As the crisis with North Korea has intensified, the focus almost exclusively has been on that country’s ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Recently, the regime in Pyongyang successfully tested a space launch vehicle, demonstrating progress on the path towards building an intercontinental ballistic missile. Last week, the North Korean government announced it had deployed several mobile, intermediate range ballistic missiles to field positions from which they could be launched against targets in South Korea, Japan and even U.S. Pacific territories. Although it is generally believed that North Korea as yet does not have the design skills to build a nuclear weapon small enough to be carried by one of its ballistic missiles, it is only a matter of time before it breaches this last threshold on the way to being a full-fledged nuclear power.
In response, the U.S. has stepped up its deployments of ballistic missile defenses. The U.S. has sent Aegis missile defense capable destroyers to waters off the Korean Peninsula. Washington also announced it would rush a THAAD battery to Guam. The large, long range Sea Based X Band Radar is being sent to the Western Pacific from where it can provide early attack characterization and cueing for the National Missile Defense (NMD) system deployed in Alaska and California. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also announced that the U.S. will spend more than $1 billion to add 14 Ground Based Interceptors to the NMD system.
Unfortunately, these efforts may be like putting bars on the windows of your house while forgetting to lock the front door. As nuclear weapons expert and Harvard professor Graham Allison observed a nuclear attack on the U.S. “is far more likely to arrive in a cargo container than on the tip of a missile.” It makes no sense for Pyongyang to threaten a nuclear attack on a U.S. ally or overseas facility unless it has some means of deterring an overwhelming U.S. retaliatory strike. Lacking a missile with sufficient range to reach the U.S., North Korea would have to devise an alternative means for delivering such a weapon. They would put it in a cargo container and rely on the global system for the just-in-time delivery of cargoes to get it to America’s shores.
The threat of a nuclear weapon aboard a cargo vessel is not new. The Department of Homeland Security has worried about it for a long time. What it has yet to do is deploy a reliable nuclear weapon detection system at overseas ports, the place where a North Korean bomb would be slipped aboard a U.S.-bound ship. Now the need is urgent.
Such a system exists and has been demonstrated. Decision Sciences has demonstrated the ability of its Multi-Mode Passive Detection System (MMPDS) to detect even shielded nuclear material and to do so in a manner that is fast, relatively cheap, extremely accurate and easy to operate. The MMPDS uses the universe’s constant background of naturally occurring cosmic radiation in the form of high energy particles as its source. Because it is entirely passive, the MMPDS is relatively cheap to build and operate. Since last year, the MMPDS has been deployed at Freeport Container Port in the Bahamas, one of the busiest cargo container terminals in the region. In cooperation with Hutchison Port Holdings, a global logistics provider, Decision Sciences has demonstrated that MMPDS works and can be integrated with a port’s normal operations. The system is cheap, simple and reliable. Consequently, it could be operated even by small, unsophisticated ports.
Yet, DHS continues to drag its feet when it comes to fulfilling a Congressional mandate to deploy a system that would guard the United States against the real threat of a nuclear device delivered to this country inside a cargo container. Despite incontrovertible evidence that MMPDS works, Secretary Napolitano has delayed implementation of a global cargo screening program from 2012 to 2014. So while the Pentagon rushes to deploy defensive capabilities that will protect forward deployed forces and foreign countries, DHS is doing almost nothing to protect us here at home.
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