If we accept the fact there are anti-U.S. interests — such as Iran and, despite recent developments in the Six-Party Talks, North Korea — determined to possess nuclear weapons, that the international community lacks the collective will to prevent this and that the United States is unlikely to initiate a pre-emptive strike unilaterally to eliminate such threats, we must accept as a frightening reality the forecast by terrorism experts that, within the next decade, a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) will be detonated within the United States or an allied nation.
It is unlikely such an attack will come by way of a cruise missile or some other openly discernible delivery vehicle, increasing probability of missile detection, interception, destruction and identification of the attacker while decreasing the terrorist’s likelihood for success. The more likely scenario is that a WMD will be smuggled into the targeted state.
Therefore, it is imperative we interdict the shipment of nuclear weapons and/or components to those who would do us harm. Where such interdiction is successful, we must be able to analyze the cargo to determine source of manufacture; where it has been unsuccessful, we must be able to analyze the post-blast environment to do the same. In either case, obtaining scientific evidence as to whose “signature” is attached to a WMD will fall to a group of experts in technical nuclear forensics.
The “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, September 2006” sets as a clear, short-term priority, the need to deny WMDs to rogue states and their terrorist allies. Our approach for preventing a WMD attack on the U.S. and its allies differs from that used during the Cold War — Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) — as back then the Soviet Union, unlike today’s enemies, had the ability to effect “mutual” destruction.
Additionally, the MAD deterrent is totally ineffective today against fanatics who would view mass destruction and death resulting from a U.S. retaliatory strike, following their initial WMD attack, as simply a means of expediting their own transit to a rewarding afterlife. But since these enemies also fear the loss of face should their effort fail, they will only strike given a high probability for success.
Thus, U.S. counterterrorism efforts focus on deterrence by denial of enemy objectives either by trying to deny rogue states and their proxies access to WMDs and components or, when interdiction efforts have proven unsuccessful, to identify “signatures” unique to each nuclear bomb-maker by evidence recovered from post-blast environments.
Such forensic analysis involves numerous scientific complexities. For example, one requires determining the ratio of naturally occurring isotopes of oxygen-18 to oxygen-16. These isotopes vary around the world, so their ratios can correlate to the location of a particular nuclear device’s production site. Forensics conducted on interdicted radioactive materials transported from place-to-place provide clues too, e.g., contamination from pollen, cloth fibers and organic compounds, to help identify the route materials traveled.
Technical nuclear forensics was used in analyzing Pyongyang’s test of a nuclear device last October. Relatively quickly, the U.S. determined blast size, weapon type, age of fissile material, degree of enrichment, and even that a misfire was involved.
If there is any good news associated with continued North Korean testing, it is that with each test, post-blast analysis provides us more and more information on the unique characteristics of its nuclear devices, further enabling refinement of Pyongyang’s signature so it can be linked to a future explosion elsewhere in the world.) While Pyongyang’s October test was underground, limiting U.S. analysis to escaping gases, when such a weapon explodes above-ground, as in the case of a terrorist attack, blast debris is unfiltered, allowing more complete forensic analysis.
While the on-again/off-again Six-Party Talks involving North Korea are now on-again, it would still be wise for Kim Jong-Il to understand we possess such a capability. Unlike Islamist terrorists who do not fear retaliation, Kim Jong-il does. His sole concern lies in keeping his regime intact. He sees possession of a nuclear weapon as insurance he does. Thus, he is unlikely to initiate a first strike.
However, it is known Pyongyang is assisting Tehran with its nuclear weapons program. Iranian scientists observed the October North Korean nuclear test. With the full extent of North Korea’s assistance to Iran unclear, Kim Jong-il may well want to reflect on the dangers of arming Tehran, or anyone else for that matter, with a weapon of Pyongyang’s making.
First, he should understand a nuclear device sold to Iran or a terrorist group is a bomb detonated. Second, depending on whether such detonation occurs as a result of Tehran transferring the device to a terrorist proxy to smuggle into the U.S. or launching a direct strike against Israel, technical nuclear forensics of the post-blast environment would link North Korea’s signature to the bomb, for which Pyongyang would then be held accountable.
If the international community collectively or the U.S. individually fail to take the tough measures now to prevent rogue states or terrorist groups from obtaining nuclear weapons, we should resign ourselves to the reality of a devastating WMD attack on U.S. or allied territory within the next decade.
Technical nuclear forensics will ensure identification of the perpetrator so accountability for the crime does not go “cold,” thereby ensuring swift retaliation. However, in failing to stop these rogues now, retaliation will be the only option we will have then — an option of little consolation to hundreds of thousands of victims such an attack will have claimed.View Entire Story
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