What Can Destroy Strategic Stability: Nuclear Terrorism Is a Real Threat
Magazine or Newspaper Article
September 21, 2012
Author: Vladimir Dvorkin
This article explores interpretations of the concepts of strategic stability and nuclear deterrence with a focus on distinguishing those factors that have a real destabilizing impact on cornerstones of strategic stability from those that are only perceived to be doing so.
Cold War Years
The joint USSR-US Statement on the future negotiations on nuclear and space arms – that the two nations’ leaders signed - gave a most general definition of what constituted strategic stability during the Cold War. According to the June 1990 statement, strategic stability should be understood as such a balance of strategic forces of the two countries where there were no incentives for a first strike. That definition effectively replaced an earlier principle of “equality and equal security” which was amorphous and non-binding.
The statement essentially declared that future agreements should ensure strategic stability through stabilizing reductions of strategic offensive arms as well as through implementing the concept of the corresponding interrelation between strategic offensive and defensive weapons. Reductions in concentration of warheads on strategic delivery systems and preference for weapons with increased survivability were at that time identified as principles of stabilizing reductions.
However, this was not sufficient for implementation of the declared provisions. The sides needed to formalize the provisions, to reinforce them with quantitative correlations that would be both justified and illustrative.
There are a number of constructive definitions of the strategic stability that allow analyzing this concept as a feature of a complex system. One of them defines strategic stability as stability of the strategic nuclear equilibrium, which is maintained for a long period of time despite the influence of destabilizing factors. This equilibrium has been maintained through approximate equality in both quantitative parameters (combat strength, total number of warheads, etc.) and qualitative parameters (combat capabilities for a variety of strikes) of nuclear weapons possessed by both sides. Equality of these parameters ensured approximate equality of the side’s counterforce and deterrence potentials along with retaliatory counter-strike potential.
Balance of these three components of the nuclear equilibrium has been maintained long enough in spite of the impact of possibly destabilizing factors.
Therefore, strategic stability has two components. The first component is the ability to deter a global war by maintaining a strategic nuclear balance between the opposite sides, i.e. the ability of the strategic nuclear forces of each side to guarantee infliction of unacceptable damage in a retaliatory strike against the aggressor. The second component is possession of such strategic nuclear forces (including capabilities and plans for development of these forces), which clearly demonstrate futility of attempts to achieve an unilateral advantage, and, therefore, futility of arms race.
Such views on strategic stability had taken shape first in the United States and then in the Soviet Union by the end of the 1980s. They were then embodied in such bilateral arms control agreements, as START-I, START-II, framework agreement on START-III, and New START.
Under New Conditions
The end of the last century and beginning of the new century saw perceptions of strategic stability expand as new threats and destabilizing factors emerged. Of these, proliferation of nuclear weapons and missile technologies, and the real possibility of nuclear terrorism are most important. As important are regional, ethnic, and religious wars that could unpredictably escalate far beyond individual regions as well as possibility of large-scale armed conflicts over different types of resources. Therefore, it would be wrong and unrealistic to stick to the Cold War era perception of strategic stability and principles of mutual nuclear deterrence associated with it.
It would be expedient to emphasize the fundamental difference between general nuclear deterrence as a factor in ensuring security of a state and mutual nuclear deterrence that Russia and the United States have continued to exercise.
It appears that the principles of nuclear deterrence will remain viable as long as nuclear weapons continue to exist. However, it is clearly expedient to reconsider and re-evaluate the role of nuclear deterrence in ensuring security of great powers and of the international community as a whole. When it comes to relations among civilized nations, such deterrence can work only against the most improbable and far-fetched of possible threats, such as the threat that great powers and their allies would launch nuclear attacks or large-scale conventional attacks against each other. But this deterrence is absolutely useless when it comes to new, real security threats, such as nuclear terrorism.
