December 2001: the U.S. Air Force dropped the 15,000-pound "Daisy
Cutter" on the cave complex in Afghanistan known as Toro Bora. At the time,
this was the largest bomb in the U.S. arsenal.
The same month, the Pentagon sent 10 of the more lethal 2,000-pound thermobaric
bombs to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Thermobaric weapons are dual action: one
explosion disperses a fine mist of under-oxidized fuel into a confined space
such as a room in a building or a cave. A second explosion ignites the mixture,
generating a flash fireball and pressure wave that will kill any person or animal
in the immediate-effects zone. Anyone who escapes these effects most likely
will still die as the spreading fireball consumes all the oxygen in the space.
Those old enough to remember Jimmy Carter's presidency might recall the so-called
"neutron bomb," which was supposed to be an alternative to "ordinary"
nuclear weapons. Unlike a "conventional" nuclear weapon, the neutron
bomb only killed people. It did not destroy things. Thermobarics come close
to the same result, although the pressure wave shock could collapse some structures
and the fireball ignites flammables.
The latest iteration of "kill people – don't destroy things"
(or innocent bystanders) weapon under development is the "focused-lethality
munition," touted as a super-precision weapon. Perhaps most people remember
the first Gulf War and the video tapes from airplane nose cameras showing a
2,000- or maybe a 1,000-pound laser-designated bomb going down a building chimney
or through a window. Today's bomb of choice for urban combat support is a satellite-guided
500-pound bomb, soon to be a 250-pound weapon. These bombs work – that
is, kill – by the tried and true methods of blasting and spraying shrapnel
Enter tomorrow's bomb sporting a carbon composite case, which, because it fractures
more easily than current metal casings, absorbs less of the blast (which goes
further) but also doesn't distribute shrapnel as far. The interior of the bomb
includes the usual explosives augmented by a metal powder that, riding the blast
wave, is lethal but limited in range by gravity. The net effect of all these
changes is to reduce the lethality radius, but within that radius to blow away
every hard object – including people (Wall Street Journal).
One hesitates to commend development of weapons with increased lethality even
with the prospect that, when used, casualties among innocent bystanders are
reduced. Yet there is something less odious in the "focused lethality"
bomb when it is stacked beside another USAF development that will be tested
June 2 at the former Nuclear Weapons Test Site 90 miles north of Las Vegas.
This test will detonate 700 tons (in later reports lowered to just under 600
tons) – that is to say 1,400,000 pounds – of conventional explosives
in a hole 36 feet deep to allow scientists to measure ground shock waves, and
from these to estimate damage to various underground or buried facilities (Washington
The deeper rationale for the ground test is to try to determine if a very large
conventional weapon could be powerful enough to damage deeply buried bunkers
sufficiently to knock them out of a battle (command and control headquarters)
or destroy possible chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons and missiles.
Some skeptics think the test will not be conducted fairly or that the
results will be skewed to "demonstrate" that the only way to be sure
buried targets can be neutralized is by using nuclear weapons. And considering
that the administration is pressing for money to build 125 new nuclear weapons
annually – including new designs – on the specious claim that older
bombs cannot be (or soon will not be) certified reliable, the skeptics may be
on to something.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, the United States was a prominent force in
the drive for a worldwide moratorium on creating and testing new nuclear weapons
that effectively closed the nuclear door. Blocked by Congress from developing
a new earth penetrating nuclear "bunker-buster," the Bush administration
is trying to get inside the nuclear weapons house through the "reliability"
Does anyone else feel a chill?