Deterring Nuclear Terrorism: Contrary to Popular Belief, with a Little Technological Innovation, Deterrence Can Become a Useful Strategy against Terrorist Use of Nuclear Weapons

By Levi, Michael A. | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Deterring Nuclear Terrorism: Contrary to Popular Belief, with a Little Technological Innovation, Deterrence Can Become a Useful Strategy against Terrorist Use of Nuclear Weapons


Levi, Michael A., Issues in Science and Technology


Has terrorism made deterrence obsolete? President Bush articulated the prevailing view in his June 2002 West Point address: "Deterrence--the promise of massive retaliation against nations--means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies." Debate over missile defense aside, U.S. foreign policy thinkers have largely accepted his reasoning, though they argue on the margins over how unbalanced most dictators are.

Yet in confronting the prospect of nuclear terrorism--and there is no more dire threat facing America today--this logic is flawed. Its purported truth in addressing nuclear terror relies almost entirely on its assumption that rogue states could provide nuclear weapons "secretly" to terrorists. But were such nowsecret links to be exposed, deterrence could largely be restored. The United States would threaten unacceptable retaliation were a state to provide the seeds of a terrorist nuclear attack; unable to use terrorists for clandestine delivery, rogue states would be returned to the grim reality of massive retaliation.

Most policymakers have assumed that exposing such links would be impossible. It is not. Building on scientific techniques developed during the Cold War, the United States stands a good chance of developing the tools needed to attribute terrorist nuclear attacks to their state sponsors. If it can put those tools in place and let its enemies know of their existence, deterrence could become one of the most valuable tools in the war on terror.

Terrorists cannot build nuclear weapons without first acquiring fissile materials-plutonium or highly enriched uranium--from a state source. They might steal materials from poorly secured stockpiles in the former Soviet Union, but with the right investment in cooperative threat reduction, that possibility can be precluded. Alternatively, they could acquire fissile materials from a sympathetic, or desperate, state source. North Korea presented this threat most acutely when it threatened in May 2003 to sell plutonium to the highest bidder.

The Bush administration appears to be acutely aware of such a possibility and is trying to prevent it by fighting state-based nuclear proliferation and by attempting to eliminate terrorist groups. Yet it has taken few effective steps to break direct connections between terrorists and nuclear rogues. The elimination of terrorist networks and prevention of nuclear proliferation should be top goals, but a robust policy cannot be predicated on assuming universal success in those two endeavors.

Two basic lines of attack might help break any connection. In the one currently favored by the administration, militaries attempt to break the terrorist/state link physically by focusing on interdiction of nuclear weapons transfers. But the technical barriers to such a strategy's success are high. A grapefruit-sized ball of plutonium or a cantaloupe's worth of highly enriched uranium is enough for a crude nuclear weapon that would flatten much of a city, and detecting such a shipment would be extremely difficult. Like missile defense, interdiction is a useful tool in preventing nuclear attack, but also like missile defense, it is far from sufficient in itself. In confronting the threat of missile attack, the United States ultimately relies on deterrence, threatening any would-be attacker with unacceptable punishment. It will need the same tool to prevent nuclear terrorism.

This, of course, begs a question: If nuclear materials are so hard to detect, how can state/terrorist connections be exposed? Solving this problem requires a novel and somewhat unsettling twist. Instead of simply focusing on intercepting bombs, we must learn to identify a nuclear weapon's origin after it has exploded, by examining its residue. …

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Deterring Nuclear Terrorism: Contrary to Popular Belief, with a Little Technological Innovation, Deterrence Can Become a Useful Strategy against Terrorist Use of Nuclear Weapons
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