House Debate on Administration's Nuclear Weapons Initiatives

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Publication date: 
13 June 2003

Words and emotions were running strong on the House floor last month when Members debated an amendment by Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) to transfer $21 million in authorized funding for research on two types of nuclear weapons to conventional weapons research. What follows, rather extensively, are selections from this debate. Tauscher's amendment was rejected on a largely party line vote of 199-226.

REP. TAUSCHER: "Mr. Chairman, I am offering an amendment that addresses a dangerous nuclear policy provision in the [FY 2004] defense [authorization] bill. This amendment cuts $21 million for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, known as the RNEP, and for new [low yield] nuclear weapons and redirects that money toward improving our conventional capability to defeat hard and deeply buried targets. As we do this debate today, our military does not have a requirement for nuclear bunker busters. They do, however, need funds for several programs the Pentagon is pursuing to improve our ability to get at hardened targets with conventional weapons.

"My amendment would provide additional funding to these critical conventional initiatives without taking the United States down a dangerous road that seeks to find new uses for nuclear weapons and crosses the line from strategic deterrent to offensive use. There are several reasons not to develop an RNEP. Here are just five:

"First, it will produce massive collateral damage; second, even the most powerful nuclear weapons cannot destroy bunkers at a certain depth; third, if a bunker is filled with chemical and biological agents, it is only common sense to keep them underground rather than blow them up and spread them all over the place in a mushroom cloud; fourth, an RNEP will cause massive casualties. Detonated in an urban area, it would kill tens of thousands of civilians. Last, developing nuclear bunker busters would undermine decades of work by the United States to prevent nonnuclear states from getting nuclear weapons and encourage nuclear states to reduce their stockpiles.

"Until we have exhausted all conventional means to defeat hardened targets and the military service produces a current requirement for an RNEP, it would be irresponsible for Congress to jump the gun and promote new uses for nuclear weapons. Let us learn from history. Nearly half a century ago, President Eisenhower rejected the Council of Advisers who wanted a new variety of nuclear weapons that they said would allow the United States to fight a winnable nuclear war. Eisenhower responded: 'You can't have that kind of war. There just aren't enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.'

"As we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, conventional weapons can do the job. There is no scientific, military, or strategic reason to go nuclear at this time and every reason not to. I urge my colleagues to support the Tauscher amendment."

REP. HEATHER WILSON (R-NM): "Mr. Chairman, my colleague from California has made a strong argument for unilateral nuclear disarmament. But what she has not made is a good argument for stopping our Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator program. Nuclear weapons are useful because they are unusable. That is the nature of the nuclear deterrent. And the reason that we are pursuing these studies and why we should reject the Tauscher amendment is because deterrence is the center of what nuclear weapons are all about; it is not because we are changing the way we plan to fight wars. Nuclear weapons are horrible things. Warfare is a horrible thing. But we must maintain the nuclear deterrent so that we can avoid those conflicts.

"We have been reducing our nuclear stockpile in this country over the last 10 years, and we will continue to. We signed the Moscow treaty which will bring our stockpile down to levels that we have not seen since the 1950s. We have stopped advanced development and research over the last ten years and at the same time North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Russia have continued their weapons development programs. Our unwillingness to research these weapons has not stopped anybody from developing them themselves.

"Our potential enemies are burrowing in. They are putting their command and control centers, the people with their fingers on the trigger, in hard and deeply buried bunkers. For deterrence to work, we have to hold at risk those things which our potential enemies value and that means holding hard and deeply buried targets at risk. They are out of reach of conventional weapons. They are out of reach of current nuclear weapons. The Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator program does not create a new nuclear weapon. It is only intended to explore whether you can encase a weapon in order to allow it to penetrate before it explodes so that you can hold that target at risk and continue to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction against America or its allies.

"The base bill includes $280 million for work in conventional weapons against hard and deeply buried targets and only $15 million for these programs in advanced development and for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator program. The advanced concepts program I think is even more important. President Putin announced last week and confirmed what all of us have suspected for some time: the Russians are developing a new generation of nuclear weapons. It is up to the United States to avoid being surprised. That means to constantly study what other nations are doing so that we have a good idea of what is going on."

REP. ED MARKEY (D-MA): " The bunkers which the Republicans want to drop these nuclear bombs on are in the middle of Baghdad. They are in the middle of P'yongyang in North Korea. These bombs, these nuclear bombs, are bigger and more powerful than the bombs we dropped on Hiroshima. We are like those that would preach temperance from a barstool. We cannot tell the other countries in the world that nuclear weapons are unusable if we are at the same time saying that one can use them, that one can be successful and that one can win if one drops nuclear weapons in the middle of the most densely populated cities in the world. We just brought Iraq to its knees in three weeks using conventional weapons. The signal the Republicans are sending is that nuclear weapons are usable and they are usable in the middle of cities where bunkers are being built. And they are wrong, and it is immoral for our country to be taking this step."

