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Thread: Worst-case terror - what response can be mounted?

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    Worst-case terror - what response can be mounted?

    I think in the back of many minds is the absolute worst-case scenario when it comes to a terrorist attack... that of a fission bomb exploded in the heart of a major city/population center by an organization rather than a nation/state.

    In the bad old days of MAD, nations held the others' assets hostage to retaliatory nuclear fire. Today, if a nuclear device falls into terrorist hands by whatever means, and one is used on New York, Washington, or London, what retaliatory options exist? With MAD not a part of this equation (the terrorists have nothing considered "mutual"), options seem to be nearly non-existent.

    I am interested in hearing opinions on this, because barring a major shift in geopolitics, I think it may be simply a matter of time.

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    As of today, no nukes can be passed onto terror hands without a national authority doing so. The response would be that capital and then several cities going up in a mushroom cloud.

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    Chogy Reply

    "As of today, no nukes can be passed onto terror hands without a national authority doing so."

    Largely concur. If the weapon or material can be traced, domestic political considerations alone would demand such. Assigning blame might prove more difficult than NORAD watching/tracking multiple in-bound ICBMs. I'd defer to the Colonel or USSWisconsin on the ability to trace materials/devices.
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    My physics is not at what you call a high level, but I am aware that the blast residue can flag the origins of a device. And what OoE says makes sense, but the only thing that gives me pause would be a "rogue general" or similar element.

    Bomb explodes in NY. Trace analysis says "It's a Zhygistanian bomb" (or whatever). PM of "Zhygistan" screams "Rogue separatist elements are behind this terrible plot! Do not punish the people of Zhygistan for the actions of just a few men!" Do we toast Zhygistanidad and several other cities regardless? Would world opinion judge the retaliation excessive?

    I personally don't care that much about world opinion, but it seems to drive too much U.S. foreign policy these days.

    What got me thinking was that the old MAD logic no longer applies as it did. Deterrence - seems to have little meaning to terrorists. So how do we deter in these times?

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    The new powers, ie India, Pakistan, and Israel, prefer to keep their nukes in component form so that no one man can order a nuke strike but a team. So, that makes highly unlikely a rouge general can order such. Also, that nuke is more likely to be used on the national authority on any outside enemy. Rogue generals have more enemies at home than they do outside their borders.

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    What was US doctrine during the cold war if some rogue USSR elements launched a nuke at the US? They would launch anyway, because of MAD, right?

    Doesn't it stand to reason that Zhygistan should fall into the same mold? Of course, the consequences could end up being a very slippery slope. Zhygistan being evaporated could lead the rest of the wold to giving up whatever terrorists they are hiding once they see the results. Alternately, it could lead to more people joining the terrorist cause.

    It would probably be a mix of both, and would end up being a lose-lose situation for everybody, except for the guys currently in heaven with their virgins
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    Zhygizstan Rogue Warriors

    The theft of a nuclear device by a rogue general coupled with the irradiation of Zhygizstan as a consequence might provoke lesser-nuclear powers to surrender their weapons rather than face similar possibilities.

    Of course, there's always going to be some nation that insists their arsenal is fully secured against all such possibilities.
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    This is the kind of stuff that makes for good novels..

    Quote Originally Posted by Chogy View Post
    In the bad old days of MAD, nations held the others' assets hostage to retaliatory nuclear fire. Today, if a nuclear device falls into terrorist hands by whatever means, and one is used on New York, Washington, or London, what retaliatory options exist?
    How about if 'they' steal a nuke from the stockpile of the country they plan to attack.

    No Zhygizstan to glass, just who dunnit ?

    What happens in that case

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    "How about if 'they' steal a nuke from the stockpile of the country they plan to attack..."

    I have no problem imagining a country that would immediately retaliate upon itself. Worse, though, that country might use such a tragedy to pre-emptively attack its immediate eastern neighbor.

    And, no...I'm not thinking of the PRC attacking Taiwan.
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    a tragedy to pre-emptively attack its immediate eastern neighbor
    you mean the French are coming for us??

    On a serious note, even though nukes cannot be transfered to "rogue elements" without the consent of a nuclear power, but what about dirty bombs? Radiating a (relativly) small area of a city with a conventional bomb and non-weapongrade material sounds much more doable to me. Or is this scenario as unlikely as the first?

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    Fissile Isotopes would have a signature like chemical explosives do, in a different way, the isotopic distribution of the residue could provide information about where and when it was enriched or created in a reactor. This would require an international database of the sample analysis test results for weapons grade material, and in the event someone used a terrorist nuke, most other nuclear states would want to help catch the perp by sharing information like this, so they could get away from the blame. Most likely a terrorist nuke would have a convoluted chain of ownership, so it would take some doing. But given the seriousness of the event, it would probably get done quickly, particularly if it was a nuclear state that was attacked, and retaliation was being pursued.
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    Quote Originally Posted by S-2 View Post
    I have no problem imagining a country that would immediately retaliate upon itself. Worse, though, that country might use such a tragedy to pre-emptively attack its immediate eastern neighbor.
    And get both 'their' enemies to take it out on each other. Would be a good force multiplication for cheap

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    Quote Originally Posted by Chogy View Post
    I personally don't care that much about world opinion, but it seems to drive too much U.S. foreign policy these days.
    Chogy,

    If it is truly the worst case attack, then all conventional niceties get thrown into the wind. If they don't get thrown into the wind, then the leadership does not reckon the damage to be the worst case.

