The New Nuclear Deterrent

What comes to mind when you think of a nuclear deterrent? Mutually assured destruction? Hangars full of warheads? A big red button? During the cold war the United States and the Soviet Union amassed gargantuan arsenals of nuclear weapons, each threatening to rain unimaginable devastation down on the other should they attack. This horrific prospect caused such concern among the scientists involved that many of them joined together to form the Federation of American Scientists in 1945. This was the nuclear deterrent, which ensured that the peace maintained between the U.S. and the USSR after the Second World War was uneasy at best, with the end of the world just a couple of button presses away.

As John MacKinney, Director of Nuclear and Radiological Policy at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), explained at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, DC on July 30th, the nuclear deterrent paradigm of the cold war does nothing to address the new nuclear threats we face. Now, our greatest nuclear danger is not a Soviet sneak attack or any escalating disagreement between great powers, (though the U.S. and Russia still possess vast nuclear arsenals) but the actions of terrorists, with or without the aid of rogue states and other non-state actors.

This might take the form of a radiological ‘dirty bomb’, or it could be a nuclear explosive device that obliterates a large portion of a city and leaves thousands dead. There are many terrorist organizations around the world who would seek to cause this sort of destruction either in the U.S. or elsewhere. While this is not quite the existential threat that Cold War era standoffs posed, in that an attack would only disrupt rather than destroy the country, they are still a credible and serious threat to the safety and security of the world.

Terrorist organizations have motives that are often hard to understand: they do not normally hold territory, and they are not responsible for the security and prosperity of any population – it’s not possible to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack against them in the same way that one could against a state. Therefore the doctrine of mutually assured destruction as a deterrent does not apply here.

Does this mean that terrorists can not be deterred? MacKinney argues that they most definitely can be, but that new deterrents are needed. He sets out the premise that all rational actors can be deterred and the principle that it is always immeasurably better to deter a would-be attacker than to respond to an attack. The principles of deterrence are the same as they always have been; to manipulate the enemy’s perception of the costs, benefits and likelihood of success that an attack would have; to sow fear, doubt and anxiety in their minds and make them decide to stay home instead.

This new deterrent must take a radically different form, says MacKinney. It needs to focus on and be tailored to individual targets, not just the terrorists themselves but also enablers such as weapons traffickers, moral legitimizers who might be intellectuals or clerics, affiliates of the terrorist organization, and states that might seek to sponsor terrorism. He cautions that it is important to be mindful of the imbalance of force when the might of a superpower is set against a small group, but says that each of these groups should be sent a perceptible, credible and relevant message that the cost and risk of any action would be unacceptably high. New forensic capabilities allow the source of almost any potential nuclear device to be tracked down, and more and more sophisticated techniques are being employed in investigating the funding for terrorist networks, meaning that those who would facilitate nuclear terrorism are very likely to face the consequences of their actions.

His colleague John Zabko, Assistant Director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office at the DHS, described part of this deterrent, the Global Nuclear Defense Architecture (GNDA). This is a coordinated inter-agency and international program to combat nuclear materials that are ‘out of regulatory control’, that materials that are illegally acquired and transported, a ‘system of systems’ with many layers of protection.

Robert Oppenheimer famously testified to congress that, “If you hired me to walk through the cellars of Washington to see whether there were atomic bombs, I think my most important tool would be a screwdriver to open the crates and look.” Today there are advanced detectors and new technologies to screen for radioactive material, but the fact remains that with a little shielding this becomes extremely hard to detect passively. Zabko uses the analogy of a hockey goalie who needs the rest of his team to help him defend the goal; no one line of defense is 100% effective and multiple lines of defense are needed to ensure security by disrupting every possible stage of an attack.

How can the effectiveness of this deterrent be measured? MacKinney tell us that this is tricky- after all, the non-occurrence of an event can’t be measured. However, there are some methods that can provide an indication, such as intercepted communications between would-be terrorists about the viability of a nuclear based attack, the testimony of informants or captured terrorists, or the actions we see terrorists take.

The logic is simple though: even though terrorists are often fanatical, everyone can be deterred in some way; deterrence is always better than response, therefore governments in the U.S. and beyond should make efforts to deter terrorists from mounting nuclear based attacks.

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