Nuclear Weapons in Civil War Zones

LOS ANGELES – The recent failed military coup in Turkey has produced instability, paranoia, and a crackdown on the regime’s perceived opponents, including many journalists. Luckily, it did not end with rebel forces seizing some of the dozens of US nuclear weapons stored at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, from which rebel aircraft departed. But what about next time?

The world’s nine nuclear powers claim that there is little to worry about. They argue that the combination of physical protection and, in most cases, electronic safeguards (permissive action links, or PALs) means that their arsenals would remain secure, even if countries where they are stored or deployed were engulfed by violence.

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Robert Peurifoy, a former senior weapons engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, disagrees. He recently told the Los Angeles Times that such safeguards – earlier versions of which he helped to design – may only delay terrorists in using seized nuclear weapons. “Either you keep custody or you should expect a mushroom cloud.”

Peurifoy’s statements have rightly raised concerns about the security of nuclear weapons stockpiled in insecure regions. Consider Pakistan, which has the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal and suffers relentless jihadi terrorism and separatist violence. Attacks have already been carried out on Pakistani military installations reportedly housing nuclear components. The country’s new mobile “battlefield nuclear weapons” – easier to purloin – augment current fears.

North Korea, with its volatile and mercurial regime, is another source of concern. Suspicious of the military, Kim Jong-un’s government has repeatedly purged senior officers, which has surely stoked opposition that someday could spark serious civil strife. Adding nuclear weapons to that mix would be highly dangerous. While other nuclear powers appear stable, countries like China and Russia, which rely increasingly on authoritarianism, could face their own risks, should political cohesion fray.

Of course, there are plenty of examples of security enduring strife. The 1961 revolt of the generals in French Algeria, which placed a nuclear test device in the Sahara at risk, produced no dangerous incidents. In China, the government effectively protected nuclear weapons sites threatened by Revolutionary Guards during the Cultural Revolution. And neither the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev nor the Soviet collapse resulted in a loss of control over the country’s nuclear arsenal.

But it is a leap to presume that these precedents mean that nuclear weapons will remain safe, especially in unstable countries like Pakistan and North Korea. Nuclear bombs or materials risk being controlled by rebels, terrorist groups, or even failing and desperate governments. And, in those cases, the international community has few options for mitigating the threat.

External powers can, for example, launch a targeted attack, like the one that Israel carried out on suspected reactors under construction in Iraq and Syria. Those strikes would not have succeeded had Israel not been able to identify the targets accurately. Indeed, though the existence of Iraq’s Osirak plant was public knowledge, uncovering Syria’s Al Kibar plant was an intelligence coup.

Carrying out such a strike on North Korean or Pakistani nuclear sites in a time of crisis would require a similar breakthrough ��� one that may be even more difficult to achieve, given extensive concealment efforts. Stealthy movement of bombs or materials amid the unrest would further complicate targeting.

Another option – invasion and occupation – avoids the challenge of identifying nuclear sites. The defeat of Nazi Germany permitted the Allies to find and destroy the country’s nascent nuclear program. The 2003 invasion of Iraq granted the US unfettered access to all possible sites where weapons of mass destruction could be stored. But the costs were huge. Likewise, invasion and occupation of either North Korea or Pakistan would require massive armies risking a bitter conventional war and possible use of the weapons against the invaders.

A third option is nuclear containment, which relies on several measures. First, in order to prevent nuclear migration, all land, sea, and air routes out of the country in question would have to be controlled, and homeland security near and far would have to be strengthened. While the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) is already in place to stop the smuggling of nuclear contraband worldwide, the International Atomic Energy Agency reports continued trafficking of small amounts of nuclear material. An increase in monitoring may reduce, but still not eliminate the problem.

Containment also requires nuclear custodians be persuaded to risk their lives to defend nuclear sites against terrorists or rebels. And it demands that states neighboring the country in question put ballistic missile defenses on alert. While India, South Korea, and Japan continue to modernize such systems, no missile defense is perfect.

In a time of crisis, when the facts on the ground change fast and fear clouds thinking, mitigating the nuclear threat is no easy feat. While concerned governments do have confidential contingency planning in place, such planning has a mixed record when it comes to responding to recent international upsets in the Middle East. And simply hoping that things will go according to plan, and nuclear command and control will stick, remains a gamble.

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The time has come to discuss new ideas, with the United States – still the global leader in combating proliferation – taking the lead. A public discussion with input from the executive branch, Congress, think tanks, investigative journalists, and scholars should lay a foundation for policy. We cannot allow ourselves to stand on the precipice of catastrophe without a well-considered and broadly supported plan in place.

The lesson from Turkey is not that the bombs of Incirlik – not to mention other nuclear weapons in unstable regions – are safe. Rather, it is that our most deadly weapons could be compromised in an instant. It ought to be a wake-up call for all of us.