Worst case scenarios 1: Security

As a result of my Citation Laureate award and the associated write-up in the local paper, I’ve been asked to give some thought to worst-case scenarios for a range of issues, some global and some specific to Brisbane. What I’ve written so far is very rough, so I’d appreciate comments, useful links and so on. My first scenario deals with security and is, in a sense, optimistic. The plausible worst case scenario now isn’t nearly as bad as the one I grew up with – a thermonuclear war between Russia and the West

The worst case possibility facing the world as a whole is that of a nuclear war. A thermonuclear war between Russia and the West could still arise by accident, but the likelihood of such a catastrophe has declined greatly. The period of highest risk was probably that leading up to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. In view of what we now know about such possibilities as nuclear winter, it seems likely that a full-scale nuclear war would have wiped out the human race. All the other risks we face pale into insignificance.

The biggest current danger is that the continuing tension between India and Pakistan might erupt into a nuclear war. Other nuclear-armed powers include North Korea and (presumably) Israel.

A further serious risk is that of terrorists obtaining and using nuclear weapons. Although no terrorist group appears to have the capacity to build a nuclear weapon, there’s a significant risk that they might obtain one from Pakistan or North Korea. And unlike national governments, there are plenty of terrorists who would be keen to use a nuclear weapon if they could.
By contrast with the nuclear risk, the actual risk posed by other forms of terrorist attack, whether using ‘conventional’ methods, chemical and biological weapons or ‘dirty’ radioactive devices are quite small. A typical middle-aged Australian faces a risk of death, in any given year, somewhere between 1 in 100 and 1 in 200.

A terrorist attack on the scale of the Madrid atrocity every year would raise this risk by a factor of about 1 in 10000. That is, it would be insignificant, in terms of risk of death, when compared with the risks we face every day from accidents, heart attacks and so on. Even an attack on the scale of September 11 would have only a marginal impact on this measure. This is not to say that we should ignore the threat of terrorism. But consideration of worst case scenarios suggests we should be looking a lot harder at the possible leakage of nuclear weapons and that we not let ourselves be panicked by the threat of terrorism in general.

13 thoughts on “Worst case scenarios 1: Security

  1. I don’t think ‘risk of death’ stats are particularly informative. The perception of threat(especially after an attack) is probably far more significant. Not many people may die – but airline copmanies may go under, trade may suffer, freedoms may be compromised by a terrorist attack or threat therefrom.

    It’s unlikely that a nuclear bomb would be smuggled into Australia. Much more likely (and much less detectable) is the possibility of a chemical or biological attack. Aum Shinriko(?) developed their sarin on a Western Australian sheep station before they released it into the Tokyo subway.

    Similarly there’s anthrax readily available on several farms around Shepparton at the moment. The biggest difficulty a would be terrorist faces is ‘weaponizing’it. The sorts of mechanical mills that are used are freely available in New Jersey although I suspect that Customs would be on the look out for the same. But a decent biochemist could certainly extract and grow anthrax in Australia without anyone being the wiser.

    As far as the international scene is concerned – easily the most likely current worst case scenario is an Islamic revolution in Pakistan which has got to be a 50/50 bet for the next 6 – 12 months.

    But my current worst nightmare is called Gallipoli – Anzac Day 2004. I cannot fathom why no one is discussing this.

  2. A number of good points, kyan. Risk perception is a big issue, but I think people’s perceptions will be more soundly-based if they aware of the stats. This doesn’t necessarily mean that statistically equal risks must be treated equally, but there needs to be a proper basis for differentiation.

    On chemical weapons, the relative ineffectiveness of the Aum Shinrikyo attacks and a look at military experience with gas weapons were among the things that convinced my that this threat has been overrated in much popular discussion, probably because of our general horror of poison.

    Saddam’s use of sarin killed thousands of people, but that was with the resources of a state to manufacture both the gas and the delivery systems, and using an air attack against defenceless villages.

  3. I realize this has little to do (at least initially) with Australia, much less Brisbane, but I see a strong possibility in the rise of fascism here in the US, particularly when the runner-up in the last election loses this attempt to be elected to the presidency.
    Many of the most fevered followers of the current president believe two things–that he was installed in the office divinely, and that people who oppose him are also trying to destroy them as well.
    His resulting loss may very well drive them to blackshirts.

    But on a more general level (again I am not sure if this is applicable) I think the greatest security risk in the US is from internal fundamentalist terrorists. (And a number of there schemes have been thwarted over the past few years.)Journalist and blogger David Niewert at http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/ has much, much more on this.

