‘[Note: We’re big fans of the First Lady of Conservatism, Mrs Phyllis Schlafly; and her making the case for Trump in January, and subsequent full-throated endorsement two months later sealed the deal for us… And damned near toppled her from her Eagle Forum. The #VichyGOP title for our blog is shorthand for who Reagan biographer Craig Shirley referred to as “Vichy Republicans” in his April 2014 essay.]
UPDATE (3/30/2017): Former CIA Director James Woolsey published in The Hill How North Korea could kill 90 percent of Americans, where he raises many of the very same points about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, with some stunning additional conclusions.
Our good friend DECIUS at the Journal of American Greatness has an excellent article suggesting an “Enhanced Whack-A-Mole” Anti-Terror Strategy for Trump. In general, it’s a well-reasoned strategy in between the Wilsonian Progressive — Neocon 2.0 and Buchanan paleo-isolationism worldviews, i.e. borrowing Walter Russell Mead’s 2001 definitions, his proposed policy fits a Jacksonian Nationalist worldview. However, there are a few points where we respectfully disagree.
First, let’s address the “truck driver’s nuclear weapon” and how it’s much more dangerous than DECIUS gives credit:
Did you hear the one about the truck driver who built a nuclear weapon? No, seriously. Now, it’s not a full-on Teller-Ullam two-stage thermonuclear metropolis-killer. It’s merely an exact—exact—copy of Little Boy, the HEU gun-assembly bomb that destroyed Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. The trucker’s bomb lacks only two things to make it go boom: the cordite priming charges to fire one part of the highly enriched uranium core into the other, and that uranium core itself. The first would be easy to get but dangerous to carry around. The second would be quite hard indeed to get.
Which is probably, at this point, the only reason why a home-made Little Boy or something very much like it has not been detonated at 42nd and Vanderbilt or 17th and G. Don’t kid yourself: they want to. We’re not going to repeat the case for how we know that, because we’re not specialists in it and others are far, far better equipped. If you’re an alt-righter or paleo-isolationist who thinks all we have to do is end the U.S.-Israel alliance, and the whole Muslim terror problem will go away, this Journal will be a consistent source of anger and disappointment to you. They’d still want to nuke us. And, given the material, they could. “The secret of the atomic bomb is how easy they are to make,” our trucker has observed.
More to the point: a nuclear terror attack would have to have at least two sources: the terrorist group itself and the state that provides the fissile material. The high attribution rate on which the authors hang so much refers only to the terrorist group and not the state. Not that they ignore the state; we’ll consider what they have to say about states shortly. The point is simply that knowing which terrorist group hit you is not the same as knowing which state was behind them. And, to say the least, terrorist groups are much less deterrable than states: their raison d’etre is to commit attacks. They are also much harder to retaliate against, especially without the cooperation of the states that harbor and support them.
We highly recommend any policymaker visit the American Museum of Science and Energy in beautiful Oak Ridge, Tennessee, about two hours east of Nashville, where you will see in the “sliderule days” before computers how simple it actually was to produce enough of two different fissile materials — 235U used in Little Boy over Hiroshima & 239Pu used in Fat Boy over Nagasaki — using magnetic diffusion and an “atomic pile” (reactor), respectively. [Historical footnote: We didn’t know if either technology would work, so we covered our bets and used both… And both worked well]
Let’s first look at 235U production, starting with the infamous “yellowcake” processed ore: We have three basic methods to refine it to 90% weapons grade: The original magnetic diffusion, gaseous diffusion, which was used for commercial production at Oak Ridge for decades, and centrifuges, which is used today. The reason we moved from one to the next method was purely economic efficiency… But all three methods work.
Next, lets’s look at 239Pu production: This dangerous material is a byproduct of uranium–powered nuclear reactors, and exists in massive quantities in every nation which has commercial nuclear plants, and even research reactors found on university campuses around the world. [We had a 5 MW one at Georgia Tech starting in the early 60’s right in downtown Atlanta: This is about the size of Israel’s first reactor at Dmona.]
There’s an old joke from the Cold War which applies here:
Q: How long will it take Japan to produce a nuclear weapon?
A: About three days!
What most policymakers overlook is that there’s a difference when you build out a massive enrichment infrastructure such as at Oak Ridge, and a rogue program designed to produce just enough fissile material to make a single bomb. It’s rogue programs like the NoKo – Syrian al-Kibar reactor the Israelis wiped out in 2007, which although had a state sponsor, proved the point that a program just big enough to produce enough material for a single bomb can be within the reach of a well-financed terror group, absent state sponsorship.
Next, DECIUS writes:
Their case for certainty (or near certainty) of attribution rests on two foundations: first, the ability of “nuclear forensics” to determine the origin of a bomb’s fissile material, and second, the very good track record (so far) of fixing attribution for conventional terror attacks.
Regarding the authors’ first reason for confidence that deterrence will work—nuclear forensics—the authors themselves admit that it is far from perfect. Its success depends in large part on the cooperation of regimes that may have reasons not to want to provide information about their own fissile material programs (either because such states are engaged in proliferation, are supporters of or sympathetic to terrorists, or are anti-“world order” in outlook, or some combination of these). Absent nearly universal cooperation from all states that have mastered the nuclear fuel cycle, nuclear forensics must be considered imperfect.
