America's nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear terrorism are
interconnected. How the US handles its arsenal must change.
The United States is on the cusp of making a needed shift on
policy related to nuclear weapons.
The last time the US had a congressionally mandated review of its
nuclear status was in 2002. In that Nuclear Posture Review,
declassified portions contained no mention of "preventing nuclear
terrorism." The latest review, slated to be finished in March,
appears to indicate that America's nuclear arsenal and the threat of
nuclear terrorism are interconnected issues. That means that how the
US handles its nuclear weapons will have to change.
Such a shift, one long advocated by experts and practitioners,
would recognize two key principles:
First, the threat from terrorists acquiring a nuclear weapon (or
the material to make one) is greater than that of a nuclear strike
against the US.
As a National Intelligence Estimate warned in December 2001: "The
Intelligence Community judge[s] that US territory is more likely to
be attacked with WMD [weapons of mass destruction] using nonmissile
means - most likely from terrorists - than by missiles."
Second, the routine maintenance and deployment of nuclear weapons
throughout the world increases the likelihood of nuclear terrorism.
In short, the bomb does not necessarily make us safer.
The Nuclear Posture Review is intended to provide strategic
guidance for the US on how to handle nuclear weapons for the next
five to 10 years. If the following steps are implemented, loose
nuclear material - and thus the threat of nuclear terrorism - around
the world could be secured within a few years:
1. Washington must recognize that the only role for US nuclear
weapons is deterrence. Currently, the US has a more expansive
approach. In particular, it retains the threat of preventive
offensive strikes against adversaries' weapons of mass destruction.
This encourages others to disperse their weapons widely, to adopt
weaker command and control, to employ weapons on mobile systems, and
to avoid transparency and cooperation with US or international
efforts to better secure their nuclear weapons. All these steps put
their arsenals at greater risk to theft.
Since each weapon is vulnerable to theft during transport for
maintenance, refurbishment, or deployment, reducing the number of
weapons in every nuclear weapons nation is an important component of
preventing nuclear terrorism. …