Preventing accidental nuclear war

One of my biggest fears is that a nuclear war could start by accident, or as the result of a miscalculation. Some national leader could push a threat too far, an exercise could be misinterpreted, things during a conventional war could get out of control, and cities could suddenly get incinerated.

It seems quite likely that Canada’s major cities are the targets of ex-Soviet missiles spread around Russian subs and silos. We may be the targets of Chinese bombs, as well.

Two important policy objectives seem to be (a) keeping additional countries from developing nuclear weapons (b) reducing the stockpile of weapons possessed by existing nuclear weapon states and (c) building systems that reduce the chances of accidents, including permissive action links to prevent unauthorized use of bombs and delays in hair-trigger systems.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

19 thoughts on “Preventing accidental nuclear war”

  1. Naval base attack raises questions over safety of Pak nukes
    May 24, 2011, 03.54am IST TNN[ Indrani Bagchi ]

    NEW DELHI: The Taliban attack on Pakistan’s Mehran naval base raises an oft-repeated question: can Pakistan save its nuclear weapons?

    Pakistan’s nukes evoke a curious reaction — every leader, in India or US, stress their safety, yet everybody stays up at night wondering whether they are really safe. Pakistan’s failure to save its prized maritime reconnaissance aircraft has only deepened the worry.

    Rahul Roy Chaudhury of International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London, sums up the fears. “The attack on Mehran, a well-guarded military installation, at a time when Pakistan is on its highest alert status following the Abbottabad raid, raises serious questions over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets. Not merely weapon storage sites, whose locations may be secure, but more likely, nuclear plants and research facilities whose locations are well known. This could be exacerbated by the passing of ‘insider’ information on their security systems by employees angered and radicalized by the Abbottabad raid.”

    How can Pakistan’s nukes fall into the wrong hands? Either Taliban/al-Qaida getting a hold of the weapons, jihadis accessing fissile material which could be used to make a “dirty bomb” or, extremist officials within the Pakistani military establishment itself accessing weapons or material.

  2. What about the theory that nuclear weapons help keep the peace, by making conventional war too risky? India and Pakistac can be seen as evidence for this theory.

  3. The presence of nuclear arms on both sides of the Cold War probably had a deterrent effect on whether an outbreak of war occurred. However, nuclear weapons dramatically increased the consequences of a war if nuclear weapons are used.

    I would add to Milan’s list of policy objectives the following
    1. global policy of ensuring that the ability to nuclear weaponry does not spread to non-nuclear states (although this is hard to enforce because it essentially involves the powerful states with the nuclear weapons to deny access to such weaponry to other states)
    2. extreme vigilance to avoid nuclear weapons falling into the hands of non-state parties, including those prepared to use or to threaten to use them to advance an extreme agenda.

    Whereas for the first 45 years after Hiroshima, the world was very aware of the consequences of nuclear war, I am afraid that since the end of the Cold War that complacency or relative lack of concern has set it.

  4. I think the existing American and Russian nuclear arrangements are actually more frightening than the possibility of terrorists getting hold of a bomb or two.

    If there was a major exchange between the US and Russia, the particulate matter from all the burning cities could cause a nuclear winter.

  5. ” important policy objectives seem to be (a) keeping additional countries from developing nuclear weapons”
    Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
    NPT Nuclear Power TRAP
    Security Theatre
    I first laid out the runaround given nations trying to make the NPT work in 20 Dec – The Mission in Afghanistan,etc.
    Bush/Cheney’s ‘Axis of Evil’ consisted of nations trying to show nuclear power did not mean nuclear weapons ( indeed, the technology is quite different, as enrichment levels necessary are of completely different orders of concentration) ad to follow. All this while the Third Pillar of the NPT proved itself a snare,illusion and farce.
    A visit to CASMII would likely prove instructive.
    Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran
    My favourite reality pill about the real danger is
    Putin BTW said an attack on Iran would be considered as if it was on Russia itself….something neglected in ‘risk assessments’ of atomic reprisal. Odd, hm ?

  6. All that is grim enough. Then consider how Pakistan is rapidly expanding its arsenal of nuclear weapons. That programme was born out of the country’s humiliating loss of East Pakistan in 1971. Six years earlier, around the time of a previous defeat by India, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, then Pakistan’s foreign minister, had declared: “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves for a thousand years, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.”

    Pakistan may now have between 70 and 120 usable nuclear devices—and may be unusually ready to use them. Some in the West believe Pakistan started preparing nuclear-tipped missiles in the midst of the 1999 Kargil war against India, after Pakistan invaded a remote corner of Kashmir.

    Nobody doubts that Pakistan, in the midst of its anxiety over India, is trying hard to get more. Its nuclear warheads use an implosion design with a solid core of about 15-20 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. The country produces about 100 kilograms of that a year, but is rapidly expanding its nuclear infrastructure with Chinese help. And with production long-established, the price of adding weapons has fallen to almost nothing. A nuclear physicist in Pakistan, Pervez Hoodbhoy, now suggests that “you can have a working nuke for about $10m, or the cost of a nice big house in Islamabad.”

