Stratfor debunks myths about nuclear weapons and terrorism

A timely and important report from Stratfor.  I strongly recommend reading it in full.  This is what Stratfor does best, and they are one of the best public sources for this kind of analysis.

Contents

  1. Terrorists and Apocalyptic-Minded Jihadists
  2. Loose Nukes and Clandestine Acquisition
  3. Irrational Actors
  4. Nuclear Weapons and Proxies
  5. Conclusion

Excerpt

(2)  Loose Nukes and Clandestine Acquisition

But what about acquiring a nuclear weapon that has already been built? The security of nuclear weapons is and has long been an important concern. …

(3)  Irrational Actors

One of the questions that arose from our analysis of the North Korean situation was that it was governed by a reliance on rational actors. There was a concern that STRATFOR was too quick to assume that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could be considered rational. …

(4)  Nuclear Weapons and Proxies

Another concern is that North Korea, Iran or Pakistan might hand off a nuclear weapon to a non-state actor or proxy of some sort — one that would detonate it at a mutually-agreeable target as soon as possible. Subsets of this same issue are whether one of these countries might not use a shipping container or some other clandestine means to carry out an attack on the United States or another target — the deniable use of nuclear weapons. …

Conclusion

Ultimately, such doomsday scenarios cannot ever be completely ruled out, and continual, ever-improving efforts to further secure global nuclear stockpiles and vigilance over them are certainly warranted from a security standpoint. But man has controlled nuclear weapons for more than half a century, and we do not see the latest nuclear crisis playing out any differently than every other nuclear crisis that has come before it. Furthermore, STRATFOR does not subscribe to the idea that countries build nuclear weapons in order to use them immediately, thereby triggering nuclear war, or freely hand them off to non-state actors that would.

Other articles about nukes

How I learned to stop worrying and live with the bomb“, Michael Lind, Salon, 13 october 2009 — “Neither terrorists nor rogue states like North Korea are likely to use nuclear weapons. Here’s why.”

Afterword

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14 thoughts on “Stratfor debunks myths about nuclear weapons and terrorism

  1. Weak, foppish diddle-speak. Typical analysts’ angular wank. Please, when you are trying to make such blanket denialist assertions, please provide something with a bit of meat on it.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Would you please explain this a bit more? I thought this Stratfor rpt was unusually explicit, compared to the usual geopol analyst’s hedging.

  2. This is all the usual common sense of anyone who knows the first thing about geopolitics.

    Madman theories are really just propaganda tools that tie into the tight grip that some people have on their fears. They dont makes sense and the historical record is clear that they don’t exist. The right to be scared shitless for no reason needs to be abolished.

  3. For more on PALs in particular, a slide set based on FOIA information from Steve Bellovin is very good:

    “Bypassing a PAL should be, as one weapons designer graphically put it, about as complex as performing a tonsillectomy while entering the patient from the wrong end.”
    Steve Bellovin’s slides on Permissive Access Links

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    FM Note: A Permissive Action Link (PAL) is a device intended to prevent unauthorized arming or detonation of a nuclear weapon. The US DoD definition is:

    “A device included in or attached to a nuclear weapon system to preclude arming and/or launching until the insertion of a prescribed discrete code or combination. It may include equipment and cabling external to the weapon or weapon system to activate components within the weapon or weapon system.”
    Wikipedia’s entry about PAL’s

  4. Truly crazy and suicidal leaders have a difficult time becoming leaders of a country even capable of considering trying to developing a nuclear weapon, much less being able to see the process through to the end over the course of a decade.

    Ultimately, such doomsday scenarios cannot ever be completely ruled out, and continual, ever-improving efforts to further secure global nuclear stockpiles and vigilance over them are certainly warranted from a security standpoint.

