Category Archives: Nuclear Weapons

The Only Thing Worse

Bomb ExplosionThe only thing worse than a nuclear terrorist attack on US soil may in fact be more likely.

Nuclear terrorism is one of the few issues that almost everyone can agree on – it really is a worst case scenario. A terrorist organization acquiring unsecure nuclear material from a nuclear state – or worse, purchasing nuclear technology off the nuclear black market – is the ultimate unthinkable tragedy and a very difficult enemy. Commensurate retaliation on the attackers would be impossible. The US might choose to retaliate against the nation that supplied the nuclear material or weapon; or against the nation hosting the terrorist organization, but such actions are ultimately ineffective at limiting a future threat.

Consider this scenario: al Qaeda acquires two loose nuclear weapons through sympathetic terrorist organizations in Russia. Al Qaeda then sends its operatives along with the weapons to the port in Los Angeles and to the Boston harbor. Even a dirty bomb (one that merely disperses nuclear material rather than creating a nuclear blast) could kill hundreds of people initially and thousands more from radiation poisoning. But the true terror is from the after effects.

Markets would crash, the port of LA would close – reducing US imports by 45 percent – the current administration’s security policies would be disparaged, and we would be forced to embark on even larger counterterrorism campaign. This is all, of course, in addition to the psychological effect on the American public, the heightened security measures by nations across the globe, and the looming question of whether or not there would be another attack.

But this scenario may, in fact, be a better than at least one alternative.

Imagine again that al Qaeda has acquired two nuclear weapons. It does not have confidence in its ability to bring the weapon on to US soil, so it follows a different path – it detonates one bomb in a remote region of Southern Afghanistan. Nuclear forensics across the globe detect the blast and confirm that it is a nuclear weapon. Relatively few people are thought to be affected, but three hours later a video is released on the internet showing a senior al Qaeda leader positioned next to the second nuclear device. “There are more.” He says. “And you will bow to our demands.”

What would the world do? Certainly the US publicly claims not to negotiate with terrorists, but its own history and that of its allies suggests that negotiating with terrorists may not be too far from the norm. For example, the British did it in Northern Ireland and (depending on semantics) the US did it in Iraq and during the Iran Contra affair, among others. It is true that these “terrorist” organizations were very different from al Qaeda, but the point is the same. And we know from Spain’s example in 2004 that terrorist threats and attacks can and do influence political decisions and the democratic process.

Could the US be forced to withdraw prematurely from Iraq or Afghanistan? Close its embassies in Muslim nations?

Depending on the demands, it may not be up to the US to decide whether or not to negotiate. If the demands were to immediately withdraw all troops from Pakistan or the bomb would be detonated in Islamabad, one can be nearly certain that the either the government or the population of Pakistan would quickly drive US forces out.

So where does that leave us? Not detonating a nuclear device is at least as easy as detonating one. And that means that this even-worse case scenario is more probable. A nuclear attack leaves the US with thousands of dead civilians, a terrified population, but an emboldened sense of determination. Being held at nuclear gun-point leaves the US and its allies mostly crippled – certainly privately, if not publicly –with a terrorist organization effectively dictating foreign policy and still with the possibility of a devastating nuclear attack.

In that situation, what could we do?

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All Roads Lead to Pakistan, But Does the Terrorist Hunt End There?

President Obama’s strategy towards terrorism is understandably Pakistan-centric.  Any honest assessment of terrorist and nuclear threats to the United States finds an intersection in Pakistan.  But the US may be at risk, once again, of agreeing to take on a problem that is neither bound in objective nor time.

Ensuring that Pakistan has the capacity and desire to secure its nuclear arsenal and territorial integrity from militants, particularly terrorists, is certainly in the US’s best interest.  But what does a secure Pakistan look like from the US perspective?  How long will US forces be involved in Pakistan?  Politically, how long can US forces be involved in Pakistan?  And most importantly, is Pakistan really going to be the last frontier in the fight against terrorism?

It’s not difficult to imagine a situation in August of 2011 where ISAF has largely subdued the al Qaeda and Taliban threat in Afghanistan.  What is harder to imagine is a Pakistan whose security puts the US at ease.  A war that started in Afghanistan may very well continue in Pakistan.

But it may not end in Pakistan.  Terrorist activity in Yemen poses a similar problem to the US.  It is politically untenable for the US to engage in overt action to any significant degree, leaving only military aid and training to support the local government and military.  Somalia, too, poses a similar problem. The lack of tangible government in Somalia means that the US could potentially conduct military operations – an enticing prospect that has been realized at least once in the last year.

The relatively recent rise of terrorist safehavens in these areas means that if the US seeks to eradicate terrorism, it may very well do so without rest for the foreseeable future.  These regions do not pose the same nuclear threat that Pakistan does, but they may one day pose the same terrorist threat that Afghanistan did.

At some point the question “what’s next?” has to give way to the question “where is the end?”  What are the costs of playing an endless game of terrorist whack-a-mole?

In the early 1970’s Britain’s Home Secretary said that the IRA may “not be defeated, not completely eliminated, but have their violence reduced to an acceptable level.”  Most Americans would be most comfortable knowing that the terrorist threat as we know it today had been categorically eliminated.  But we must also recognize that the costs and practicality of doing so may be prohibitive.  The question, then, is to decide when we will be satisfied and then communicate that frustrating reality with a nation.

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Middle East Regional Reactions to a Nuclear-Armed Iran

Potential regional reactions to a nuclear-armed Iran are unclear, and are further complicated by variables including the transparency and scale of Iran’s weaponization. The possible regional consequences range from a de-escalation in conflict to the outbreak of a nuclear arms race. If the US is not balanced in its response to a nuclear-armed Iran, US influence risks worsening the resultant situation, whether it is one of relative stability or widespread insecurity.

