Mini-Nukes - Tactical Weapons or Terrorist’s Weapons?
by Adnan Gill
On 7 September 1997, the world held its breath in shock and awe, when in a CBS newsmagazine ‘Sixty Minutes’ broadcast, the former Russian National Security Adviser Aleksandr Lebed dropped a bombshell on an unsuspecting and unprepared world. He claimed that the Russian military had lost track of more than 100 suitcase-sized nuclear bombs, any one of which could kill up to 100,000 people. The accuracy or the substance of Mr. Lebed’s claim has yet to materialize, but the world quickly found itself in a situation it was utterly unprepared for. Suddenly, everyone was asking the same question, how safe are we from these Mini-Nukes?
General Lebed was not the only person to have made such breathtaking claims, after the USSR broke apart, then Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi also noted that some tactical nuclear weapons were missing but never explained what had happened to them? To this day no one can really say if it was a political stunt by Mr. Rutskoi, or account and tracking error, or whether they fell into rogue hands?
In an era of religious and political fanaticism, the world is forced to play Russian roulette by few countries that are hell-bent at producing and retaining mini-nukes. Such nuclear weapons are also known as Suitcase Bombs, Small Atomic Demolition Munition (SADM), Tactical Nukes, Nuclear Artillery Shells (NAS), Deep-Penetration Nuclear Warhead, Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator and so on. The physical size of such weapons makes them much harder to secure and track. But the worst and most dangerous drawback of miniaturization is that it comes at the cost of safeguards against an unauthorized use. Imagine the devastation and mayhem, if one of such weapons would somehow fall into the hands of a terrorist organization like Al-Qaeda, a dictator like Saddam Hussein, a fascist like Solobdan Milosovic, or into hands of nihilists like Timothy McVeigh?
If a device like this would ever make its way into a major city, it could destroy everything within several miles radius from the center of detonation. Within hours, prevailing winds would carry the nuclear fallout throughout the city.
The race to manufacture and deploy the smallest possible nuclear device started in 1950s. Initial hysteria of politicians and weapons designers of building the nuclear weapons with the highest possible yields produced world’s largest thermonuclear devices (50-100 Megatons) such as Soviet "Tsar Bomba" ("King of Bombs"). Their impractical large size had almost zero military utility. This insane obsession was soon replaced by military planners’ strategy of lobbing the highest number of nukes as far as possible, as quickly as possible and in as many ways as possible. Without giving a thought to the future consequences of such a shortsighted strategy, the focus suddenly shifted from building the biggest to the smallest nuclear weapons. Despite the fact, the Mini-Nukes have practically reached the smallest size and their inherent risk of falling into wrong hands, the military planners are still pushing the designers to build even lighter and smaller nuclear weapons.
Experts believe lighter and smaller nuclear weapons pose a much more serious threat to the world safety and security than the larger nuclear and thermonuclear devices ever did during the cold war. Their dramatic fears stem out of the continued manufacturing of mini-nukes like the American B61-11 -- Deep Penetration Nuclear Weapons, unaccounted ex-Soviet Tactical Nuclear Weapons, and almost nonexistent safeguards against the unauthorized use of such devices. These fears are shared by both American and Russian experts, like Russian researcher Dr. Viktor Mikhailov and American Ex-General Eugene Habiger. They contend that today the nuclear arms race has shifted from building more powerful bombs to the construction of smaller devices, which inherently increases the odds of terrorists getting an access to such weapons.
Upon getting possession of such a nuclear device, all the terrorists will have to do is deliver it to the target in a suitcase or in a trunk of a car, and detonate it. Such nuclear weapons are far more dangerous than conventional explosives of equivalent yield due to the intense radiation emitted during the fission reaction. A 20 ton fission explosion (which is equal to the yield of the lowest yield nuclear warhead ever deployed by the US -- the W-54 used in the Davy Crockett recoilless rifle) can produce a lethal 1350 rem exposure at 300 meters and a very dangerous 500 rem radiation exposure at 400 meters from the burst point. Nuclear and radiological weapons kill people not only by its explosion and shock wave, but also by the radioactive material they emit. People caught near the burst point can be immediately exposed to fatal levels of radiation, which can be absorbed by the body or can pass completely through it. People at farther distances could get radioactive poisoning as contaminated solids, liquids, or gases are released into the air. The harmful materials can be absorbed by the body via the lungs, gut or wounds. Finally, the exposed population can get fatally radioactive dose when the radioactive particles reach the body cells, tissues and organs such as bones, liver, thyroid or kidney.
