“PTW’s”: The New “WMD” Paradigm

“PTW’s”: The New “WMD” Paradigm



Jay B. Gaskill

Except for those for those of you who’ve been living in a media-insulated bunker for the last four years, references to WMD’s are immediately understood as the acronym for weapons of mass destruction.

As a practical matter, nuclear explosives are the first level of concern in any WMD threat analysis.

But nukes, even “small ones”, are very difficult to deliver to a target. The putative suitcase nukes depicted in thrillers are unrealistic; the actual weapons would be very heavy indeed, even without lead shielding. In any reasonably portable form, an atom bomb would tend to induce radiation sickness in those who are in prolonged close contact with the weapon. That said, we should never relax our guard against a nuclear threat. But we have limited resources, and the realistic threat profile includes many other more likely weapons.

In any real life terrorist scenario, we are more likely to face weapons described by a term once in wide use: CBR’s. This is the acronym for Chemical, Biological and Radiological weapons. CBR’s in some form will undoubtedly be used (or attempted) in the next terror attack on America. Instead of “mass destruction”, the risk profile presented by CBR’s is very large numbers of casualties, whether or not accompanied by destroyed real estate, a mushroom cloud or a radioactive crater.

Radiological weapons will likely consist of lower grade radioactive substances that can be easily pirated from legitimate civilian applications and distributed over a large urban area using conventional chemical explosives. Bio and chemical agents are equally effective.

Nerve gas agents and other poisons, infectious agents like anthrax and small pox, are compact and much more easily smuggled than radioactive substances. Even a small part of Saddam’s original arsenal of CBR’s, if ever in the hands of jihad terrorists (presumably after having been smuggled out of Iraq via Syria) could inflict casualties in the high thousands.

This is why the entire debate about the current administration’s rhetorical run-up to the Iraq War is silly. Even without WMD’s as such, that regime (along with those of Syria and Iran) presented a clear and present danger to US security (as N. Korea, Syria and Iran still do).

We Americans have learned to our lasting regret that the term “CBR” was seriously under-inclusive. Make-on-site weapons, in effect “skill enabled terror agents”, (think of explosives made from fertilizer and box cutters used to control giant aircraft) are as portable as the terrorists themselves – even more so when the capacity of the internet to activate embedded agents is taken into account.

So I propose another term to describe the realistic terrorist threat: Portable Terror Weapons (PTW’s). This includes WMD’s, CBR’s, and all the skill enabled terror agents.

The implications for policy are sobering. We need to deter and /or interdict all those who would aid and assist in the movement of PTW’s to jihad terror groups because it is literally impossible to intercept all PTW’s at the border.

The destruction of Saddam’s regime was an object lesson in deterrence and accounts, by itself, for Libya’s sudden surrender of its nuclear program and Syria’s reluctance to overtly promote terrorists against US targets. But deterrence, never enough in any event, decays with time; just as a wild animal chased away from one’s tent at night will eventually return, those deterred by the administration’s actions in Afghanistan and Iraq will begin to creep back, unless there are additional demonstrations of American resolve.

In this, the current administration is a victim of its complacency-engendering success. The tendency to revert to pre-911 norms is strong. We Americans have demonstrated distaste for long term struggle and an addiction to comfortable illusions. It is as if our last three prolonged wars — Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq – were judged by the standard of an epic movie in which we expect the narrative arc of a thriller, together with popcorn and swift, clean resolution at the end.

Tragically, the Iraq operation is not even the war itself, but a single move on the world chessboard. We desperately need, more than any other time in our nation’s history, a truly loyal and realistic opposition, the kind the administration of FDR had in WW II, but subsequent administrations did not.

JBG 12-28-05

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