GAMING NUCLEAR THREAT ASSESSMENTS
Blogfriend Cheryl Rofer, an expert in nuclear issues with field experience, had an exceptionally intriguing post up the other day at Whirledview entitled “ A Rough Nuclear Threat Assessment for the United States“. While I encourage you to read her post in full first here are her assessments (bold text) along with my responses(normal text):
“Finding 1. No serious immediate threat.There is no country in the world that seriously threatens a nuclear attack on the United States. Further, the probability that a terrorist organization has usable nuclear weapons is extremely low. The most serious current threat of a nuclear explosion in the United States arises from accidents resulting from the continuing alert status of US and Russian nuclear-tipped missiles.”
I would tend to agree with the following caveats:
Radiological bomb attacks or terrorist attacks on American nuclear facilities such as power plants in the hopes of sparking an ” American Chernobyl” are respectively more and marginally more likely than “extremely low”. Add in the possible downstream negative effects of terrorists liberating nuclear materials from poorly guarded Russian installations as well. We are also at risk for secondary environmental effects of nuclear weapons uses by third parties ( ex. India-Pakistan).
All of these are of far lower significance though than a state-based nuclear first strike against the United States or its forces overseas.
“Finding 2. Threats in the 2-5 year range are extremely low. Most can be managed by US actions.Relations with Russia are deteriorating. Relations with China are good, except for some friction in the area of trade. An agreement has been reached with North Korea on denuclearization. Iran is unlikely to have nuclear weapons within this time frame. Pakistan’s current instability presents a concern that action against the government might put nuclear weapons in the hands of radical Islamic groups. Russia continues to improve its nuclear weapons security.
There are a number of ways to improve relations with Russia, including delaying construction of antimissile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Because Iran is unlikely to have nuclear weapons within this time frame, there is time for negotiation. The instability in Pakistan is the most unpredictable and uncontrollable of the threats in this time frame. We have to hope that rumors are true that the United States has been helping Pakistan to “safe” its nuclear weapons with permissive action links that keep unauthorized people from using them.”
I agree here as well, also seeing Pakistan as the potentially most dangerous wild card. State stability in Iran should not, however, be overestimated, given the decentralization of Iran’s nuclear weapons and power programs. Too many items ripe for the picking by prospective factions, terrorists or transnational criminal syndicates if Iran’s state falters.
“Finding 3. Threats in the 5-20 year range are much less predictable, but remain low.With intelligent diplomacy and some steps back from the more warlike policies of the Bush administration, such as preventive warfare (which step may have already been taken), good relations can be maintained with other nuclear powers. In a similar vein, progress should be possible with North Korea and Iran toward non nuclear weapon status. Instability in Pakistan and friction between Pakistan and India are probably the biggest threats of nuclear war or nuclear weapons becoming available to subnational groups. Regional conflicts could encourage other states (say Brazil and Argentina) to consider a path to nuclear weapons, but the probability of such conflicts seems likely to remain low.
Let’s just stop here for a moment and take a breath. This is a very different threat assessment from anything that might have been done during the Cold War. In fact, it surprised me when I saw it all written down this way. But if we stick to verifiable threats with reasonable probability, I think this is the way it has to come out.”
I depart here from Cheryl. In my view, the degree of uncertainty is too high given the length of the time frame and the systemic instability (current and potential) of a number of nuclear armed states. Moreover, proliferation ( and sequence/timing of proliferation) changes the dynamic by altering the nuclear postures of interested states. A nuclear Iran changes Saudi Arabia’s attitude toward non-proliferation while a nuclear armed Japan does not. Each additional new nuclear weapons state increases the probability of accident, loss, covert sale or use. I would rate the danger as rising toward “moderate” the further you go in terms of out-years.
A great post by Cheryl.
May 30th, 2007 at 1:08 pm
Thanks for the kind words, Mark.
I’m running low on time, so just a couple of comments.
