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Source: Washington Post

Title: Expert's suggestion of reducing U.S. nuclear stockpile stirs debate

Full Text COPYRIGHT 2000 Washington Post

A leading U.S. expert on nuclear weapons is challenging decades of military thinking by suggesting that precision-guided conventional explosives could replace nuclear warheads on most of America's strategic missiles.

Stephen M. Younger, the associate director of Los Alamos National Laboratory and head of its nuclear weapons work, also says the United States should consider developing a new generation of small nuclear bombs to handle the few military tasks for which nuclear weapons are still theoretically required.

The proposals, which would allow a drastic reduction in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, are stirring debate among Pentagon war planners, State Department arms controllers, White House security advisers and academic defense experts, partly because they come from a fellow member of that so-called nuclear priesthood.

But Mr. Younger said in an interview that he made his views public in an unclassified 20-page paper, "Nuclear Weapons in the Twenty-First Century," because he hoped to stimulate a broader national debate on the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which he believes has been largely overlooked in the presidential campaign.

Early in the presidential campaign, Texas Gov. George W. Bush called for deep, possibly unilateral cuts in the nuclear stockpile, along with development of a still-unproven missile defense system and a rethinking of the Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction. But neither the Republican candidate nor his chief advisers have explained how deeply they think the stockpile should be cut, what design they foresee for the missile shield, or what concept should replace mutual deterrence.

Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, has endorsed the limited national missile defense plan already under development by the Clinton administration, but he has spoken little about it or nuclear weapons on the campaign trail. Arms control issues, which figured heavily in presidential races during the Cold War, were not discussed in any of this year's three presidential debates.

Mr. Younger argues that the U.S. nuclear stockpile of more than 5,000 high-yield missile warheads and bombs each capable of wiping out any major city in the world remains a credible deterrent against Russia or China, discouraging those nations from using nuclear weapons against the United States.

But he warns those weapons might not be an effective deterrent against smaller countries, such as Iraq, Iran or North Korea. Their leaders may calculate that a U.S. president would hesitate to respond to a major provocation such as a chemical weapons attack on American troops overseas by ordering a nuclear strike.

One of the most controversial elements of Mr.Younger's plan is that he suggests building these low-yield weapons with enriched uranium and an old, well-proven design, the "gun assembly" used for the Hiroshima bomb.

 

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