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By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
Several major factors are contributing to today’s social, political and military instability. The world population has increased and is expected to reach approximately 9.9 billion by mid-century. That represents a 33% increase from 2016.
When we add to this mix the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology by rogue states such as North Korea and Iran, it is not difficult to envision terrorist groups obtaining nuclear materials or technology at some point in the future.
The Foundations of Nuclear Instability
During the Cold War, nuclear capability was strictly controlled by and limited to only a few nations. The leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union understood the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). They comprehended that the use of their nuclear arsenals might well cause total destruction of both nations.
However, the weapons developed during the Cold War included small nuclear devices designed for tactical use on the battlefield or for repelling an invasion. They were typically in the hands of specially trained engineers or U.S. and Soviet special forces.
As a senior technician on a nuclear fire team in Europe in the 1970s, I had access to two now-declassified systems. One of them, the Special Atomic Demolitions Munition (SADM), was small enough to be carried in a backpack. The second system was the Medium Atomic Demolition Munition (MADM), which was transported on a special truck.
The SADM and MADM systems were used by special combat engineer units to create barriers to a Soviet advance into Western Europe. The Soviets created equally small tactical nuclear weapons, including one type that supposedly could fit in a suitcase or briefcase.
While there is debate over the existence of small, easily portable nuclear devices outside the hands of nation-state actors, three non-state groups have been identified as seeking to gain nuclear expertise. They are Chechen separatists in Russia, Al-Qaeda and the Japanese group Aum Shinrikyo. In regard to terrorist or criminal organizations, one can only imagine the infinite ways to use these small nuclear devices.
The Soviet Collapse and Nuclear Proliferation
Two major factors that led to nuclear proliferation were the collapse of the Soviet Union and the theft – and subsequent sale – of nuclear knowledge by Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan (A.Q. Khan) of Pakistan.
The Cold War ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union imploded. At the end of the Cold War, Soviet nuclear warheads were stationed in three former Soviet republics that became independent states – Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
Approximately 35,000 nuclear warheads were scattered across seven time zones. Those nuclear weapons did not include 22,000 smaller nuclear devices for battlefield and tactical use stored in all 15 former Soviet republics.
The Soviet regime had created an elite class composed of bureaucrats, scientists and military personnel who now found their vaunted status in jeopardy, both figuratively and economically.
The Soviet system flourished on bribes and corruption, even when the Soviets were at the height of their power. Living in a corrupt system and having access to all sorts of conventional and unconventional weapons, coupled with the survival instinct of self and family, prompted former Soviet officials to justify selling their knowledge, raw materials or even weapons to the highest bidder.
Ostensibly, all of the weapons, both strategic and tactical, have been accounted for and either destroyed or placed back in the hands of Russian Federation authorities. But not everyone agrees with this benign assessment.
Even assuming that the small tactical nuclear devices are all accounted for, there remains the possibility of the theft or sale of weapons-grade fissile materials. There is also the possibility of some nuclear physicists using their in-depth knowledge to instruct others on how to build such a device.
Russia’s immense and highly active nexus of government and organized crime is a major concern in this regard. As of 2004, it was estimated that approximately 600 metric tons of highly enriched uranium remained under inadequate security in Russia. In the post-Cold War period of lawlessness, Russia was not the only candidate for possible illicit nuclear proliferation.
Khan and the Proliferation of Nuclear Technology in the Middle East
Pakistan figures prominently in the proliferation of nuclear knowledge around the world, including North Korea. Pakistan achieved its independence from India in 1947. It then fought two wars with India in 1948 and again in 1965.
Living in the shadow of its gigantic neighbor, it is not surprising that Pakistan viewed India as its biggest threat to national security. The question was how to achieve an edge. A nuclear armed Pakistan was the answer. Enter Dr. Khan.
In 1972, Khan went to work at the Physical Dynamic Research Laboratory (FDO) in the Netherlands. FDO is a subcontractor to Ultra Centrifuge Netherlands (UCN), a Dutch firm within Urenco, a uranium enrichment conglomerate.
Despite surveillance by Dutch and American intelligence, Khan was allowed to travel to Pakistan in 1975. He carried stolen blueprints for atomic centrifuges and critical contact data on firms supplying centrifuge components.
The Pakistani regime allowed him to create nuclear enrichment centrifuges allegedly using a Chinese model. As a result, Pakistan produced enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon in the 1980s. Pakistan also admits to shipping some centrifuges to Iran.
Khan then began to construct an international network of suppliers. The network was discovered in 2003 when Italian authorities seized a German vessel carrying 1,000 nuclear centrifuges to Libya’s then-dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Khan’s activities included supplying Pakistani centrifuges to the North Koreans in return for ballistic missile technology. There were also suspicions that the Khan network had dealings with Al-Qaeda.
Khan believed the nuclear “club” wanted to keep less-developed countries from gaining nuclear weapons. He may also have had a purely selfish economic motive. He was ultimately placed under house arrest in Pakistan and released in 2009. Since then, Pakistani authorities have not allowed Western authorities to question Khan about his activities.
The Global Future Remains Uncertain Due to Nuclear Instability
It is difficult to know what the future holds, but certainly the world is a more dangerous place today than it was during the Cold War. The reason for this situation is increased nuclear instability, stemming from the proliferation of nuclear knowledge used by rogue regimes such as North Korea to produce nuclear weapons.
According to a Rand study, “most recent open-source estimates suggest North Korea may already have enough fissile material to build between 13 and 21 nuclear weapons; by 2020, it could possess enough for 50 to 100.” In essence, the North Koreans have presented the world, and especially its neighbors South Korea and Japan, with a fait accompli.
How Will Iran Use the Enormous Influx of Cash from the US Nuclear Pact?
Opinions in the West vary as to the value of the Iran nuclear deal. The U.S. has released large amounts of cash and gold and $400 million from previously frozen Iranian assets to Tehran, ostensibly to ensure the freedom of American hostages. How will Iran use that enormous influx of cash?
Iran also has a supply of uranium. Just before he left office, President Barack Obama and other U.S. allies agreed to allow the Russian Federation to ship 130 tons of raw uranium to Iran.
The Iranian regime’s hardliners have been vocal enemies of the West for many years and it does not appear that lifting sanctions has changed their minds.
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Rogue states in possession of nuclear weapons, such as Iran, is a great concern. But extremist groups obtaining nuclear technology and weapons is an even greater cause for alarm.
After the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, video of a Belgian nuclear official found in the apartment of one of the terrorists involved raised alarms. A NATO review of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iran and the Levant (ISIL) indicated that they are potential nuclear threats.
Rising world populations, climate change and dwindling natural resources are likely to create social, political and military instability this century. Adding the global war on terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear technology in rogue states, we will be living in “interesting times” indeed, as the ancient Chinese curse says.
About the Author
Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He holds a B.A. in law enforcement from Marshall University, an M.A. in military history from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University. Jeffrey is also a published author, a former New York deputy sheriff and a retired Army Captain with more than 20 years of service.