Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 7, 2010

The New Game in Town

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on April 7, 2010

Game theory has long informed U.S. nuclear strategy and the strategies of many of our nuclear-armed adversaries. Armed deterrence and the theory of mutual assured destruction relies upon a fundamental assumption that any adversary amoral enough to use such fearsome weapons nevertheless remains sufficiently rational not to wish the suffering of retaliation upon itself and its people by launching a pre-emptive strike.

The Nuclear Posture Review released this week and the agreement to enter into a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia reflect the realization that the rules of the nuclear arms game have changed, not just for the U.S. but for all nuclear-armed nations. The real potential of nuclear weapons to influence strategy and policy today rests not upon the awesome power they pose for adversaries to annihilate one another, but the more practical moral and political consequences of possessing them in the first place. These consequences include both the rewards of deterrence and the risks associated with the possibility nuclear weapons technology will fall into the wrong hands.

The more terrifying threat facing nuclear armed nations today is not the menace their weapons pose to one another, but the risk their nuclear programs pose if the technology or know-how they possess comes under the control of unscrupulous or unchecked states or worse, non-state actors. Unlike the Cold War anxieties that led to the arms race and proxy fights that nearly bankrupted both sides, the new game revolves around a different and much more complex set of assumptions.

Game theory relies upon the possibility of predictability not just plausibility. Imagining a threat is not enough. How do we predict the appropriate posture for an adversary that behaves in ways that do not respond to conventional incentives or conform to our expectations of rationality? How should the assumption that this adversary subscribes to an inflexible moral code that dismisses recognized notions of right and wrong influence our decisions and actions?

By the time the destructive potential of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals exceeded the level each side needed to achieve mutually assured destruction, the symbolic power of these weapon systems began to rival the real power of their substance.  Today, the substantive threat posed by nuclear proliferation rests upon the symbolic value of acquiring the same toys the big boys play with not achieving the same results.

Nuclear strategy and deterrence are no longer questions of who can deliver the most firepower more accurately or with the shortest time to target. Today, we must consider the consequences of small strikes against unsecured targets that inflict limited rather than catastrophic casualties against innocent civilians or noncombatants. The costs of this new arms race are neither defined by the scale nor scope of the consequences or the comparative costs of developing the capabilities to counter an attack, but rather by the investments expected or demanded to prevent it from happening in the first place. This thinking represents the ultimate in asymmetric warfare because it reflects a different calculus driven by the value and purpose we see in human life.

The danger posed by the new generation of nuclear wannabes does not represent the sort of existential threat that served as the basis for our previous policies. Today we face an ontological threat that redefines our relationships not only with the technology and those who possess it, but also with the way we organize and think about the capabilities and threats these weapons present.

We may no longer fear the prospect that we will destroy one another or end all life on earth through a nuclear exchange. But we just might achieve the same end more slowly by making decisions and taking actions that produce misguided or misplaced investments in security as opposed to more productive and farsighted investments in human development.

The Nuclear Posture Review is a step in the direction of a more enlightened and responsible strategy, albeit a very small one. It recognizes that the only surefire way to keep nuclear technology and know how from falling into the wrong hands is to eventually get rid of them altogether.

At the same time, it recognizes that we cannot un-ring the nuclear bell or put the atomic genie back inside the bottle. Only by choosing a new game can we change the rules that really matter, the ones that lead us to make positive rather than negative investments in human security.

This new game involves new rules. If we want to ensure this does not become the zero sum game we have come to expect from our nuclear policy, we have to re-imagine and redefine the relationship between development and security. We can only claim a victory when the number of nuclear weapons in the world and those prepared to use them equals zero.

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6 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 7, 2010 @ 5:44 am

Develpment of nuclear weapons was always presumed to be a rational act. Mark’s post eloquently sums up the past, present, and hopeful possible future. The use of game theory and “thinking the unthinkable” ended with the adoption of the MAD doctrine [still the doctrine of the US under the revised nuclear posture being discussed, at least with respect to nation-states with nuclear weapons]! I would argue that any rationale use for these weapons has failed to be developed since their first employment when the primary rationale was defeating the Japanese Empire without having to invade the home islands. Essentially, I have adopted the philosophy of Retired General Lee Butler, once the owner, developer and updater of the US SIOP.
The nuclear priesthood has largely died off. But not quite. So this nation continues to struggle with the creation of a weapon without any MILITARY use in WWII. What concerns me now is not the slow evolution to the ultimate rationale position on nuclear weapons, and that of course is NO NUKES, ANYWHERE!
What continues to interest me is the failure of the US Executive Branch to deal with what I consider the primary mission of the Department of Homeland Security, specifically preventing, protecting, mitigating, preparing, responding, and recovering from any use of WMD.

For some background thinking and info you can review some more of my thoughts and conclusions at my blog:
http://vlg338.blogspot.com

Comment by Craig

April 7, 2010 @ 7:34 pm

The use of nuclear weapons falls into two categories now: use by a state, and use by non-state actors (ie: terrorists).

MAD works against the first case, but not against the second. All the US has to do in the first case is explain to Iran/North Korea/etc that any offensive use of nuclear weapons against the US or our allies WILL result in nuclear weapons being used against the aggressor, accompanied with a photo-book of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to remind them that the US is the only country that has every used nuclear weapons.

