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Suitcase Nuclear Weapons
The concept of a suitcase-sized nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist organization is very disturbing. Such a "suitcase nuke" could be easily moved to a target location, and a whole city could be destroyed or held hostage to terrorist demands. A small number of such bombs, if smuggled into a country and detonated simultaneously, could cause immense immediate damage, generate lingering, long-term effects, and cripple the national economy for years.
Do Suitcase Nukes Exist?
The answer to the existence question is certainly yes, at least for "trunk size" devices. Unclassified sources have reported that small nuclear devices were developed by both the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, a direct result of the work on tactical nuclear weapons. These would not fit in a briefcase, but are portable by one or two people.
The U.S. developed a class of devices called "Atomic Demolition Munitions" (ADM), intended for use as atomic land mines. ADMs were in the U.S. inventory from the late 1950's until such weapons were phased out by arms-control agreements in the 1980's. A version of the ADM for use by Special Forces, the "Special Atomic Demolition Munitions" (SADM), was suitcase or duffle bag size, weighing less than 100 pounds (photo, left, is SADM packing case). The top photo on this page is from a declassified film showing a demonstration of the SADM in the late 1960s. The exact status of these weapons today is unclear.
The Soviet Union's small nuclear devices were developed for nuclear mines and possibly for Spetsnaz attacks (Special Forces). In 1997, General Aleksandr Lebed claimed that the Soviet Union created one hundred and fifteen atomic demolition munitions (ADMs), low-yield, one kiloton devices that were small, portable, and without safety devices to prevent unauthorized detonation. Lebed further raised the issue of whether the ADMs were all in proper custody and accounted for. Others have contradicted Lebed -- the issue is unsettled, but it is most likely that the Soviets did produce small atomic munitions, similar to the U.S. SADM.
An important point is that all nuclear devices require routine maintenance to remain viable. Small devices are no exception and, in fact, may require more frequent maintenance than larger weapons. Therefore, a diverted weapon from military stocks will become ineffective in a matter of a few years even if its control systems can be bypassed. The main danger, after the device has lost its original effectiveness, is its use as a source of weapons grade plutonium.
Could terrorists make or acquire a suitcase nuke?
The small-sized nuclear munitions developed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union were sophisticated, involving highly advanced engineering and manufacturing technology. No terrorist organization, nor most countries, could develop such a device from scratch. But the fear is that a group such as al Qaeda could amass enough funding to buy the technology and expertise they needed, steal the necessary nuclear materials, and build a bomb. Is this fear justified?
Unfortunately the answer has to be yes. While it is doubtful that an intact nuclear device can be purchased on the black market, a wealthy and determined terrorist organization could in theory pull the pieces together over a period of time from a network of sources. The result would probably be relatively unsophisticated and low yield, but even a crude and underpowered nuclear weapon is still a formidable danger.
The concept of a sophisticated nuclear bomb in a small container, carried to a target location by one person, is probably a myth. But a nuclear device that is "small enough" is a possibility, whether stolen from military stockpiles, assembled from components, or newly manufactured somehow. Security forces of all countries concerned about this type of attack will have to remain alert and consider how to defend against it.
The book, The Effects of Nuclear Weapons , by S. Glasstone and P. Dolan is the classic text on this subject.
Find More Information on the Internet
There are many fine websites that have additional information on this topic, too many to list here and too many to keep up with as they come and go. Use this Google web search form to get an up to date report of what's out there.
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