- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 12, 2004

An important, timely U.S. nuclear-weapons research program is currently in the second year of a project expected to last three years. The purpose is to investigate the feasibility of developing an earth-penetrating nuclear warhead capable of destroying deeply buried weapons of mass destruction developed and/or hidden by rogue regimes or their stateless terrorist allies. The study needs to go forward to completion. It is essential for Congress, which sliced in half the Bush administration’s $15 million funding request for fiscal 2004, to fully fund the $27 million requested for fiscal 2005, the final year of the study.

Regrettably, on Wednesday a House appropriations subcommittee that is chaired by Republican Rep. David Hobson of Ohio, deleted the funds for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. The subcommittee also eliminated $9 million in funding for researching the feasibility of a low-yield nuclear warhead of less than five kilotons. Last month, the House passed a defense authorization bill after rejecting an amendment that would have transferred funding for both projects to other areas. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Edward Kennedy are leading the charge against both research projects.

We can fully appreciate the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons. But we also fully understand the importance of deterrence. Thus, we heartily disagree with the House subcommittee’s action and the Kennedy-Feinstein amendment in the Senate. Remember: Both of these projects are research programs, not deployment decisions. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld emphasized at a February appropriations hearing in the House, “There’s no funds in here to deploy it, since it doesn’t exist.”

Sens. Feinstein and Kennedy argue that such research sends the wrong message to potential enemies and actually encourages nuclear proliferation. Yet recent history reveals quite clearly that the likes of North Korea and Iran have not been deterred by conventionally armed “bunker busters.” In fact, the Pentagon’s current nuclear arsenal contains powerful nuclear weapons that were developed to deter a superpower of the Soviet Union’s caliber. Those weapons are so destructive that the United States might be deterred from using them against much smaller states. Hence, they have little deterrent value.

The purpose of the research into the nuclear earth penetrator and the low-yield “mini-nuke” is to determine if it is even possible to develop smaller, mission-specific weapons. Any subsequent deployment decision would require congressional approval. In these uncertain times, unilaterally limiting potential deterrence options is not in the security interests of the United States.

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