    The new push seems, as ever, to be a response to two developments next door. Pakistan was badly spooked by India’s deal on civil nuclear power with America, completed in 2008. This not only binds America and India closely; it also lets India buy uranium on international markets, and probably means it will soon build many more reactors. By one panicky Pakistani estimate, India could eventually be making 280 nuclear weapons a year.

    The other change is over doctrine and delivery. India has long held a position of “no first use” of nukes. Pakistan, by contrast, with weaker conventional forces, refuses to rule out the option of starting a nuclear war against India, and is now taking steps that could make such first use more likely. Last month it test-fired a new missile, the Hatf IX, with a range of just 60km and specifically designed for war-fighting. Two missiles are carried in tubes on a transporter and can be fired, accurately, at short notice. The warheads are small, low-yielding devices for destroying large tank formations with relatively little explosive damage or radiation beyond the battlefield.

    Pakistan’s generals say their new tactical weapons will meet a threat from India’s Cold Start doctrine, adopted in 2004, that calls for rapid, punitive, though conventional thrusts against Pakistan. But by rolling out tactical nuclear weapons, Pakistan is stirring fears of instability. Previous efforts to reassure observers that terrorists or rogue army officers could not get hold of nukes rested on the fact that warheads and delivery systems were stored separately and were difficult to fire—and that final authority to launch a strike requires “consensus” within the National Command Authority, which includes various ministers and the heads of all three services, and is chaired by the prime minister.

    But tactical nuclear weapons deployed close to the battlefield pose new risks. Command-and-control protocols are likely to be looser and more delegated. If field officers retreating in the face of a conventional attack by India were forced to decide between using or losing their nuclear weapons, a border incursion could swiftly escalate into something very much bigger and more lethal.

  7. Saudi Arabia: If Iran builds nukes, so will we

    Mideast watchers probably could have seen this coming: A Saudi Arabian official has warned that his country will not tolerate losing a nuclear arms race to Iran.

    Speaking to The Guardian newspaper, a senior official in Riyadh said: “We cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and we don’t. It’s as simple as that. If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, that will be unacceptable to us and we will have to follow suit.”

    The official was clarifying remarks made by Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington, at a NATO meeting in the U.K. Turki had said, according to a transcript obtained by The Guardian, that if Iran were to build a nuclear weapon, that “would compel Saudi Arabia … to pursue policies which could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences.”

    The senior official, whom The Guardian did not identify and who works for Turki, was speaking to clarify his boss’ remarks.

  8. Nuclear disarmament
    Move the base camp
    A campaign to get rid of all nuclear weapons is worth supporting even if the ultimate goal is unattainable

    Jun 16th 2011 | from the print edition

    THERE was a time when the sort of people who campaigned to rid the world of nuclear weapons wore anoraks and thick jumpers and camped out in yurts. Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, both secretaries of state in Republican administrations, did not belong among them. But those men have now been joined by Barack Obama and a cohort of hard-nosed politicians and diplomats in embracing the cause of multilateral disarmament with the aim of getting to zero nuclear weapons.

    They argue that the proliferation of nuclear weapons is fast reaching a “tipping point” beyond which it will be impossible to check their spread. Their use either in war, by accident or by terrorists is becoming increasingly likely. The only way to confront this danger, it is claimed, is by starting a phased, verifiable, multilateral process to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Since the cold war, America and Russia have cut their stocks sharply, but they still account for 95% of the world’s 20,500 nuclear weapons. If they dismantle their arsenals they will be in a stronger position to preach to others.

    You might conclude that the gravel-voiced Mr Kissinger is going soft, but the idea has caught on among other strategic thinkers. World leaders, such as Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, have signed up. In September 2009 the UN Security Council endorsed the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Much of the running has been made by Global Zero, an organisation founded four years ago that is holding its third “summit” in London next week. It has come up with a four-phase action plan for reaching zero by 2030 (see article). The plan starts in the right place, with the scaling down of America’s and Russia’s nuclear arsenals to 1,000 weapons apiece. It acknowledges that progress will depend on verification and other states playing their part.

  9. Nuclear endgame
    The growing appeal of zero
    Banning the bomb will be hard, but not impossible

    RIDDING the world of nuclear weapons has long been a cause of the pacifist left. But in the past few years mainstream politicians, retired military leaders and academic strategists have begun to share the same goal, albeit with a very different idea of how to get there. That is partly thanks to a campaigning body called Global Zero, which is holding its third annual “summit” in London next week.

    Global Zero got going in late 2006. Its two founders were Bruce Blair, a former Minuteman ballistic-missile launch-control officer and fellow of Brookings Institution who had set up the World Security Institute, a think-tank in Washington, DC, a few years earlier and Matt Brown, who had served as a youthful secretary of state for Rhode Island. They set about creating from scratch a global movement that would be very different from previous nuclear-disarmament efforts. But they might not have got far had it not been for a stroke of luck.

    In January 2007 a seminal article appeared in the Wall Street Journal. The authors, who became known as the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”, were Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry, George Shultz and Sam Nunn. All were veterans of America’s cold-war security establishment with impeccable credentials as believers in nuclear deterrence. They now asserted that far from making the world safer, nuclear weapons had become a source of intolerable risk.

