Skip to comments.The Rogue Nuclear Threat
Posted on 05/26/2002 1:05:56 PM PDT by bat-boy
Shortly after World War II, the United States, via the United Nations, sought to put nuclear weapons under international control. The greatest obstacle confronting this objective was the Soviet Union. To overcome fears that the Soviet Union would scuttle the effort, the CIA in accord with White House desires predicted that it would be many years, well into the 1950s, before the Soviets would be able to test their first atomic bomb.
At the same time, there was a young, in his twenties, AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) intelligence analyst who estimated, based on his reading of unclassified Soviet technical papers, that the Soviets were likely to test an atomic bomb within only a few months. As it turned out, he was right. His prediction was within a month of the actual Soviet test, whereupon the CIA turned on him and accused him of withholding information from them.
To make matters worse, he had persuaded one of the AEC commissioners to go to President Truman and convince him of the immediate need to develop an airborne monitoring system. Truman concurred. The system was developed and helped detect this first Soviet test, which actually occurred in August 1949. Notwithstanding the irrefutable evidence that the Soviets had exploded a nuclear warhead of its own making, it was still a year before the CIA reluctantly acknowledged the test had actually taken place.
While deplorable, this is an example of how nuclear intelligence is riddled with cases where ignorance, incompetence, or just plain White House politics has dictated intelligence estimates rather than reality. Sad, but true. In the years that followed, and continuing to the present day, U.S. intelligence estimates of Soviet nuclear capability have been underestimates and assessments of Soviet nuclear doctrine have been principally mirror-images of U.S. policy that had little relation to the actual Soviet doctrine (policy) as clearly stated in Soviet classified military and political writings.
Today, the United States uncomfortably recognizes that Russias nuclear weapons stockpile is far greater that the U.S. stockpile, although we have no basis for judging how much larger it really is. This problem is starkly evident in the tactical nuclear area, where the Soviets have thousands of tactical nuclear weapons while, contrary to popular opinion as reflected in the writings and spoken words of various news commentators, the United States actually has none.
The imbalance at both ends of the spectrum is rationalized by assuming, mirror-image-wise, that neither side would ever dare cross the nuclear firebreak because of the unpredictable catastrophic consequences. However, the U.S.-Russian nuclear firebreak mythology, or religiosity as the case may be, does not automatically apply to rogue nations who are judged to be far less responsible or rational than the United States and, maybe, Russia respecting the use of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons. Obvious examples of such nations included North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, all of which are developing nuclear weapons and some of which may already have a worrisome number.
As happened with the U.S. governments politicized estimate of when the Soviets would become a nuclear power, we have assigned to these rogue nations a technological backwardness that has little foundation. Missing from this assignment is the fact that nuclear warheads and their delivery systems have advanced technologically over the years at an astonishing rate and that this information is generally available to any nation that wishes to exploit it.
The most glaring assumption in U.S. assessments of would be nuclear powers is that they will follow the course the United States took in its weapons development process fifty-five years ago. Thus, their first rogue nation warhead also will be of the Nagasaki vintage, even though there is ample open source information respecting the possibility of huge reductions in size, weight, and fissile material (plutonium in particular) requirements. The U.S. warhead used to destroy Nagasaki weighed some 5000 pounds, was about 5 feet in diameter, used 6 kilograms of highly enriched plutonium and had a yield of about 20 kilotons. Today, and many years before today, this yield could be obtained in a warhead weighing less than 50 pounds, less than one foot in diameter, and with a corresponding significantly lower plutonium investment.
Why would a country build a Nagasaki vintage warhead knowing they could get the same bang in a far smaller package and without needing nearly so much plutonium? This is especially true when the delivery problem is considered. Building a missile to deliver a 5000 pound payload is a lot more demanding than building or buying a missile to deliver a 50 pound payload. Using the smaller sized warhead, the rogue nation can use a sold-fuel missile that is mobile, concealable and capable of reaching the United States long before the United States could deploy an effective national missile defense system.
Part of the U.S. intelligence arguments against a rogue nation acquiring such a capability is the availability of highly enriched plutonium that is normally produced in special nuclear fission reactors. This requirement again reflects the U.S. logic employed in preparing to fight an all-out nuclear war, which implied the need for high quality warheads and dependable performance, which in turn meant the use of highly enriched plutonium. This, however, was nonsense then and still is. Nuclear war is far too complex and loaded with unknowns to allow anyone, irrespective of how precise their warhead yields are or how sophisticated their computer programs are, to gain a meaningful understanding of this vast imponderable.