  4. I thought the nuclear bombs developed by India, Pakistan etc. were small atomic bombs equivalent at the most to several thousand tons of TNT, that the bombs were the size of a house and were very difficult to detonate. No country apart from USA and USSR developed H-bombs which are the real city destroyers. It would make more ‘sense’ for economically rational terrorists to. destroy a nuclear power plant by the plane crashing technique

  5. With the anthrax thing – the amount of equipment, expert personnel and time required to ‘weaponise’ anthrax is beyond that of any terrorist orgainsation. In fact there are only a few countries in the world that would have the resources to produce weaponised anthrax. It’s not only getting the particle size right but also keeping the anthrax alive during manufacture. That’s one of the reasons the investigation in the US during the anthrax letter scare quickly turned to an internal investigation.

    A larger risk would be terrorist organisations buying weaponised anthrax from a greedy/disgruntled government employee especially from the former USSR.

  6. Unfortunately, Geoff, Pakistan has been actively engaged in miniaturisation efforts. I’ve seen reports that they have bombs down to half-ton size, which could easily be fitted in a station wagon.

    Simon, you’re right about anthrax. In general, the use of the term Weapons of Mass Destruction is highly misleading, since nukes are incomparably more dangerous than anything else. Chemical and Biological Weapons are neither more dangerous nor particularly more gruesome in their actual effects than “conventional weapons”.

  7. John,

    You state:

    The biggest current danger is that the continuing tension between India and Pakistan might erupt into a nuclear war.

    Have you considered that because both these countries have the bomb, future armed conflict between them will almost certainly be limited to minor skirmishes?

    There are numerous issues you should also discuss if you intend to cover the topic properly. For example, have you considered the implications of China’s ongoing campaign to absorb Taiwan and the potential instability of nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines?

  8. Funny that kyan gadac’s fears about Gallipoli on Anzac Day should be posted at 1.49am today, and then I hear the Foreign Minister on radio this morning warning Australians not to travel to Turkey. Quiggin’s blog is even more influential than I thought…

    But more seriously, John, is your security risks scenario focussed just on deliberate use of weapons by nations or terrorists? I reckon that beyond global nuclear war, the most serious risk to Australian lives comes from a potential epidemic, whether SARS, Ebola-type, or just a particularly bad ‘flu variant.

    On a different track, I’m glad that Mark drew attention to “internal fundamentalist terrorists” in the US, and provided the link. Far too little attention has been given to what is going in the wierd world of US fundamentalist fringe groups, although there have been some attempts to draw this out in connection with the Oklahoma City bombing.

  9. I’m finding an eBook that I reading on Security fascinating for it’s insights.
    It adopts a Libertarian/economic view point.

  10. Libya was bought in from the cold because of it’s stockpiles of sarin precursors and mustard gas. There is nothing in the story about Aum Shrinryiko that suggests that their attack was ineffective – 5 dead 120 permanently incapacitated and they could have done better with a few simple improvements to their delivery system – not reassuring at all.

    But much more readily available is Mustard gas. There is estimated to be close to a billion pounds of mustard gas and other chemical weapons lying on the sea floor of the north atlantic left over from world war 2. Colonel Gaddafi had/has 23 tonnes of the stuff in storage and that was the real reason for Tony Blair’s visit. So how much of this, that was mostly made in the 1980’s, has found it’s way to third parties since then?

    Mustard gas is generally pretty stable if it’s kept out of contact with water as the concerns about the stuff at the bottom of the ocean make clear. (estimated half life in drums is 40 years)

    One of the main contaminants that degrades sarin is hydrogen flouride a fact that is well known and that any competent chemist would be able to deal with.
    here is a chemists view on the ease of production (scroll down to September 17 – 18) as he says it’s so easy that he would prefer to keep silent whilst on the web. Others aren’t so circumspect as a search of the newsgroups will reveal.

    The military doesn’t like them because there only useful as a surprise weapon (e.g. Iran – Iraq war). But this is only true in symmetrical warfare terrrorism has been repeatedly analysed over the last 20 years as asymmetrical warfare and the rules are different.

    Aum Shrinyiko adequatedly demonstrated there potential in an enclosed space like a subway. Then there’s air conditioning units to consider…

    Need I go on.. the potential of chemical attack is real and credible no matter what comforting nostrums might be put out in the mainstream press.

  11. The US GAO-03-439 report on preparedness of chemical plants
    No specific data exist on the actual effects of successful terrorist attacks on chemical facilities. However, according to EPA, 123 chemical facilities located throughout the nation have accidental toxic release worst-case scenarios where more than one million people in the surrounding area could be at risk of exposure to a cloud of toxic gas. Approximately 700 facilities could each potentially threaten at least 100,000 people in the surrounding area, and about 3,000 facilities could each potentially threaten at least 10,000 people.

    – I’d be surprised if the numbers and risks for Australia aren’t similar (per capita) or maybe worse given our high urbanization.
    Are large industrial Chlorine or LNG tanks designed against military anti tank weapons?
    Or whatever an autonomous aircraft as in Raskin’s The Piper Cub offense could carry?
    (How much for missile defense?)

    Thucydides talks about “laying waste the land” a chilling term in light of modern capabilities.

Comments are closed.