For some 40 years, Americans faced the prospect of nuclear Armageddon, as the U.S. and Soviet Union waged the infamous Cold War. Schoolchildren practiced “duck-and-cover” drills to prepare for nuclear strikes, and pundits and politicians used alarming phrases such as “balance of terror” and “mutual assured destruction” to explain that both countries could be expected to exercise some restraint. So when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the prospect of nuclear destruction seemed more remote. Unfortunately, changes in the political landscape, and more countries with nuclear capabilities, mean there is a risk of nuclear conflict somewhere in the world. How real is that risk? And how can the U.S. defend against the threat? Those are questions that are being debated almost daily now in defense and government circles in the U.S. and elsewhere. Here are five of the most realistic threats and what the U.S. is doing to prevent such scenarios.
5. Old Soviet Nuclear Warheads
The U.S. used to worry the Soviet Union would launch nuclear missiles, setting off World War III. Russia is no longer a mortal enemy, but it still has untold thousands of nuclear weapons and stockpiles of dangerous nuclear materials that may be vulnerable to theft and sold on the black market. These potential “loose nukes” would be highly sought after by terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. Also, rogue states like Iran could reverse engineer such a weapon to bolster their own ongoing nuclear weapons program. There were rumors in the 1990s that a bomb or bombs had gone missing from Russian stockpiles, but the Kremlin vigorously denied these reports and continues to insist it can account for all its bombs. That’s little consolation to U.S. officials, given uncertain conditions in that country; according to a 2006 report by the Council for Foreign Relations, Russian officials claim they had broken up “hundreds” of nuclear-material-related smuggling deals in the past three years.
4. Dirty Bomb Explosion in a U.S. City
If they cannot get their hands on a real nuclear bomb, terrorists would be happy to build a “dirty” bomb. A dirty bomb, also known as a “radiological dispersal device” or RDD, is not a nuclear bomb, but instead would use conventional explosives to spread a radioactive powder or pellets over an area of several blocks. In an urban landscape, thousands of people could be exposed to radiation, although the dose itself would not be enough to be harmful. Experts agree the biggest consequences would be economic and psychological as officials worked to decontaminate the affected area and keep people from panicking. In the most famous case of a suspected dirty bomb plot, police arrested an American citizen named Jose Padilla (aka Abdullah al-Muhajir) in 2002 on suspicions of plotting to detonate such a weapon on U.S. soil. Padilla was convicted of other charges in 2008 and sentenced to more than 17 years in prison. Other dirty bomb suspects have been arrested in recent years, including a white supremacist in Maine.
The questions that worry Homeland Security officials: Who is the next potential “dirty bomb” suspect, and how can authorities stop him before he strikes? In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and state agencies boosted their requirements for hospitals, research facilities and other sites that use radiological materials to secure those materials and report any missing inventory. Yet there are thousands of such sites in the U.S., increasing the opportunity for terrorists to acquire these materials.
Iran has been pursuing nuclear weapons for up to 20 years. The regime has made significant progress over the past 10 years, despite both the Bush and Obama administrations’ stated policy of preventing the mullahs from acquiring the weapons. President Barack Obama noted in an Israeli TV interview in March 2013, “I have been clear about my position on Iran possessing nuclear weapons. That is a red line for us. It is not only something that would be dangerous for Israel. It would be dangerous for the world.” Israeli officials, however, have expressed concern that the U.S. is underestimating the threat. And that might explain why Israel may be standing up in its own defense — an “unexplained” explosion reportedly occurred at Iran’s Fordow underground plutonium enrichment site in January 2013. Iran denies such an explosion happened, and the White House said the report is not credible.
President Obama said in early 2013 he believes Iran is at least a year away from developing a nuclear weapon. And Iran is not expected to have a long-range ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. for several years. However, it does have a missile called the Shahab-3 with a range of 2,000 kilometers that is capable of reaching Israel. Of course, an Iranian strike on Israel would bring an American response in some capacity.
2. North Korea
This communist dictatorship may seem like an anachronism in today’s world, but North Korea has been testing some of the world’s most sophisticated weapons, including nuclear bombs and long-range ballistic missiles. After a missile test launch in early 2013, the state-owned news source, Korean Central News Agency, noted that, “Settling accounts with the U.S. needs to be done with force, not with words, as it regards jungle law as the rule of its survival. A nuclear test … will target against the U.S., the sworn enemy of the Korean people.” There is great debate about whether North Korea now has the ability to send a nuclear ballistic missile to the U.S. West Coast, but further tests would likely increase that capability. But most national security experts believe it is very unlikely that North Korea would attempt to strike directly at the U.S. homeland unless it believed it was about to be attacked. Then again, hardly anyone believed Imperial Japan would try to destroy the U.S. Pacific fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor.
The consensus is that North Korea intends to use its nuclear arsenal to instill fear, gain respect and blackmail countries into giving it much needed aid. The big question: can the U.S. afford to gamble that North Korea is all bluster? President Obama recently ordered more missile defense systems be deployed to California and Alaska to guard against a possible attack. Another possible target for North Korea is its bitter rival, South Korea. This means that the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea are also in harm’s way (incidentally, that number has increased by about 25 percent in the past few years, another sign that Washington takes the threats coming from Pyongyang seriously.) As with an Iranian strike on Israel, a North Korean attack on South Korea would prompt a U.S. response.
1. Electromagnetic Pulse Attack
An electromagnetic pulse is a burst of highly accelerated charged particles that are released when a nuclear bomb is detonated. This pulse would destroy power grids, communication networks and transportation systems. And this would not be a temporary inconvenience: According to a commentary published by The Heritage Foundation, after an EMP attack on the U.S., “Communications would collapse, transportation would halt, and electrical power would simply be nonexistent. Not even a global humanitarian effort would be enough to keep hundreds of millions of Americans from death by starvation, exposure, or lack of medicine.” The foundation has proposed Aug. 15 as a National EMP Awareness Day to educate the public about the potential risks.
Any country with a nuclear bomb and missile to carry it to the upper atmosphere or into space could launch an EMP attack against the U.S. A bomb could be detonated at lower altitudes, but the pulse and its effects would not be nearly as widespread. At present, the best defense against such a threat is that the only countries capable of such a strike could expect a swift retaliation from the U.S. But other observers insist the country needs to do more to follow the lead of the U.S. military and try to shield sensitive electronics from the effects of such a blast.