NUCLEAR POSTURE: The U.S. is incorporating more flexibility into its nuclear weapons strategic plan, including expanding the list of potential target countries. Image: COURTESY OF NATIONAL NUCLEAR SECURITY ADMINISTRATION
The nuclear warheads resting on ballistic missiles in silos, circling the globe in submarines or carried—sometimes mistakenly—by aircraft hail from an era when the U.S. targeted its largest foe, the U.S.S.R. and, more recently, Russia and China. But a document newly obtained by the Washington, D.C.–based Federation of American Scientists (FAS)—founded by the creators of the original nuclear bomb in 1945 and monitoring the weapons ever since—reveals that in recent years the U.S. target list has expanded to include so-called "regional proliferators," smaller states seeking to acquire such weapons of mass destruction.
"This is the first formal confirmation at that high level that those countries entered mainstream strategic nuclear war planning," says Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at FAS, which obtained the excerpt from a 2002 U.S. Strategic Command (U.S. STARTCOM) briefing on the new war plan to take effect in 2003. Such "broadening of nuclear targeting" is troubling, Kristensen says, "especially when diplomats claim we have decreased the role of nuclear weapons."
U.S. Navy Lt. Denver Applehans said U.S. STRATCOM had no comment.
Specifically, the heavily redacted document includes pictures of a North Korean missile, an underground Libyan facility to produce nuclear material, and a short-range, Russian-made SCUD ballistic missile (the weapon that played a terrifying role in the Persian Gulf War). Whereas the latter is employed by many countries, only five such nations were listed in the broader Nuclear Posture Review put together by the Bush administration in December 2001: Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Syria.
Iraq was likely dropped from this list subsequent to the March 2003 U.S. invasion, Kristensen says, as was Libya when its leader, Col. Muammar Qadhafi, formally foreswore such weapons in December of that year. The 2003 revisions for including such regional states include a "series of [redacted] options" and a "scenario-driven approach" as well as "attack structure changed to increase execution flexibility."
Standing in the way of such military options, however, are a "decreased number of operational warheads," according to the report. That problem has been addressed by the design of a "new triad"—traditionally the three nuclear limbs comprising intercontinental ballistic missiles, air-delivered gravity bombs, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles—to include other weapons systems.
"Under the concept [of a new triad] essentially everything becomes strategic—and by including conventional weapons, missile defense and the weapons facilities, they can say that the prominence of nuclear weapons has been reduced," Kristensen says. "But as this document illustrates, the new triad also leads to an expansion of nuclear targeting policy."
Of course, given the classified nature of this information it is unclear whether it remains the most current; a similar revision took place in 2004. And documents describing that remain classified, though Kristensen has submitted a similar request under the Freedom of Information Act. "This one took three years from the point when I asked for it, so who knows when I will get it," he says. "I asked them in July what plan was in effect and that was still [the 2004] revision." But it seems clear that more flexible and broader targeting has officially been a part of U.S. nuclear weapons policy since at least 2003.