    There’s considering suicide and actually committing suicide. The amount of US youth considering and/or taking steps toward suicide is surprisingly large *. The amount of US youth actually committing suicide is much smaller **. The global average of youth committing suicide is even smaller than that ***. In the US, and probably globally, the suicide rate drops pretty steeply after the early twenties, but never goes to zero ****. This lends some more support to the Stratfor analysis, as young people might be members of the military, or might join an ideological group, or be organized criminals, but leaders of nations tend to be older. Like Stratfr said, though, it doesn’t totally rule it out.

    It strikes me that perhaps the closest personal analogy to a state leader deciding to use nuclear weapons to annihilate a foe, while knowing that it will also lead to his own society’s annihilation, is a “school shooting” like Columbine, where youth decide to revenge themselves on their classmates by killing lots of them, and then kill themselves at the end. But getting nukes is orders of magnitude harder than getting guns.

    * “Youth Suicide“, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

    “A nationwide survey of youth in grades 9-12 in public and private schools in the United States (U.S.) found that 15% of students reported seriously considering suicide, 11% reported creating a plan, and 7% reporting trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey.”

    ** “Crime Statistics > Suicide rates in ages 15-24 (most recent) by country“, NationMaster.com. — (US rate is 13.7 per 100,000 people, or about % 0.01)

    *** “Global suicide rates among young people aged 15-19“, Study, World Psychiatric Association, by DANUTA WASSERMAN, QI CHENG, and GUO-XIN JIANG. June 4, 2005 — Global rate is 7.4 per 100,000, or about % 0.007

    **** “WISQARS Leading Causes of Death Reports, 1999 – 2006“, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC. Take the default choices and hit “Submit”. You’ll get a chart showing how suicide is less and less likely a cause of death as Americans age.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for the valuable links. Stratfor’s point is, I believe, that unbalanced youths like the Columbine are unlikely to become adults with the authority to use nukes. It’s not just that nukes are more difficult to obtain than guns, but there is a higher degree of selection in working with nukes than guns.

  5. Section 3, regarding irrational actors, is one I often find myself making. People who make it to the level of power where they control nuclear weapons are by definition the type of people who crave power and are quite attached to it, otherwise they never would have made it that far. Pure ideologues just aren’t ruthless enough.

    And of course, as pointed out, nuclear weapons use involves the willing participation of quite a few individuals, any one of whom can abort the process (see Vasiliy Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov, two individuals who quite literally saved the world.)

  6. Truly crazy and suicidal leaders have a difficult time becoming leaders of a country even capable of considering trying to developing a nuclear weapon, much less being able to see the process through to the end over the course of a decade.

    True, but insufficient. The Taliban don’t need to have controlled Pakistan long enough to develop a nuclear weapon, they only need to take control after previous regime developed it and then the become a nuclear power That’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility.

    This analysis is fine as far as it go (and is ultimately just conventional wisdom), but it’s too static. For example, it entirely ignores the effect of altering the balance of power. Does a nuclear armed Iran feel it can control the Persian Gulf because, holding a nuclear trump card, it doesn’t have to fear even a conventional US response? How does the US respond? Even if it doesn’t escalate into a nuclear exchange, does an emboldened regime increase the risk of war? A very similiar argument can be made about Iranian proxies. How do the Arab states respond to a nuclear Iran? Multi-polar deterrence is a tricky thing…
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    Fabius Maximus replies: One of the most interesting aspects of the Af-Pak war is the degree to which its advocates rely on lies and fear-mongering. “Afganistan caused 9-11” (or some variant) is the former. That the Taleban can control Pakistan is the latter. It’s delusional, by any reasonable look at their strength. For a few of the many definitive rebuttals to this see Why are we fighting in Pakistan?

  7. Stratfor makes a mistake in this piece – although it is a fairly common one – by inherently believing that nuclear war is “insane” and only a madman would consider it. I believe this kind of thinking is a legacy of the cold war, where both super powers build 125.000 nukes between 1945 and 1989 and had plans ready to use them. WHO estimated in 1983 that a full scale nuclear war in the eighties would kill at least 1.75 billion human beings. But the old cold war is over and a large number of nukes have been dismantled, several countries (like South Africa or Ukraine) have abandoned their nuclear arsenal and other countries (like Taiwan, Brazil, Argentina) have abandoned their plans to build nuclear weapons. In other words the idea that a single use of nuclear weapons would automatically lead to total and global nuclear destruction is no longer necessarily true. It is actually possible to imagine scenarios with a limited tactical or operational use of nukes without meaning the end of everything.

