Even as it preaches global arms control, the Clinton administration has quietly added substantial new punch to the America's atomic arsenal.
The radar-evading B-2 "stealth" bomber was officially put into the US nuclear force April 1. And the Air Force now has an atomic bomb to be used by the B-2 against underground bunkers. The 12-foot-long B61-11 drills deep into the earth before exploding in a small blast whose shockwaves can crush targets hundreds of feet below.
The weapons are the biggest enhancement of US nuclear capability since the cold war's end. The US can now launch precision raids from its own soil against command bunkers in Russia or the kind of chemical-weapons factory the US says Libya is building inside a mountain.
Defense officials suspect an increase in such underground complexes since the pummeling Iraqi facilities took in the Gulf war.
But arms-control experts scorn the weapons as destabilizing perpetuations of the arms race and new impediments to global disarmament.
The dispute has further intensified the debate over post-cold-war US nuclear policy ignited when former senior US generals joined in December with counterparts from Russia and elsewhere to call for the elimination of atomic weapons.
"This does seem to be a sort of 'in your face' policy at a time when the US is trying to convince the rest of the world not to develop nuclear weapons and to decrease their arsenals," says Joe Cirincione of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington think tank that specializes in conflict resolution.
"For those who think that these are problems that disappeared with the end of the cold war, this is a wake-up call," he says.
Mr. Cirincione and other critics contend that by boosting the capability to wage nuclear war, the Clinton administration is raising serious questions about the US commitment to nuclear arms control. One result could be to further stiffen the Russian parliament's refusal to ratify the 1993 START II accord on reducing nuclear warheads, they say.
Critics also contend that enhancing the US atomic arsenal flies in the face of popular domestic sentiments. A survey released last week by the Abolition 2000 anti-nuclear coalition found that a majority of Americans support the elimination of all atomic arms.
Russia, China, and other threats
US officials insist that the administration is committed to the eventual elimination of nuclear arms. They point to the ongoing cuts in warheads under the START I accord with Moscow, US ratification of START II, and the recent offer by the administration to Russia of further reductions in a START III agreement.
But, officials add, with Russia and China improving their atomic capabilities and foes such as Iran and Libya pursuing the development of weapons of mass destruction, the US nuclear deterrent must be kept as effective as possible within the bounds of international arms-control treaties.
"What we are doing ... is saying to other nations that if you bury bunkers like Saddam Hussein did, you will be at risk," asserts Kathleen Bailey of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., one of the nation's nuclear-weapons design labs. "It is a good message in terms of non-proliferation," she says.
New or not?
The dispute over the two new weapons involves several issues. They include whether the B61-11 is a new warhead, as some arms control advocates contend, or simply a modified version of an existing design that was mandated by safety considerations, as the Clinton administration insists.
The question goes to a pledge the US has repeated mantra-like since 1993 that it has no intention of designing or building new warheads.
Critics say the B61-11 breeches that undertaking, weakening the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which won indefinite extension at the United Nations in 1995.
By continuing to improve its arsenal, they say, the US may encourage would-be third-world nuclear powers to ignore the treaty and pursue clandestine atomic programs.
Such a trend could also occur because most of the potential targets against which the B-2/B61-11 combination would be used are in the third world, critics argue.
They also are concerned that the US is undermining the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits test explosions and was approved by the UN in September.
The B61-11 was produced through a new program in which the US is substituting test explosions for computer simulations to maintain the safety of its warheads. While the program is allowed by the CTBT, critics say its use to produce new weapons could impede or jeopardize the pact's chances of winning ratification by a requisite 44 countries.