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Opinion

Three steps to reducing nuclear terrorism

America’s nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear terrorism are interconnected. How the US handles its arsenal must change.

By Micah Zenko and Michael Levi / January 25, 2010



Washington

The United States is on the cusp of making a needed shift on policy related to nuclear weapons.

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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. US restraint on each front can help encourage similar restraint from others.

2. The US currently deploys some 2,700 operational nuclear warheads: 2,200 “strategic” weapons mounted on intercontinental missiles or long-range bombers and 500 “tactical” weapons for short-range weapons systems. (Another 600 strategic weapons will be cut when the forthcoming US-Russia nuclear reduction agreement is implemented.)

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