My threat assessment is strictly confined to nuclear weapons. Radiological weapons, like chemical and biological weapons, are not even in that ballpark, despite the lumping term “WMD.” That lumping is part of what is clouding our thinking.
It’s true that the further out you go, the more uncertain the “findings” become. A more thorough threat assessment would work through several scenarios. A point that I hope to make clearer in future posts is that the United States, as the sole remaining superpower, has big-time leverage in this issue.
How to deal with uncertainty is a problem in this area. Overreacting to uncertainty may well make the problem worse. (Seems like that fits in other areas, too.)
Meanwhile, the take-out conclusion (that I think you mostly agree with) is that the nuclear threat is much, much less than most discussions in “24,” George Bush’s speeches, and the commentariat’s columns would lead us to believe.
I hope to get another post in this series out next week.
June 2nd, 2007 at 4:22 am
Sorry for the delay in responding. It was a hellish week on my end.
“That lumping is part of what is clouding our thinking “
I see your point in terms of scale; however, in terms of politics, a WMD attack could provoke, in the heat of the moment, a nuclear response on our part. Imagine if you will, a CNN newsflash of “30,000 feared dead in al Qaida attack…”
“How to deal with uncertainty is a problem in this area. Overreacting to uncertainty may well make the problem worse”
It could. Very true. Even open discussion of some possibilities can set a self-fulfilling prophecy in motion.
Also the nuclear incident could very well be a ” black swan” we don’t expect. We’re looking hard for a mushroom cloud over Manhattan. How about plutonium in a water supply ? Or a takeover of a nuclear plant which is then ” held hostage”. W
hat is most likely to succeed against us is the thing no one ever thought to prepare against.
June 2nd, 2007 at 5:56 am
I’ll agree that what is most likely to succeed (whatever success means in this context) is what we don’t expect. But I think that your other comments are just the sort of overreaction my analysis is intended to rebut.
The argument that we must not talk about such bad things has been extinguished by such media events as “24”, the overuse of mushroom metaphors in 2003, and, just to mention the most recent, the hysteria CNN seems to be trying to whip up about tuberculosis for everyone.
“30,000 feared dead in Al Qaida attack”? And what would be the use of nuclear weapons there? I’m asking the question in the context of serious foreign policy options, not just the need to “smack some small country up against the wall.”
June 2nd, 2007 at 3:15 pm
“I’m asking the question in the context of serious foreign policy options, not just the need to “smack some small country up against the wall.”
I understand that. Wargaming hypothetical scenarios allows the coolheaded consideration of options in a way that does not occur in the pressure of real-ilfe crisis decision making. It’s a good thing to do.
If you consider the ExComm transcripts, for example, there was tremendous bureaucratic pressure to run with the two preferred military options in regard to attacking Russian missile sites. Getting to ( the far less dangerous) out of the box thinking was only possible because the public was unaware of the crisis until after the Kennedy administration had settled on a strategy.
Any American president in the wake of a mass casualty WMD terror attack will not have JFK’s luxury of time. I’m simply being realistic here that the political pressure to retaliate with nuclear weapons will be immense. It can’t be dismissed out of hand, only prepared for so that the president will have better alternatives in place to satisfy that political pressure than reacting with nukes.
June 5th, 2007 at 8:17 pm
Hi again Mark –
Sorry I’m slow to respond, but I was traveling over the weekend.
This is exactly what I’m trying to get beyond in my threat assessment:
“I’m simply being realistic here that the political pressure to retaliate with nuclear weapons will be immense.”
Fareed Zakharia has some things to say about that; it’s similar to what I was getting at in my comment about slamming a small country against the wall. We have to return to rationality as a basis for foreign policy, particularly the making of war.
As you said, “It can’t be dismissed out of hand, only prepared for so that the president will have better alternatives in place to satisfy that political pressure than reacting with nukes.”
We’ve all got to start that preparation now.