Michael Krepon9/11 + 10

The retrospectives and forecasts about 9/11 keep on coming, but little has been written about that day’s impact on the Bomb, arms control, and new nuclear weapon programs. Here’s my take, subject to rebuttals:

1. The most important and obvious repercussion has been the shift in focus from nuclear threats posed by major powers to those from weakened states and messianic militants. Russian and Chinese authorities are capable of bucking this trend with extremely unwise, revanchist choices: a new liquid-fueled, ten warhead, land-based missile in Russia and a new-found enthusiasm for using nuclear threats to supplement economic leverage in China come to mind. But it would take very jarring steps to reverse current trends, preceded and reinforced by the events on 9/11, that nuclear weapons have become progressively less useful for major powers, even as their utility has grown for troubled, weakened regimes.

2. The absence of acts of nuclear terrorism by means of “dirty” bombs, improvised nuclear devices or warheads from an existing arsenal is the best surprise of the ten years following 9/11. Stretch this record back to the demise of the Soviet Union and this result is even more astonishing and perplexing. An act of nuclear terrorism or a mushroom cloud could still occur tomorrow, but there has been twenty years of tomorrows since the Soviet Union collapsed, opening a Pandora’s box filled with the worst substances created by man. The absence of catastrophic WMD terrorism thus far speaks volumes about the wisdom of the Nunn-Lugar program in the former Soviet Union, the extension of cooperative threat reduction programs to other countries, the regrettable ease with which mass casualties can be produced with readily available explosives and automatic weapons, much improved intelligence efforts, good fortune, and inflated threat assessments. Maintaining a track record of non-use of WMD will be a challenge over the next decade if complacency sets in, budgets are trimmed, and if the number of outlier states grow.

3. The events of 9/11 greatly weakened the ability of the U.S. nuclear weapon labs to generate support for new warhead designs. This extraordinary loss of clout was predictable after the demise of the Soviet Union, but was never more evident than after the quick unraveling of the Bush administration’s proposals for bunker-busting, deep penetrating warheads to deal with post-9/11 threats.

4. The events of 9/11 have had little impact on the standoff between those in the United States who love or hate arms control and nuclear weapons. For the foreseeable future, domestic divisions on these issues, as on so many others, will be extremely hard to bridge. This suggests rough sledding ahead (and perhaps tradeoffs) for those in the United States who seek treaty ratifications and strategic modernization programs.

5. The events of 9/11 have clarified the utility of more creative and less formal approaches to nuclear threat reduction, including norm setting by means of codes of conduct and political compacts by like-minded states, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative. Newer approaches have been constructed atop the load-bearing walls built by treaties. Continued efforts by anti-arms controllers to demolish treaties will therefore further damage their own adaptive creations.

6. There have been notable successes in the field, well beyond the avoidance of catastrophe, in the ten years since the 9/11 attacks. Two regimes with WMD ambitions – those led by Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi – are gone. The Assad franchise in Syria is wobbly. According to SIPRI’s calculations, global stockpiles of nuclear weapons have been reduced by 16,000 over this ten-year period, along with 12,000 fewer deployed warheads. No major powers have tested nuclear devices during this decade. The NPT has been reaffirmed. A ten-year long verifiable treaty governing further strategic arms reductions between Moscow and Washington is in place, providing time and space for negotiators to tackle far more complex issues. Nuclear security now receives summit-level attention.

7. And now for the flip side: successes have come with significant costs, beginning with two wars that are more likely to have murky, indeterminate or negative outcomes than positive ones. Iran and North Korea have been unintended beneficiaries of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, having gained freedom of maneuver while Washington lost capacity to influence their nuclear choices. Ten years after 9/11, divisions within the United States have grown markedly, even at a time of engagement in foreign wars. Divisions are also growing internationally between nuclear haves and have-nots. The Board of Governors at the IAEA is more politicized and the Nuclear Suppliers Group is weaker now than ten years ago. Successful arms control, nonproliferation and disarmament have always depended upon consensual approaches, but consensus has become a more elusive commodity in the decade following 9/11.