During an interview with PBS’ Frontline show, ‘Russian Roulette’, Alexei Yablokov (Former Science Advisor to Yeltsin) spoke about the power and horrible consequences of tactical/mini nuclear weapons falling into rogue hands. He told the US congress subcommittee in October 1997, that the power of suitcase bomb “is about one kiloton, possibly less, but a powerful charge. You cannot destroy Moscow or London, but the Kremlin, you can destroy ... Capitol Hill can be wiped out by such a bomb”.
During the interview, Mr. Yablokov busted the myth that only the most senior leadership of nuclear powers can authorize and initiate the use of a nuclear weapon. He stated, “I talk about tactical nuclear arms, and including mini-nukes, nuclear [suitcases], because I believe that, after the end of the cold war, the situation with nuclear arms has become much more dangerous. During the cold war, everything was under strict control, now it's not the case anymore. Now, it's becoming clear to us that tactical nuclear arms pose a great threat in people's minds. People think that, ‘Well, the American President and the Russian President have nuclear cases and only after the President presses a button in it, then something happens.’ But that's not the case regarding tactical nuclear arms. [In a terrorist version of tactical nuclear arms and small briefcase bombs], it's not going to be up to the President to decide where and at what time to set the bomb off. So, tactical nuclear arms exist under less control than the strategic nuclear arms. The power is much smaller of tactical ones, but the control is also much weaker. Therefore, it now poses a greater threat to society, that's why I keep talking about it.”
Mr. Yablokov also warned of dangers emanating out of the politically unstable environment in Russia. According to him, if there would be a power struggle between fascists and nationalists, “[The] danger comes from within [Russia]. We've got about one hundred organizations of a fascist nature. These fascist organizations have got many military personnel, who know where these bombs are located, who know how to use them. And if, inside the country, there's a struggle for power, and these fascists and nationalists get hold of these bombs--there's a small chance, but there is that chance... if that happens, that will be terrible. That's why I'm talking about this, that's why tactical nuclear arms, these small nuclear bombs, ought to be destroyed as soon as possible.”
Instead of heeding to the w
arnings of inherent dangers posed by the mini-nukes, the US government accelerated the development of these weapons, which was only followed in-kind by the Russians, who did not wish to be left behind in the mad rush to make the nuclear weapons smaller and smaller.
In Sep 1988, the US defense department began a program for deep-penetration nuclear warheads to be used against “rogue states”. During the same year, the by US Assistant Secretary of Defense Kenneth Bacon in a particularly alarming statement refused to rule out the use of B61-11 Deep Penetration Nuclear Weapons as a tool for achieving US military objectives in Iraq. In Nov 2002, the ‘Mercury News’ reported to be in possession of a Bush Administration’s memorandum circulated to the ‘Nuclear Weapons Council’. Backed by the defense authorization bill that congress approved in 2002, the memo asked the three leading US nuclear weapons labs to study the costs and benefits of reducing time to prepare for testing the “Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator” weapons.
Not to be left behind, soon the Russian hawks like Andrey Kokoshin (Vice President Russian Academy of Sciences) and Dr. Viktor Mikhailov (who is the research head of the Russian Federal Nuclear Center in Sarov. The FNC is Russia's leading research establishment for nuclear weapons programs where all Russian nuclear bombs have been built) also started to voice their support for developing and testing such weapons. Dr. Mikhailov said, "The philosophy of thermonuclear weapons has changed today, and on the agenda is the development of high-precision and deep-penetration nuclear bombs."
Russian government has steadfastly denied the existence of Soviet Small Atomic Demolition Munition/Suitcase Bombs. While the U.S. officials do not deny the existence of such Russian weapons, but they cast doubt on claims that some of suitcase bombs may have gone missing since the end of the Cold War. Former FBI Director Louis Freeh told congress, "We have not seen any hard evidence of suitcase-sized nuclear devices unaccounted for or falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue states."
Even though, both the Russian and US governments consistently try to downplay the fears of vulnerability and accessibility of mini-nukes by the rogues of the world, but their efforts to push the mini-nuke development into high gear is only making the world more insecure. The last thing the world needs is increasing number of highly portable and insecure nuclear weapons. Combined with antiquated tracking and storage procedures of Russia, its not if terrorists will get their hands on such device(s), but its when they will get it, provided they are not already in possession of one? As long as, Miniaturized Nuclear Weapons will exist, there will always be a chance of someone stealing or selling them to people who may not view life in same light, as rest of the civilized world does. Is the world prepared to see mini-nukes falling into the hands of terrorists, dictators, fascists, or nihilists? If not, then how will the world ward off such a catastrophe from happening? The solution: the civilized world needs to make an all out effort to buy, beg, or steal all such mini-nukes and permanently destroy them before some fanatic detonates them in the middle of a city.
More articles by Adnan Gill