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The Domestic Nuclear Attack Threat

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The Domestic Nuclear Attack Threat

The domestic nuclear attack threat is dead, or so many in the American national security community thought. In their estimation, it died with the threat of international terrorism, which evoked concerns of nuclear terrorism. Even with the re-orientation of the National Defense Strategy to emphasize strategic competition, the inherent risks seemed far too great for a nuclear-armed superpower to ever consider seriously threatening, let alone actually using, nuclear force ever again. Consequently, the United States has neglected to adequately prepare for this threat in recent times. With Russia now threatening nuclear escalation toward the West as it wages war against Ukraine, the homeland has been revealed to be one of the greatest vulnerabilities of American national security.

George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin meet in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2006. (Kremlin)

The events of September 11, 2001, ushered in a new era for the national security apparatus that emphasized international terrorism and rogue state threats, and perceptions of the domestic nuclear attack threat followed suit. Concerns rose that al-Qaeda was developing an improvised nuclear weapon, which thrust nuclear terrorism to the forefront of nuclear security policy. In a 2006 joint statement with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, President George W. Bush stated that nuclear terrorism “is one of the most dangerous international security challenges we face.”[2] This echoed the sentiments of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the National Planning Scenarios, which listed a hypothetical nuclear attack with a 10-kiloton improvised nuclear device by terrorists as Scenario 1.[3] Even popular culture reflected this concern with the 2002 release of the movie The Sum of All Fears, which was based on a Tom Clancy novel about a nuclear attack on the Super Bowl by terrorists.[4]

Of course, this shift occurred roughly a decade after the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.[5] Long gone were the days of nuclear attack drills and fear of impending nuclear war with another superpower. The repulsive nature of Cold War-era doctrine, such as mutually assured destruction, seemingly ensured that those days were gone for good. After all, the potential consequences to any aggressor—and the rest of mankind—had effectively deterred the use of nuclear weapons for the duration of the Cold War.[6] With a nuclear war between great powers out of the question in the minds of most policymakers, the threat of nuclear terrorism became the primary concern.

However, despite the consternation, international terrorists never launched a nuclear terrorist attack, and the national security community was quick to move on to more pressing threats. With one condemning line, the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America stated, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”[7] Given that terrorism had been the primary source of concern for a nuclear incident for roughly two decades, it appeared that this threat could be declared dead.

Long Forgotten: The Decline in Preparedness

American concern for a domestic nuclear attack atrophied. The Cold War had ended without a nuclear crisis; so, too, had the age of terrorism. As the world advanced into the Digital Age, a full-scale nuclear war seemed completely incomprehensible, much less a more conventional conflict between nuclear-armed superpowers. As then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen lamented in 2010 about the lack of nuclear warfare expertise in the Pentagon, “We don’t have anybody in our military that does that anymore.” He continued, “It’s as if we all breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Soviet Union collapsed and said to ourselves, ‘Well, I guess we don’t need to worry about that anymore.’”[8] Instead, as China and Russia began projecting their power through liminal warfare, defense and security resources were dedicated to countering these threats, namely cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns. Modern warfare experts thought that future conflicts would be fought purely as such, not with nuclear force, so it seemed that the nuclear attack threat had gone to the grave for good.[9]

Admiral Mike Mullen, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (PO1 Chad J. McNeeley/DoD Photo)

Moreover, domestic preparedness for a nuclear attack has long been declining in the United States. Despite the concern for nuclear terrorism over the past two decades, natural disasters have long overtaken the concern for a nuclear detonation and civil defense at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As H. Quinton Lucie laments, “The United States has not had a comprehensive strategy to protect its civilian population and defense industrial base, or to mobilize and sustain the nation during time of war, in almost 25 years.”[10] While this observation is made in the broader context of general war, its applicability to domestic nuclear attack preparedness is clear. After all, even a single incident would require a massive number of resources to successfully mitigate.[11]

To make matters worse, many state and local officials are openly relying on the federal government to step up and lead in the aftermath of such an event. In a 2019 Federal Emergency Management Agency PrepTalk, emergency manager and health physicist Brooke Buddemeier spoke of his experience asking these officials about their needs after a nuclear attack. As he recalled, the most common response was, “Nuclear detonation? That’s a fed thing, right? Wait for the guys in green to save the day?” As he concluded, “Nobody really has a plan for the aftermath of a nuclear detonation…In fact, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the response needs even are, and what the role of federal, state, and local agencies is.”[12] Concerningly, these observations were solidified by the research findings of another study, which identified several gaps in domestic nuclear detonation response capabilities.[13]