8. My bottom line: the new normal for this field is concurrent good and bad news. There has been progress on some important fronts since 9/11, but game changers are more likely to be negative than positive. As John McPhee wrote in The Control of Nature (1989) on the subject of the successful defense of Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland against an advancing lava flow,

The true extent of the victory will never be known – the role of luck being unassessable, the effects of intervention being ultimately incalculable, and the assertion that people can stop a volcano being hubris enough to provoke a new eruption.

Victories in arms control, nonproliferation and disarmament are rarely decisive. But disaster has so far been avoided. There are good reasons for momentary – and only momentary — satisfaction.


  1. Amy (History)

    Chomsky contextualizes the issue of Pakistani nuclear weapons in the on-going war on terror very well in my opinion — a must read:

    • shaheen (History)

      Good heavens. Chomsky on ACW. That’s taking intellectual trolling to a new low.

  2. Arch (History)

    “[A] new-found enthusiasm for using nuclear threats to supplement economic leverage in China come[s] to mind.” Maybe I missed something besides the aircraft carrier. But it seems to me unlikely anyone (besides the Pentagon, with its institutional interest) should take seriously any Chinese nuclear threats, implied or otherwise, to solve the problem in the South China Sea. Too many countries involved, to much invested to date in a diplomatic solution that sadly remains elusive. So there’s my rebuttal to an otherwise excellent survey.

    Besides, I am a fan of any other fan of John McPhee, one of my favorite authors and a distant cousin besides.

    So thanks, as usual.

  3. Magoo (History)

    Thank you for an interesting piece. You may want to look at a piece put out by the Voice of Russia – “Greater Middle East expects only arms” by Polina Romanova. Sep 6, 2011, quoting Fedor Lukyanov, who opines “States with regimes, against which potentially, the U.S could act can come to only one conclusion; do not abandon nuclear weapons. It is the only guarantee of being left alone. In this sense, North Korea is a good example. All the evidence shows that the U.S should have acted against Pyongyang a long time ago with the object of replacing the regime, but that has not happened because the price would be too high. North Korea has nuclear arms and a missile programme, albeit rudimentary”, Fedor Lukyanov said.

    Source: Voice of Russia. http://english.ruvr.ru/2011/09/06/55746864.html

    • krepon (History)

      I do not detect great enthusiasm here for another military campaign akin to Iraq and Afghanistan.

      The pursuit of nuclear weapons is a very expensive insurance policy. New seekers of these capabilities are unlikely to be “left alone.” They are likely to have great difficulty pursuing trade and economic development and maintaining social cohesion. They are also likely to be branded as outlier regimes that turn against their own citizens, like North Korea, Iraq under Saddam, Libya under Qaddafi, and Syria under Assad. Great company to be in.

  4. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    Definition of PENCHANT. : a strong and continued inclination. Michael, where is the evidence that China has ” a new-found enthusiasm for using nuclear threats to supplement economic leverage”. Could you give examples, please?

    • krepon (History)

      A couple of people have raised this with me.
      Let me be clearer: What would it take to give greater impetus to strategic modernization programs in the United States? I gave two examples that I believe to be most ill-considered: Chinese nuclear threats and a new liquid-fueled ICBM carrying ten warheads. They haven’t happened — yet. And if Beijing and Moscow act wisely, they won’t go there.

  5. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    That last comment should begin with “Definition of ENTHUSIASM: Intense and eager enjoyment, interest, or approval.

  6. Kennette Benedict (History)

    I found Pavel Podvig’s “Russia’s Nuclear Forces: Between Disarmament and Modernization” published by IFRI convincing in accounting for Russia’s stance. Russia is looking for strategic stability and, in the face of US missile defense deployment and NATO, wants to maintain “deterrent potential” of its strategic forces. Achieving balance between parties can be tricky and may require subtlety of mind on both sides.

