The Emerging Nuclear Threat Environment

Preparing for a low-probability, high-consequence event is a difficult proposition, especially for incidents involving nuclear weapons. Yet, those affected by the 9/11 attacks and those responsible for responding in the post-9/11 threat environment recall the sense of urgency and unity of effort that went into preventing similar incidents on U.S. soil. It has been difficult in recent years to generate the passion and consistency of effort that occurred immediately after 9/11. Preparing for such incidents today is complicated because memories of the trauma and vulnerability felt in 2001 are fading for several reasons:

  • The time since the 9/11 attacks and the lack of any subsequent attacks have created a sense of complacency.
  • A growing number of U.S. residents were either very young or not yet born in 2001, which makes the attacks less relevant to them.
  • The phenomenon of a war-weary country – resulting from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – leads to a rejection of theea that the world is a dangerous place and the nation must be vigilant against future aggression.

National Security Implications 

Because of the growing complexity and level of danger, jurisdictions in the United States are facing unparalleled challenges. Although history shows that the United States responds well to threats, it also suggests that the actions usually are in response to, rather than aggressively anticipating and preventing, an attack. It is time to heed the evidence and work diligently to prevent the catastrophic and unaffordable consequences of a nuclear attack.

Three principal factors and their national security implications point to an emerging threat environment unlike any before:

  • The dissolution of nation-state control and the changing conditions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA);
  • The consequences of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq; and
  • The impact of Iran’s nuclear program and its future status as a nuclear weapons state.

Each factor challenges U.S. application of its elements of national power – for example, diplomacy, military options, and intelligence collection.

The Dissolution of Nation-State Control 

The MENA region is transitioning to an environment where ethnic and cultural values are more important than loyalty to a national government and its control. The unrest in Egypt, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere is likely just the beginning of a larger migration of affinities to cultural interests, followed by years or decades of unrest in places like Jordan, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Iraq. This sectarian violence represents a struggle for power that could have dramatic results, including the potential for redrawing national borders based on historical and cultural lines. Meanwhile, terrorist groups and freedom fighters are using these struggles to seek additional influence and power.

The case in Syria is of particular importance and serves as a benchmark for what the future holds. In a 7 February 2014 speech at the Wilson Center, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Charles Johnson stated that Syria is a homeland security concern and cited the potential for the freedom fighters to export their skills and ambitions to various parts of the world, including the United States. If the Assad regime survives, internal brutality likely would continue but, more importantly, those groups that support the regime – including Iran/Hamas, Lebanon/Hezbollah, and Russia – could emerge with increased status and influence. If the regime collapses, civil war would prevail for many years and create an environment for terrorist groups to expand their footprint, get “lost in the noise” of the broader conflict, and have greater access to resources and expertise.

The erosion of nation-state control and authorities across the MENA region challenges all elements of U.S. national power to adopt diplomatic approaches and cope with the various formal and informal government agencies. When intelligence collection and analysis capability stretch beyond capacity, they demand innovative ways to monitor a growing number of potential trouble spots. The changing environment also offers opportunities for terrorist groups and resurgents to gain access to resources by becoming “less visible” and integrating into the new societal “norm.”

The Consequences of Troop Withdrawal 

Concurrent with the dynamic changing environment across MENA is the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, which likely will have tangible and intangible impacts. In fact, there is evidence showing that troop withdrawal actually can reduce U.S. influence in the region. Iraq has quietly allowed Iranian support to the Assad regime by permitting use of its airspace.

Expected fallouts from the combined withdrawal include the loss of situational awareness across the region and the degradation of military response options due to reduced force strengths on the ground. Senior military officers have expressed concerns about losing situational awareness that, in turn, will limit the U.S. capability to keep terrorist groups off guard and to disrupt operations. Similarly, some former senior intelligence officials have cited the decline in intelligence service cooperation with the United States, which has diminished intelligence collection and analysis.

Predicated on these fallouts, terrorist groups will have greater freedom to regroup, acquire resources, and gain momentum in planning and executing attacks. In a 28 December 2013 Washington Post article, U.S. intelligence experts predict that, “The gains the United States and its allies have made during the past three years are likely to have been significantly eroded by 2017, even if Washington leaves behind a few thousand troops and continues bankrolling the impoverished nation.” In addition, “The National Intelligence Estimate, which includes input from the country’s 16 intelligence agencies, predicts that the Taliban and other power brokers will become increasingly influential as the United States winds down its longest war in history.”

