The Nuclear Option in Iraq
Los Angeles Times
January 26, 2003
The Nuclear Option in Iraq
The U.S. has lowered the bar for using the ultimate weapon
by William M. Arkin
WASHINGTON -- One year after President Bush labeled Iraq, Iran
and North Korea the "axis of evil," the United States is
thinking about the unthinkable: It is preparing for the possible use
of nuclear weapons against Iraq.
At the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) in Omaha and inside planning
cells of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, target lists are being
scrutinized, options are being pondered and procedures are being
tested to give nuclear armaments a role in the new U.S. doctrine of
According to multiple sources close to the process, the current
planning focuses on two possible roles for nuclear weapons:
attacking Iraqi facilities located so deep underground that they might
be impervious to conventional explosives;
thwarting Iraq's use of weapons of mass destruction.
Nuclear weapons have, since they were first created, been part of the
arsenal discussed by war planners. But the Bush administration's
decision to actively plan for possible preemptive use of such weapons,
especially as so-called bunker busters, against Iraq represents a
significant lowering of the nuclear threshold. It rewrites the ground
rules of nuclear combat in the name of fighting terrorism.
It also moves nuclear weapons out of their long-established special
category and lumps them in with all the other military options -- from
psychological warfare, covert operations and Special Forces to air
power in all its other forms.
For the United States to lower the nuclear threshold and break down
the firewall separating nuclear weapons from everything else is
unsettling for at least three reasons.
First, if the United States lowers the nuclear threshold -- even as a
possibility -- it raises the likelihood that other nations will lower
their own thresholds and employ nuclear weapons in situations where
they simply need a stronger military punch. Until now, the United
States has reserved nuclear weapons for retaliation against nuclear
attacks or immediate threats to national survival, a standard tacitly
but widely accepted around the world. If the president believes that
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein poses that kind of danger to the United
States, he has failed to convince the world -- and many U.S.
Second, the move toward thinking of nuclear weapons as just one more
option among many comes at a time when technology is offering a host
of better choices. Increasingly, the U.S. military has the capability
of disabling underground bases or destroying biological and chemical
weapons without uncorking the nuclear bottle, through a combination of
sophisticated airpower, special operations and such 21st century
capabilities as high-powered microwave weapons and cyber warfare.
Third, there are dangers in concentrating the revision of nuclear
policy within a single military command, STRATCOM, which until now has
been focused strictly on strategic -- not policy -- issues of nuclear
combat. Command staff members have unrivaled expertise in the usage
and effects of nuclear weapons, but their expertise does not extend to
the whys of weapons usage.
Entrusting major policy reviews to tightly controlled, secret
organizations inside the Pentagon is a hallmark of Defense Secretary
Donald H. Rumsfeld's tenure. Doing so streamlines decision-making and
encourages new thinking, advocates say.
But it also bypasses dissenters, many of whom are those in the armed
services with the most knowledge and the deepest experience with the
issues. The Bush inner circle is known to be a tight bunch, prone to
"group think" about Iraq and uninterested in having its
assumptions challenged. But there are opinions they need to hear.
While most military officers seem to consider the likelihood of our
using nuclear weapons in Iraq to be low, they worry about the
increased importance placed on them and about the contradictions
inherent in contemplating the use of nuclear weapons for the purpose
of eliminating weapons of mass destruction.
The administration's interest in nuclear contingency plans stems from
its deeply held conviction that the United States must act against
Iraq because of a new and more dangerous terrorist threat involving
weapons of mass destruction.
"The gravest danger our nation faces lies at the crossroads of
radicalism and technology," Bush declared in the introduction to
his national security strategy, issued last fall. It said enemies of
the United States "have openly declared that they are seeking
weapons of mass destruction."
In May, Bush signed National Security Presidential Directive 17,
officially confirming the doctrine of preemptively thwarting any
potential use of weapons of mass destruction.
"U.S. military and appropriate civilian agencies must possess the
full range of operational capabilities to counter the threat and use
of WMD," the president reiterated last December in his National
Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction.
The current nuclear planning, revealed in interviews with military
officers and described in documents reviewed by the Los Angeles Times,
is being carried out at STRATCOM's Omaha headquarters, among small
teams in Washington and at Vice President Dick Cheney's
"undisclosed location" in Pennsylvania.
