The delicate imbalance: Say ‘hi’ to the multi-proliferated nuclear world
By Mark Stout
The idea of world without nuclear weapons continues to recede in the rear-view mirror of the mind. How so? Well, if you can believe what you read, Pakistan is on a course to be the fourth largest nuclear weapons state in the world, ahead of France and the United Kingdom. But while we’re on the subject, how is it that Pakistan now has any nuclear weapons, let alone so many? Proliferation, of course.
Nuclear weapons proliferation doesn’t occur spuriously; it requires forethought and great perseverance. In a chain-reaction–so to speak–of events, Pakistan got their nuclear know-how from China who got theirs from the USSR who got theirs through their spies, scientists, and industrialists (and for the USSR, perhaps in approximately that order of importance). To say the least, Pakistan’s weapons count and the reality that they may have produced enough extra nuclear material to construct 40 to 100 additional weapons–including a new class of bombs–means they must think this is what’s necessary for a credible nuclear deterrent.
Next, consider this: is Pakistan more stable, less stable, or about the same as Egypt?
So even though preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism are listed as the first of five key objectives in last year’s Nuclear Posture Review, it should be self-evident that it would also be prudent to ponder and pursue courses of action that will help sustain national security should these preventative efforts fall short. The real lesson is the often repeated suggestion that it is a useful strategy to deal with the world as it is–that is, that nuclear weapons are likely to proliferate–and not just as we wish it would be. This then is the call to action: how to deal with the challenges of a more-proliferated nuclear world.
Nuclear non-proliferation is governed in part by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT or sometimes, NNPT), the treaty which came into force in 1970 for the purpose of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. How effective has the NPT been? Three nuclear nations, India, undeclared Israel, and Pakistan are non-signatories to the NPT; a fourth, North Korea was an NPT signatory but has since withdrawn. A fifth, nuclear wannabe Iran (thanks Stuxnet!) is party to the NPT but is in non-compliance. There have been some NPT successes as well: South Africa chose to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and the Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan which found themselves in possession of nuclear weapons when the Soviet Union dissolved have all acceded to the NPT as non-nuclear weapons states.
However, China, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Myanmar, and Pakistan have been part of the nuclear proliferation swirl for some time. While Israel took care of emerging nuclear programs in Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007)—thanks Israel!—if Iran, for example, achieves a nuclear weapons capability, it’s thought that other regional nations such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Egypt will look for cover under the nuclear umbrellas of others: perhaps first, the U.S. If the U.S. is unwilling or such an agreement is otherwise impractical, the Pakistani nuclear umbrella may be available. But as all this happens, it becomes more likely that these nations will themselves decide to develop their own nuclear weapons programs.
While it will still be wise to pursue non-proliferation in the forms of arms control, diplomacy, and other soft power methods, it is essential to consider what else can be done to enhance the security of America and its allies in a more proliferated world. Accordingly, here are some suggestions for dealing with a nuclear world, listed in approximate order of easiest to most difficult.
The first and easiest way is through a robust civil defense capability. Should a nuclear terrorism event occur, or should an adversary actually instigate a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies, being able to mitigate the damage from the event would start with basic civil defense capabilities including sheltering, sanitation, food and drinking water, and the ability to communicate. Civil defense has gotten a bad rap from peace activists and arms controllers who tend to be reflexively opposed because the capability undermines the “mutually assured destruction” concept. MAD, of course, isn’t supposed to leave any survivors and therefore any idea that might support assured survival runs contrary to the cottage industry of unilateral, bilateral, or multilateral disarmament, treaties, codes, and the likes.
The next way of dealing with a multi-proliferated world is to have a vigorous and capable missile defense system. Missiles are hard–but far from impossible–to defense against. But because they’re hard to defend against is the reason countries like Iran and North Korea are pursuing missile development with great vigor and zeal in parallel with nuclear weapons. Although missile defense is ill-suited to combat nuclear terrorism (like the generic ‘dirty-bomb’ scenarios), it can provide a shield against missile attacks which has deterrent value by reducing the odds of an aggressor’s success. As with civil defense, certain groups are opposed to missile defense because it undermines their ideology. Opposition to missile defense is usually limited to three arguments: it won’t work; it’ll cost too much; it’ll undermine stability. As with civil defense, missile defense can contribute greatly to assured survival.
A third way to improve our security in a multi-proliferated world is the full-blown (again, so to speak) development of nuclear forensics, which would allow a ‘nuclear CSI’ team to determine the source and origins of nuclear material based on its inherent characteristics, its ‘nuclear DNA.’ Exquisite capabilities in nuclear forensics would serve to dissuade nuclear states from secretly proliferating to others, and would be especially useful to provide attribution back to the nuclear ‘provider’ should a nuclear terrorism event occur. Consider, for example, the usefulness in being able to respond accordingly knowing a terrorist’s dirty-bomb came from North Korea versus suspecting the same.
The final way to improve our security in a multi-proliferated world is to improve the quality of our intelligence products and analysis, that is, to have better indications and warnings of things that might happen. Considering Pearl Harbor, Sputnik, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, the global financial meltdown, and innumerable other events, there is w-a-y too much to discuss on this topic and it is better left for another day. Still, the need for improvement remains obvious.
It’s been said (that’s code for ‘I forgot where I read it’) that some western leaders tried to keep the Soviet Union together, so as to have someone to sign arms agreements with and even though they failed, they were pretty successful in making Russia a close equivalent. Of course, the actuality was that it was the collapse of the Soviet Union and not arms control which mitigated the grave dangers that held our attention throughout the Cold War. Those days are well gone and it is now time to consider focusing a Cold War level of effort on dealing with a multi-proliferated nuclear world.
Mark Stout is a researcher and analyst at Air University’s National Space Studies Center and runs its unofficial blog Songs of Space and Nuclear War. The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and may not reflect the views and policies of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.