“Imperfect” is an understatement: It relies on analyzing trace isotopes for a “signature,” looking for things such as Polonium 210 as a trigger, or Strontium 90 for evidence of a tritium booster.
[A corollary exists for conventional explosives: Although trace compound “tagging” is used in commercial explosives, home-brew nitroglycerine is just glycerin, and nitric & sulfuric acids.]
However, the “truck driver’s” nuclear weapon probably wouldn’t have any of these yield-boosting additives to trace back to actual, infrastructure-based nuclear programs; and as we posited above, a crude fission weapon can be built even without a state sponsor — Just enough money and yellowcake to kick it into gear.
DECIUS correctly calls out Iran’s 36+ year War against America:
Even when attribution is known, the United States does not always retaliate. One big reason why, since 1979, Iran has remained, with very few exceptions, very aggressive toward U.S. interests—even to the point of killing American soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan—is because we so rarely ever hit them back. For example, we didn’t retaliate after either the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon or the 1996 Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia. On the occasions when we DO retaliate—such as the 1987-88 actions that sunk half the Iranian navy—the regime’s behavior subsequently becomes much less aggressive and much more circumspect. For a while—until they realize that we have reverted to passive form, as we always do.
However, we believe this statement understates just how pitched in battle the Iranians actually are against us: Their War against us started on November 4th, 1979 when they invaded sovereign American soil when the so-called “revolutionaries” seized our Embassy in Tehran; and this battle against us has continued to this very day, despite the willful blindness of Clinton, Obama, and especially George W Bush. Basically, Iran’s jihad against America oozes out of every pore of their leadership, which is why regime change is crucial: Iran represents an existential threat to the United States itself. More on this later in this article.
Continuing, DECIUS writes:
One other consideration that may seem picayune, but we believe would be relevant in the circumstance. The simplest nuclear bomb to build is, as said, a copy (however inexact) of Little Boy. Without sophisticated ways of “boosting” the yield, its explosive power would be on the order of 15 kilotons. The Hiroshima bomb, for maximum effect, was detonated at an altitude of about 1,900 feet. No terrorist is going to be able to air drop a bomb over Manhattan or Washington. The attack will therefore be a “ground burst” and thus much less devastating, at the same yield, than the Hiroshima bomb.
Three disparate points worth noting:
First, all it takes is a single detonation of a nuclear weapon to “change the world” as we know it, on a scale an order of magnitude larger than it changed on the morning of September 11th;
Second, who said an air burst at 1,900 feet is out of the question? It would be a trivial exercise to buy a twin-engine plane big enough to fly the five ton load on a kamikaze jihad mission. For that matter, you can pick up an old DC-9 or 727 off the Arizona desert floor for just a couple-few hundred thousand.
What’s more, although DC and NYC are relatively hardened with anti-aircraft missiles, the same probably cannot be said for Atlanta, and especially Los Angeles: These cities have airports with approach paths close to the city center, and in the case of LAX, the city has literally “built out” between the two runway pairs… And London’s Heathrow is even worse.
That being said, an air burst need not be directly over Manhattan: An air burst over Newark Liberty’s runway 29 final approach path, which is over Bayonne, would still hit Lower Manhattan & Brooklyn, as you can see from this map:
The point we’re trying to make is that an Islamic jihad kamikaze mission need not involve a deviation from routine aviation operations: It can hit completely out of the blue with not even a nanosecond of warning.
What’s more, from an airframe standpoint, even if a plane deviates from its’ flight path and is intercepted with a surface-to-air missile, unless a fuselage fuel tank detonates (as happened from an electrical short in the center tank on TWA 800), the terrorist on board would still have seconds to detonate the weapon, albeit perhaps not at the optimum altitude &/or location… But massively devastating nonetheless. Furthermore, even if the weapon does not detonate, you still have a dirty bomb attack, and if it’s over land the contamination radius would be large, as we’re talking 239Pu or highly-enriched 235U here, folks, and that’s nasty shit.
Third, even a ground burst today would be much more devastating than just the blast damage, as the damage to fragile semiconductor circuits found in every vehicle as well as computer would be destroyed for miles around; and if it’s an air burst, the damage would be even more extensive.
This is why conservative fulmination about the Iran deal is so oversold. Yes, it’s a bad deal and yes the Obama administration lied in selling it. But neither the best deal nor the absence of a deal was going to stop Iran from getting the bomb. A country as big, rich, and sophisticated as Iran—if it really wants nuclear weapons—it will get them sooner or later. Countries much smaller (Israel), poorer (North Korea) and dumber (Pakistan) have managed it. The only way to stop Iran, again, is either to change the regime’s mind or change the regime. The former would have required much tougher sanctions, plus the cooperation of all of all Europe and Russia. We were never going to get that. And even if we had, there’s no guarantee the Iranian regime would have changed its mind. North Korea never has, despite being sanctioned to the hilt for decades. Libya did only when it was caught red-handed importing nuclear materials from Pakistan—mere months after the U.S. armed forces toppled the Iraqi government.
