Taking nuclear vulnerabilities seriously
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While Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been the last two cities to be destroyed by nuclear weapons, we cannot be sure that they will be the last. Since 1945, the United States, the Soviet Union/Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have armed themselves with nuclear weapons (under the garb of nuclear deterrence) that have much more destructive power in comparison to those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
- Over 1,26,000 nuclear weapons have been built since the beginning of the atomic age.
- Over 2,000 of them have been used in nuclear tests, above and below the ground, to demonstrate their explosive power, causing grave and long-lasting damage to the environment and public health.
- The invention of ballistic missiles at the end of the 1950s, with their great speed of delivery, has made it impossible to intercept nuclear weapons once they are launched.
Nuclear deterrence – the misused word
- Nuclear weapon states have reacted to this vulnerability by coming up with a comforting idea: that the use of nuclear weapons is impossible because of deterrence. Nuclear weapons are so destructive that no country would use them, because such use would invite retaliation in kind. That was the idea of deterrence.
- Deterrence enthusiasts claim that nuclear weapons do not just protect countries against use of nuclear weapons by others, but even prevent war and promote stability. These claims do not hold up to evidence.
- Nuclear threats have not always produced fear and, in turn, fear has not always induced caution. To the contrary, nuclear threats in some cases have produced anger, and anger can trigger a drive to escalate, as was the case with Fidel Castro during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
- Countries with nuclear weapons have in fact gone to war quite often, even with other countries with nuclear weapons, albeit in a limited fashion or through proxies. Countries, however, might not always show such restraint.
- Nor should nuclear deterrence be considered stable. Strategic planners routinely use worst-case assumptions about the intentions and capabilities of other countries to argue for the acquisition of greater destructive capabilities, driving endless upgrades of nuclear arsenals, and offering a rationale for new countries to acquire nuclear weapons.
Illusions of nuclear deterrence and control
- All nuclear weapon states have admitted to the possibility that deterrence could fail: they have made plans for using nuclear weapons, in effect, preparing to fight nuclear war.
- The disjuncture between the ideal of possessing nuclear weapons for deterrence and the practical reality of keeping these weapons primed for use has been eloquently clarified by General Lee Butler, former Commander-in-Chief of the United States Strategic Command. He observed that “The goal — the wish, really — might be to prevent nuclear war, but the operational plan had to be to wage war.” It is thus an illusion to think that nuclear war is impossible.
- A related illusion concerns the controllability of nuclear weapons. In the real world, it is not possible for planners to have complete control. However, the desire to believe in the perfect controllability and safety of nuclear weapons creates overconfidence, which is dangerous. Overconfidence, as many scholars studying safety will testify, is more likely to lead to accidents and possibly to the use of nuclear weapons.
- In several historical instances, what prevented the use of nuclear weapons was not control practices but either their failure or factors outside institutional control. The most famous of these cases is the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. There are likely many more cases during which the world came close to nuclear war but because of the secrecy that surrounds nuclear weapons, we might never know.
- If deterrence has not prevented nuclear war so far, what has?
- One essential element in key episodes is just plain luck. This is, again, best illustrated by the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, where nearly four decades of scholarship attest to the crucial role of luck.
- The consequences of bad luck, then or later, could make the COVID-19 pandemic seem benign by comparison. While humanity has luckily survived 75 years without experiencing nuclear war, can one expect luck to last indefinitely?