For a rogue nation to achieve a meaningful deterrent capability against the United States, the yield of their warhead hardly has to be highly predictable. Almost any yield below the theoretical maximum will suffice. Considering the immense destructive power of these warheads, it makes precious little difference whether the yield is 20, 10, or even 5 or 2 kilotons. A commercial power reactor not producing highly-enriched plutonium is just as meaningful as a special nuclear fission reactor. Or, as Gertrud Stein might have explained it, A bomb is a bomb is a bomb
To assess a rogue countrys nuclear warhead stockpile on the basis of sophisticated analytical requirements is ludicrous and arrogant if not outright blind. But, thats the way the game is played in Washington, D.C., in order to downplay the immediacy of the threat and, thus, pacify the citizenry. To assign only a handful of warheads to, say North Korea, can be dangerously wrong. Moreover, as Edward Teller once said, The most difficult thing about designing an atomic bomb is to design one that doesnt work. He was profoundly correct, perhaps more than he realized.
As for the value of a dirty plutonium warhead one having a high content of Pu240 that undergoes spontaneous fission, thereby emitting neutrons that might accelerate the chain reaction, thereby making the warhead explode before optimum conditions have been reached, all leading to an unpredictable reduction in yield pragmatically this is not all that significant in the context of political reality. Should a nuclear device explode in New York City, or Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles, will it really matter whether the explosion was 20 or 2 kilotons or how dirty the plutonium was or will these distinctions be minor when compared with the political consequences?
Still further, who needs an ICBM? There is an endless array of tactics for placing a nuclear warhead in, for example, a container that eventually finds its way into a U.S. harbor. Roughly five million containers enter U.S. ports each year. There are so many that less than 3 percent of the containers are inspected. In the unlikely event that a container harboring a nuclear warhead be selected for inspection one day, well, so what? Let it explode in the harbor when the container is opened. That would be more than adequate. Moreover, where the intelligence analysts all run out of ink is the critical question, what happens if and when one does explode? How will we assign blame, when the evidence is vaporized?
Today, it is not just a case of a rogue nation building its own weapon. Such a nation can also steal a warhead or buy one, or so we have been lead to believe in the wake of 911. Thus, there are numerous routes to having a capability that does not have to be large or with predictable yields. Given the close associations of rogue nations and terrorist and related groups, the operation itself can be divided in any number of ways and produce a disaster in ways that would give any customs inspector pause.
Nor is this the end of the possibilities. Fifteen years ago, international terrorism was, after considerable political hand-wringing, recognized as being state-supported terrorism. The dominant state that supported, organized, and taught the terrorists were Russia and China, mainly the former. When the politics changed in the early 1990s, terrorism as a matter of policy suddenly became non-state-supported, and this is still the case today. Yet, there is nothing to stop a non-rogue state with the expertise, capability, contacts, and know-how from orchestrating a nuclear event, or two or three, to create massive psychological, political, and economic damage, with that event designed to have all the telltale evidence implicating a rogue nation or non-state terrorist group planted to confound the hounds.
In sum, in assessing the nature and path taken by an allegedly backward rogue nation to achieve a nuclear threat may be quite different from the assumptions that have been far too common in such past assessments. Even the problem of defining a rogue nation nuclear threat loses its meaning when one recognizes the demonstrated propensity for non-rogue nations to use rogue nations and non-nation players as surrogates to mask their own intentions and presence behind the scenes. Assumptions that are delimited, usually for political reasons, do a great disservice to not only the very idea of intelligence but more fatally to the decision makers themselves and, most important, to the nation and its citizens.
For some reason, the scene here in America has been, thankfully, relatively quiet since 911. Even the anthrax scare did not raise much dust. Is the bombing in Afghanistan responsible or are the terrorists or their friends simply biding their time waiting for the big score?
Twenty years ago, on June 7, 1981, Israel, with Americas help, took the bold step and, using precision-guided munitions, blasted Iraqs Osirak nuclear weapons material reactor. Is a similar option available today? Without question, its a lot more problematic today than it was in 1992. Moreover, if we take off the political blinders, who is the gravest threat to security and stability today? Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Iraq, Iran, Syria, the 100 million other fundamental Muslims within which are imbedded 1 or more million fanatical Muslims, the PLO, or the fifty or more other terrorist groups identified in the State Departments annual terrorism assessment. Might not China, Russia, North Korea, and Cuba also pose serious threats to our security.
Who has more friends or more friends in the right places? The United States, or bin Laden and his top associates?
But still a good read!
Probably bin Laden. Anyone who doesn't believe "our good friend" Putin and the Chicoms are licking their chops in anticipation of possibly feasting on our carcass is a fool.
I have always thought that nuclear weapons would be used at sea against our carrier battle groups (by the Backfire bombers). They have the bullets, we have the targets.
I also thought that (given the materials and personnel who didn't mind being irradiated) that a "low yield" nuclear weapon would be simple to build. I am sure that the terrorists have figured this out quite some time ago. All that is required is the PU to make it go.
We should have radiation detectors located everywhere in a network, linked to computers, to guard against this.
Bump from the past ... enjoy folks!
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