    I want to point that out. Not because I am an advocate of nuclear weapons or their use, but because I don’t like ideas like the “nuclear peace theory”, the “democratic peace theory” or the “McDonalds peace theory” that look convincing at the first glance, but time and time again prove not to hold water. These ideas are like watching clouds and believe they form patterns that only exist in our minds, but they are dangerous because the make us surprised when they are proven wrong. Thomas Friedman – wrong as ever – formulated the McDonalds Peace Theory in 1996 as an another proof of the wonders of globalization and was last time proven wrong last year when Russia and Georgia went to war with each other. Both countries have McDonalds restaurants.

    Let’s say Russia and the United States get into a serious conflict that escalates from a crisis to actually fighting. Since Russia is vastly inferior to the United States in conventional terms it is a serious possibility that the Russians would receive a heavy beating by the Americans. But since NATO is only 150 kilometres away from a city like St. Petersburg the Kremlin also feel they can’t back down like they did in Cuba in 1962. Would it really be so insane if the Russian leadership under these circumstances would consider a limited nuclear strike – say against an American carrier group in the Northern Atlantic? It would be a powerful signal to send about Russian resolve, there would be no collateral damage, it would even the odds in the fighting and it would cause the American leadership to seriously to reconsider the whole war (will Americans sacrifice New York for Tallinn or Warsaw?). No matter what there is nothing irrational about this kind of thinking and it wouldn’t necessarily lead to doomsday, which also means that a rational leader might actually contemplate doing it if the military situation was serious enough.

    Don’t deceive yourself. Leave that to men like Friedman…
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    Fabius Maximus replies: My understanding (it’s not something I’ve studied) is that simulations have consistently shown a high risk of escalation from even limited use of nukes.

  8. If you think you have a good missile defence system in place , you might think you had immunity from retaliation if you launched a nuke . Especially if the interception happened over , say ,Poland , and the bits fell on , say , Poland , a nice long way from you .
    So are any anti missile defences likely to be effective , and whose and where are they throughout the world ?

  9. Simulations are just that – simulations. They are useful and they are the best we got, but we can’t expect them to accurately predict the future. If simulations should have decided the future the United States would already have won in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. As far as I can tell the “nuclear peace theory” rests solely on the fact that nobody has used nukes since 1945, which is important but hardly conclusive evidence. Hardly anyone used chemical weapons between 1918 and 1983 because there was a universal revulsion against these kinds of weapons. You could almost say there was a taboo against chemical weapons and even Adolf Hitler desisted from the use of gas warfare when the Russians were approaching Berlin and the Americans and British crossed the Rhine. Yet suddenly in 1983 Saddam Hussein began to use chemical weapons against the Iranians and from his point of view it was an effective tool: It stopped the Iranians on the battlefield, it suppressed Kurdish rebellions and it shoved how deadly serious he was as an Iraqi leader. Rather than insane it made 100 percent strategic sense for Saddam Hussein to use chemical weapons.

    I don’t expect to see the so-called “nuclear peace” be broken anytime soon. Despite the global war on terror and the economic meltdown we still live in a fairly benign world that is a far cry away from the horrors the world witnessed between 1914 and 1945. But should it changed – for example because of increasing numbers of wars for energy – I would expect a changed view on nuclear weapons. Right now the strong nations don’t need them because they can rely on conventional forces, the weak ones only need them for deterrence and the non-state groups like Al Qaeda are unlikely to make use of them for reasons excellently described by Stratfor. Are sure sign of a changing military view on nukes would be the resumption of nuclear testing, because that is honestly the only way you can be really sure that a weapon will work properly. The current ban on nuclear testing is like building planes without testing them in the sky and in the long run generals can’t be sure if their nuclear arsenals are reliable. The United States last conducted a test in 1991 and has no plans of resuming testing.