That the mutual nuclear deterrence persists in the U.S.-Russian relationship is of particular significance. The relict concept of mutual deterrence by Russia and the United States makes absolutely no sense. Moreover, many authoritative experts have repeatedly argued that such deterrence has become a formidable obstacle on the way towards full co-operation between the two powers in a number of areas. Russia's Four Horsemen (Yevgeny Primakov, Igor Ivanov, Evgeny Velikhov, and Mikhail Moiseyev) have called for a transition from nuclear deterrence to common security. Moreover, the U.S. Senate's resolution on ratification of the New START Treaty clearly states that the state of mutual nuclear deterrence between the United States and Russia is not in the interest of security of the two countries and should be transformed. However, the military and political leadership of the two countries continue to demonstrate that they remain deaf to these appeals. For example, Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Nikolai Makarov has told a Moscow conference on ballistic missile defense (BMD) earlier this year that “despite the revolutionary changes, that have occurred in the post-Cold War, neither politicians nor the military could not think of anything better then mutual nuclear deterrence when it comes to ensuring global security and stability.” Such statements ignore the global changes in understanding of strategic stability, which have occurred in the 20 years that have passed since the end of the Cold War. It is no less significant that conservation of these Cold War concept supports the position that a national BMD is a major destabilizing factor.
The following major destabilizing factors are believed to continue to have destabilizing impact on strategic stability in the traditional understanding of this concept that emerged during the Cold War:
- Ballistic missile defense systems;
- High-precision non-nuclear weapons;
- Space weapons;
- Anti-submarine warfare;
- Nuclear weapons of third countries.
These destabilizing factors are often featured in assessments by Russian officials and experts. The impact of these factors has been extensively evaluated in volumes published by the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in 2011–2012. Therefore, this article will examine only one of these factors—the factor of ballistic missile defense. A recent article by Sergei Rogov, Viktor Yesin, Pavel Zolotarev and Valentina Kuznetsova also helps to explain my choice as it stresses that “the ABM Treaty was seen as a cornerstone of strategic stability from 1972 to 2002.” “Moscow and Washington have agreed on the destabilizing impact of ballistic missile defense on the strategic balance within the framework of mutual nuclear deterrence (or mutually assured destruction). Such an approach has made it possible to maintain the strategic balance, ensuring the inevitability of nuclear retaliation against a potential aggressor. This enabled the sides to agree on reduction of strategic offensive arms.” And “therefore, the withdrawal of the United States from the ABM Treaty in June 2002…had an unquestionably negative impact on strategic stability.”
In theory, ballistic missile defense systems could, indeed, undermine strategic stability in the conservative interpretation of this concept, if these systems are able to defend the country against a massive nuclear attack by intercepting a significant number of the incoming missiles and warheads. That is what presumably guided the Soviet Union and the United States when they signed the ABM Treaty of 1972 and its protocol of 1974.
Analysis of historical experience, as described in the “Missile Defense: Competition or Cooperation?” volume put out by the IMEMO in August 2012, confirms that building of ballistic missile defense systems constituted an unprecedentedly complex military-technical problem throughout the second half of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century. To date, there is no reliable solution to this problem, primarily because a number of theoretical and scientific-technical obstacles are intractable, field tests are not equivalent to real conditions of combat use, and enormous resources are needed.
Heated debates raged at the top levels in the Soviet design bureaus, research institutes, national academy of sciences and ministries of defense and defense industry during conceptual studies, research and development, design and testing of BMD systems in the USSR. These debates centered on purpose and expedient scale of BMD systems, which were complex and costly.
A number of working groups of leading specialists were formed to analyze BMD development prospects. The groups came to the conclusion that, given the projections in development of offensive nuclear weapons, it was only realistic to build a BMD system capable of defending limited areas from an attack by a small group of ballistic missiles.
This conclusion led to an even more heated debate at the top levels of government agencies. Some argued that it was realistic to intercept only a single missile and that is what the efforts should focus on since no one had any idea how to protect the nation from a massive strike. Experts believed that up to 40 missiles would be required to intercept a single missile in the absence of a system that could reliably discriminate real warheads from decoys. Moreover, such a number of interceptors would cost tens of times more than the ICBM they were designed to shoot down. Therefore, the specialists argued that it would be better to abandon BMD projects and spend the money–that would be freed up—on procuring significantly larger quantities of ICBMs and SLBMs equipped with means of overcoming BMD. Others, however, argued that defenses against massive ballistic missile attacks must still be built.
In these circumstances, only rigorous research and development work—that would involve the national academy of sciences and be supported by developmental activities and testing at ranges—could produce results that would be convincing enough to make the ultimate decision. And that is exactly what happened in the course of development and modernization of the A-35 BMD system (NATO reporting name: ABM-1 Galosh) and as well as during subsequent work in this field conducted in the Soviet Union.
