Thank Goodness Nukes Are So Expensive and Complicated
Greg Allen (@Gregory_C_Allen)*
Imagine you’re an evil genius in the style of a James Bond villain. You’ve got a hundred million dollars or so burning a hole in your pocket, and you’re looking to cause some destruction. You want to know your options.
At the low end, a single AK-47 assault rifle costs roughly $700. Customers buying in bulk, such as militaries and large militias, can pay as little as $60 per rifle. This is a trivial cost for a financial mastermind such as yourself.
Moving up the curve, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) can wound or kill hundreds of people with a single explosion. Landmine-type bombs cost $265 while $25,000 will get you a suicide bomber driving an explosives-laden truck. For some terrorist groups this is too pricey, but not yours.
Looking to wreak even greater havoc? The cheapest tactical ballistic missiles, which can topple skyscrapers but are highly inaccurate, are available on the black market for a few million each. That’s expensive, but within the reach of the world’s best-financed terrorist organizations, including your own.
What about nuclear weapons? Here costs shoot upward. Saddam Hussein spent billions to develop nukes and failed. North Korea succeeded, but it took decades; the country also spent billions even with low wages and conscripted labor. Even if you could scrape together a billion dollars to buy a bomb, North Korea probably wouldn’t sell you one. Every nuclear detonation releases a traceable radioactive signature, and Kim Jong-un worries he’ll take the blame if you use his nukes.
Unless you can steal a bomb or steal some weapons-grade nuclear fuel to construct a crude nuclear device, you’re probably not going to acquire nuclear weapons. The technology for making nuclear fuel is too expensive and complicated, and if you try, the amount of labor, expertise, and financing you would need make it likely your efforts would be uncovered and stopped.
The massive expense and technological complexity associated with developing nuclear weapons is one of the great strokes of luck in human history. Imagine an alternate universe where nukes were like IEDs: cheap, simple, and constructible using widely available commercial parts and materials. Would humanity have survived the discovery of nuclear technology?
Certainly not. We barely survived as it is.
In this sense, the mass destruction cost curve is protective. The diplomats, scientists, spies, and soldiers of the global non-proliferation regime do incredible work in preventing terrorists and greater numbers of countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. However, their extremely difficult mission would be utterly impossible if uranium was just a little easier and cheaper to weaponize. Perhaps it would be better if nuclear weapons never existed, but, given that they do, we are lucky that they reside at the very top of the mass destruction cost curve.
Unfortunately, the shape of that curve is changing dramatically. Nuclear weapons remain stubbornly expensive and complicated, but other destructive capabilities that currently cost millions or billions may in the not-too-distant future be as cheap and available as IEDs.
Take, for instance, long-range guided missiles. For $1.5 million per shot, plus the cost of the launcher, a Tomahawk cruise missile can deliver explosives to a pinpoint target from hundreds of miles away. Only professional militaries can justify spending on such weapons. Terrorist organizations have, however, recently begun delivering explosives using commercial flying drones, and high-quality ones can be had for less than $1,000. The current range and explosive payload of these weaponized drones are far less than missiles, but drones get cheaper and more capable every year. Soon, the ability to precisely target high-explosives from far away may cost merely thousands of dollars, instead of millions.
Advanced cyber weapons may also get cheaper. Today, only well-financed militaries and intelligence agencies can pull off the expensive and intricate digital attacks capable of knocking out a power grid. If we are lucky, that will remain the case, but there are early hints that it might not. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) is working to develop artificial intelligence systems capable of mounting cyber-attacks. The technology is still in its infancy today, but in the future, it might allow organizations with smaller teams and budgets to pull off attacks as spectacular and devastating as the Stuxnet virus that knocked out one-fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. The marginal production cost of software is, after all, near zero.
Bioweapons too seem poised for a major change in the destruction cost curve. Terrorist groups such as Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo have used anthrax and other naturally occurring pathogens as weapons in the past, but they never managed to achieve the mass casualties or widespread infection they sought. However, new genetic engineering techniques such as Crispr have radically reduced the cost and complexity of gene-editing to the point where even amateurs can modify the genes of viruses, including highly lethal (but not highly contagious) ones such as bird flu. Soon, terrorists may be able to create genetically modified pathogens that are both highly contagious and highly lethal. The US Intelligence Community specifically called out this WMD proliferation threat in a report to Congress last year. Donald Trump mentioned fears of biological weapons in his 1999 book, The America We Deserve, but has said little on the subject since.
When nuclear weapons were invented, the best scientists worked for governments, the most advanced technology was possessed exclusively by governments, and governments provided the bulk of scientific research and development funding. That world is so far gone as to be almost unrecognizable.
Today, the commercial tech industry is setting the pace for revolutions in capability and performance, and the governments of the world need to prepare for a future in which some of the most exciting consumer technologies, such as home delivery of packages via drone, are equally attractive to terrorists and other nefarious actors. Developing an effective response requires imagining some very nasty potential futures.
It’s time to ask: What would an evil genius do?
*Greg Allen (@Gregory_C_Allen) is a George Leadership Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School. He previously worked on space and robotics issues at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.