WASHINGTON - The Pentagon has drawn up a new strategy, built on the 2002 "Bush doctrine" of pre-emptive military strikes, that would allow the US to make first use of nuclear weapons to thwart an a WMD attack against the country.
Under the scheme, developed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff but yet to be ratified by Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, commanders would be able to request permission from the President to use nuclear weapons in a variety of scenarios.
According to the Washington Post, one possibility is an enemy that is using, or "is about to use" weapons of mass destruction against US military forces or civilian population.
Another is where nuclear weapons could be used against biological weapons that an enemy was close to using, and which could only be safely destroyed by nuclear weapons and their after-effects.
In practice, the strategy would update existing guidelines, drawn up in 1995 under the Clinton administration.
It would fit in with plans mooted by the Pentagon to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons, specifically designed to attack enemy bunkers of WMD, buried deep underground.
But Congress has thus far declined to provide funds for a study into the so-called "robust nuclear earth penetrator", not least because of criticism that such a move would make a mockery of US-led efforts to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation, and make it more, rather than less likely, that such weapons would be employed.
However the Pentagon document argues that proliferation has already made it more likely that nuclear weapons could be used.
It claims that some 30 nations have WMD programmes -- not to mention terrorists, or "non-state actors" as they are described, acting either independently or under the sponsorship of a state opposed to the US.
It also points out that even during the Cold War the US refused to commit itself to a "no first use" of nuclear weapons.