WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon is exploring new ways of attacking underground sites containing chemical or biological weapons, including the use of a deep-penetrating warhead that would encapsulate its target in a hard or sticky foam rather than blow it up, a senior official said Wednesday.
Stephen Younger, director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, told reporters the goal is to find a way of denying an enemy such as Iraq the use of their chemical or biological weapons without blowing them up and possibly allowing some of the harmful agent to escape into the atmosphere.
An attack by conventional means, with a high-explosive warhead, would be especially problematic in cases where the chemical or biological agents are stored in a highly populated area or in the vicinity of U.S. ground troops. An explosive warhead might not destroy all of the agent material.
"It's not as simple as blowing it up," Younger said. "What you really want to do is deny the use of that material to an adversary."
Another idea, besides the use of a hard or sticky foam, is a weapon that would disperse flammable material inside the site, creating a fire hot enough to fully burn up the agents, Younger said.
"It's still in the concept stage," with a focus on what kind of neutralizing material would work best, he said.
"The thing that has changed over the past few years is a recognition that the component technologies are there - the basic research has been done," he added. "What's required now is the development" work. In some cases "it might not be years" before this capability is available, he said.
This work is part of a broader effort by Younger's agency and other elements within the Defense Department to give the military more options for dealing with the problems posed by weapons of mass destruction. It's a problem the Pentagon faces in the case of Iraq, which the Bush administration believes has or is actively developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
Younger said his agency also is developing devices that could detect the presence of chemical and biological agents at longer distances, so that U.S. or allied troops could know in advance whether an area they intended to attack was contaminated.
He said the Pentagon also is considering putting a conventional warhead on intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. This would represent a major departure from the decades-long practice of arming globe-girdling missiles only with nuclear warheads.
One of the problems with putting a non-nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, is that its launch would immediately raise fears - especially in Moscow - that the United States was starting a nuclear war.
Younger acknowledged there are political problems with the idea, which he said was still on the drawing board.
One use for such a weapon, he said, might be a situation in which U.S. intelligence determined that a Scud missile armed with a biological warhead was about to be launched and there were no U.S. attack aircraft close enough to attack before the missile was fired. An ICBM launched from a U.S. submarine could be the answer because of its great speed.