  10. The Tsar bomb was the biggest bomb ever detonated, at full yeild it was 100mt, or 100 million tonnes of TNT. I was thinking that the energy released by this bomb would be close to that of a asteroid impact, but in fact three of these bombs is equivalent to Krakatoa and five of these bombs is equal to an asteroid impact.

    The point i’m getting to is that the Tsar bomb was small enough to be loaded onto a plane. There are rumours of a doomsday device being built, a cargo ship that carried one massive bomb, a bomb that would release the energy equivalent to a meteorite impact. Fill the remaining space on the ship with nuclear waste and you have a doomsday device, a bomb of this size detonated in the ocean could have intresting concequences.

  11. and i forgot, apparently this doomsday device is rigged to go of automatically if atmospheric radiation levels reach a certain point. Not a nice thought is it?

  12. I think there is a mixture of truth and exaggeration in those comments.

    Tsar Bomba was a real staged thermonuclear weapon detonated by the Soviet Union. It was detonated using a lead tamper instead of a U-238 tamper, which reduced the yield from an estimated 100 megatonnes to 50 megatonnes.

    Russia is also rumoured to have a kind of doomsday machine, called Dead Hand or Perimeter. There isn’t any authoritative information on it out there, but the basic idea was that it would trigger automatic retaliation if Soviet cities were destroyed with atomic bombs.

    In any event, I agree that the existence of such machines is not a nice thought.

  13. There is no reason why such a device could not be built and there is no limit to how big a hydrogen bomb can be. The Tsar bomb is just an example of how much energy a bomb can release compared to an asteroid impact, if you take away the need of the bomb to be delivered by air you can make a bomb 10 times or even 100 times bigger, if you have enough fuel 1000 times as big you could make it as big as a cargo ship or just bury it just like a landmine except nuclear.

    Have a look at the energy released by the Tsar bomb compared to a extinction event asteroid impact or Krakatoa and you can see what i am talking about is based on fact.

    If my country was at the brink of war with americans i would definantly want such a device as a deterrant.

    Australia should get into the habit of having nuclear landmines in key resource areas and cities and stop spending 20 billion per year. Anyone comes into the country and bang! simple solution to cut our military spending.

  14. Critics present nuclear disarmament as unrealistic at best, a risky utopian dream at worst. They point to the Cold War’s “long peace” as proof that nuclear deterrence is the only means of staving off a major war.

    As someone who has commanded these weapons, I strongly disagree.

    Nuclear deterrence has always been a hard and brittle guarantor of peace. By failing to propose a compelling plan for nuclear disarmament, the U.S., Russia and the other nuclear powers are promoting a future in which nuclear weapons will inevitably be used. That catastrophe must be forestalled.

    As I, along with George Shultz, Henry Kissinger and others, pointed out five years ago, nuclear deterrence becomes more risky as the number of nuclear-armed states increases. Barring pre-emptive war (counterproductive) or effective sanctions (insufficient), only sincere steps toward nuclear disarmament can furnish the mutual security needed to forge compromises on arms control and non-proliferation matters.

  15. The last of the nation’s most powerful nuclear bombs — a weapon hundreds of times stronger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima — is being disassembled nearly half a century after it was put into service at the height of the Cold War. The final components of the B53 bomb will be broken down Tuesday at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, the nation’s only nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility. … The weapon is considered dismantled when the roughly 300 pounds of high explosives inside are separated from the special nuclear material, known as the pit. The uranium pits from bombs dismantled at Pantex will be stored on an interim basis at the plant, Cunningham said. The material and components are then processed, which includes sanitizing, recycling and disposal, the National Nuclear Security Administration said last fall when it announced the Texas plant’s role in the B53 dismantling.

  16. Exclusive: Aging Helicopters Could Make U.S. Nukes Vulnerable to Terrorists

    If terrorists attacked one or more of America’s nuclear missiles in the northern Great Plains, U.S. military personnel would not be able to respond effectively, because their Vietnam-era helicopters are not up to the task, according to lawmakers, U.S. military leaders and Defense Department documents.

    “They are not capable of doing the job of responding to an alert,” said Alabama Republican Mike D. Rogers, chairman of the House Armed Services panel that oversees strategic defense programs, in reference to the aging fleet of UH-1N Huey helicopters now deployed to protect intercontinental missile launch facilities around Air Force bases in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota. “This is about nuclear weapons that are at risk.”

    “Listen, I don’t like talking about this publicly,” Rogers added in the interview with CQ. “This is a vulnerability that I don’t like being in the public domain. But I can’t get it fixed, apparently, without focusing some attention on this matter and how unacceptable it is. … You’re going to hear my language get more direct on this topic in the coming days and weeks in public. Our situation is completely unacceptable.”

    The need for new helicopters at the ICBM bases has received considerable attention, mainly in the defense trade press. And on a couple of occasions this month, lawmakers brought up in hearings a general concern about security problems that might arise as a result of the aging helicopters. However, details of the Hueys’ inability to support security personnel in the event of an attack have not previously been disclosed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *