The Dangers of a Middle East Nuclear War
New Pentagon Doctrine: Mini-Nukes are "Safe for the Surrounding Civilian Population"
This article elaborates on two earlier texts by the author:
Nuclear War against Iran, January 2006
Planned US-Israeli Attack on Iran, May 2005
“Current US nuclear weapons policy is immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, and dreadfully dangerous. The risk of an accidental or inadvertent nuclear launch is unacceptably high.
Far from reducing these risks, the Bush administration has signaled that it is committed to keeping the US nuclear arsenal as a mainstay of its military power – a commitment that is simultaneously eroding the international norms that have limited the spread of nuclear weapons and fissile materials for 50 years.
Much of the current US nuclear policy has been in place since before I was secretary of defense, and it has only grown more dangerous and diplomatically destructive in the intervening years.”
(Robert S. McNamara, US Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations)
The Bush administration’s new nuclear doctrine contains specific “guidelines” which allow for “preemptive” nuclear strikes against “rogue enemies” which “possess” or are “developing” weapons of mass destruction (WMD). (2001 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations (DJNO)).
The preemptive nuclear doctrine (DJNO), which applies to Iran and North Korea calls for “offensive and defensive integration”. It explicitly allows the preemptive use of thermonuclear weapons in conventional war theaters.
In the showdown with Tehran over its alleged nuclear weapons program, these Pentagon “guidelines” would allow, subject to presidential approval, for the launching of punitive bombings using “mini-nukes” or tactical thermonuclear weapons.
While the “guidelines” do not exclude other (more deadly) categories of nukes in the US and/or Israeli nuclear arsenal, Pentagon “scenarios” in the Middle East are currently limited to the use of tactical nuclear weapons including the B61-11 bunker buster bomb. This particular version of the bunker buster is a thermonuclear bomb, a so-called Nuclear Earth Penetrator or NEP. It is a Weapon of Mass Destruction in the real sense of the word. Its utilization by the US or Israel in the Middle East war theater would trigger a nuclear holocaust.
B61-11 NEP Thermonuclear Bomb
History of the B61 Thermonuclear Bomb
The B-61 thermonuclear bomb, first produced in 1966, is described as a light weight nuclear device. Its construction essentially extends the technology of the older version of tactical nuclear warheads. (for further details see, http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Usa/Weapons/B61.html .
The B61-11 earth-penetrating version of the B61 was developed in the immediate wake of the Cold War under the Clinton administration. It was configured initially to have a “low” 10 kiloton yield, 66.6 percent of a Hiroshima bomb, for (post-Cold War) battlefield operations:
”In October 1993, Harold Smith, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Atomic Energy, sought approval to develop an alternative to the B53 high-yield nuclear bomb, which was the principal “bunker buster” weapon in the U.S. arsenal. The B53 was also the heaviest payload nuke in use, weighing 8,900 pounds, and only deployable from the B-52 bombers. Under the guise of “weapons modernization,” Smith was pushing the development of the B61-Mod 11.
… The B61-11 was developed and put into the stockpile without full-scale nuclear tests. Some critics have maintained that the B61-11 is a new nuclear weapon, but the US has said all along that the B61-11 is not new, but a modification of older B61s to give the weapon an earth-penetrating capability to destroy buried targets….”
The B61-11 was intended for the Middle East. The Clinton administration had in fact threatened to use it against Libya, suggesting that Libya’s alleged underground chemical weapons facility at Tarhunah “might be a target of the then-newly deployed B61-11 earth-penetrating nuclear weapon.” ( The Record (Bergen County, NJ) February 23, 2003.)
Military documents distinguish between the NEP and the “mini-nuke” which are nuclear weapons with a yield of less than 10 kilotons (two thirds of a Hiroshima bomb). The NEP can have a yield of up to a 1000 kilotons, or seventy times a Hiroshima bomb.