    • Tom Nichols (History)


      The constant Russian complaint about “stability” presupposes that they don’t have it already. Ask almost any Russian thinker on this what they mean, or read their articles on it, and you will be transported to a bizarre world of nuclear theology as though it’s still 1983; head west to Poland and you’ll get the same answers, only in reverse.

      One of the biggest mistakes of the Obama administration has been to allow itself to be cornered by conservatives and the Russians themselves into a Cold War model of arms control, in which have subverted our own ability to reduce our arsenal because we’re afraid of the heat we’ll take if we don’t do it in lockstep with the Russians.

  7. Sharif (History)

    Tom and K.B.,

    Thank you for your insightful comments.

    I think the point is that _both_ the U.S. and Russia decided to sign and ratify the New START Treaty in search of strategic stability. It is not only a Russian concern and no one forced the U.S. to sign on. Now, you can certainly argue that New START and bilateral treaties are outdated between Russia and the U.S. but you cannot have it both ways: you cannot sign a treaty with Russia that establishes strategic stability (however bureaucratically and unmeaningfully) and simultaneously say they ought not think the document they signed and agreed to is a big deal.

    I would actually completely agree with you if you are indeed of the opinion that New START was not a good idea — but I believe Michael Krepon has always backed it. If not, please feel free to correct me.

    Coming to the subject of nuclear terrorism — a question for the author and any commentators: is there anything more we could or should be doing beyond the various programs (CTR, PSI, GNEP, UNSCR 1540) that are already in place? Is more money needed or is there enough?

    And relating this to 9/11 “nuclear terrorism” has two components and a two-pronged solution — one is reducing the nuclear part; and the other is reducing the terrorism part.

    Unfortunately, our policies have exacerbated the terrorism part while tamping down the nuclear part.

    We really need to examine the root causes of the motivation of the terrorists and address those — otherwise we will never be safe. There will always be enough HEU loose to make a nuke or two.

  8. Adil (History)

    “more creative and less formal approaches to nuclear threat reduction” – is useful, but if established regimes such as the NPT, NSG, having more legitimacy – are being undermined, how could states be encouraged to agree to “less formal approaches”?

    • krepon (History)

      Regrettably, you have a good point.
      This business is never either/or.
      Hope you are well,

  9. wrf (History)

    I am not sure the word ‘revanchist’ is really appropriate to describe Russia and China’s posture: both these nations are ascendant with new-found glory (more for China than Russia, of course) and do not, I think, really aspire to express this ascendancy by making more nuclear missiles for no reason. The Chinese, as you know, have a well-known NFU policy and have only 40 or so missiles with the ability to reach the United States. In fact, they view the US’s unwillingness to go to a NFU policy as a cause for concern and take it to be an implicit threat. Both Russia and The US are below New START treaty limits already so I do not sense much revanchism anywhere really.

  10. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    Thanks Michael. I suppose one could characterize China’s position on Taiwan as revanchist but I would argue there is only a theoretical connection between that claim and China’s nuclear posture, which China’s NFU policy is intended, in part, to negate. I have seen no credible evidence that China might use nuclear threats to exercise disputed sovereign claims. There are many such claims in Asia, of course. In that sense all most every government in the region could be considered revanchist.

    • krepon (History)

      It is evident that my use of the word “revanchist” was unwise, as it is evident that some readers missed the conditional tense of its usage.

  11. Sergey (History)

    ha ha ha! So the USA has to do nothing? — it is China and Russia that is always force the bad decisions on the USA?!

    Introspection and self-evalutaion is not popular, even at 10 anniverasry of 9.11 it seems. Did Americans learn from events of 9.11 — or a bad thing just happened there?

  12. wrf (History)

    9/11 was a grotesque expression of blowback from decades of flawed US policies in the mideast. Several such policies are ongoing now.

