In one of the most irresponsible statements in recent memory, a U.S. Congressman on Wednesday advocated dropping tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) on Iran in order to destroy its nuclear facilities.
Appearing on C-SPAN, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that he opposed invading Iran with a ground force in order to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Instead, he said that the U.S. should conduct a massive bombing campaign against Iran’s nuclear facilities, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
“I think a ground war in Iran with American boots on the ground would be a horrible thing and I think people like to toss around the fact that we have to stop them in some way from gaining this nuclear capability,” Duncan began by saying, according to a transcribed version of the video (see below). “I don’t think it’s inevitable but I think if you have to hit Iran, you don’t put boots on the ground, you do it with tactical nuclear devices and you set them back a decade or two or three. I think that’s the way to do it with a massive aerial bombardment campaign.”
Defense News points out that the B-61 is America’s primary tactical nuclear weapon. The tactical versions of the B-61 (Mods 3, 4, 10 and 11) can have yields of up to 170 kilotons, over 10 times the amount of explosive power in Little Boy, the atomic weapon the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. Clearly, using such a device against any country, particularly a non-nuclear armed one, would be morally reprehensible and would badly damage America’s reputation in the world. It would also likely spur greater nuclear proliferation, or at least make current nuclear-armed countries more likely to use their own existing nuclear inventory in the future.
Notably, it would not set Iran’s nuclear program back a decade or two or three, as Iran would still be able to reconstruct a new nuclear weapons program relatively quickly even if extremely powerful conventional or nuclear-tipped bombs were used in an aerial assault. The fact that Iran had just been attacked with nuclear weapons would create a greater determination inside Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and more sympathy for this pursuit from countries around the world. It would also presumably make a nuclear-armed Iran much more dangerous.
To be fair, a tactical nuclear weapon with a much, much lower yield would likely be used in such an attack. The initial three tactical versions of the B-61, (Mods 3, 4, and 10) for instance, can be set to produce a yield of just 300 tons. However, the most likely TNW the U.S. would use against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a B61-11, which is an earth-penetrating TNW modified from America’s existing B61-7s, which is a strategic nuclear weapon. The advantage of the B61-11 for an attack on Iran’s underground nuclear facilities is that it “buries itself 3-6 meters underground before detonation, transferring a much higher proportion of the explosion energy to ground shock, compared to surface bursts.”
Some suggest the lowest yield on a B61-11 is 10 kt, although others believe its lowest yield might be just 300 tons. Still, as the Federation of American Scientists explained: “Even at the low end of its 0.3-300 kiloton yield range, the nuclear blast will simply blow out a huge crater of radioactive material, creating a lethal gamma-radiation field over a large area.”
More than that, however, the use of a TNW, no matter how small the yield, would still break the taboo against the first use of nuclear weapons, which would could be much more detrimental to the world than a nuclear-armed Iran itself, given that the latter is unlikely to use the bomb. It would also produce many of the same negative immediate repercussions as a higher yield TNW.
Fortunately, it is patently absurd to think that the U.S. would use a tactical nuclear weapon against Iran, and Rep. Hunter has no decision-making power in this regard. Still, the mere fact that he, as a U.S. congressman, made the comment could harm U.S. and allied interests (to say nothing of the morality of his statement). This is true in two ways.
First, it will almost certainly be seized upon by Iranian leaders, particularly hardliners who will use it to press their case against giving up one “iota” of Iran’s nuclear program. Indeed, in a speech a few weeks ago, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei used Republican donor Sheldon Adleson’s advocacy for using nuclear weapons against Iran to indict the U.S. as an evil power who couldn’t be trusted. Given that Khamenei would seize upon the statement of a private citizen (albeit a politically connected one) like Adleson, Iranian leaders will certainly seize upon the comments of a senior Republican member of Congress.
Second and more troubling, it could make Iranian leaders believe they need a nuclear deterrent. Although I think this is unlikely, it’s worth noting that U.S. attempts at nuclear blackmail during the early part of the Cold War usually backfired by pushing the target of that threat to acquire nuclear weapons. This applies to the Soviet Union to a degree, but is especially true of China. Indeed, Mao and other PRC leaders regularly cited America’s nuclear threats against it during the Korean War and Taiwan Crisis as the reason they needed to devote considerable time and resources to acquiring their own nuclear weapon. While I think it’s unlikely, it’s hardly inconceivable that Iranian leaders might come to a similar conclusion.
For all these reasons then, Rep. Hunter’s comment was irresponsible from both moral and strategic standpoints. The Obama administration and the Republican leadership in Congress should immediately and harshly repudiate the statement.