A number of questions had to be answered before even the goal of building BMD could be formulated. The first question to be answered was: What would be the scale of the strike, from which BMD would we be required to defend? Was it supposed to be a first disarming strike, in which thousands of warheads would be launched, or a retaliatory strike that would be carried out by several hundred warheads of the surviving missiles? The second question was: What facilities or parts of the territory could and should be defended from these two types of attacks?
There was no need to conduct any research to recognize the obvious: no BMD would be capable of defending the country from a first massive nuclear strike. We could only consider the feasibility of individual defense of critical facilities, such as bases of strategic nuclear forces and central command posts, in order to reduce the level of damage done to them. That was the purpose that guided the Soviet Union and the United States when they signed the 1972 ABM treaty and the 1974 protocol. The United States chose to defend the ICBM base in Grand Forks in order to preserve a nuclear retaliatory capability while the Soviet Union chose to defend the Moscow area where central command posts were located. This decision largely limited the offensive arms race, although it did not prevent it completely.
The reasons why the U.S. Senate made a subsequent decision to withdraw the 100 missile interceptors–that were deployed at the ICBM base only four months after they had been stationed there—were understandable. First of all, it was the naval component that traditionally formed the backbone of the U.S. nuclear deterrence forces. This component would have a high survivability in case of a disarming first strike while only a few Minuteman ICBMs would survive. These ICBMs would account only for a small share of America’s retaliatory strike capacity. The Senate was also influenced in its decision by the fact that the BMD interceptors that existed at that time were nuclear armed. That meant multiple nuclear explosions would occur over the U.S. territory with extremely negative consequences, regardless of the scale of the missile attack on the ICBM that these interceptors were to protect.
As for the real capabilities of missile defense systems, I would like to note the following. There were different interpretations of the goals set by U.S. President Ronald Reagan when he proclaimed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in 1983. They ranged from the idealistic notion of attaining a capability to fully defend the U.S. territory from a massive nuclear strike by the Soviet Union as well as to achieve a new technological breakthrough, to exhausting the Soviet Union in a strategic offensive and defensive arms race.
It was evident to the experts from the very beginning that it would be impossible for SDI to fully protect an area from massive missile attacks, including retaliatory strikes. The question was rather how many missiles and warheads could be intercepted by air, space, sea, and land components of the system that would be deployed in accordance with the SDI program.
The answer to that question was largely rooted in the dynamics of perceptions of what constituted unacceptable damage to the aggressor. The perception of possibility and feasibility of protecting the territory from a retaliatory strike by several hundred nuclear warheads underwent significant changes during the Cold War. These changes came about as both sides lowered the level of damage that they considered to be unacceptable. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Soviet nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov estimated that that the successful delivery of 400-600 megaton-yield warheads to a nation's territory would destroy 30-40 percent of that country’s population and 70-80 percent of its industrial capacity. Later, that estimate was lowered to 150-200 warheads and even less. The end of the Cold War made modelling of two nuclear superpowers exchanging massive nuclear strikes irrelevant. As a result, not only a few, but even a single nuclear explosion in a city is now considered to be unacceptable.
Evaluation of effectiveness of any BMD system is always probabilistic in nature. Statistical modeling estimates of number of missiles and warheads—that have been allowed to reach targets—can range from a few dozen to a few hundred while probability that none of them have successfully penetrated defenses is always zero. It is such estimates that support the existing views on inadmissibility of even a single nuclear explosion on national territory.
As for evaluation of the impact of the SDI program, I would also like to note that the myth that the Soviet Union was exhausted and collapsed as a result of an unprecedented arms race spurred by Reagan’s Star Wars programs is completely untenable. The Soviet Union responded to SDI by launching two symmetrical programs (IC-1000 and D-20) and one asymmetrical program (SP-2000). The vast majority of the hundreds of scientific research and development projects proposed as part of these programs remained on paper. Funding of the projects did undergo some development, but it was incomparable to the enormous costs incurred by efforts to keep the Soviet Union's inefficient economy afloat.
However, it should also be acknowledged that the United States advanced somewhat in developing technologies for laser weapons, non-nuclear terrestrial missile interceptors, and small spacecraft designed to “kill” satellites.
The main conclusion to be drawn from this experience is that it would be practically impossible for a BMD of any scale to fully defend a nation’s territory from a massive nuclear strike, but that there is a high probability that a sufficiently developed missile defense system would be capable of intercepting ballistic missiles and warheads mounted on these missiles as long as the latter are launched individually or in small groups.
