So now that I have covered the CB and R portions, it is time to handle N. Once again, I’m getting a lot of my information from the International Counter-Terrorism Institute’s 2003 report, so I think it’s definitely a worthwhile read.
So, let’s ask the same questions again of nuclear terrorism plans: what are the threat vectors? how potent would such a weapon be? and how difficult would it be to develop such a weapon?
The answer to the threat vector question is: air, land, or sea. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. An air attack would require a plane and pilot capable of transporting a nuclear device to get into range. Such a plane, however, may be shot down if the pilot makes it too obvious that there is something amiss, and shooting down the device means that the plan fails entirely, as nuclear devices are delicate things which require a precise set of actions to occur in order to detonate—meaning that it would not detonate upon impact with the surface, as some conventional munitions might. An airborne attack would allow an EMP bomb to be used, though such a device is probably beyond the capabilities of any regimes which would hand over nuclear devices to terrorists, either now or in the near future. A ground attack has the advantage of being the scariest-looking and more difficult to detect than an aerial blast, but the destruction would be more limited than an air attack, and one would hope that there are security measures in place at big gatherings and major centers which would detect a nuclear device. Finally, a sea attack might be the easiest to pull off, though the effects of this would be fairly limited.
To further illustrate what a nuclear device would likely do, I give you the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Weapon Effects Calculator. A 10-kiloton device (which appears to be a reasonable estimate) could destroy a few square blocks and damage several more in a ground attack. The good news is that this follows a cubic growth pattern, so that a 1-megaton device would not, in fact, destroy 100 times as much as a 10-kiloton device. The other good news is that getting a 1-megaton device would be extremely difficult for countries, and almost impossible for terrorist groups. The bad news, though, is that if such a terrorist group gets this sized device, a 1-megaton device would effectively destroy Chicago.
So, we have a rough idea of the destructive power of such a device, as well as the avenues through which terrorist groups could potentially detonate such a device. Now let’s talk about how to develop such a device. The good news for us is that it would be impossible for a terrorist group to, on its own, develop a nuclear device. They would need enough fissionable nuclear material, a great deal of equipment, processing facilities, and nuclear scientists. Countries cannot do this on the sly, so there is no chance that a terrorist organization could set everything up without anybody getting word or a spy satellite noticing an odd processing facility in the Sudan. So in short, for a terrorist attack involving a nuclear device, there must be a state sponsor handing such a device over. This would result in assured retaliation and the complete destruction of any country which has ties to the terrorist group plotting the attack.
How about, instead, the possibility that a terrorist organization purchases or steals a nuclear device? As it stands, nuclear devices are the most precious military instruments of the countries which own them. As such, these are usually well-guarded—even in Russia and Pakistan. Regarding purchasing the devices, this is slightly more possible, but I still consider it extremely unlikely, as no country with nukes at present (I’m not including North Korea for this) would want to get tied back to a nuclear terrorist attack, as this would also presumably lead to a nuclear retaliation. So for right now, there is no threat. This, however, will change soon. North Korea and Iran are both developing nuclear devices, and there is a fear that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, this will lead countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt to also try to get such weapons. In this case, the number of countries with direct ties to terrorist organizations jumps and the chances of some government deciding to take a risk also goes up. Chemical, Biological, and Radiological terrorism we can effectively write off due to the fact that it either won’t work or won’t be worth it. Unfortunately, I fear that we cannot do the same for nuclear terrorism. The technical aspects of such a device—how to get it into the US, where to attack, the chances of foiling—show that it would still be difficult to accomplish, and the retaliatory effect would be devastating, but this is the one which could actually happen.
Risk – Zero (now); Medium to High (within several years). Terrorist groups don’t have nuclear devices at present (thankfully). If Iran gets a working nuclear device, the risk immediately jumps to medium. If North Korea is able to get working devices, I would put the risk at Low-Medium, as Kim Jong-Il is crazy, but he’s not a millenarian. But if Iran does develop such a nuclear capability, there will be an Arab world scramble for the devices, and that will put the risk up to High.
Retaliation Against Government Factor – Very High. The only potential case in which nuclear retaliation would not occur is if other countries—such as Israel—were “held hostage.” However, the US has enough nuclear firepower to obliterate a country and even if Iran does develop nuclear devices, it would not be able to develop enough to withstand a retaliatory strike and still have some in reserve. This isn’t a Cold War scenario; we’re talking about countries with upwards of a half-dozen or so. A half-dozen can do a great deal of damage, but if Iran were to be behind a nuclear attack on an American city, there would not be an Iran the next day.
Likelihood of Failure – Medium. Nuclear devices are complex things, which means a mechanical failure has to be taken into account. In addition, such an attack can be foiled through Geiger counters and other devices which detect radioactive materials. A functional nuclear bomb would have difficulty getting through a port (either air or sea) without detection, so a ground attack would almost definitely have to come up through the southern border. Then, it becomes a matter of whether security personnel at the attack site have the equipment and training to detect such a device.
Media Factor – Extremely High. A nuclear attack is the ultimate attack (at least at present), and there would be tremendous, long-term coverage of the event.