Back from the Dead: Russia’s Threats of Nuclear Escalation

In his 1922 poem “The Waste Land,” T.S. Eliot ominously warns the reader, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”[14] In a March 2022 keystone conversation hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen added the modifier “radiation dust” to this somber warning.[15] Obviously, Secretary Cohen was speaking of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has implied threats of nuclear escalation should the West interfere with his military action in Ukraine.[16] While these threats have serious implications for the United States’ ability to project power overseas, they have revealed another concerning weakness of American national security: the home front, particularly in the context of a nuclear crisis. After all, as the previous section described, America’s ability to handle such an incident is, at best, questionable.

Of course, the overall threat of an intentional nuclear attack remains very low, because the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons remains very high, even by President Putin’s standards. However, when Russia cut off communication with the Department of Defense, some warned there was an increasing likelihood of a misunderstanding leading to an unintended nuclear incident.[17] Furthermore, even a single nuclear detonation could have massive strategic implications for the United States. The potential scale of any such event and unprecedented magnitude of the consequences demand attention.[18]

Conclusion

The nuclear attack threat was thought to have died with the age of international terrorism. However, Russia’s threats of nuclear escalation following its invasion of Ukraine have awoken it from the grave. Despite this resurrection, old concepts of civil defense and domestic nuclear detonation preparedness have yet to revive with it. As such, the United States is unprepared to address this threat, revealing a significant weakness of national security on the home front that demands immediate attention.


Robert T. Wagner is a Department of Army Civilian, and holds a Master of Arts Degree in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School. His research interests include homeland defense, civil military relations, and emergency preparedness. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

[1] Thomas Nichols, No Use: Nuclear Weapons and National Security (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 5–6.

[2] White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Joint Statement by U.S. President George Bush and Russian Federation President V.V. Putin Announcing the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism,” July 15, 2006, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2006/07/20060715-2.html.

[3] US FEMA, “FEMA Fact Sheet: National Planning Scenarios” (US Department of Homeland Security, n.d.), https://www.hsdl.org/?abstract&did=683091.

[4] IMDb, “The Sum of All Fears,” IMDb, 2002, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0164184/; Clancy, The Sum of All Fears.

[5] US Department of State, “The Collapse of the Soviet Union,” Office of the Historian, Foreign Service Institute, n.d., https://history.state.gov/milestones/1989-1992/collapse-soviet-union.

[6] Fred Kaplan, The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2021).

[7] Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2018), 1, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.

[8] Thomas Nichols, No Use: Nuclear Weapons and National Security (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 5–6.

[9] Sean McFate, The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., n.d.); Seth Jones, Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran, and the Rise of Irregular Warfare (W. W. Norton & Company, 2021).

[10] H. Quinton Lucie, “How FEMA Could Lose America’s Next Great War,” Homeland Security Affairs XVII (May 2019), https://www.hsaj.org/articles/15017.

[11] Robert Wagner, “Saving Our Own: Urban Search and Rescue after a Domestic Nuclear Detonation,” Countering WMD Journal, no. 23 (December 2021): 57–66.

[12] PrepTalks: Brooke Buddemeier “Saving Lives After a Nuclear Detonation.,” 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EueJrCJ0CcU.

[13] Robert Wagner, “Saving Our Own: Maximizing CBRN Urban Search and Rescue Capabilities to Support Civil Authorities” (Monterey, CA, Naval Postgraduate School, 2021).

[14] Thomas Eliot, The Waste Land (New York, NY: Boni and Liveright, 1922).

[15] Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Global Security Forum: Foreign Policy in an Era of Domestic Division” (Washington, DC, March 7, 2022), https://www.csis.org/events/global-security-forum-foreign-policy-era-domestic-division.

[16] Andrew Jeong, “Putin Has Brought Threat of Nuclear Conflict ‘Back Within the Realm of Possibility,’ U.N. Chief Says,” The Washington Post, March 15, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/15/nuclear-conflict-putin-un-guterres/.

[17] Uri Friedman, “What’s the Likelihood of Nuclear War?,” The Atlantic, March 23, 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/03/ukraine-russia-nuclear-weapons-cold-war/627587/.

[18] Wagner, “Saving Our Own: Urban Search and Rescue after a Domestic Nuclear Detonation.”

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