October 2, 2004

Bunker Busters -- Comments for Hugh

Hugh invites participation in a symposium about Kerry's impassioned denunciation of "bunker buster" weapons in the dangerous hands of us Yanks.

Since dictionary.com includes the following definition of "symposium":

A convivial meeting for drinking, music, and intellectual discussion among the ancient Greeks.

[Latin, drinking party, from Greek sumposion : sun-, syn- + posis, drinking; see p(i)- in Indo-European Roots.]

we must ask, "Is Hugh buying?"

That said, and getting over the initial visceral reaction, "Who's this jamoke that wants us to disarm unilaterally when we're at war with a bunch of medieval maniacs?", let's think.

What are the reasons for opposing U.S. development of bunker-busters?

Here are a few:

  1. Nuclear weapons are sui generis and uniquely dangerous. Any attempt on our part to obtain a lead in nuclear technology will inspire an equal and opposite reaction in our opponents, and so, rather than making us safer, will increase the overall danger of an intentional or accidental nuclear exchange.

  2. The nuclear option has only been used once, and now that we don't have a monopoly of such weapons, we don't want to break the taboo. The smaller and more tactical such weapons get, the more likely they are to be used, something we don't want the world to become accustomed to, because once the powers are inured to such weapons, a catastrophic nuclear exchange becomes more likely.

    A variant of this argument is that because of the taboo on nuclear weapons, they are unlikely to have a practical use. Therefore, r & d on these weapons is a waste of resources.

  3. Because of the potential for world destruction, such weapons are inherently immoral.

Now let's deal with these arguments one-by-one.

  1. The "tit-for-tat" argument had more force when we had a more-or-less symmetrical nuclear rivalry with the USSR. Those days are gone. Although the mutual reduction of nuclear arsenals is still ongoing, it's not so likely that the development of a slightly different variety of tactical nukes is going to complicate that process.

    The newer nuclear powers -- India, Pakistan, Israel -- have developed nukes for their own reasons, which won't be affected by what we do with bunker busters, but by their own military and political circumstances.

    An aside: The claim that would-be nuclear adversaries will be stimulated to redouble their efforts because of bunker-busters ignores a taboo subject -- our winking at and maybe assisting Israeli nuclear development. The Iranians, with some justice, point to the absence of U.S. or international pressure against Israeli nuclear development, as compared to the reaction to "Muslim" nukes. That's a much more important rationale for new proliferators, at least in the Middle East, than our development of bunker-busters. It's also an issue neither Republicans nor Democrats will touch. One could argue that the Israelis (unlike Libya or Iran) can be trusted only to use their nuclear arms as a last resort, but given Israel's precarious geographic and demographic circumstances and the number of kooks on the Israeli right, can we be certain?

  2. The "taboo" argument has some logic to it. Unless the "bunker buster" is uniquely advantageous compared with non-nuclear alternatives, the latter are likely to be more useful, just because the threshold for using nukes of any kind is (and should be) high.

    On the other hand, a terrorist or Iranian subterranean nuclear HQ would very likely justify using a "bunker buster." Can we afford not to have a few on hand? Are they so much more useful than non-nuclear alternatives that having them would be important? I don't have enough information to be certain.

    Kerry, though, appears not to be making a rational calculation based on US-oriented military consideratons, but to be reacting viscerally to the very concept of nuclear r & d, and against the concept of US military superiority.

  3. There's some logic to the "morality" argument, but ultimately this boils down to the "just war" argument, more particularly to the "just means" aspect. A nuclear "bunker buster" used against a military target when its success is likely and steps have been taken to limit damage to non-combatants, could be justly used. The "breaking the taboo" issue would have to be considered in any such case -- would a first use increase the likelihood of a massively destructive nuclear exchange -- but "bunker busters" don't seem to me to be inherently immoral.

Bottom line: There's a lot to consider before we decide it's prudent to develop or deploy nuclear bunker-busters, but Kerry's visceral reaction to them is not based on prudential considerations where the US national interest is paramount, but on sappy crackpot internationalism and nuclear-freeze-ism. It's those attitudes of Kerry's -- ignoring the fact that we are in a long-term, global war, and our survival depends on US understanding of the situation and determination to prevail -- that makes him and his party so dangerous.

A great war leader could come down on either side of this issue for practical reasons, but a great war leader doesn't worry about whether Jacques Chirac or Kofi Annan thinks we've passed the "global test." At the risk of overusing a cliché, we've known some great war leaders, and Senator Kerry, you're not a great war leader.

Not even close.

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