Hugh Gusterson's review of the book "A Nuclear Family Vacation" by Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger, in the September/October issue of American Scientist, quotes the authors as saying they found workers in the U.S. nuclear weapon complex ". . . . adrift. . . . at a loss, once challenged, to explain how nuclear deterrence works against terrorists. . . . We failed . . . to find anyone within the complex who could articulate what the role of the nuclear arsenal is, or should be." This finding displays a singular lack of imagination in a critically important part of the U.S. defense establishment.
First, with regard to the risk of nuclear terrorism: the essence of deterrence in international security affairs is that a would-be aggressor perceives that the retaliation after an attack would exact a penalty greater than any potential gains from the attack. The prospective nuclear terrorists could be reminded through some appropriate channel that there is a recent history, from Pearl Harbor through Korea and Vietnam to Kuwait and Afghanistan, of incorrect anticipation by an aggressor of American response to an attack on itself or its vital interests. The unpredictability about an American response to a nuclear attack on its soil, in which hundreds of thousands of people would likely be killed and a major city devastated, would be even greater after a decapitating attack, following which national command would devolve to lower levels of government. In any case, the U.S. response in anger could put at risk all that the terrorists hold dear within their own civilization. This realization should give the terrorists pause, and it should energize the countries from which they emerge or that harbor them to put more effort into restraining them than they may now be doing.
More broadly, we can note the incessant current media speculation about the possible necessity to attack Iran's nuclear facilities if it appears that Iran might develop nuclear weapons to arm the long range surface-to-surface missiles it is developing. Here, too, the notion of deterrence seems to have gone out of our international security lexicon with the dissolution of the USSR. However, Iran could be reminded that enough of our submarine-based strategic missile force is at sea at any one time to eliminate Iran as a civilization and a people should a nuclear attack from Iran strike the U.S. or any of our close allies in Europe, the Middle East or Asia. This would simply extend the nuclear umbrella that already shields many of those allies.
The members of our nuclear weapons complex and forces should refocus. The potential of our nuclear arsenal for deterring nuclear threats from terrorism or hostile nations of all stripes who may develop nuclear weapons in the future merits as much of their technical, analytical and policy attention as was devoted to cultivating deterrence during the very different conditions of the Cold War.
posted by Seymour Deitchman
September 9, 2008