  10. One of the most interesting aspects of the Af-Pak war is the degree to which its advocates rely on lies and fear-mongering.

    One of the more interesting aspects of anti-war types is the way the immediately start slinging personal insults.

    If insurgencies were always and trivially defeated by superior force, then none of this would be a concern, would it? Alternatively, if Pakistan was a stable nation-state with a loyal military and history of reasonable transition of power it would also be of little concern. Since neither of these are true, concern (but not panic) is reasonable.

    I don’t claim to know the correct answer, and it’s certainly possible that everything will work out all right in the end, but your 1-dimensional analyses bolstered by insults are not convincing. And if being concerned about nuclear proliferation among nations that have long-standing animosity and occasional belligerency against the US counts as fear-mongering, then guilty as charged. Doesn’t mean we should automatically go to war, but it also means it shouldn’t be dismissed before consideration. I still point to minimax as providing a good framework with which to evaluate alternatives.

    I don’t actually have a strong opinion on the Afghanistan war. I am marginally opposed to the nation-building aspect as being likely not achievable at a cost our nation is willing to pay. I’m actually looking for alternative viewpoints, but when questioning them gets immediately (your very first sentence) with blunderbuss insults, it calls into question the wisdom of your viewpoint. For the record, not everyone who disagrees (or simply questions) something is a liar or a fear-mongerer. It appears you think these issues are simple ones with black and white answers; if so you’re foolish and ignorant.

    BTW, you entirely elided my concern about the effects of a shift in balance of power.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: To criticize what you say is not a personal insult. Such as describing what you say as “fear mongering.” To describe your personality, ancestry, characteristics — those are personal comments. To cry “personal insult” when someone describes what you say in a manner you find unpleasant is an easy but cheap way to try for the moral high ground . It’s become almost a standard trope in American debate, perhaps part of our victims are superiority thinking.

    (2) I have no idea what you are attempting to say in your 2nd paragraph.

    (3) “your 1-dimensional analyses bolstered by insults are not convincing.”
    What do you mean by “1 dimensional”? How are your remarks multi-dimensional?

    (4) ” then guilty as charged.”
    I thought you might attempt to defend your statement. This was the wisest course, and I am glad we agree.

    (5) “Doesn’t mean we should automatically go to war, but it also means it shouldn’t be dismissed before consideration.”
    Again, I have no idea what you are attempting to say here. “It means” and “it should”? “Before consideration” of what?

    (6) “not everyone who disagrees (or simply questions) something is a liar or a fear-mongerer.”
    How nice that we agree on this also. But why do you bring this up?

    (7) “if so you’re foolish and ignorant.”
    Now those are personal insults. Unlike you, I regard these as significant — showing that the author has reached the end of his serious arguments, resorting to schoolyard taunts.

    (8) “you entirely elided my concern about the effects of a shift in balance of power.”
    Because its just more of “what if Iran, unlike other nuclear powers”, decided to use them aggressively. Why limit your worries? What if Russia, Pakistan, India or Israel decided to wield their nukes? For that matter, we have not only threaten to use nukes more than anyone else, we have actually used them. Shouldn’t they worry about us? Where does this “what if” thinking end, other than war? What other rebuttal is there to nightmares?

  11. FM from #6: “It’s not just that nukes are more difficult to obtain than guns, but there is a higher degree of selection in working with nukes than guns.

    Yeah, that’s where my attempted analysis fails, I gotta admit. I keep wanting to come at these things from a psychological angle, and in geo-politics I guess that’s harder than it looks.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: You are an extraordinary person. This is one of the few such statements among the 13,000+ comments on this site. Even among those which were shown to incorrect on clear factual grounds. That’s impressive!

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