    IMHO such an attack is highly unlikely against the US or W Europe. Mid East, especially Israel, is the place most susceptible to such an attack. The West, Russia, China, India and SE Asia are a lot more susceptible to a far more insidious and possibly more devastating form of attack via bio-warfare.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bamboo View Post
    IMHO such an attack is highly unlikely against the US or W Europe. Mid East, especially Israel, is the place most susceptible to such an attack. The West, Russia, China, India and SE Asia are a lot more susceptible to a far more insidious and possibly more devastating form of attack via bio-warfare.
    Concur. While a fission bomb of Hiroshima yield would probably be worst-case, other WMD exist, biological and chemical. Any biological agent is subject to DNA analysis, and like the Anthrax attack, strains (and sources) can be identified.

    Chemical is another matter, I'm thinking. Anyone trained in MOPP understands the challenges, and the dangers.

    There are rogue chemists that can synthesize any imaginable drug from precursors, some of them pretty damned complex. An organophosphate nerve agent would be child's play. But I don't know enough about the quantities needed to mount an attack that would result in truly massed casualties.

    On the nukes - given adequate U-235 and some expertise, a Hiroshima bomb could be crafted that might yield 5 to 10 kt as it would lack the refinement of little boy. Maybe USSWisconsin could elaborate, but my understanding is that such highly enriched weapons-grade uranium is simply unavailable outside of known nuclear States, and in that case we fall back again on the State that provided the fissile material.

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    In Memoriam/Battleship Enthusiast Defense Professional USSWisconsin's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Chogy View Post
    Concur. While a fission bomb of Hiroshima yield would probably be worst-case, other WMD exist, biological and chemical. Any biological agent is subject to DNA analysis, and like the Anthrax attack, strains (and sources) can be identified.

    Chemical is another matter, I'm thinking. Anyone trained in MOPP understands the challenges, and the dangers.

    There are rogue chemists that can synthesize any imaginable drug from precursors, some of them pretty damned complex. An organophosphate nerve agent would be child's play. But I don't know enough about the quantities needed to mount an attack that would result in truly massed casualties.

    On the nukes - given adequate U-235 and some expertise, a Hiroshima bomb could be crafted that might yield 5 to 10 kt as it would lack the refinement of little boy. Maybe USSWisconsin could elaborate, but my understanding is that such highly enriched weapons-grade uranium is simply unavailable outside of known nuclear States, and in that case we fall back again on the State that provided the fissile material.
    The Manhattan Project was done in a world with no computers as we know them, even basic refrigeration was special, there was no Internet. Today the information about the those two devices dropped on Japan has been shared around the world for decades. New technologies like centripetal and laser enrichment are available to small countries or large corporations. If someone was able to assemble the resources to build a nuke, or just to buy one and reweaponize it - the small yield (<10 kt) would be entirely dependent on what kind of bomb they built or bought. A nuclear artillery shell would fit in that range, and be ideal for a terrorist weapon (small, suitcase portable) but a bigger nuke (20-30 kt) would not be that far off with similar resources (truck portable). Larger than this and boosting would be needed -- so another hard to get and short lived precursor would be required. Tritium for boosting would be more closely monitored due to its short half life, and the mechanisms to inject it would be very complex. I would think an implosion device would be preferable since it could work with less fissile material, note that many advances have been made in implosion technology and it would not need to be like Fatman. If they built a gun device - it would use much more material, per unit of yield - probably twice as much, the advantage would be reliability and dirtiness- a gun device would probably yield 1-10 kt. There were gun type warheads in some nuclear arty shells, but this is older tech (1960's). A well funded terrorist bomb maker would probably be using at least ~1980's weapons tech in a nuke - it has been leaked and could be presumed to be available for a price. Additionally the structural work would take advantage of modern precision CNC or EDM machining, structural materials and electronics have improved dramatically, so a well funded modern nuke would be far more precise and could easily be more powerful than the original 1940's bombs, far lighter, and probably more reliable. It seems like we are very lucky it hasn't happened yet.

    Bio weapons are probably the scariest "practical" WMD's given that there is the spectre of mutation and the potential for uncontrolable spread of contagin to consider. Add to this the relatively low cost of accomplishing this kind of thing and we have a horrific threat which could potentially effect the entire world.
    Last edited by USSWisconsin; 04 Jan 11, at 18:44.
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