    Nuclear terrorism is a hard nut: we need the cooperation of many nations but those many nations for the most part aren’t too worried about nuclear terrorism. They know that the bombs will go off in NYC, DC, London, Paris and maybe a couple of other Western capitals. How to get their attention and cooperation?

    • M Mir (History)

      The question you need to ask is WHY nuclear terrorists would detonate bombs in NYC, DC, London, Paris and a couple of other western capitals as opposed to Moscow or Beijing or Tokyo.

      This is is the primal flaw in “US based – western thinking” on the terrorist-WMD problem that seems to always end up pointing fingers at the actors only interested in making an honest renminbi.

  13. bradley laing (History)

    “I gave two examples that I believe to be most ill-considered: Chinese nuclear threats and a new liquid-fueled ICBM carrying ten warheads. They haven’t happened — yet.”

    I want to know if the millions being put into research and development of new conventional weapons will ultimately lead to some new kind of nuclear problem. Reading about each new improvement in ships, planes, and computers on defense industry news websites makes me wonder if they are all “Dragon’s Teeth,” waiting to grow new problems in the future.

  14. Amy (History)

    I am not so certain that China is so preoccupied with US’s lack of NFU — I think the biggest issue China and Russia have re. strategic stability w/ US has to do with missile defense. Or rather their perception of missile defense…

    • shaheen (History)

      Amy: for once I agree with you. The question is, can the US influence Chinese and Russian perceptions of missile defense, and if yes how? It’s not for lack of trying – the USG has been trying that since 1996. The problem is that various consistuencies in the two countries have different perceptions (some genuine, some faked). For instance, the Kremlin and the military do not care about US MD for the same reasons. (In 2002 Putin’s strategy was rapprochement – this was the post 9/11 context – so he did not make a big fuss about US withdrawal from the ABMT.) Ask about “strategic stability” in any of the two countries and you either get caught in a Cold war timewarp as one of the previous commentators noted, or you get several different answers depending on your interlocutors. Bottom line: not sure that strategic stability is a useful concept anymore.

    • Amy (History)

      Shaheen, I appreciate the discussion but my response — were I to write it out — would be very similar to what Sharif wrote above.

      OK, so strategic stability is outdated. Fine. I actually even agree with you.

      One minor hiccup: we just signed a Treaty with the Russian Federation underlining and enshrining this (as Sharif puts it “bureaucratic and unmeaningful”) concept of stability. And, further, the treaty recognizes the link between strategic offense and defense. So it’s a bureaucratic check-mate with the whole stability issue, unfortunately.

      Your argument is not with me or the Russians but with the people who thought New START was a good idea in DC and Moscow.

      PS: but think about the US reaction if the Russians install a defense system on ships and on bases in Newfoundland. Food for thought.

    • krepon (History)

      Readers beware:
      Amy & Shaheen are talking dirty talk, above. If strategic stability doesn’t matter, what next?

    • Amy (History)

      Michael, let me be as clear about this as possible: I am quite serious. I see no issue of strat stability w.r.t. Russia. The Cold War is over. No disrespect, but New START is an artifact of old think. I think the US and Russia need to de-link nuclear issues. The sooner the better.

      We should go to ~100 nukes (for now) and let the Russians do what they wish. I don’t give a hoot if they have 3000 — they can pay more for the upkeep of these useless toys if they like. Their problem. I don’t think they’ll launch an attack on us so long as we ~100 nukes (for now, we can go to less later).

      The real enemy (for me) is the house uber-conservatives on Capitol Hill, not the Russians: it is for their sake and false arguments and Russian and Chinese hyper-fear-mongering that we have the number of useless nukes we have.

      My Frank view.

      There used to be an issue of strat. stability w.r.t. Russia — those days are over. It is just old-think that traps us now.

    • shaheen (History)

      Michael, Amy, I guess we have two different issues here.

