Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Underestimating Suitcase Nukes?

Dean Barnett, posting at Hugh Hewitt's blog, states some of his criticisms of the hype over so-called "suitcase nukes". He divides the post into three parts: first dismissing their effectiveness, second their existence, and third, the possibility that Al-Qaeda has them. It's worth a read, but I take issue with one of his main points.

Barnett first compares the estimated yield of a "suitcase nuke" to that of conventional explosives, and standard-sized nuklear weapons, pointing out that a "large" nuke has around a 1-megaton yield, compared with an expected 0.01 kiloton yield on a suitcase nuke (I think he is purposely quoting only the minimum estimated yield here, which seems to actually range from 0.01 - 1.0 kilotons), roughly equivalent to the MOAB "daisy cutter" conventional explosive weapon (which, to my recollection, corresponds to the highest-yield non-nuclear weapon in our arsenal). He then mentions that the Oklahoma City bombs were around a quarter to a half of this yield.

Here he misses the point by a mile. Yes, conventional explosives can be "just as bad". However, the OK City bombings were accomplished by truck. Security measures can be taken quite easily to avoid such attacks, particularly when the three or four trucks required to achieve a similar yield to a suitcase nuke are used simultaneously. A portable "suitcase" nuke -- on the order of 60 lbs, it seems -- is so deadly because of its portability. No one could drive several vans full of explosives into, say, a crowded stadium. However, sneaking in a 60 lb. box, while far from simple, is even farther from impossible.

While he does mention a "dirty bomb" later in the article, he neglects to mention the secondary death toll caused by radiation in a nuclear explosion that is not present in a conventional explosion, which is another aspect of such an attack that would appeal to terrorists in particular.

His other two points, that nukes may not be usable even if they do exist, and that it is highly unlikely that AQ would even have one, mitigate the threat of suitcase nuke attacks; however, this first point really fails to support his argument.



Anonymous Chris said...

I took an airplane flight yesterday, and all the security got me thinking about terrorism: If I were a terrorist, what's the most efficient way to kill lots of people at once.

Sure, stadiums (or places like Disneyworld) can contain upwards of 100,000 people at a time, but because they are open air, the destructive potential for any concealable device is greatly diminished.

Airplanes can be good for 200 people at a pop, and many more if you crash them into something. We recently thwarted a large scale (multiple airplane attack) in Britain. With the new security measures this is now VERY difficult.

My conclusions? 1) Bring down a building during work hours. This is where your suitcase nukes come in. Two of them in corners of a underground parking ramp could do the trick. 2) Simultaneously poisoning water supplies in several towns.

There was also a novel (rumored) idea of bringing down a bridge in Michigan (I think) where every year they have a celebration that involves about 60,000 people on it at one time. Likewise, think of the beginning on the NYC marathon where they're all on the bridge at the same time....

5:13 AM  
Anonymous Chris said...

My solution. The US government should employ a bunch of 16 year-olds (maybe a contest), who otherwise might become computer hackers, to come up with ideas on how to kill lots of people at once. Why not tap all that evil, creative energy and try to get ideas on what the terrorists might come up with?

5:17 AM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

What if it's a stadium with a dome? A suitcase nuke would (and I'm pulling this "fact" out of my butt) probably be sufficient to bring down the roof of such a place -- right on top of the people inside. And I don't think it really has to be "concealable" even, just portable -- imagine a commando-style squad of terrorists shooting their way into the stadium in a matter of minutes, and setting off the device. Here, portability is what is key, not concealability.

I have wondered why the 9/11 terrorists chose to strike when they did -- it seems that striking right before/after 9:00 am actually mitigates the possible death toll, as many people had not yet arrived at work. I remember on 9/11/01 that many commentators were sticking to figures that the twin towers held so many tens of thousands of workers on a normal day, and how the actual death toll was an order of magnitude lower than it could have been...

7:47 AM  
Anonymous Marty said...

Chris: WRT your second comment, I know you're only half serious (if that), but something like that has already been done. A few years ago, the Pentagon was studying using futures markets to predict things about terrorists attacks (in a way that futures markets are used to predict election results, quite accurately, I might add). When the media caught on, there was a big to do. The Pentagon was embarrassed by it and had to abandon the program. I think if the Pentagon was employing teenage mayhem video game players, a similar media snit would ensue.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

Marty: I think there still is a "private" (i.e., non-governmental) terrorism futures market. I discovered it when I was looking for a free stock-tracking program (which ultimately led me to start playing the Hollywood Stock Exchange). I'm entirely too lazy to relocate it now though. But I would only be surprised if the government were not paying close attention to it.

10:15 AM  
Anonymous Chris said...

I think one of the reasons the 9/11 hijackings occured in the AM was that it was the time many cross-country, fuel-laden trips begin.

On one hand, they probably had success beyond their dreams (did they really think those towers would totally collapse?), but on the other hand, you're right: given the success of the mission, a LOT more people could've died.

10:34 AM  

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