The Nuclear Option: Thinking The Unthinkable

Ponder, for a moment, the unthinkable. The initial assault on Iraqi forces is thrown back. Iraq responds with a barrage of chemical and biological weapons, killing 10,000 U.S. soldiers and at least as many allies. The United States has only one option: a tactical nuclear strike. Sound far-fetched? Lynn Davis, a former nuclear-policy planner in the Defense Department, has warned of just such a scenario. "Circumstances could certainly arise in which President George Bush might view nuclear weapons as militarily useful in defeating Iraq or, more emotionally, as a way of saving American lives," she wrote in November. The United States certainly has the weaponry available. By Jan. 15, the flotilla confronting Iraq will carry almost 100 nuclear-armed cruise missiles, says respected nuclear-data analyst William Arkin and his team at Greenpeace.

Would the Bush administration ever use nuclear weapons? According to two well-informed sources, the U.S. commander in the gulf, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, requested authorization to explode a nuclear device high over Iraq at the start of hostilities. Such a blast would generate a massive electromagnetic pulse, which would shut down every electronic device in Iraq. One source said that the request had gone as high as President Bush, who rejected it.

In fact, the president ruled out a nuclear option from the start. His reasons are of course political. Almost three quarters of the Americans surveyed by NEWSWEEK said they oppose using atomic weapons against Iraq. Nuking Saddam also would inflame world opinion. European and Arab sources in Washington say key allies joined the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq on the understanding that nukes would not be brandished.

That didn't stop the Pentagon from discreetly asking a select group of outside consultants to think the unthinkable for them. How could modern U.S. nuclear weapons, designed to produce little or no fallout and no persistent radiation, be used to shorten a war and cut casualties? The study listed several ways in addition to creating an electromagnetic pulse. "Earth penetrator" warheads, which detonate beneath their targets, could be used to knock out Saddam's airfields and missile bases, as well as roads and bridges between Iraq and Kuwait. Or the United States could explode enhanced-radiation artillery shells - the weapon known as the neutron bomb - above Iraqi positions. The devices are low in explosive energy, but would kill masses of Iraqi troops with their high radiation. Horrible as these options sound, a source familiar with the study insists that "not just fewer Americans, but fewer Iraqis, too, would be killed by nuclear weapons. than by the conventional campaign we propose to fight."

Could new conventional arms achieve some of the same results without crossing the nuclear threshold? Pentagon planners believe so. They envision crippling Iraq with a rain of conventionally armed Tomahawk cruise missiles (of which there are about 650 on U.S. ships in the area, according to Arkin and his team). One basic Tomahawk conventional warhead can scatter a cluster of "bomblets" capable of disabling roads and airfields.

Some of the Tomahawks, NEWSWEEK has learned, also have been equipped with fuel-air explosives (FAE). Fuel is sprayed as an ultrafine mist from a bomb or cruise missile, hanging in the air as a blanket hundreds of square yards in area. Its detonation levels every structure within range. Sources say the Air Force has managed to generate fuel-air blasts equivalent to small nuclear weapons - and that U.S. nuclear laboratories have discovered that FAE megablasts can generate electromagnetic pulses. Exploded low over troops, the fuel-air explosion also sucks every atom of oxygen out of the atmosphere, even from the lungs of people inside blastproof tanks or bunkers. Without ever splitting a single atom, U.S. forces may yet subject the Iraqis to something like Nikita Khrushchev's vision of nuclear holocaust, in which, the former Soviet leader reportedly said, "the living will envy the dead."

NO NUKES Do you favor or oppose the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Iraq to quickly end any hostilities and save the lives of U.S. forces?

72% Oppose; 24% Favor