The Nuclear Annihilation Threat Index Needs Recalibration

In a 2012 article from Foreign Policy magazine entitled "Are We Focusing on the Wrong Nuclear Threat?," Victor Asal and Bryan Early from the University at Albany - SUNY utilize a Nuclear Annihilation Threat (NAT) Index to determine the countries that pose the highest risks of nuclear annihilation to another country.

The results of the NAT Index indicate that China and Russia pose the highest -- and equivalent -- risks of nuclear annihilation to the USA. This is a reasonable result. However, the NAT Index suggests that France, the United Kingdom (UK), and Pakistan are tied for third place in terms of the nuclear annihilation risk they each pose to the USA. Tied for sixth place on the NAT Index against the USA are India and Israel, and tied for eighth place are Iran and North Korea.

There are clearly some problems with the validity and utility of this index. A major problem is the inherent premise in the index -- nuclear annihilation risk. Yes, very few countries possess a sufficient number of nuclear weapons with near-simultaneous delivery capacity to annihilate the USA, but that is not the major fear at present. Rather, a smaller number of nuclear weapons detonated in the USA and sourced from rogue nations (e.g., Iran, North Korea, etc.) and/or their terrorist group proxies pose a far greater concern (at present) than a nuclear exchange between major nation states. Thus, the following premise by Asal and Early is incorrect: "Americans are wringing their hands about the grave threat that a nuclear Iran would pose to the United States. But the numbers tell a different story."

We are comparing apples and oranges, and separate nuclear-weapons-based foreign policies need to be developed for major -- and generally more stable -- nuclear powers versus their smaller nuclear capacity rogue-nation counterparts.

Built into Asal's and Early's NAT Index is something called "Foreign Policy's 2011 Failed States Index." There are many types of indices available that attempt to quantify various qualitative variables. Some have utility, and some do not. Clearly, if one develops a democracy index, and the index tells you China, Iran, and/or Venezuela are democratic, there is a problem. Thus, we need to look more closely at this failed state index, which was produced by The Fund for Peace. The USA was ranked 158th on the 2011 failed state index, apparently posing more of a risk of state failure than Portugal (163rd), Iceland (165th), and Ireland (171st). At the time this index was produced in 2011, Iceland was effectively bankrupt and was looking at adopting the currency of another country (Canada was on the prospective currency list for Iceland) -- which could meet the definition of an already failed state. Portugal and Ireland had already been in massive financial distress for several years (i.e., part of the PIIIGS [Portugal-Italy-Ireland-Iceland-Greece-Spain] suite of countries), and Ireland also has had recent and culturally embedded issues with partition during the 20th century. Overall, this rank order seems nonsensical, and it does not improve when previous years (the index apparently dates back to 2005) are factored in. Thus, just because an index has been developed does not mean it has any real and broad utility.

According to the NAT Index, Israel faces an equal threat of nuclear annihilation from the USA, the UK, France, China, and Russia (all collectively tied for third place in the nuclear annihilation risk they pose to Israel). Meanwhile, India and North Korea are tied for eighth place in the NAT Index against Israel. Given that Israel can be annihilated with only a few nuclear weapons, how does India get ranked as less of a threat than the USA, UK, and France? Furthermore, the close ties between North Korea (a nuclear state) and Iran, and the correspondingly poor relations between Iran and Israel, lead to the reasonable concern that in the event of a significant conventional conflict between Iran and Israel where the battle is not going well for Iran, will North Korea rapidly intervene to provide Iran with nuclear weapons (or defend Iran directly)? This alone should merit the ranking of North Korea as a far greater direct or indirect nuclear annihilation threat to Israel than the USA, UK, and France.

The politics behind such ranking systems may be evident in the following statement made by the authors: "So what do these findings tell us about the current strategic environment and the potential fallout from Iran obtaining nuclear weapons? First, they indicate that the primary existential threat to the United States emanates from China and Russia -- not rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. This supports the notion that nuclear arms reduction agreements like New START offer the United States significant national security benefits." Is the NAT Index a deeply problematic attempt to provide a pseudo-scientific quantitative rationale for support of the controversial New START treaty?

Overall, the results of the NAT Index appear to justify questions regarding its accuracy/reliability and objectivity. There are multiple types of nuclear threats that the USA and other nations face, and a NAT Index approach oversimplifies a very complex geopolitical issue, thereby moving us farther from coherent policymaking -- rather than closer to this objective.