It is quite possible that the 1972 ABM treaty – whose great political significance was in that it limited its signatories, first to two, and then to one BMD area each. It was one of the earliest veiled acknowledgements by the Soviet and U.S. experts that it was impossible to protect a country's territory from a massive missile attack.
These conclusions are particularly relevant for realistic assessment of far-fetched assumptions that the planned European BMD threatens the Russian strategic nuclear forces throughout development of that project. That was stated quite clearly in a number of publications, including the aforementioned op-ed by Russia's Four Horsemen and articles by independent experts, including mine. Russia’s leading designers of ballistic missiles, Yuri Solomonov and Gerbert Yefremov, have also made it clear in their statements. Finally, it clearly follows from presentations made at an international conference on BMD that have been recently organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense, especially from the speech of Colonel-General Valery Gerasimov who presented results of simulation of interception of Russian warheads.
It is noteworthy that Gen. Gerasimov mostly presented the results of a simulation that modelled interception of Russian warheads by GBI interceptors deployed on the U.S. territory as part of this country’s strategic BMD system. According to his presentation, it will take two GBIs to intercept one warhead which is not equipped with means of overcoming BMD. The general chose to devote only a minor part of his presentation to demonstrating that it was possible for SM-3 interceptors, which are to be deployed as part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), to destroy Russian warheads in a scenario which these warheads targeted Europe rather than the United States. This choice demonstrated Russia’s perceived need to exercise nuclear deterrence of European members of NATO, with many of which Moscow maintains very close financial-economic and cultural ties , buying landing warships and avionics from them and engaging them to modernize the Russian economy.
A presentation by Theodore Postol, MIT professor and renowned authority on U.S. BMD, came as a final shock to Russian and U.S. officials who attended that May 2012 conference. Postol – who has been calculating effectiveness of various BMD configurations for 30 years – stated that neither the American nor European systems were capable of intercepting even Iranian missiles because neither of these systems were ever tested under conditions close to real.
All of the above allows us to confidently exclude systems of ballistic missile defense of national territories from of the list of the factors that have destabilizing impact on the military dimension of strategic stability. It remains difficult to gauge, however, how much more time needs to pass before the Russian military and political leaders undergo a transformation of their consciousness and stop being deaf with regard to this issue.
We should note, however, that there have been some positive changes in the Russian military leadership’s opinions on the need for legally binding assurances that the European BMD will not be directed against Russia's strategic nuclear forces. Russian commanders have in the past repeatedly stated that these assurances should include limitations on deployment areas as well as on interceptors’ capabilities. Chief of the Russian General Staff Makarov told the May 2012 conference: “We are not talking about any restrictions on technical perfomance of missile defense assets.” “There is only one condition—the zone of possible interception by the current and future BMD intercepts must not cross the border of Russia,” the General of the Army said. It appears that Makarov’s opinion on the issue was influenced not only by independent experts, but also by skilled officers at the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian General Staff. It is well known that these officers understand real capabilities of the European BMD, but cannot state their opinions openly.
That many officials and experts stick to conservative views of the strategic nuclear relationship between Russia and the United States is also a factor. In this regard, I have to admit that I too believed that the U.S. BMD could become a destabilizing factor if developed to provide dense cover for the territory of the United States through multi-tier systems. I was directly involved in accounting for this factor during endless modeling of exchanges of nuclear strikes by the two countries. I had stuck to that view during the Cold War for some time after it was. However, a deeper analysis of the experience of building BMD systems and their potential eventually led me to the conclusion that it was time for me to abandon one set of delusions for another.
It appears that the political leadership of Russia will have to step outside the boundaries of reasonable policy if it continues to argue that the European BMD threatens Russian strategic nuclear forces.
Nuclear Terrorism as a Destabilizing Factor
There is growing concern in the world about the threat of nuclear terrorism. There are sufficient grounds for such concerns even though there has been so far no direct evidence of international terrorist organizations conducting work to build improvised nuclear devices. We can assume from statements by certain terrorist organizations affiliated with al-Qaeda that they seek to acquire such devices for propaganda effect only.
Hundreds of scientific papers and reports have been published on nuclear terrorism. International conferences have been held on this threat with participation of Russian organizations, including IMEMO and the Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies. Recommendations on how to combat the threat have been issued by the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, Russian-American Elbe Group, and other organizations. The UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism in 2005 and cooperation among intelligence services of leading states in this sphere is developing.