      One issue is whether “strategic stability” means the same thing today (a) in Washington, Moscow and Beijing, and (b) among various leaders and constituencies within those countries; the answer is no. (Michael, you tell us: same more or less in Delhi/Islamabad, right?).

      Another issue is whether “arms control”, bean counting, “offense/defense balance”, etc. should matter if you decide that the other is not your enemy (which is what the US says, it’s much less clear in Russia). We’ve been living with this contradiction for 20 years now, sort of on the edge of the Colin Gray paradox (arms control is possible when unnecessary, impossible when feasible, unfeasible when necessary – a bit of an exaggeration of course).

      (Where I part company with Amy is that I find Putin much scarier than she apparently does, but that’s a value judgment. Also, don’t blame only the Reps for the number of nukes the US has – Dems have a responsibility too.)

    • krepon (History)

      Amy & Shaheen:

      I will drop my facetiousness.

      Thank you for engaging on this important subject that is hardly considered and has not been seriously assessed.
      Strategic stability seems to have almost no resonance now. During the Cold War, we could all identify how outcomes during crises in very sensitive locales (Berlin, Cuba, etc.) could have severe repercussions for geo-politics and power balances. The only comparable that I can think of today would be a crisis over Taiwan which, I must hasten to add before Gregory jumps in, seems less likely as time passes (but cannot be ruled out).

      The biggest event affecting strategic stability is my lifetime was the demise of the Soviet Union. We somehow managed to find a new geo-political equilibrium without large, unwelcome explosions.

      During the Cold War, strategic stability was partnered with the nuclear balance and the offense/defense equation. Some in the US & Russia still posit apocalyptic outcomes with BMD deployments, but their arguments no longer compel wide allegiance. When the Cold War died, Cold War arguments on behalf of nuclear weapons and for or against missile defenses lost audience share.

      If strategic stability matters less, it follows that nuclear weapons and missile defenses also matter less. They still have important, but lesser, roles to play, in my view, but I would not frame these arguments in terms of strategic stability.

  15. 3.1415 (History)

    It is odd to drag China and Russia into a discussion of 9/11. The two belong to a discussion of “what if there were no 9/11”. In that world, US and China were on a collision course (bombing of Chinese embassy in 1998, mid-air collision in 2001, etc). In the real world, even if there is no G-2, the two are practically sleeping on the same bed and enjoying each other’s business model. China lends US the money to police the world beyond Russia. How long can the Sheriff burn his money at 2% of his GDP to squash a bug that generated a return of investment of 1:7,000,000?

    • wrf (History)

      Excellent point, but you presume logic prevails on Capitol Hill whereas I see no evidence for that being the case.

  16. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    I can see the conditionality now. My apologies for the misread. As you know there are many in Washington who believe China is abandoning NFU, and uses nuclear threats to enforce their supposedly revanchist claims on Taiwan. And these claims are used to support maintaining or expanding U.S. capabilities. Some, like Congressional staffer and advisor Al Santoli, even have gone so far as to write “China played a a larger role than widely believed in schooling the al-Qaeda” and that “U.S. intelligence has confirmed that before the September 11 attacks, China’s military provided training for Afghanistan’s Taliban and its al-Qaeda supporters”. There are a non-trivial number of advisors and decision-makers in Washington who believed “China’s Al-Qaeda Connection” was part of “China’s Master Plan to Destroy America”. Among them, Senator Jon Kyl, who has played a non-insignificant role in the course of U.S. arms control policy.

  17. Arch (History)

    I understand a coffee in the Adirondacks or wherever, is a great thing, but we are missing Fearless Leader in this thread, particularly with regard to China. I’ve been there on business about ten times, which means nothing, but I really believe the new “Chinese threat” to be more hyperventilation than something based on study or logic.

