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On Point

Will We a Have Deterrent for a Future Nuclear Attack?

by Austin Bay
August 13, 2003

Only the most craven zealots are prepared to sacrifice 2 million lives for the sake of their political theology and the alleged moral superiority of their cause.

The 2 million estimate is, of course, as rough as it is appalling to contemplate. The lives lost in the savage event -- the brass tack moment where imagined scenario becomes hysteric scene -- could be 50,000 or 5 million. Weather, population, the power of the nuclear weapon or the virulence of the DNA-altered virus, medical facilities, the ability and willingness of the international community to react with courage and with mercy, each of these affect for somewhat better or much worse the casualty figure.

I'm specifically thinking of the 2 million or so South Koreans a North Korean nuke could kill, or the 2 million in Tokyo, or perhaps Honolulu.

Tel Aviv is another target. With the demise of Saddam's regime, the most likely source of a missile attack on Israel would be Iran.

In the wake of U.S.counter-terror strikes in 1986, Libyan nutcase Muhammar Gaddafi fired missiles at one of Italy's Mediterranean islets. A future strike on Italy isn't farfetched, with Rome a Ground Zero.

Diplomacy does lower the risk of such attacks, as well as a frayed form of nuclear deterrence. The old deterrence regimen tore when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Diplomacy and residual deterrence, however, haven't halted the digging, in Libya, North Korea and Iran. Gaddafi is a deep digger. His prize dig lies inside Jebel Tarhunah, southeast of Tripoli. The mountain protects a factory. The factory used to be in a town of Rabtha, and in the late 1980s the Pentagon concluded Rabtha made nerve gas. The Rabtha plant burned, mysteriously. Gaddafi, in order to keep his privacy and prevent new fires, dug deep.

In 1996, Clinton administration Secretary of Defense William Perry said the U.S. would not rule out military action against Gaddafi's deep hole, as a last resort.

Post 9-11 and post-Saddam, Gaddafi is behaving, sort of, though he still has his Tarhunah hole.

North Korea's "deep digs" are harder targets than Tarhunah. Pray the upcoming multilateral talks disarm Kim Jong-il and his clique. But Kim has starved 2 million of his own people. To save 2 million more lives might require Perry's last resort. So the Pentagon has experimented with salvos of super-penetrating conventional bombs, where one bomb tails another by micro-seconds, a jackhammer to destroy nukes or bugs before they're used.

The problem is, conventional bombs don't yet cut it. That's one reason U.S. strategists must consider small-yield, deep-penetrating nuclear weapons to reach what the Pentagon calls "a hardened and deeply buried target."

But try to explain that need to the zealots, like the "anti-nuke" true believers protesting outside Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, where Strategic Command (STRATCOM) held a conference last week to examine nuclear issues.

In the zealots' world, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are war crimes. (They should take a look at author James Michener's recently released letter on that subject.)

The few coherent voices among these fundamentalists argue developing small penetrator nukes will damage international arms-control efforts. They place great, unshakeable faith in arms control treaties, documents with nice words.

Like former SecDef Perry, I prefer diplomacy, including tough arms control regimens. The planet has too many nuclear weapons -- our own stockpile should continue to shrink. I suspect, however, that Operation Iraqi Freedom was a far more effective lesson in controlling the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction than the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

I'm not convinced that North Korea and Iran are beyond forms of arms control and flexible deterrence. That being said, a vital part of vigorous, post-Cold War nuclear deterrence is a small deep-penetrating nuke that can "go deep."

The anti-nuke unilateralist zealots don't agree. They have a political theology, you know. To protect 2 million innocents in the last resort, they'll issue a press release. When 2 million die from a North Korean nuke, they will surely lament it.

The rest of us will wish we'd had the weapon to prevent it.

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