Examining the origins of the current Iranian nuclear situation is useful in attempting to understand Iran’s motives in initiating a nuclear program. That Iran began building its nuclear program in secrecy implies that at the time Iran desired a weapons program as a security deterrent. Following Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war, and the international community’s relative silence on the issue, it is understandable that Iran would no longer want to subject itself to such hypocritical international norms. Yet despite Iran’s current lack of existential threats—following the destruction of its two greatest enemies, the Hussein regime and the Taliban—Iran has continued its nuclear program.

Despite assertions from Iranian leaders that Iran seeks a nuclear program solely for energy purposes, Ahmadinejad in particular has exclaimed his desire to use a nuclear bomb to attack Israel. Iranian leaders no doubt are attempting to exploit this ambiguity, though it may backfire and result in an Israeli airstrike. If it were suddenly to emerge that Iran had successfully built a bomb, Iranian intentions would be equally ambiguous, inciting a security crisis in the Middle East. Iranian rulers may build a bomb just to increase their perceived powerfulness or Iran’s regional prestige, yet no one on the outside can know their true intentions. It is this uncertainty that would be the greatest source of Middle East insecurity.

Because of the insecurity created by the development of an Iranian bomb, there is a significantly increased likelihood that other regional actors would also develop nuclear weapons programs. Other states might want to do this for two reasons: because they believe that a nuclear Iran poses a legitimate threat or because they believe that nuclear weapons give Iran an overwhelming regional prestige. Furthermore, Iran’s nuclear weaponization would not only alter the balance of power in the Middle East, but it would also signify the inability of the US and UN to stop Middle East powers from becoming nuclear-armed.

While other regional actors would be tempted to develop nuclear weapons to balance against Iranian regional leadership—or an Iranian security threat—they would be further encouraged by the failure of the international community to stop Iran’s weaponization. If Iran becomes nuclear-armed, it is likely that other regional powers will attempt to do the same, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Facing a potential existential nuclear threat in Iran, Saudi Arabia would likely seek to build a nuclear weapons program in response. Saudis likely fear a retaliatory attack from Iran in the event of a US or Israeli airstrike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. This potentiality justifies Saudi ambitions to build bomb. Further, a bomb would allow Saudi Arabia to more fully guarantee its own security, moving away from reliance on the US Thus a nuclear weapon would increase Saudi regional prestige, as well as its dominance over the other Gulf states.

Egypt would likely attempt to develop a nuclear bomb in response to Iran’s nuclear weaponization in order to attempt to restore its prestige and leadership in the Arab world. Any political constraints keeping Egypt from developing a bomb would be lessened by the presence of a nuclear-armed Iran. The perception that Saudi Arabia would be attempting to develop a bomb in response to Iran’s weapons program would further entice Egypt to consider building a bomb in a competition for prestige.

Photo: hamed

The Critical Balance Between Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament

President Obama faces tough decisions in the near future as he plans to send the Nuclear Posture Review, an assessment of the roles, missions, and infrastructure of the U.S. nuclear forces to Congress later this month. He recently joined his Russian counterpart, President Dmitriy Medvedev, to work toward a “nuclear-free” world, saying that he is considering permanently reducing the number of nuclear weapons currently in the U.S.’s possession. He goes on to contradict himself by ensuring his nation’s safety through the use of such weapons, should the need arise.

The President needs to make clear his objectives and decide whether it is possible for both nonproliferation and nuclear arms reduction to actively take place.  Is it possible to have both while at the same time keeping the U.S.’s safety a top priority?

In an April 2009 speech in Prague, President Obama declared,

We will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same.  Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies…. But we will begin the work of reducing our arsenal.

The contradiction posed by Obama suggesting the existence of both nuclear arms nonproliferation and nuclear arms reduction begs the question:  Are both truly viable?  It has been argued that disarmament could trigger proliferation with the deterrence once guaranteed to our allies gone. Not only would our allies need to acquire/develop weapons to protect themselves, but also, our enemies would see it as an opportunity to operate unhindered.

Obama hopes that a favorable outcome from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Conference in May, being held at the UN Headquarters in New York, will bolster his cause for reducing the U.S.’s arsenal of nuclear weapons.  Article VI of the NPT asserts that nuclear weapon states are required to reduce their nuclear arsenals over time, something that the U.S. has, until recently, been hesitant to comply with.

History has proven that nonproliferation and disarmament are not one in the same. It is also imperative to note that one cannot exist without the other.  However, their coexistence should be approached with trepidation, making certain to tread cautiously around geopolitical balances of power.  Small steps need to be taken in a specific and careful direction for world leaders, enemies and allies alike, to govern in a world without the weapons they once wielded.

Cold War thinking has changed along with the geopolitical and diplomatic landscape. While this offers an opportunity for President Obama to achieve his goals, he toes a fine line when discussing the extent and speed in which changes need to be made.  Attaining a nuclear-free world is a respectable, albeit lofty goal, and if the current administration has learned anything from the health-care situation, it should be wary of making any promises that will prove difficult to keep.

The President needs to send well-defined messages to our allies as well as our enemies.  We are supportive of nuclear arms reduction.  However, in light of current potential threats from abroad, we will maintain a small, yet effective arsenal.  We will also continue the research and development of reliable, precision-guided low-yield weapons that will allow us to strike our enemies with maximum effect and minimal collateral damage should this very real threat turn into a situation requiring us to defend our country and possibly our allies.

As the world’s greatest military power it is our duty to take the first step towards a nuclear-free world.  My suggestion is to make it a small step, so that we don’t stumble.