This distinction between mini-nukes and NEPs is in many regard misleading. In practice there is no dividing line. We are broadly dealing with the same type of weaponry: the B61-11 has several “available yields”, ranging from “low yields” of less than one kiloton, to mid-range and up to the 1000 kiloton bomb. In all cases, the radioactive fallout is devastating. Moreover, the B61 series of thermonuclear weapons includes several models with distinct specifications: the B61-11, the B61-3, B61- 4, B61-7 and B61-10. Each of these bombs has several “available yields”.
What is contemplated for theater use is the “low yield” 10 kt bomb, two thirds of a Hiroshima bomb.
Mini-Nukes in Conventional War Theaters
There are indications that the Bush administration does not exclude using thermonuclear bunker buster bombs in the Middle East war theater. These weapons were specifically developed for use in post Cold War “conventional conflicts with third world nations”.
In October 2001, in the immediate wake of 9/11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld envisaged the use of the B61-11 in Afghanistan. The targets were Al Qaeda cave bunkers in the Tora Bora mountains.
Rumsfeld stated at the time that while the “conventional” bunker buster bombs “‘are going to be able to do the job’, … he did not rule out the eventual use of nuclear weapons.” (Quoted in the Houston Chronicle, 20 October 2001, italics added.)
The use of the B61-11 was also contemplated during the 2003 bombing and invasion of Iraq. In this regard, the B61-11 was described as “a precise, earth-penetrating low-yield nuclear weapon against high-value underground targets”, which included Saddam Hussein’s underground bunkers:
”If Saddam was arguably the highest value target in Iraq, then a good case could be made for using a nuclear weapon like the B61-11 to assure killing him and decapitating the regime” (.Defense News, December 8, 2003).
There is no documentary evidence, however, that the B61-11 was used against Iraq.
A B-2A bomber releases a test version of the new B61-11 gravity bomb over the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada, November 20, 1996
“Safe for Civilians”
The B61-11 is categorized as a “deep earth penetrating bomb” capable of “destroying the deepest and most hardened of underground bunkers, which the conventional warheads are not capable of doing”. The B61-11s can be delivered in much same way as the conventional bunker buster bomb, from a B-2. a 5B-2 stealth bomber or from an F-16 aircraft.
“military officials and leaders of America’s nuclear weapon laboratories are urging the US to develop a new generation of precision low-yield nuclear weapons… which could be used in conventional conflicts with third-world nations.
Critics argue that adding low-yield warheads to the world’s nuclear inventory simply makes their eventual use more likely. In fact, a 1994 law currently prohibits the nuclear laboratories from undertaking research and development that could lead to a precision nuclear weapon of less than 5 kilotons (KT), because “low-yield nuclear weapons blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional war.”
… Senate Republicans John Warner (R-VA) and Wayne Allard (R-CO) buried a small provision in the 2001 Defense Authorization Bill that would have overturned these earlier restrictions… Senators Warner and Allard imagine these nuclear weapons could be used in small-scale conventional conflicts against rogue dictators, while leaving most of the civilian population untouched. As one anonymous former Pentagon official put it to the Washington Post last spring, “What’s needed now is something that can threaten a bunker tunneled under 300 meters of granite without killing the surrounding civilian population.” Statements like these promote the illusion that nuclear weapons could be used in ways which minimize their “collateral damage,” making them acceptable tools to be used like conventional weapons.” (See http://www.fas.org/faspir/2001 / click v54nl, italics added)
In an utterly twisted logic, the nuclear bunker buster bomb is presented as an instrument of peace-making and regime change, which will enhance global security. It is intended to curb the dangers of WMD proliferation by “nonstate organizations (terrorist, criminal)” and “rogue states”. Pentagon propaganda has carefully distorted the nature of this bomb.
The B61-11 is casually described as causing an underground explosion without threatening “the surrounding civilian population”.
