence capability both in the Cold War and since, says physicist C. Paul Robinson -- interviewed by the National Journal before the September 11 attack.

During the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein killed tens of thousands of people using chemical agents. Robinson, former head of the U.S. nuclear weapons program and an adviser to the U.S. Space Command, says Hussein possessed large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons during the Gulf War.

But those weapons were not used. Why?

Robinson suggests that America's nuclear capabilities deterred their use: "Many military experts I've talked to are absolutely convinced it was because of a secret letter sent by President Bush threatening the gravest consequences if such weapons were released."

However, says Robinson, we need different nuclear weapons to utilize deterrence in the post-Cold War era.

  • We are increasingly threatened by biological, chemical and radiological weapons that could kill huge numbers of people.
  • Bombing with conventional weapons has little effect against hardened underground sites, as was demonstrated in Serbia and Iraq.
  • And the American arsenal of half-megaton, multiple warhead strategic nuclear missiles and so-called tactical nuclear weapons, with yields above 100 kilotons, are too destructive to consider using short of retaliation for a nuclear attack.
  • Instead, we could use the primary stage of existing nuclear weapons -- which yield less than 10 kilotons unless boosted by secondary stage -- as a ground-penetrating "bunker busters" with little collateral damage (i.e., civilian casualties).
  • Such weapons would require no new nuclear testing and could be readied quickly, since dummy second-stages were regularly used in nuclear weapons tests.

Robinson adds that he supports deep cuts in offensive nuclear weapons proposed by President Bush, and the development of a national missile defense.

Source: James Kitfield, "Ban the Bomb? Heck No, It's Too Useful," National Journal, September 8, 2001.


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