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.

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

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.)

America’s arsenal is deployed at various states of readiness on bases across the US, on 14 Trident submarines, and in allied countries.

The US should consolidate the sites where warheads and bomb-grade fissile materials are stored, convert Trident submarines for conventional missions to threaten an adversary’s WMD programs, and, in consultation with European allies, remove all forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons in storage vaults at air bases in Britain, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey.

3. Finally, sustained diplomacy with countries that have the bomb or bomb-grade fissile materials is an essential ingredient for implementing the review’s new guidance.

Years after the revelations of Al Qaeda’s efforts to obtain a bomb, there remain foreign leaders unwilling to remove unneeded fissile material, bureaucratic hurdles to implementing or sustaining threat reduction programs, and complacency about the threat. Diplomatic initiatives to reduce the likelihood of loose nukes could be more accepted if conducted parallel to a strategy that reduces the use of US nuclear materials.

In his April 2009 speech in Prague, Czech Republic, President Obama announced “a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years.”

If the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review acknowledges that America’s nuclear arsenal and the threat of nuclear terrorism are interconnected issues, and carefully translates that into practice, it will improve the administration’s odds at meeting its deadline.

Micah Zenko is a fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Michael Levi a senior fellow at the council and author of the book “On Nuclear Terrorism.”


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