Somewhere out there on the Interwebs I wrote on August 6th, 2005 from Oak Ridge that Iran already had at least one “bomb in the basement,” much as Israel had one definitely by 1967, and possibly as far back as 1956. What’s more, Iran’s nuclear weapons program does not operate in a vacuum: North Korea participates in Iran’s program, much as they participate in Pakistan’s. [Historical timeline point: In her 1994 visit to Pyongyang, Benazir Bhutto’s plane sat on the apron for an extra 45 minutes as they loaded some sort of nuclear equipment — probably centrifuges — into the cargo hold for Abdul Qadir Khan’s weapons program.]
If we may further shock conservative ears, there is a case to be made for the Iran deal. Not its terms or the mendacity with which it was made. But for the deal itself, the ostensible purpose of which is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. The only thing short of war that can stop that, as noted, is a change in the Iranian mind. The one thing the Iranian regime wants more than nuclear weapons is full access to the global economy and First-World financial system. (Well, that and its frozen assets back.) The deal paves the way to realizing that dream. But not if they flagrantly flout it. If they do that, all the sanctions—and more—are likely to be re-imposed. Tehran won’t have the Obama spin machine to cover for them for much longer. And whatever you think of Western pusillanimity, betrayed losers tend to react angrily. Even arch-appeaser Neville Chamberlain got mad when Hitler personally humiliated him by invading Poland. (Did you ever think you’d read a Munich reference not intended to urge more war? JAG delivers!)
The deal thus may not stop nuclear development, but it could push it underground, slow it down, make it less intense. To repeat: if Iran wants the bomb, Iran will get the bomb. The question is: does Iran want the bomb badly enough to lose all that it gained through the deal? Only time will tell. One thing we do know is that secret nukes are not that useful. The only “undeclared” nuclear power is Israel, which despite never formally acknowledging (or testing—unless they did) its arsenal has nonetheless managed to let the world “know” that it has nukes. Certainly, Iran could not celebrate the debutante ball of a nuclear power and still enjoy access the OECD economy.
What they could do, however, is keep quietly working on a bomb, get all the way to the finish line—and wait. Wait until the moment when they feel they “need” to go public, until their self-perceived “need” to be recognized as a nuclear power outweighs their assessment of the usefulness of access to the Western economy.
DECIUS’ analysis falls apart, as Iran already has nuclear weapons. What’s more, they have the Sunni as well as Shi’ite terrorist infrastructure in place to detonate one in the United States: Just get the fissile material across our porous southern border, and gather the rest here and assemble it in some abandoned mine away from any radiation detectors. What’s more, because Bush frittered away the Monroe Doctrine, the largest embassy in the Western Hemisphere is… wait for it… Iran’s in Caracas.
Bush had a real chance during the 2002 Venezuelan coup attempt to push Chavez out, which would have been a major win in the Great War on Terror… But, he was too busy masturbating to his twin Iraq and Medicare Part D ($450 billion RX benefit) fantasies to pay attention.
[Historical footnote: It was Bruce Bartlett who blew the whistle on Frist & Bush, as he correctly projected the largest expansion in entitlement spending would be about triple the $160 billion White House figure, and was fired, just as Larry Lindsey was canned for predicting the Iraq war would be at least double the sunny $400 billion cost. Basically, the Medicare D expansion was a sop to the congressional Democrats, in exchange for their support of the Iraq invasion. In other words, the Medicare D expansion is a hidden cost of the Iraq misadventure, and needs to be budgeted accordingly.]
Getting back to the Venezuelan nexus of a potential Islamic terror attack on American soil, the Los Zetas, Siniloa, MS-13 and other drug cartels already have ties to the mideast & Persian terror organizations: These violent gang-bangers certainly are no patriots, and will gladly sell out to the highest bidder.
As we stated above, Iran, especially through its’ Venezuelan proxy, represents an existential threat to the United States.
So what do we do? Here (finally!) we get to the strategy. By all means, keep on with all those non-proliferation efforts. By all means, continue with “target hardening” and counterterrorism efforts at home.
But we also have to take the fight to the enemy. We’ve observed before that the much-maligned Bush-era slogan—fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here—is dead right. Why it should be so controversial remains mysterious—beyond the obvious point that it’s been spot-welded to the neocon democracy project and thus unfairly discredited. In reality, the idea undergirding that slogan is no different than the ancient and eternal principle of the buffer state. All great powers have them. That’s one of the measures of being a great power. Can you force your borders outward, and so fight your battles somewhere other than in your own front yard—or living room?
Another Bush-era slogan was “we don’t want to play whack-a-mole with terrorists.” Condoleezza Rice used to say this in interviews all the time. She meant: no one-offs but instead a grand strategy to remake the region. It’s not enough to win military victories. If that’s all we do, we’ll be fighting jihadis forever because the supply is endless. The only long-term solution is to modernize, democratize and moderate the Greater Middle East. Then and only then can we stop this fighting. And, the people there will be better off and happier, so everybody wins.
The rest of his plan is in the bottom third of the article, which we address in a separate article.