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A leading security specialist posits what happens in the event of a nuclear attackIn Right of Boom, national security specialist Benjamin Schwartz looks at what could happen after a nuclear explosion takes place in the United States, the event that Presidents Obama and Bush, as well as would-be Presidents Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton, have acknowledged as the greatest single national security threat we face. Hypothesizing an explosion in downtown Washington, D.C., Schwartz maps out the likely ramifications while going deep into history to explore the limited range of options available to a Commander in Chief. Drawing from his experience as an analyst at the Departments of Defense, State, and Energy, Schwartz offers a fully panoramic view of a terrifying reality.
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Benjamin Schwartz has served in a variety of national security positions within the United States government, including in the Department of State, Department of Defense, and Department of Energy. This is his first book.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
This book is dedicated to the late Harvey Sicherman.
A man who understood the power of words and how to wield that power in service of American statecraft.
May his memory be a blessing.
The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or official policies of the US Department of Defense or any other agency of the US government.
|ONE||The Persistent Danger:|
|Two Days “Right of Boom”|
|TWO||The New Threats:|
|Three Days “Right of Boom”|
|THREE||The Lessons of Nuclear Deterrence:|
|Three Days “Right of Boom”|
|FOUR||The Lessons of Countering Terrorism:|
|Four Days “Right of Boom”|
|Five Days “Right of Boom”|
|SIX||The Red Line:|
|Fifteen Days “Right of Boom”|
|CONCLUSION||The New Order:|
|Twenty-Three Days “Right of Boom”|
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR|
ON AN OTHERWISE CALM AND UNEVENTFUL MORNING, A small nuclear weapon explodes in downtown Washington, DC. The device generates a yield of fifteen kilotons, roughly the same force unleashed by the bomb Little Boy over Hiroshima. The casualty count rises to over a hundred thousand, and the destruction is measured in hundreds of billions of dollars. The blast’s electromagnetic pulse burns out electrical components across the metropolitan area. Radiation leaves the center of the city uninhabitable for the first time since it was declared America’s capital in 1790, and the scientific community predicts that it will remain so for a decade. The stock market plunges as investors anticipate draconian customs regimes that will choke global trade. Fear of further attacks paralyzes America and much of the Western world.
Hours after the explosion, a little known terrorist group claims responsibility. It is the first time the president, who was not in Washington at the time of the blast, and his surviving cabinet members, including the director of national intelligence, have heard of the group. After searching intelligence databases, analysts report that the group is linked to three hostile governments, all of which have issued statements condemning the attack and denying involvement. It will take weeks for the remnants of the US intelligence community to assess that one of these three governments is probably lying, but even then the US government won’t have irrefutable evidence of complicity. Unlike a ballistic missile or bomb delivered by enemy land-, air-, or seacraft, the origin of what analysts will call a “container-based improvised nuclear device” is difficult to determine and impossible to prove.
Nuclear forensics will ultimately provide strong evidence that the fissile material used in the device originated from the country under suspicion. Signals intelligence will record celebrations and praise of the attack by midlevel officials in that country’s military and intelligence establishment. However, the intelligence reporting taken as a whole will suggest that negligence within that country’s weapons industry and at its nuclear complexes is at least as plausible a scenario as a deliberate transfer by government officials to the terrorist group. Yet there is no conclusive reporting that points to either willful negligence or human error. Either way, there is no way to know if the transfer occurred through official policy, the machinations of a venal or ideologically motivated individual, or simple incompetence. There is almost nothing about the origins of the attack that the president of the United States knows for certain.
The world awaits a response from the White House. What happens next?
Many books have been written on the topic of nuclear weapons, and many others have been written on terrorism. A smaller but still sizable number of authors have focused on nuclear terrorism, particularly since al-Qaeda’s attacks of September 11, 2001. Purveyors of popular culture, from American novelists to Hollywood directors, have also addressed the subject. Author Tom Clancy envisioned terrorists targeting the Super Bowl with nuclear weapons in The Sum of All Fears in 1991. Hollywood offered us the George Clooney vehicle The Peacemaker in 1997. The acclaimed post-9/11 TV drama 24 presented a bleak, dangerous world in which terrorists were always only a few ticks away from nuclear disaster. Americans have had so much entertainment on the issue that they may feel sufficiently educated.
Yet there are very few authors, academics, or entertainers who have really thought through the scenario described above or examined in detail the question of what happens in the days, weeks, and months after such an attack. Presumably, part of the reason for this is that the US government’s response to nuclear terrorism is unknowable. Ask anyone who has spent time at the White House on the National Security Council staff and they will tell you that decisions of war and peace are in no small part the product of fickle factors like the personality of the president and the people who surround him. Thoughtful national security practitioners also know that happenstance and dumb luck have a prominent role in shaping discussions in the White House Situation Room. These conditions make realistic speculation difficult to formulate. The wide range of possible scenarios and the salience of unknowable factors make it difficult to anticipate hypothetical policy prescriptions.
Another reason that this question hasn’t demanded an answer is that most people understandably consider it to be far less relevant than “How can nuclear terrorism be prevented?” Speculating on responses to a nuclear attack is a bit like contemplating the day after any number of disasters that involve an unprecedented scale of devastation. Does the national security community focus on the US government’s potential response to an asteroid striking the planet or the aftermath of a war between China and the United States? It does not, because these types of scenarios fall into the realm of the surreal or at a minimum envision a situation in which there is such massive social disruption and such a severe diminution of US government capacity that it is difficult to even know where to begin. Admitting the limits of American power, particularly the “hard power” of the US military and intelligence community, is also not a popular pastime. A politician would need to be unusually brave to publicly focus on the day after an act of nuclear terrorism instead of the days before. Accepting nuclear terrorism is an unacceptable position, his opponents would surely retort.