The Impact of Iran’s Nuclear Program 

Iran’s nuclear weapons program poses a separate set of challenges for the U.S. national security strategy. Although negotiations continue to press for reversing the program, past behavior suggests little progress because Iran has studied the sanctions process in North Korea and has learned accordingly. On 29 January 2014, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Iran is within a year of producing a nuclear weapon should it decide to do so and improving its ballistic missile capabilities. The critical question is whether Iran would make that decision or be content in the near-term to stay in a breakout mode. In either case, this presents serious concerns for the global strategic balance and international norms.

The situation is compounded by U.S. policies to reduce its stockpile and to seek a “global zero” trajectory for nuclear weapons worldwide. Meanwhile, extended deterrence assurances are receiving increasing skepticism as other nations express concern about U.S. commitments. These reactions could drive others to reconsider their own nuclear ambitions. In fact, a 2013 public poll in South Korea revealed that 70 percent of South Koreans wanted the return of U.S. nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula or that South Korea should develop its own capabilities.

The combination of Iran’s nuclear program and the U.S. strategic posture could lead other countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Japan to reconsider their specific security needs and nuclear options. This could further erode U.S. credibility and present serious challenges for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. From a terrorism perspective, Iran would represent the first nuclear-weapon-capable state with a direct nexus to terrorism and thereby posing a serious asymmetric nuclear threat to the United States and others. This would be a game changer with respect to traditional U.S. nuclear deterrents and national security strategy.

Critical Steps for Mitigating the Emerging Nuclear Threat 

Five critical steps are necessary for mitigating the possible consequences of the emerging threat and geopolitical environment:

1. Develop a whole government approach to combat the expanding adversary and threat base, including:

a. Balancing and integrating the foreign and domestic security agendas. In the post-9/11 environment and with the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, the United States has yet to develop integrated strategies, plans, and budgets addressing national threats. To date, the two security agendas remain uncoupled and are planned independent of each other.

b. Developing joint interagency campaign plans, concept of operations plans, and operational plans to clearly describe departments’ and agencies’ roles and responsibilities and respond to nuclear threats.

c. Conveying to state and local authorities the roles they would play in a nuclear crisis.

d. Examining and implementing options to expand the bandwidth of intelligence collection and analysis capabilities to account for a growing adversary base and, concurrently, streamline information sharing across the federal level, state, and local levels.

e. Developing mechanisms to share situational awareness information across the executive branch of government.

f. Conducting top-down, senior-level exercises to evaluate the effectiveness of the plans andentify gaps in capabilities as well as issues with the authorities.

2. Prepare for and enhance capabilities to defeat asymmetric threats and better integrate assets, capabilities, and information sources both inside and outside the contiguous United States.

3. Take action to better understand the cultural values, motives, and intentions of a diversified geopolitical environment in order to dissuade potential hostile intent and to better assess the threat space.

4. Rethink the national security policy structure to include consideration of re-establishing a structure similar to the Homeland Security Council to not only facilitate the planning, budgeting, and integration of foreign and domestic security strategies, but also to achieve better integration across many domestic agencies.

5. Restore defense and homeland budgets that are based on integrated foreign and domestic needs.

In summary, the world has become both more complex and dangerous and the nuclear threat is likely to adapt to this new environment. Now is not the time for complacency. Bold action and sustained national leadership are necessary to prevent a catastrophic nuclear attack on the United States.

Vayl S. Oxford

Vayl S. Oxford is the national security executive policy advisor at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). Before joining PNNL, he spent a short time in private industry after 35 years of public service. His career highlights include serving at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from October 2003 to January 2009, where he held the positions of policy advisor to the undersecretary of science and technology, acting director of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the first director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. Before DHS, he served as the director for counterproliferation at the National Security Council and chaired the interagency working group for Operation Iraqi Freedom. From 1987 to January 2002, he held several positions within the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and its predecessor organizations (Defense Special Weapons Agency, Defense Nuclear Agency). He also held several positions in the U.S. Air Force.



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