The command, previously responsible for nuclear weapons alone, has
seen its responsibilities mushroom. On Dec. 11, the Defense secretary
sent Bush a memorandum asking for authority to place Adm. James O.
Ellis Jr., the STRATCOM commander, in charge of the full range of
"strategic" warfare options to combat terrorist states and
The memo, obtained by The Times, recommended assigning all
responsibilities for dealing with foreign weapons of mass destruction,
including "global strike; integrated missile defense; [and]
information operations" to STRATCOM. That innocuous-seeming
description of responsibilities covers enormous ground, bringing
everything from the use of nuclear weapons to nonnuclear strikes to
covert and special operations to cyber warfare and "strategic
deception" under the purview of nuclear warriors.
Earlier this month, Bush approved Rumsfeld's proposal. On the surface,
these new assignments give the command a broader set of tools to avoid
nuclear escalation. In reality, they open the door much wider to
contemplating American use of nuclear weapons. The use of biological
or chemical weapons against the U.S. military could be seen as worthy
of the same response as a Russian nuclear attack. If Iraq were to use
biological or chemical weapons during a war with the United States, it
could have tragic consequences, but it would not alter the war's
outcome. Our use of nuclear weapons to defeat Hussein, on the other
hand, has the potential to create a political and global disaster, one
that would forever pit the Arab and Islamic world against us.
How great a change these steps represent are revealed in the fact that
STRATCOM owes its existence to previous post-Cold War policymakers who
considered it vital to erect a great firewall between nuclear and
Now, with almost no discussion inside the Pentagon or in public,
Rumsfeld and the Bush White House are tearing that firewall down.
Instead of separating nuclear and conventional weapons, Rumsfeld is
merging them in one command structure with a disturbingly simple
mission: "If you can find that time-critical, key terrorist
target or that weapons-of-mass-destruction stockpile, and you have
minutes rather than hours or days to deal with it, how do you reach
out and negate that threat to our nation half a world away?"
Ellis asked in December.
The rapid transformation of Ellis' command reveals his answer to that
rhetorical question. Since 9/11, Ellis and his command have been
bombarded with new demands and responsibilities. First, the Pentagon's
nuclear posture review, signed by Rumsfeld in December 2001 and issued
in final form in early 2002, directed the military to reinvigorate its
nuclear capability. STRATCOM was to play a leading role in that
Among other things, the still-classified posture review said,
"nuclear weapons could be employed against targets able to
withstand nonnuclear attack (for example, deep underground bunkers or
The review called upon the military to develop "deliberate
pre-planned and practiced missions" to attack WMD facilities,
even if an enemy did not use nuclear weapons first against the United
States or its allies.
According to STRATCOM documents and briefings, its newly created
Theater Planning Activity has now taken on all aspects of assessing
chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons facilities worldwide.
Planners have focused intelligence gathering and analysis on seven
priority target nations (the "axis of evil" nations along
with Syria, Libya, China and Russia) and have completed a detailed
analysis of intelligence data available on all suspect sites.
According to U.S. Central Command sources, a "Theater Nuclear
Planning Document" for Iraq has been prepared for the
administration and Central Command.
What worries many senior officials in the armed forces is not that the
United States has a vast array of weapons or contingency plans for
using them. The danger is that nuclear weapons -- locked away in a
Pandora's box for more than half a century -- are being taken out of
that lockbox and put on the shelf with everything else. While Pentagon
leaders insist that does not mean they take nuclear weapons lightly,
critics fear that removing the firewall and adding nuclear weapons to
the normal option ladder makes their use more likely -- especially
under a policy of preemption that says Washington alone will decide
when to strike.
To make such a doctrine encompass nuclear weapons is to embrace a view
that, sooner or later, will spread beyond the moral capitals of
Washington and London to New Delhi and Islamabad, to Pyongyang and
Baghdad, Beijing, Tel Aviv and to every nuclear nation of the
If that happens, the world will have become infinitely more dangerous
than it was two years ago, when George W. Bush took the presidential
oath of office.
William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes
regularly for Opinion.