There are also no precedents, history, or cases of nuclear terrorism to provide context or demand consideration. People—particularly pundits and politicians—who have not studied much history often use the term unprecedented to describe the unfamiliar, but the scenario laid out above is truly something new under the sun. Since a successful nuclear terrorism event has not happened before, and it is not happening now, there is less appetite for thinking deeply about it than there is for considering more traditional security issues. From the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat, to the Japanese empire’s attack on Pearl Harbor, to al-Qaeda’s attacks that culminated in the events of 9/11, Americans are conditioned to contemplate surprise attacks and expect that the US government can respond swiftly and severely, to manifest the prediction made by Japanese admiral Isoroky Yamamoto that a surprise attack against America would “awaken a sleeping giant.”
People may assume that the answer to nuclear terrorism is tragic but quite straightforward: retaliation with nuclear weapons. But it won’t be that simple. First, in a nuclear terrorism scenario the adversary has every incentive to obscure the origins of the attack and to conduct its activities in countries and through entities that are unaffiliated with the belligerency. This approach is consistent with the well-established practice of using civilians and noncombatants as both targets and human shields. Consequently, it wouldn’t be clear to the US government who or what to target for retaliation. Second, unlike US retaliation plans developed during the Cold War, an American nuclear response wouldn’t necessarily set the conditions necessary to prevent follow-on attacks. The ultimate outcome of the US government’s response must be to deny the adversary the ability to access nuclear materials. Given the global nature of the nuclear industry, striking back with atomic bombs wouldn’t guarantee that outcome. Third, we don’t live in a world where the moral, legal, and political environment is likely to legitimize a retaliation that results in the violent death of hundreds of thousands of people who had nothing to do with perpetrators who could number fewer than a hundred. In 1957 Henry Kissinger wrote a treatise titled Foreign Policy and Nuclear Weapons in which he noted, “As the power of modern weapons grows, the threat of all-out war loses its credibility and therefore its political effectiveness.... The American people must be made aware that with the end of our atomic monopoly all-out war has ceased to be an instrument of policy, except as a last resort, and that for most of the issues likely to be in dispute our only choice is between a strategy of limited war or inaction.” When Kissinger wrote these words he was thinking about the Soviet Union and was concerned about the ability of the United States to prevent communist expansion through coercion and low-intensity conflict, but his words are just as applicable to the type of nuclear terrorism scenario imagined above. Unfortunately, few have thought about what a “limited war” against nuclear terrorism would look like.
The great Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz is renowned for his observation that the fog of war is a permanent condition of armed conflict, but it is also true that the density of this fog shifts over time, growing and dissipating with changing conditions—especially changes in technology. The atomic bomb has been in existence for six decades and in this time that fog hasn’t threatened to obscure the origins of a nuclear attack. In the first two and a half decades after its creation, only five countries—China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States—possessed the bomb. The acquisition of the weapon by Israel, India, and Pakistan ushered in what Yale University professor Paul Bracken termed “the second nuclear age.” During neither period were these weapons and their components completely secure. Accidents happened. In 1961, the US Air Force mistakenly dropped two hydrogen bombs over North Carolina with a multi-megaton combined payload—hundreds of times more powerful than the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and all but one of the bombs’ safety systems failed.1 Nevertheless, the second half of the twentieth century—the high modern industrial age—was an era of strong centralized governments during which a small number of nuclear suppliers were closely watched by government regulators. Massive governments oversaw weapons of mass destruction. In this environment, attribution of a nuclear detonation would have been straightforward and culpability would have been clear.
The United States was able to avoid nuclear war during this time, despite repeated standoffs with the Soviet Union and China, because a significant number of Americans thought very seriously about the day after a nuclear attack. Tremendous time, energy, and resources went into planning for nuclear war. The US government made it official policy—articulated publicly by presidents and cabinet secretaries—to respond to a Soviet invasion of West Germany with nuclear weapons. It backed up this policy by deploying a massive nuclear arsenal and establishing a comprehensive nuclear command-and-control system. Just as today, during the Cold War no one could truly know how the United States would react if Soviet tanks actually crossed the Fulda Gap. Even presidents and cabinet officials who articulated these threats couldn’t know if their vows were promises or bluffs, but their words possessed enough credibility to keep the Soviet Army at bay.
In the case of nuclear terrorism, it is not the uncertainty of America’s response options that is notable today—uncertainty has always existed and always will—but the degree of it that is alarming. Since the dawn of the nuclear age and the devastation inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the most powerful force preventing the use of nuclear weapons has been the plausible threat of effective retaliation. The articulation of this threat—which the US defense establishment calls declaratory policy—is manifest through public warnings. But words are not enough. To be effective, declaratory policy requires that the target audience understand the threat and that the threat be credible.
Credibility rests on a foundation of capability, interest, reputation, and risk propensity. The United States has substantial defense capabilities, but because the use of capabilities accrues costs, credibility requires that US interests be seen to be of such importance that Americans will bear costs and accept risk to defend them. To deter the Soviets, the US government not only declared its intention to use nuclear weapons but also created first- and second-strike capabilities through a nuclear triad. It also deployed American servicemen and -women to serve as a human trip wire in Europe. Having suffered the calamities of two world wars in two generations and having employed two atomic bombs, the American public was perceived by the world as willing to support the use of those weapons in order to protect vital interests of national and international security.
Today the United States possesses no comparable credible threat to compel governments to prevent the transfer of nuclear weapons and related materials to terrorist groups. Effective compellence requires both a perception that attribution of identity (where the weapon came from) is likely and the establishment of a “return address” (a target that can be held at risk). The inherent opacity of nuclear terrorism frustrates these conditions. Foreign governments don’t have much reason to believe th...
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