The New Containment

The New Containment

Mini Teaser: Forging a U.S.-Russian alliance to prevent nuclear terrorism should be America's top priority in the post-September 11 world; here is a blueprint for one.

by Author(s): Graham AllisonAndrei Kokoshin

For perspective on claims of the inviolable security of nuclear weapons or material, it is worth considering the issue of "lost nukes." Is it possible that the United States or Soviet Union lost assembled nuclear weapons? At least on the American side the evidence is clear. In 1981, the U.S. Department of Defense published a list of 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons, many of which resulted in lost bombs. One involved a submarine that sank along with two nuclear torpedoes. In other cases, nuclear bombs were lost from aircraft. Though on the Soviet/Russian side there is no official information, we do know that four Soviet submarines carrying nuclear weapons have sunk since 1968, resulting in an estimated 43 lost nuclear warheads. These accidents suggest the complexity of controlling and accounting for vast nuclear arsenals and stockpiles.

Nuclear materials have also been stolen from stockpiles housed at research reactors. In 1999, Italian police seized a bar of enriched uranium from an organized crime group trying to sell it to an agent posing as a Middle Eastern businessman with presumed ties to terrorists. On investigation, the Italians found that the uranium originated from a U.S.-supplied research reactor in the former Zaire, where it presumably had been stolen or purchased sub rosa.

Finally, as President Bush has stressed, terrorists could obtain nuclear weapons or material from states hostile to the United States. In his now-infamous phrase, Bush called hostile regimes developing WMD and their terrorist allies an "axis of evil." He argued that states such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea, if allowed to realize their nuclear ambitions, "could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred." The fear that a hostile regime might transfer a nuclear weapon to terrorists has contributed to the Bush Administration's development of a new doctrine of preemption against such regimes, with Iraq as the likeliest test case. It also adds to American concerns about Russian transfer of nuclear technologies to Iran. While Washington and Moscow continue to disagree over whether any safeguarded civilian nuclear cooperation with Iran is justified, both agree on the dangers a nuclear-armed Iran would pose. Russia is more than willing to agree that there should be no transfers of technology that could help Iran make nuclear weapons.

III. Opportunity

Security analysts have long focused on ballistic missiles as the preferred means by which nuclear weapons would be delivered. But today this is actually the least likely vehicle by which a nuclear weapon will be delivered against Russia or the United States. Ballistic weapons are hard to produce, costly and difficult to hide. A nuclear weapon delivered by a missile also leaves an unambiguous return address, inviting devastating retaliation. As Robert Walpole, a National Intelligence Officer, told a Senate subcommittee in March, "Nonmissile delivery means are less costly, easier to acquire, and more reliable and accurate." Despite this assessment, the U.S. government continues to invest much more heavily in developing and deploying missile defenses than in addressing more likely trajectories by which weapons could arrive.

Terrorists would not find it very difficult to sneak a nuclear device or nuclear fissile material into the United States via shipping containers, trucks, ships or aircraft. Recall that the nuclear material required is smaller than a football. Even an assembled device, like a suitcase nuclear weapon, could be shipped in a container, in the hull of a ship or in a trunk carried by an aircraft. After this past September 11, the number of containers that are x-rayed has increased, to about 500 of the 5,000 containers currently arriving daily at the port of New York/New Jersey-approximately 10 percent. But as the chief executive of CSX Lines, one of the foremost container-shipping companies, put it: "If you can smuggle heroin in containers, you may be able to smuggle in a nuclear bomb."

Effectively countering missile attacks will require technological breakthroughs well beyond current systems. Success in countering covert delivery of weapons will require not just technical advances but a conceptual breakthrough. Recent efforts to bolster border security are laudable, but they only begin to scratch the surface. More than 500 million people, 11 million trucks and 2 million rail cars cross into the United States each year, while 7,500 foreign-flag ships make 51,000 calls in U.S. ports. That's not counting the tens of thousands of people, hundreds of aircraft and numerous boats that enter illegally and uncounted. Given this volume and the lengthy land and sea borders of the United States, even a radically renovated and reorganized system cannot aspire to be airtight.

The opportunities for terrorists to smuggle a nuclear weapon into Russia or another state are even greater. Russia's land borders are nearly twice as long as America's, connecting it to more than a dozen other states. In many places, in part because borders between republics were less significant in the time of the Soviet Union, these borders are not closely monitored. Corruption has been a major problem among border patrols. Visa-free travel between Russia and several of its neighbors creates additional opportunities for weapons smugglers and terrorists. The "homeland security" challenge for Russia is truly monumental.

In sum: even a conservative estimate must conclude that dozens of terrorist groups have sufficient motive to use a nuclear weapon, several could potentially obtain nuclear means, and hundreds of opportunities exist for a group with means and motive to make the United States or Russia a victim of nuclear terrorism. The mystery before us is not how a nuclear terrorist attack could possibly occur, but rather why no terrorist group has yet combined motive, means and opportunity to commit a nuclear attack. We have been lucky so far, but who among us trusts luck to protect us in the future?

Chto Delat? (What is to be Done?)

The good news about nuclear terrorism can be summarized in one line: no highly enriched uranium or plutonium, no nuclear explosion, no nuclear terrorism. Though the world's stockpiles of nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials are vast, they are finite. The prerequisites for manufacturing fissile material are many and require the resources of a modern state. Technologies for locking up super-dangerous or valuable items-from gold in Fort Knox to treasures in the Kremlin Armory-are well developed and tested. While challenging, a specific program of actions to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of the most dangerous groups is not beyond reach, if leaders give this objective highest priority and hold subordinates accountable for achieving this result.

