Category Archives: terrorism

Flying Killer Robots That See Through Walls

Sorry for the light pace of posting. Pressing matters have intervened. With Paul out of town, it’s just a case of bad timing. But I’ll take a break for a little shameless self-promotion.

Newspapers aren’t dead yet. Sunday’s _LA Times_ has a “good article by Greg Miller”:,3,2931937,full.story that explains the stepped-up pace of UAV warfare in Pakistan since last August, and why “the U.S. Intelligence Community is pleased with the results”:

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Why bring this up in an arms-control blog? Simple. Every successful UAV strike in the deadly serious Game of Whac-A-Mole on Terrorism, or GWAMOT, places another question mark — preceded by the letters “WTF” — over the proposed “Conventional Trident Modification”: This would be a non-nuclear submarine-launched ballistic missile for employment against “fleeting targets” like high-value terrorists or suddenly detected WMD shipments. According to the “report”: of “a panel of the National Academies of Science”:, the initial version of CTM would not be able to destroy or disable hardened military targets, so it’s more or less an SLBM with Osama’s name on it.

One of the advantages of using UAVs is that you can see what are you shooting at before you shoot. This won’t prevent all disasters and tragedies, but it helps. The advantage of CTM, by contrast, is that it can strike essentially anywhere in the world on no notice, even when the flying killer robots, with all their fancy sensors, aren’t in the neighborhood.

In other words, even if you lack much confidence about what the target is, CTM means you can annihilate it just the same. Among other things, this creates exceptional opportunities for any Central Asian hill chieftain with a satellite phone, a taste for “Uncle Sugar’s benjamins”:, and a grudge against the neighboring village. Or perhaps I should say _an exceptional opportunity_, because after the results hit the newspapers, it’s liable to have been a one-time offer only.

(Bonus! Shameless other-promotion: Ted Postol gave a presentation addressing these matters to the aforementioned panel, but I’m having a hard time finding it for some reason. Bill Roggio tracks the robot war in Pakistan “very”: “closely”: [Update: “More from Roggio”:] )

Here comes the self-promotion part: I had an “article”: in the Jan./Feb. _Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists_ exploring this and other aspects of the “conventional prompt global strike” proposal. The good news is, the misguided missile program doesn’t seem to be going anywhere fast.

In case you’re wondering, the reference to seeing through walls is drawn from an earlier _LA Times_ story, “here”:, concerning sensors carried by newer Predator UAVs.

Final note: I hope that no one takes offense from my jocular tone when discussing this really grim stuff. It’s a coping mechanism. Now, just to lighten things up a little more, here’s a “musical bonus”:

New McIntosh and Storey Title Page

The authors of “_Between Acquisition and Use: Examining the Improbability of Nuclear Terrorism_”: gave me a new title page, complete with their contact info, a while back and I have neglected to post it. “Here it is.”:

Nuclear Terrorism: Not Gonna Happen

That’s a simplified version of the conclusion reached by Chris McIntosh and Ian Storey in a “paper”: that they were gracious enough to allow me to post.

[*Update:* The title and date are posted “here.]”:

I’m still reading through it, but I think these excerpts sum it up:

*The arguments made in favor of the probability of the nuclear terrorism rely on a series of false equivalences and a fundamental misreading of the way that recent events implicate our broader understanding of terrorist strategy.* Building on a combination of organization theory and recent empirical work on the basic rationality of terrorist groups and strategies, we propose an approach to terrorist strategy that describes in formal and informal terms the process of strategic choice (and particularly choice of certain strategic tools over others, a variable almost universally neglected in current approaches) during terrorist campaigns and suggests that *nuclear terrorism remains improbable in the extreme.* Although the names of actors have changed and terrorism has come to dominate strategic thought across the globe, *America’s metropolitan centers have no more to fear than they ever have from the possibility of nuclear terrorism.*

The one-sided appearance of the current debate over terrorist nuclear attack is sustained by a theoretical elision that has gone largely unnoticed even among those who find the scenario unlikely. *Since the ‘80s, the debate has largely centered around the probability of acquisition; if a terrorist organization successfully acquires a nuclear capacity, proponents of the nuclear terrorism scare believe it is only a matter of time before that weapon will be used in an attack on the United States. This conventional formulation assumes that a terrorist organization has only two choices once acquisition occurs—either to use it or not.* Presumably an organization wouldn’t desire such a capacity unless they wished to use it, so there is an implicit equation between acquisition and use. As such, most literature and by extension most foreign policy initiatives focus on the supply side.

In this paper we will argue that *the likelihood of nuclear terrorist attack is so slim as to render it virtually unthinkable. Contrary to contemporary conventional wisdom, our theorizing demonstrates that there is no one-to-one linkage between acquisition and “use”.* This paper will proceed in four parts. In the first section, we establish that even if certain individual terrorist behavior cannot be modeled or explained strategically, internal and external pressures push terrorist organizations to behave in a strategically rational manner. The deductive models made possible by this intuition are
also pragmatically necessary, given the lack of access to data on terrorist organizations and the very real need to heighten understanding of these organizations’ behaviors. Our next section will criticize the current understanding of nuclear weapons “use” as a binary between attack and nothing. Despite decades of Cold War theorizing on the ways that a nuclear weapon can be utilized strategically short of literal attack, little to none of this literature has been applied to terrorist activity. In this section we will offer an alternative taxonomy of choices that terrorist organizations with a nuclear capacity possess as well as a model that articulates the dynamics involved in these strategic choices. We will also offer a rough expected utility model that reflects the variables that would go into any organizational decision regarding how to use their newfound capacity. In the final section, we will offer *three sets of arguments undermining the case for the likelihood of nuclear attack: opportunity costs, the value placed on organizational survival, and the conflation between capitulation and surrender.*

You can download a copy “here.”: Share it with your friends, if you have any.

Nuclear Terrorism and Probability

Jeffrey has a good “post”: about the “Allison/Levi exchange on”: abut nuclear terrorism. He correctly points out that the debate should be “about a particular policy that might be controversial—say, domestic nuclear detection efforts.”

I’ve always thought that, from a policy perspective, the risk of nuclear terrorism does not make much difference – we should do things like fissile material control, threat reduction, and counter-terrorism anyway. The exception may be for things like nuclear detection programs.

Jeffrey (and Matt Bunn) point out that

probabilistic models [of a nuclear terrorist attack] are only useful to identify the optimal allocation of resources in deterring, preventing and responding to nuclear terrorist attacks. As Matt Bunn said in the comments on an earlier post:

… a systematic approach helps in focusing the discussion, identifying areas of disagreement, identifying areas where additional information would reduce the range of uncertainty, and, yes, offering an at least somewhat more focused approach to assessing which policy options might be most important.

My point is that the universe of policy options to which the actual probability of a terrorist attack is relevant seems to me to be pretty small.