  18. Clint Sharpe (History)

    Interesting discussion of strategic stability but I think it misses the point entirely……I believe there is general consensus that only the early intercept or boost-phase BMD systems would provide a remotely feasible defense but that these are not in the cards for the system we are planning to go with. So, agreed Russia and China should not make a big stink about it but perhaps US taxpayers should!

    Re. nuclear terrorism: a lot of the HEU stocks are in the US and Russian Navies and the subs and carriers could be converted to LEU propulsion reactors with a minor sacrifice in performance. The French have a pretty nice new sub coming out that runs on their LEU “caramel” fuel. I am not generally a fan of French fashions but — mon Dieu! — this may be one occasion where we may want to copy their style.

    • Anon (History)

      true enough, but my understanding is that the Russians are concerned about potential future capabilities of the BMD system to possibly intercept some fraction of their warheads. Are their fears warranted? Probably not. But it is important to note that the Russian government has many factions within it just as we do and missile defense can “empower” the hawks there, just as the “threat” of Iranian ICBMs empowers the hawks here. It’s really like doing Arms Control in a Circus mirror fun-house! A small nose becomes a big honker. You can’t blame the mirror.

      Re. HEU–>LEU in the subs: it would still be very expensive to re-tool the subs and carriers. Not sure that non-proliferation is the Navy’s number one concern.

  19. Sharif (History)

    I was trying to keep out of this debate but I feel I must highlight what is a subtle, but to my mind, an important asymmetry in logic which clouds the issue.

    If I am wrong, please correct me.

    It seem — I believe — that Michael Krepon is saying that the Chinese and Russians ought not do “extremely unwise” things because our Congress is rather irrational and will respond to these unwise things by kicking off modernization etc.

    However, this irrationality in governments is not a unique property in the US: the Chinese and Russian governments also are not monolithic and have constituencies that can also be just as irrational as our own.

    So it is asymmetric to say that Russia and China ought not do unwise things because our govt may irrationally respond, but not also acknowledge the fact that the unwise things (e.g. new missile defense) that our government is doing could also cause a similar irrational reaction.

    One cannot expect rationality in responses from Russia and China, just as one cannot expect it from the US.

    Regarding BMD, quite apart from the technical issues is the issue of public perception in Russia. Russian and Chinese leaders may feel they ought to respond to U.S. claims about missile defense effectiveness in order to assure their people that the government is strong, powerful and responding decisively to *perceived* threats to their security. Similar dynamics happen right here but mostly regarding Iran.

  20. Aaron Tovish (History)

    I cannot let this point in Micheal’s essay go unchallenged: “An act of nuclear terrorism or a mushroom cloud could still occur tomorrow, but there has been twenty years of tomorrows since the Soviet Union collapsed, opening a Pandora’s box filled with the worst substances created by man.” We are playing Russian roullette, we just don’t have any idea how many cylinders are in the gun. We do know the bullet is a doozy, a game-ender if its nuclear war.
    Nuclear explosions became a possibility about 75 years ago when Leo Szilard, while stepping off a curb in London, realized the possibility of a self-sustaining chain reaction . No one can dispute that in the last 75 years nuclear weapons have been used ‘only’ twice. Unfortunately this is all we know. Thus, as a first approximation, it is fair to project that nuclear weapons will be used in the next 70 years. On which tomorrow will this happen (if it happens) is anyone’s guess. Whether it will be only one or two uses or — as in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — almost all the available weapons is also anyone’s guess.
    The only way to stop this reckless endangerment is to eliminate nuclear weapons. Everything else is band-aids. Nothing is gained by procrastinating. Ninety percent of the discussion on this website, blithely accepts that some leaders have the right to gamble with lives and property which isn’t theirs (i.e. the whole world). If the conversation must go on, can we at least agree that its very premises are as wrong as wrong can be?
    Or maybe some really believe that nuclear winter and nuclear famine are fairy tales. Please speak up if you do, so we at least know where you are coming from. Thank you.

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