The Armed Services Committee of the US Senate voted May 8 in a secret session to lift a decade-long ban on the research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons. The panel endorsed the Bush administration’s proposal, first announced a year ago, to push ahead with the production of nuclear weapons which would be more useable.
The closed-door vote was described by both congressional leaders and the media as a critical turning point in the effort of the administration to resume the design, production and testing of a new generation of nuclear weapons.
The measure must still be approved on the Senate floor, but this is considered a foregone conclusion after the committee action, since it is attached to the spending authorization for the Pentagon for the 2004 fiscal year, a bill which under Senate rules cannot be filibustered and requires only a simple majority for adoption. The legislation is the largest-ever military spending bill, providing a total of $400.5 billion for the Department of Defense.
The bill will repeal the Spratt-Furse Amendment, adopted in 1993, which prohibited any research and development on a nuclear weapon with a yield lower than five kilotons of TNT, one-third the size of the atomic bomb which destroyed Hiroshima and killed an estimated 200,000 people.
Two other significant provisions in the legislation relate to nuclear weapons: a $15 million authorization for a feasibility study of production of a so-called bunker-buster bomb, a full-size atomic weapon (up to one megaton) which would be configured for deep penetration into the earth before detonation; and $25 million for improvements to the Nevada test site, which would allow the US to resume underground nuclear tests within 18 months of a presidential order, as opposed to the current 36 months.
Bush administration officials and Senate Republicans presented the low-yield and bunker-buster bomb programs as a necessary response to the threat of “rogue states” possessing weapons of mass destruction. It was necessary, they claimed, for the United States to have smaller and more targeted bombs to be able to credibly threaten the use of nuclear weapons against small countries.