If you haven't done so already, you should head on over to the main page and read the speech that Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered to the Carnegie Endowment on the future of America's nuclear weapons.
In it, Gates discusses the future of deterrence. He says:
Today we also make clear that the United States will hold any state, terrorist group, or other non-state actor or individual fully accountable for supporting or enabling terrorist efforts to obtain or use weapons of mass destruction – whether by facilitating, financing, or providing expertise or safe haven for such efforts. To add teeth to the deterrent goal of this policy, we are pursuing new technologies to identify the forensic signatures of any nuclear material used in an attack – to trace it back to the source.This is something that sounds right at first blush, but I wonder how feasible it really is. We know that two Pakistani nuclear scientists met with bin Laden in 2001. Should Pakistan be held responsible for (God forbid) a future act of nuclear terrorism by al-Qaeda? What about rogue scientists or military officers acting without the knowledge of the government? How do you weigh the impact of stealth cooperation among various government officials or scientists? How do you determine culpability?
And what about Russia? There is ample worry that a conspiracy (or just sheer inattention or corruption) among corrupt military officials could see nuclear material transferred to terrorists - if not a working bomb, then significant components or fissile material. If that were the case, clearly the U.S. would not launch a nuclear attack against Russia. They could nuke back!
But it's more than just that. Consider that any of the potential proliferating states would be dictatorships or autocracies - countries like Russia, North Korea, Pakistan (a democratic outlier) or potentially Iran. These governments would not be carrying out the will of the people but, in all likelihood, the will of a very small clique of crazy or corrupt officials. Yet for the U.S. deterrent posture to be effective, we would have to administer a blow that could kill tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of perfectly innocent civilians who wanted nothing to do with striking a nuclear blow against America.
And this is where the rubber of deterrence meets the road: if a nuclear bomb goes off inside an American city and was the work of a transnational terrorist group like al-Qaeda, it would take weeks to determine culpability. It took years to unravel the proliferation ring of Pakistan's A.Q. Khan, and among the guilty parties were European businessmen.
In the time it took to walk back an act of nuclear terrorism on U.S. soil to determine who did it and how, the world would essentially be waiting for the U.S. to launch a nuclear strike in retaliation. What would those days and weeks look like? We'd have a much clearer understanding, thanks to media reports, of the populations in the major urban centers of any potential target. We'd presumably see the nuclear forces of the suspected countries put at a high state of readiness and those nations would, one would think, issue their own warnings to the U.S.
The president would be forced to either stand down in the face of poor information, make a moral decision to stand down in the face of good information (and thus lose whatever deterrent credibility our nuclear force was meant to preserve), or order the deaths of potentially hundreds of thousands of innocent people.
The groups that would execute a nuclear terrorist attack cannot be deterred. The actors that would enable a terrorist attack may do so unwittingly or without official state sanction. Even in the instance where a state deliberately facilitated an act of nuclear terrorism, it's unlikely be an instance - for example, like Japan in World War II - where the U.S. was confronting the collective will of a state. I doubt there are tons of people inside a supposedly pro-Western Iran who want to be burned alive for the sake of attacking the U.S.
Gates' formulation sounds good in theory, but tell me how it works in the real world.
UPDATE: Ask and you shall receive. Elbridge A. Colby, who served in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, pointed me to his article in Policy Review addressing just such questions. More soon.