The starting points for such a program are already in place. In his major foreign policy campaign address at the Ronald Reagan Library, then-presidential candidate George W. Bush called for "Congress to increase substantially our assistance to dismantle as many Russian weapons as possible, as quickly as possible." In his September 2000 address to the United Nations Millennium Summit, Russian President Putin proposed to "find ways to block the spread of nuclear weapons by excluding use of enriched uranium and plutonium in global atomic energy production." The Joint Declaration on the New Strategic Relationship between the United States and Russia, signed by the two presidents at the May 2002 summit, stated that the two partners would combat the "closely linked threats of international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction." Another important result yielded by the summit was the upgrading of the Armitage/Trubnikov-led U.S.-Russia Working Group on Afghanistan to the U.S.-Russia Working Group on Counterterrorism, whose agenda is to thwart nuclear, biological and chemical terrorism.

Operationally, however, priority is measured not by words, but by deeds. A decade of Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Programs has accomplished much in safeguarding nuclear materials. Unfortunately, the job of upgrading security to minimum basic standards is mostly unfinished: according to Department of Energy reports, two-thirds of the nuclear material in Russia remains to be adequately secured. Bureaucratic inertia, bolstered by mistrust and misperception on both sides, leaves these joint programs bogged down on timetables that extend to 2008. Unless implementation improves significantly, they will probably fail to meet even this unacceptably distant target. What is required on both sides is personal, presidential priority measured in commensurate energy, specific orders, funding and accountability. This should be embodied in a new U.S.-Russian led Alliance Against Nuclear Terrorism.

Five Pillars of Wisdom

When it comes to the threat of nuclear terrorism, many Americans judge Russia to be part of the problem, not the solution. But if Russia is welcomed and supported as a fully responsible non-proliferation partner, the United States stands to accomplish far more toward minimizing the risk of nuclear terrorism than if it treats Russia as an unreconstructed pariah. As the first step in establishing this alliance, the two presidents should pledge to each other that his government will do everything technically possible to prevent criminals or terrorists from stealing nuclear weapons or weapons-usable material, and to do so on the fastest possible timetable. Each should make clear that he will personally hold accountable the entire chain of command within his own government to assure this result. Understanding that each country bears responsibility for the security of its own nuclear materials, the United States should nonetheless offer Russia any assistance required to make this happen. Each nation-and each leader-should provide the other sufficient transparency to monitor performance.

To ensure that this is done on an expedited schedule, both governments should name specific individuals, directly answerable to their respective presidents, to co-chair a group tasked with developing a joint Russian-American strategy within one month. In developing a joint strategy and program of action, the nuclear superpowers would establish a new world-class "international security standard" based on President Putin's Millennium proposal for new technologies that allow production of electricity with low-enriched, non-weapons-usable nuclear fuel.

A second pillar of this alliance would reach out to all other nuclear weapons states-beginning with Pakistan. Each should be invited to join the alliance and offered assistance, if necessary, in assuring that all weapons and weapons-usable material are secured to the new established international standard in a manner sufficiently transparent to reassure all others. Invitations should be diplomatic in tone but nonetheless clear that this is an offer that cannot be refused. China should become an early ally in this effort, one that could help Pakistan understand the advantages of willing compliance.

A third pillar of this alliance calls for global outreach along the lines proposed by Senator Richard Lugar in what has been called the Lugar Doctrine. All states that possess weapons-usable nuclear materials-even those without nuclear weapons capabilities-must enlist in an international effort to guarantee the security of such materials from theft by terrorists or criminals groups. In effect, each would be required to meet the new international security standard and to do so in a transparent fashion. Pakistan is particularly important given its location and relationship with Al-Qaeda, but beyond nuclear weapons states, several dozen additional countries hosting research reactors-such as Serbia, Libya and Ghana-should be persuaded to surrender such material (almost all of it either American or Soviet in origin), or have the material secured to acceptable international standards.

A fourth pillar of this effort should include Russian-American led cooperation in preventing any further spread of nuclear weapons to additional states, focusing sharply on North Korea, Iraq and Iran. The historical record demonstrates that when the United States and Russia have cooperated intensely, nuclear wannabes have been largely stymied. It was only during periods of competition or distraction, for example in the mid-1990s, that new nuclear weapons states realized their ambitions. India and Pakistan provide two vivid case studies. Recent Russian-American-Chinese cooperation in nudging India and Pakistan back from the nuclear brink suggests a good course of action. The failure and subsequent freeze of North Korean nuclear programs offers complementary lessons about the consequences of competition and distraction. The new alliance should reinvent a robust non-proliferation regime of controls on the sale and export of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear material and missile technologies, recognizing the threat to each of the major states that would be posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, North Korea or Iraq.

Finally, adapting lessons learned in U.S.-Russian cooperation in the campaign against bin Laden and the Taliban, this new alliance should be heavy on intelligence sharing and affirmative counter-proliferation, including disruption and pre-emption to prevent acquisition of materials and know-how by nuclear wannabes. Beyond joint intelligence sharing, joint training for pre-emptive actions against terrorists, criminal groups or rogue states attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction would provide a fitting enforcement mechanism for alliance commitments.

As former Senator Sam Nunn has noted: "At the dawn of a new century, we find ourselves in a new arms race. Terrorists are racing to get weapons of mass destruction; we ought to be racing to stop them." Preventing nuclear terrorism will require no less imagination, energy and persistence than did avoiding nuclear war between the superpowers over four decades of Cold War. But absent deep, sustained cooperation between the United States, Russia and other nuclear states, such an effort is doomed to failure. In the context of the qualitatively new relationship Presidents Putin and Bush have established in the aftermath of last September 11, success in such a bold effort is within the reach of determined Russian-American leadership. Succeed we must.

Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Andrei Kokoshin is director of the Institute for International Security Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a former secretary of the Security Council of Russia.

Essay Types: Essay