REP. CURT WELDON (R-PA): "My colleague makes it out as if we want to automatically build some kind of Earth penetrator and that we are some kind of Darth Vaders. The fact is anyone who has studied the [Russian] Ministry of Atomic Energy and has watched the career of Mr. Mikhailov, who used to be the director of that agency, when he left that agency, he came back as the number two person, and we put on the record in [the Armed Services] Committee from Mr. Mikhailov's own mouth that his job was to develop a whole new class of small atomic munitions that are nuclear.

"If we follow through on the logic of those like my friend from Massachusetts, we cannot even research what the Russians are building. That has nothing to do with what we want to build. We cannot even research the small weapons the Russians have said publicly they are building. That is outrageous. That is outrageously stupid. This is not about whether or not we are going to nuke underground. It is whether or not we allow our scientists to have the ability to do research."

"This [Tauscher] amendment takes all the money from being able to do that research. One cannot do research without money. The proponents of this amendment say we can do this with conventional weapons. We are spending in this bill $279.6 million for conventional weapons in this area. We take away the only money left, which is $15 million; and we say to the scientists the carefully crafted amendment that we did last year in a bipartisan manner on the floor is okay, they are allowed; but we are not going to give them any money. We are not going to give them any money. We are going to take the money away. Cut me a break. Then say that. Say you want to prohibit the research."

REP. IKE SKELTON (D-MO): " I might say, Mr. Chairman, this is an era of increased concern about weapons of mass destruction. This [Tauscher] amendment includes a very prudent approach for enhancing our Nation's ability to hold at risk deeply buried targets. Additional investments in conventional research and conventional development are needed, particularly in the areas of improved targeting and improved planning. Smart fuses, guidance technology, that is what this amendment proposes. Mr. Chairman, I have spoken with professionals in both our scientific and national security communities, including B-2 Bomber pilots, and I have learned one truth: the key to defeating hard deeply buried targets lies more in accuracy and penetration rather than the inherent explosive capability. That is why I think it is prudent to adopt this amendment, continue research on the conventional as opposed to the nuclear."

REP. WILLIAM THORNBERRY (R-TX): "Mr. Chairman, let me begin by making two points as completely clear as I can: Number one, it is not a choice between attacking hardened targets with a conventional or a nuclear capability. There is nearly $300 million in this bill to explore conventional capabilities. The question is, should we explore other options as well? So it is false to say there is a choice. Secondly, this bill does not authorize any kind of new nuclear weapon. That has to be for future Congresses and future administrations to consider. What this bill does is try to remove firewalls which prevent us from even exploring whether a different kind of nuclear weapon can help make us safer. Those who advance this amendment say we do not even want to think about it, do not even consider the possibilities.

"It seems to me that if anyone is going to rush to judgment, as the gentlewoman from California said, it would be those who support this amendment, that say under no circumstances are we ever going to have any kind of nuclear deterrent, other than what we had during the Cold War. The challenge, Mr. Chairman, is that all we have now are nuclear weapons that were specifically designed to deal with Soviet Union targets, and there is a real question about whether a number of folks in the world would take that kind of nuclear deterrent seriously, whether we would ever use the kind of weapons the gentleman from Massachusetts was discussing on a much more limited, smaller kind of target.

"The point is not, hopefully, that we would ever use them. The question is people know we would never use these big weapons, and, therefore, they do not take our credibility seriously. That makes the world more dangerous. It is an interesting line of argument to say that we make the world safer when we tie our hands behind our back, that the problem is with the United States, and that if we would just set a good example, the Saddam Husseins and the Kim Jong Ils and even the Putins would fall right in line, that the United States is the problem.

REP. NORMAN DICKS (D-WA): " Mr. Chairman, I rise in support of this amendment for two reasons. Conventional precision guided munitions are a better technical solution than the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator for hardened and deeply buried targets, and because the fallout, both figurative and literal, from the use of nuclear weapons will make the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator an expensive showpiece rather than a usable weapon. If we start this program it is more likely to be simply A BUST, rather than RO-BUST.

"I've had the opportunity to visit this spring with the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base. The 509th operates the 21 B-2 bombers that constitute the most advanced and effective weapons in the United States military arsenal. These were the pilots who were assigned the mission in Iraq to attack the very kinds of targets we are discussing today, hardened and deeply buried targets. I can tell you that the 509th today can attack, disable, and destroy, these targets. The 509th employs a penetrating version of the JDAM, as well as a 5000 lb. bunker buster. These weapons already beat the ground penetration capability of any nuclear weapon in our arsenal, and new capabilities will do even more. The B-2 will soon be able to employ the EGBU-28 bunker buster thanks to support in Congress to field this capability. And advanced research of binary warhead weapons and the use of conventional highly energetic materials will yield even more effective approaches for conventional alternatives.

"Indeed, the Tauscher amendment would add funding to three program elements of the Air Force and OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] R&D budgets which are working on just these conventional ground penetration approaches. I believe these conventional capabilities offer technical solutions not just equal to, but superior to those offered by even so-called 'low-yield' nuclear approaches."

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