The second case (Al Qaeda, et al) will not be as amenable to reason. They will off a nuclear weapon (if they acquire one) because they can’t be similarly targeted, and besides, they’ve got God, Allah, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster on their side.

Unfortunately, the one thing we can’t do is get rid of ALL nuclear weapons — prohibition doesn’t work, and the science and engineering are too well-understood by too many people. Anyone who can get their hands on enough plutonium and who has the resources to support a 3-5 year engineering effort should be able to build fission weapons. (Thankfully, fusion weapons are still out of the reach of the non-state players).

From that I conclude that we need to be spending serious resources to improve FEMA’s capabilities for responding to a nuclear incident.

Comment by Mark Chubb

April 8, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

I accept that deployment and use of a radiological IED (dirty bomb) seems likely to occur sooner or later. Although I accept Craig’s premise that the know-how to build fission weapons is too widely dispersed to keep the genie in the bottle, I have to wonder why so few countries have managed to develop or possess this technology.

This leads me to believe something is working. That something probably involves the substantial effort and expense involved in acquiring or producing the preferred fissile materials U235 and Pu239, not to mention the trigger and launch capabilities. (Yes, I realize that a very destructive weapon could be packed inside a common shipping container and deployed almost anywhere without much sophistication.)

Had the U.S. not joined its nuclear power production and atomic weapons programs at the hip, we might well have seen this whole story take a different turn. Thorium, in particular, is a far less dangerous and more plentiful material, which has proven efficacious as a reactor fuel in power production applications. Investing in this technology rather than developing a new generation of conventional reactors (if this comes back into vogue) might help maintain the status quo while allowing others to develop and deploy this alternative energy technology without the same risk of nuclear proliferation.

Does anyone reading this blog know (roughly) the total quantity of weapons-grade material currently in existence anywhere that has not already been weaponized, i.e., used to produce an actual weapon that is in the stockpile of a nuclear nation? I am assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that the available supply of weapons-grade fissile material is not too vast, and could be rather easily secured if its location could be verified.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

April 8, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

There is an entire literature on the question of why there aren’t more nuclear powers. Instead of getting into that field, let me instead dispel the notion that it is so hard.

Canada could do it. Sweden could do it. Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands….it just isn’t that hard. Remember that South Africa did it without testing in the late 1970s. Japan has enough PU sitting around that while it is an esoteric argument about exactly how quickly they could go nuclear (one year to three years…), no one doubts it.

The first nuclear test was the type dropped on Nagasaki. The Hiroshima bomb was never tested because everyone assumed (correctly) it would work.

The largest barriers for nation states is constructing an indigenous fissile material production capability (see Iran now and Pakistan use of illicit technology acquisition earlier). Next is a delivery system–in other words not simply weaponizing their material but making it small enough to fit on a ballistic missile since large bombers are generally unreliable systems for immature nuclear powers. (Triggers aren’t so hard…we and others figured it out decades ago…).

The largest barrier for terrorists is simply acquisition of the fissile material. They can’t make it so they need to acquire it. Especially if they get HEU, the barriers to making a crude but working weapon are large but not insurmountable. (Waiting for J. to chime in against the threat in 5, 4, 3, 2, …).

The Thorium question I’m not so sure about, but give me a few days and we can discuss offline. I have enough faith in the market system to believe that there must be some intrinsic issues with using Thorium for power production that led to the reliance on uranium and Pu.

Your last question is not so easy to answer. What do you mean by “weapons grade?” The current definition of weapons grade or that is actually use-able in a weapon? For example, today weapons grade HEU means 90% or above. But the bomb dropped on Hiroshima used uranium enriched to something in the 80s. And a weapon could be made with less…it just takes a lot more material as you go down the enrichment scale. In addition, weapons grade material from Russia has been blended down and used to produce electricity in the U.S. You also have the issues surrounding material used in research reactors plus that reprocessed for nuclear power use.

One estimate of what you are looking for:
Amount of HEU required to make a crude nuclear bomb: 25 kg
# Global stockpile of HEU: 1,600,000 kg
# Amount of Pu required to make a crude nuclear bomb: 8 kg
# Global stockpile of separated Pu: 500,000 kg
(http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/20057/nuclear_terrorism_fact_sheet.html).

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 9, 2010 @ 12:29 am

About 1990 a high ranking CIA friend now long deceased estimated to me that in his thinking about 2030 the 30-30 rule would apply! 30 nation-states with delivery capability of nukes. 30 with nuclear capability. Not necessarily a duplicate listing of nation-states.

Thomas PM Barnett on his blog argues that will NEVER happen! Well perhaps not but am guess that a nuclear capable, delivery capable N.Korea or Iran might well spark proliferation in fact or announced. Hope I am around in 2030 but only to see Tom right and my deceased friend at CIA wrong.

Comment by Mark Chubb

April 13, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

A really interesting essay on the nuclear threat posed by extremists appeared today on Newsweek’s Declassified blog. It makes similar points to those I raised, but also looks at the distinctive way terrorists plan their attacks and contrasts this with the way we look at them. A highly recommended read!

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