Tuesday, May 8, 2007

It is March 1940 all over again

According to New York Times's David Sanger and Thom Shanker, the U.S. strategy has travelled back in time to March 1940:

WASHINGTON, May 7 — Every week, a group of experts from agencies around the government — including the C.I.A., the Pentagon, the F.B.I. and the Energy Department — meet to assess Washington’s progress toward solving a grim problem: if a terrorist set off a nuclear bomb in an American city, could the United States determine who detonated it and who provided the nuclear material?

That uncertainty lies at the center of a vigorous, but carefully cloaked, debate within the Bush administration. It focuses on how to refashion the American approach to nuclear deterrence in an attempt to counter the threat posed by terrorists who could obtain bomb-grade uranium or plutonium to make and deliver a weapon.

A previously undisclosed meeting last year of President Bush’s most senior national security advisers was the highest level discussion about how to rewrite the cold war rules. The existing approach to deterrence dates from the time when the nuclear attacks Washington worried about would be launched by missiles and bombers, which can be tracked back to a source by radar, and not carried in backpacks or hidden in cargo containers.

Among the subjects of the meeting last year was whether to issue a warning to all countries around the world that if a nuclear weapon was detonated on American soil and was traced back to any nation’s stockpiles, through nuclear forensics, the United States would hold that country “fully responsible” for the consequences of the explosion. The term “fully responsible” was left deliberately vague so that it would be unclear whether the United States would respond with a retaliatory nuclear attack, or, far more likely, a nonnuclear retaliation, whether military or diplomatic.

History Lesson

For those who were not history majors in college, the idea of nuclear deterrence was first outlined in a March 1940 memorandum written by Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls. The original intent of this memorandum was two refute the fissile mass calculations made by Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard in the August 1939 letter they sent to President Roosevelt. Einstein and Szliard had originally asserted that an atomic bomb would require "large mass of uranium" that could be "...carried by boat and exploded in a port..." but "...might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air."

Frisch and Peierls argued that an atomic super bomb as small as 1-5 kilograms would release an explosive force the equivalent of 500-1000 tons of dynamite. They even roughly sketched out what would become gun-type explosive device design first used to build Little Boy. Besides the mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Frisch-Peierls memorandum is also famous for the following paragraph:

If one works on the assumption that Germany is, or will be, in the possession of this weapon, it must be realized that no shelters are available that would be effective and that could be used on a large scale. The most effective reply would be a counter-threat with a similar bomb. Therefore it seems to us important to start production as soon and as rapidly as possible, even if it is not intended to use the bomb as a means of attack. Since the separation of the necessary amount of uranium is, in the most favourable circumstances, a matter of several months, it would obviously be too late to start production when such a bomb is known to be in the hands of Germany, and the matter seems, therefore, very urgent.

This thinking would lead to Eisenhower's New Look strategy with its attendant doctrine of massive retaliation first outlined in NSC 162/2. Kennedy replaced massive retaliation with a doctrine of flexible response, which pretty much survived until the end of the Cold War -- despite the occasional debate over counterforce targeting, decapitation strikes, and fail-deadly strategies. Now that the Cold War is over and the U.S. and Russia have reigned in from the brink of precipice, the threat of loose nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism has come to the forefront.

Rewinding the Clock

This Times piece suggests that U.S. strategy against nuclear terrorism is again somewhere between 1940 and 1953 -- scrambling to come up with a way to reliably cope with the threat of nuclear terrorism. It is not surprising that the notoriously pessimistic and lazy Bush administration would look to the well-worn idea of nuclear deterrence as a solution. The problem is that nuclear deterrence is an incredibly abstract concept that is only be applicable in a narrow set of conditions, many of which would not be true in a nuclear terrorism scenario.

Instead of going through all of the major issues, I would like to highlight three that the Bush administration will have tackle before forging the 'New New Look':

1. The decoupling of 'owner' and 'end user' -- Traditional nuclear deterrence is such a simple and universally-applicable concept because the 'owner' and 'end-user' of a nuclear weapons threat is always the same adversary. Nuclear terrorism deterrence must involve a two-level strategy that deters owners from intentionally transferring nuclear weapons, as well as deter the potential for end-user acquisition of nuclear weapons against the will of the owner. This will be especially difficult because the owner and end-user will probably have radically different centers of gravity and vulnerabilities. At the very least, the Bush administration has to solve the problem of targeting a non-state actor guilty of nuclear terrorism within an unwilling (and innocent) host state.

2. Marshaling the resources -- An incident of nuclear terrorism in the United States would undoubtedly have an enormous impact on the American people and the economy. Unlike traditional nuclear deterrence, however, it would not spell the end of the United States as a nation, nor is it as tangibly imminent as thousands of Soviet ICBMs standing ready on a continuous alert. How much will employing a nuclear terrorism deterrence strategy cost, in terms of dollars and diplomatic capital? How much will it cost to extend that strategy to our allies? Do our allies even want to be under such an umbrella? Most importantly, does the actual threat of nuclear terrorism justify the cost of its deterrence strategy and can such a rationale be reliably sold to the American voter?

3. Conquering context -- Like nuclear weapons states, terrorist groups seeking nuclear weapons have different political agendas. They are also willing to risk different degrees of punishment to pull off a nuclear plot. There is also the issue of how to deal with an intentional nuclear weapons transfer conducted by rogue elements of the government (or only part of a split government, i.e. Iran). Is it even possible to craft an abstract idea, such as deterrence, to deal with an incredibly complex issue that depends heavily on the context of each instance of nuclear terrorism


RS said...

The other aspect of nuclear terrorism that works against traditional deterrence models is the absence of a logical/rational adversary. In a traditional deterrence model the threat of a massive counterstrike on the aggressor and the massive casualties that would result are assumed to counterbalance the gains achieved by a nuclear first-strike. When dealing with people who are not deterred by their own death, believing that their casualties are granted immediate salvation, deterrence is rather meaningless.

Robot Economist said...

RS - Very true, but I would be cautious to overplay that factor. Not all members of a terrorist group have the same martyrdom mentality - in fact, the explosive-vest wearing martyrdom types are only a small fraction of a terror group's whole operation.

The top-level strategists and mid-level "professionals" (bombmakers, forgers, accountants, logisticians, etc.) are probably a lot less willing to sacrifice themselves, especially if it means an unheroic death.

On the same token, some scholars have argued that state leaders can often make seemingly irrational choices because of the effect of bounded rationality.

I'm not denying that rationality (or probably better put the willingness to make sacrifices) isn't a factor, I'm just suggesting that it will be difficult to accurately incorporate into a larger strategy. It would be more effective to assume rationality on the part of the terrorists and merely apply a thorough understanding of the terrorist's agenda.