At the same time, these efforts fall short for a number of reasons, partly because various acts of nuclear terrorism are possible. Dispersal of radioactive material by detonation of conventional explosives (“dirty bombs”) is a method that is most accessible for terrorists. With the wide spread of radioactive sources, raw materials for such attacks have become much more accessible than weapons-useable nuclear material or nuclear weapons. The use of “dirty bombs” will not cause many immediate casualties, but it will result into long-term radioactive contamination, contributing to the spread of panic and socio-economic destabilization.
Severe consequences can be caused by sabotaging nuclear power plants, research reactors, and radioactive materials storage facilities. Large cities are especially vulnerable to such attacks. A large city may host dozens of research reactors with a nuclear power plant or a couple of spent nuclear fuel storage facilities and dozens of large radioactive materials storage facilities located nearby. The past few years have seen significant efforts made to enhance organizational and physical aspects of security at facilities, especially at nuclear power plants. Efforts have also been made to improve security culture. But these efforts do not preclude the possibility that well-trained terrorists may be able to penetrate nuclear facilities.
Some estimates show that sabotage of a research reactor in a metropolis may expose hundreds of thousands to high doses of radiation. A formidable part of the city would become uninhabitable for a long time.
Of all the scenarios, it is building an improvised nuclear device by terrorists that poses the maximum risk. There are no engineering problems that cannot be solved if terrorists decide to build a simple “gun-type” nuclear device. Information on the design of such devices, as well as implosion-type devices, is available in the public domain. It is the acquisition of weapons-grade uranium that presents the sole serious obstacle. Despite numerous preventive measures taken, we cannot rule out the possibility that such materials can be bought on the black market. Theft of weapons-grade uranium is also possible. Research reactor fuel is considered to be particularly vulnerable to theft, as it is scattered at sites in dozens of countries. There are about 100 research reactors in the world that run on weapons-grade uranium fuel, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
A terrorist “gun-type” uranium bomb can have a yield of least 10-15 kt, which is comparable to the yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The explosion of such a bomb in a modern metropolis can kill and wound hundreds of thousands and cause serious economic damage. There will also be long-term sociopsychological and political consequences.
The vast majority of states have introduced unprecedented security and surveillance measures at transportation and other large-scale public facilities after the terrorist attacks in the United States, Great Britain, Italy, and other countries. These measures have proved burdensome for the countries’ populations, but the public has accepted them as necessary. A nuclear terrorist attack will make the public accept further measures meant to enhance control even if these measures significantly restrict the democratic liberties they are accustomed to. Authoritarian states could be expected to adopt even more restrictive measures.
If a nuclear terrorist act occurs, nations will delegate tens of thousands of their secret services’ best personnel to investigate and attribute the attack. Radical Islamist groups are among those capable of such an act. We can imagine what would happen if they do so, given the anti-Muslim sentiments and resentment that conventional terrorist attacks by Islamists have generated in developed democratic countries. Mass deportation of the non-indigenous population and severe sanctions would follow such an attack in what will cause violent protests in the Muslim world. Series of armed clashing terrorist attacks may follow. The prediction that Samuel Huntington has made in his book “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” may come true. Huntington’s book clearly demonstrates that it is not Islamic extremists that are the cause of the Western world’s problems. Rather there is a deep, intractable conflict that is rooted in the fault lines that run between Islam and Christianity. This is especially dangerous for Russia because these fault lines run across its territory.
* * *
To sum it up, the political leadership of Russia has every reason to revise its list of factors that could undermine strategic stability. BMD does not deserve to be even last on that list because its effectiveness in repelling massive missile strikes will be extremely low. BMD systems can prove useful only if deployed to defend against launches of individual ballistic missiles or groups of such missiles. Prioritization of other destabilizing factors—that could affect global and regional stability—merits a separate study or studies. But even without them I can conclude that nuclear terrorism should be placed on top of the list. The threat of nuclear terrorism is real, and a successful nuclear terrorist attack would lead to a radical transformation of the global order. All of the threats on the revised list must become a subject of thorough studies by experts. States need to work hard to forge a common understanding of these threats and develop a strategy to combat them.
Major General (retired) Vladimir Z. Dvorkin is doctor of technical sciences, professor, and senior fellow at the Center for International Security of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Center participates in the working group of the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism.
A longer Russian-language version of this article was originally published in the August 17, 2012 issue of Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozrenie and is available here: http://www.ng.ru/concepts/2012-08-17/1_terror.html
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