The Bush administration's controversial new policy blueprint for nuclear weapons raises fundamental questions about US security needs in the post-cold-war era:
Does the United States need a more elaborate nuclear deterrent? And will such a deterrent work against the "rogue" states and other unexpected threats?
To critics at home and abroad, the Defense Department document on nuclear contingencies, called the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), represents the worst unilateralist tendencies of the Bush presidency. A dramatic policy departure, it could lower the threshold for using nuclear weapons and marks a major setback to nonproliferation efforts worldwide, they charge.
Already, the emergence last weekend of details of the classified nuclear report has generated serious diplomatic fallout, with Russia and China - two of seven nations listed as potential targets - demanding explanations from Washington.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday defended the nuclear review as setting out "prudent requirements for the 21st century." After meetings with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, he noted Russia's "formidable nuclear capabilities" but underscored that the two countries "are no longer adversaries." Russian leaders were briefed on the nuclear review in January.
The Pentagon and its supporters contend the US needs a new, more flexible, and rapid nuclear response capable of countering a multitude of emerging threats.
These threats include "rogue" states such as Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Libya that already possess or are seeking chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. Then there are the unexpected new dangers. "We're focusing on how we will fight ... not who or when," said J.D. Crouch, the assistant secretary of defense for international security policy. "We expect to be surprised" and must deal with "a broad range of the potential capabilities that adversaries may array against us," he said in a briefing on the report earlier this year.
Administration officials stress that deterrence is the goal of the policy. They say the report, which is required by Congress, is not an operational plan for a nuclear attack. Instead, it aims to give the president a "range of options," including updated nuclear weapons, to respond to attacks by conventional weapons or weapons of mass destruction against the US or allies including Israel, South Korea, and Taiwan.
These new nuclear weapons would be more precise, create less nuclear fallout, and be easier to target quickly, say military experts familiar with the report. Some would be designed to destroy specific targets, such as fortified underground bunkers used by dozens of countries. For example, low-yield, earth-penetrating weapons that detonate underground could destroy bunkers full of chemical or biological agents.
Still, nuclear and defense experts disagree over whether such new weapons would constitute an effective deterrent, especially against so-called rogue regimes.
Some say the US will boost the credibility of its deterrent by deploying smaller, more "fine-tuned" nuclear weapons that are easier to use in a wide variety of conflicts.
"Most of the nuclear options at our disposal now are so gross that their use is not credible," says Loren Thompson, a nuclear expert at the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank in Arlington, Va. "To deter, we must have options that the enemy believes we will use."
Such weapons will help dissuade attacks by not only dictators such as Iraqi's Saddam Hussein, but even terrorist leaders like Osama bin Laden, Thompson says.
"A large part of Osama bin Laden's calculus was that we were too soft to respond. They [Bush administration officials] want to at least create the impression that that is not the case," Thompson says.
Others, however, doubt whether an updated US nuclear arsenal can deter hostile, repressive leaders such as Saddam or North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il. "The leaders in question are prepared to see their own people suffer, says Hans Binnendijk," a nuclear-weapons expert at the National Defense University. "So just holding their societies at risk may not be enough to deter, especially if they feel their regime is about to go under."
While the grim reality of mutually assured destruction (MAD) helped restrain the Soviet Union during the cold war, "deterrence is not nearly as assured" today, says Mr. Binnendijk.
Indeed, a more assertive US nuclear posture could backfire by lowering the threshold for using nuclear weapons and undermining nonproliferation efforts around the world, critics say.
While reducing the number of deployed warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 within a decade, the policy calls for storing removed warheads as part of a reserve "responsive force" rather than destroying them.