This post about the Iranian / Venezuelan axis brought up the parallel with Cuba and the USSR, to wit the stationing of nuclear armed missiles in a proxy with the range to reach the USA. That in turn got me to thinking about the level of competence required to build a working nuclear missile, i.e. one that launches, gets to the target and then detonates. The theory is simple but the details are very nasty. It takes a very high level of technical skill to build such things, skills that might well be beyond the ability of the mullahocracy. And wouldn’t it just be about the worst thing in the world to launch a failed nuclear attack on the USA? Saddam Hussein already proved how bad it was to just have fictional nuclear weapons, perhaps Chavez will be the poster boy for how stupid it is to brandish duds.
The comments on this post lead to the question of the difference between groups that would want nuclear armed missiles vs. groups who would want a nuclear bomb in a truck. For groups like the mullahocracy or the Chavez crew, the truck bomb isn’t useful. Like the doomsday bomb in Dr. Strangelove, the purpose of nuclear weapons for these groups is not the use but the deterrence. Such weapons are useful if they are not “obvious” in some sense. Despite the apparent superiority of the nuclear truck bomb as a weapon, no one has built one, have they? Any discussion on this topic needs to explain that outcome.
My theory is that the people who can afford to acquire nuclear weapons (which, as we’ve noted, are expensive because they are difficult to build correctly) are more interested in the possession of such weapons far more than the use. Nuclear missiles, in this regard, are the “ultimate weapon” in terms of the psychological impact both domestic and foreign.
On the other hand, groups like Al Qaeda would probably prefer the nuclear truck bomb. The question is, will nuclear devices become cheap enough that even small NGOs like Al Qaeda can acquire, transport and operate them. I suspect, though, that biological / nanotech weapons are more likely to be the top threat in this century. If some NGO does manage to use a nuclear weapon, then the American Street is not going to blink at whatever mass destruction is used by the USA to shut off the supply systems for nuclear weapons. This will be feasible precisely becaue of the large scale technical sophistication to build a nuclear device. Bio/nano tech will require much smaller setups that have far more civilian applications. This makes choking off the root supply impossible. Fortunately, it seems likely that at least moderately effective defenses against such attacks can be constructed. But like the current computer virus wars, I suspect that there will be much grief and destruction before this occurs.