The Pentagon has blurred the distinction between conventional battlefield weapons and nuclear bombs. Already during the Clinton Administration, the Pentagon was calling for the use of the “nuclear” B61-11 bunker buster bomb, suggesting that because it was “underground”, there was no toxic radioactive fallout which could affect civilians.
The Bush administration has gone one step further in defining the use of tactical nuclear weapons, which are now part of America’s preemptive arsenal. Essentially they are described defensive weapons. Under the preemptive nuclear doctrine, they are specifically identified for use in conventional war theaters.
The Pentagon claims that the use of the B61-11 minimizes the risks of “collateral damage”. According to US. military planners, “potential adversaries” are hiding their WMDs in “fortified bunkers” below more than 100 feet of concrete. Yet test results indicate that the low yield B61-11 has never penetrated more than 20 feet below the ground (See also The Independent. 23 October 2003) :
“The earth-penetrating capability of the B61-11 is fairly limited. … Tests show it penetrates only 20 feet or so into dry earth when dropped from an altitude of 40,000 feet. … Any attempt to use it in an urban environment would result in massive civilian casualties. Even at the low end of its 0.3-300 kiloton yield range, the nuclear blast will simply blow out a huge crater of radioactive material, creating a lethal gamma-radiation field over a large area ” (Low-Yield Earth-Penetrating Nuclear Weapons by Robert W. Nelson,Federation of American Scientists, 2001 ).
According to GlobalSecurity.org , the use of the B61-11 against North Korea would result in extensive radioactive fallout over nearby countries, thereby triggering a nuclear holocaust.
“… In tests the bomb penetrates only 20 feet into dry earth,… But even this shallow penetration before detonation allows a much higher proportion of the explosion to be transferred into ground shock relative to a surface burst. It is not able to counter targets deeply buried under granite rock. Moreover, it has a high yield, in the hundreds of kilotons. If used in North Korea, the radioactive fallout could drift over nearby countries such as Japan” (http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/systems/b61.htm )
If it were to be launched against Iran, it would result in radioactive contamination over a large part of the Middle East – Central Asian region, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths, including US troops stationed in Iraq:
“The use of any nuclear weapon capable of destroying a buried target that is otherwise immune to conventional attack will necessarily produce enormous numbers of civilian casualties. No earth-burrowing missile can penetrate deep enough into the earth to contain an explosion with a nuclear yield [of a low yield B61-11] even as small as 1 percent of the 15 kiloton Hiroshima weapon. The explosion simply blows out a massive crater of radioactive dirt, which rains down on the local region with an especially intense and deadly fallout.”(Low-Yield Earth-Penetrating Nuclear Weapons, by Robert W. Nelson, op cit )
At present, the B61-11 is slated for use in war theaters together with conventional weapons. (Congressional Report“ Bunker Busters”: Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator Issues , Congressional Research Service March 2005). (Other versions of the B61, namely mod 3, 4, 7 and 10, which are part of the US arsenal, involve nuclear bunker buster bombs with a lower yield to that of B61-11).
(For further details see http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Usa/Weapons/B61.html )
While the US Congress has blocked further research funding in fiscal 2005 on new more robust tactical nuclear weapons, this decision does not affect the existing arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons including the B61-11, developed during the Clinton administration. The B61-11 bunker busters are fully operational, The B61-11 has apparently been tested “resulting in its acceptance as a standard stockpile item”. It has been cleared for battlefield use.
Readers are welcome to cross-post this article with a view to spreading the word and warning people of the dangers of nuclear war.
Michel Chossudovsky is the author of the international best seller “The Globalization of Poverty ” published in eleven languages. He is Professor of Economics at the University of Ottawa and Director of the Center for Research on Globalization, at www.globalresearch.ca . He is also a contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His most recent book is entitled: America’s “War on Terrorism”, Global Research, 2005.
To order Chossudovsky’s book America’s “War on Terrorism”, click here.
Related Articles by the Author
Planned US-Israeli Attack on Iran, by Michel Chossudovsky
Nuclear War against Iran, by Michel Chossudovsky