war on the rocks

We Need to Speak Honestly About Nuclear Threats

April 11, 2016

The fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit meeting, held in Washington DC, has been the catalyst for a flood of op-eds bemoaning either the imminent emergence of sub-state groups as nuclear powers or the relative lack of progress that President Obama has made on reducing the number of U.S. nuclear weapons. Both of these views are shortsighted, ignoring the actual threat in context to contemporary national security issues. Despite decades of global terrorism and the continuing growth of nuclear power and weapons programs, there has not been a successful terrorist radiological or nuclear attack. And while the United States has reduced its military nuclear weapons stockpile by more than 90 percent since its peak in 1968, the dangers posed by nuclear weapon states continue to require a nuclear deterrent. These are inherently linked arguments, given the technology-centered discussions on radiological/nuclear threats. In both cases, actions to advance either agenda — that nuclear terrorism is an imminent threat and that U.S. nuclear stockpiles must be further reduced — need to be informed by risk calculations as well as cost-benefit analyses, rather than by worst-case assumptions.

Most recently, Gary Ackerman and James Halverson warn that recent activities by ISIL and other terrorist groups, combined with potential vulnerabilities of nuclear power facilities and other nuclear storage facilities, represent a serious threat. I don’t question that a few sub-state groups may be interested in obtaining radioactive material or even nuclear fissile material. With the constant drumbeat by U.S. government officials warning of the existential threat posed by terrorist nuclear devices since 2001, any half-awake violent extremist group would have to wonder as to whether this capability represented a useful tool. Joe Cirincione and others have been warning about potential nuclear terrorism for at least the past 15 years. The mantra has been, “it’s not a question of if, but when,” and that terrorists will use a nuclear device or a “dirty bomb” as soon as they can acquire one. And yet it remains a fact that even given motive, opportunity, and time, these sub-state groups have not done so.

The utter absence of any substantive radiological or nuclear terrorist incidents since the dawn of the nuclear age, given the availability of information and material, is indicative of successful government efforts to securing fissile nuclear material and a well-funded counterterrorism program. The incidents identified in the Ackerman/Halverson article demonstrate that terrorist attempts can be identified and are being stopped early into their initial steps to create a weapon. It may be that leaders of most sub-state groups are more practical than expected, and have discovered that trying to assemble radiological or nuclear devices is a lot harder than anticipated. The few sub-state groups that do try to obtain material run into scams orchestrated by criminal elements or police stings. If sub-state groups can achieve their political goals with conventional weapons, there isn’t a lot of incentive to go unconventional other than for the potential shock effect. Maybe the U.S. government is spending too much money on preventing nuclear terrorism. Maybe it’s not enough. But we cannot seriously assess that capability by just admiring the problem, as these many op-eds on nuclear terrorism have done.

The basic scenarios are well-defined: Sub-state groups could steal an intact nuclear weapon, steal or purchase nuclear fissile material to create a crude nuclear device, acquire radioactive material to make a “dirty bomb,” or attack and sabotage a nuclear power plant. And these “what if” arguments are what nonproliferation analysts focus on. These scenarios certainly reflect feasible, significant threats to U.S. national security, and they should not be disregarded or ignored. But it remains unclear as to whether these analysts take into account the U.S. government agencies and international programs that are focused on preventing radiological and nuclear terrorism. Law enforcement agencies, led by the FBI, and the intelligence community, in particular the National Counterterrorism Center, continue to search for any potential groups seeking nuclear material for illicit use. The Department of Homeland Security, Department of Energy, State Department, and other government agencies participate in a Global Nuclear Detection Architecture that is intended to screen and interdict radiological material being transported outside of regulatory controls. U.S. Northern Command and the National Guard Bureau have more than 18,000 people in the CBRN Response Enterprise, and hold an annual national-level exercise that is often focused on a nuclear event. The United States and United Kingdom have military teams prepared to respond to any indications of illicit movement of nuclear material. Of course, the National Nuclear Security Administration has a significant role in securing and accounting for nuclear material.

There are literally billions of dollars being spent every year on prevention of, protection against, and response to radiological/nuclear terrorism incidents. Yet the arms control advocates are unhappy at the balance of nonproliferation activity funds versus nuclear weapons development and sustainment. They offer a simplistic bromide — all we have to do is secure all radiological material and dismantle all nuclear weapons across the globe, and then there will be no threat of nuclear terrorism. All that has to be done to do this, they contend, is to move funding from nuclear weapons development to nonproliferation activities. This is a proposal that stands no chance of being enacted due to significant political, technical, or financial constraints that need to be considered in achieving this goal.

It is important to closely and honestly examine whether current efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism are sufficient or not, but doing so requires an appreciation of the risk accepted in the current government approach. If an agency were to assess the many government programs already in place, it may find that the current level of funding is adequate. The GAO has done some limited assessments, but not comprehensive enough to guide policy discussions on the adequacy of whole-of-government approaches. While many analysts and government officials clamor for doing more because of the potential consequences of a (yet unseen) terrorist radiological or nuclear incident, I believe the billions being spent every year is enough. But in truth, none of us can say for sure until we assess the actual threat (intent AND capability) against the many, many government programs that are in place today.

The same case should be made in determining the adequacy of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. Questioning whether a trillion dollars for nuclear modernization over 30 years is a wise investment is a fool’s errand if one has not first identified the level of risk that the U.S. government is willing to accept in a future operating environment. Yes, the U.S. military could go lower than 1,000 operational nuclear weapons. But what’s the risk of doing so? Do we retain a hedge in the event that other nuclear weapon states build more than a thousand nukes? Should the U.S. government unilaterally give up nuclear weapons and rely on its superior conventional military and economic might? It depends on whether the White House and Congress accept the risk inherent with those decisions and are willing to fund the appropriate capabilities. There are other defense priorities.

We need to be informed by more than just scaremongering. The advocates for nuclear disarmament use “worst-case” scenarios to shock sensibilities and to move people toward their agenda. Let’s move past these creative scenarios and determine the level of risk that we’re willing to accept, and then determine the adequacy of our government’s efforts.

 

Al Mauroni is the Director of the U.S. Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.