Fire alarm time: This is no drill.
We smell smoke, the smoke of nuclear war. We don’t see the flames yet, but by the time we do, it will be too late to do anything to stop it. We have studied the arms race and nuclear war since 1979, written many books and given many talks, and we are telling you things have deteriorated. This short piece is our effort to push the fire alarm. The nuclear situation is rapidly getting out of hand. A genuine nuclear war could be quite close.
With the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the (first?) Cold War in 1991, many people relaxed and stopped worrying about nuclear war. Climate change, civil rights, and income inequality have become popular US issues. Immigration is an international issue. Unfortunately, the world situation has deteriorated, especially in the last 4 years, returning the risk of nuclear to its Cold War levels, if not higher. Here is a quick summary of why it is time to take actions on many levels to prevent an terminal catastrophe.
Russia is angry and resentful (especially at NATO expansion), unpredictably led, and increasingly military minded. Provocations are frequent and direct confrontations are possible, in Ukraine, Syria and the Baltic states. Russian leaders have made nuclear threats and innuendos.
India was terrorized in Mumbai in 2008, with direct links to Pakistan. India subsequently poured resources into rapid-reaction conventional forces, called “Cold Start.” India endorsed a “no first use” nuclear policy, but then began rushing along a nuclear weapons program, perceiving both Pakistan and China as potential adversaries. Pakistan, which is out-gunned in conventional forces, began to develop low-yield, “usable” battlefield nuclear weapons. In 2015 Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary announced that Pakistan would indeed use nuclear weapons first. India and Pakistan have already had four wars (1947, 1965, 1971, 1999). In addition, Pakistani scientists provided nuclear information and centrifuge technologies to North Korea and probably other entities.
Miniaturized nuclear weapons with “dial a yield capacity” are not new, but are becoming more widespread. Pakistan has reportedly deployed “mini-nukes” along the border with India, with decentralized control, meaning a battlefield commander could start a nuclear war.
North Korea is rapidly developing nuclear technology, and has made direct frontal threats to the USA. The US and South Korea have intensified maneuvers, which North Korea considers provocative.
China and US relations are increasingly tense, particularly in the South China Sea. China supports North Korea, at least some of the time, and has expressed outrage over the latest round of sanctions. China’s sinking economy adds to the insecurity.
Israel has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and was probably the sixth country to develop nuclear weapons (after the US, USSR, UK, France, and China). Its policy is neither to confirm nor deny its weapons although it has developed submarines, gravity bombs, and probably miniature weapons. It is reported by multiple sources that although Israel sees itself as the “responsible adult” among nuclear nations, it would employ the “Samson Option” of massive retaliation if attacked. Given the Arab world’s antipathy towards Israel, and the suicidal nature of Islamic extremists, such an attack is quite plausible.
Terrorist organizations (notably but not limited to ISIS) could buy or steal nuclear weapons. The International Panel on Fissile Materials states that sufficient plutonium and highly enriched uranium has disappeared to make 20,000 Hiroshima-sized weapons. Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Yukiya Amano says that a grapefruit amount of plutonium can be made into a nuclear bomb: "It is now an old technology and nowadays terrorists have the means, the knowledge and the information,” although “a dirty bomb is more likely.”
Since the mid-1990s, almost 2,800 incidents of illicit trafficking, "unauthorized possession" or loss of nuclear materials have been recorded in the IAEA database. One such incident occurred in Iraq in 2015.
It is virtually certain that ISIS cells in Belgium have plans to create nuclear havoc. Nuclear power plant worker Didier Prospero was shot in Charleroi, Belgium, and his security pass to the Tihange nuclear power plant was stolen. ISIS suspect Mohamed Bakkali had surveillance video of a nuclear scientist at his home. Two Belgian nuclear industry workers have gone to Syria to join ISIS. Belgian officials have admitted ISIS has 'concrete plans' involving a nuclear facility. Sebastien Berg, spokesman for the federal agency responsible for Belgium's nuclear industry said they were fearful of a bomb exploding inside a plant or terrorists conducting a 9/11-style attack using a hijacked aircraft.
The US is planning an array of nuclear escalations: (1) twelve new Trident-type missile submarines, (2) 100 new strategic penetrating bombers, (3) a new air-launched, dual-capable cruise missile, and (4) a new generation of highly accurate “dial-a-yield” gravity bombs, intended for tactical (battlefield) use. Numbers 3 and 4 in particular are part of a growing trend toward “fightable” nuclear war. The UK is also moving towards “modernizing” its Trident fleet. Russia’s response is unclear, but there is already evidence it is developing a submersible nuclear capable drone, and also “modernizing.”
Along with modernized weapons and weapons systems comes increasing dependence on computers. The first successful invasion of the Defense Department’s computer system (DARPA net) was in 1988, by Robert Morris, who created a “worm” that infected and killed up to 10% of the national computers within 3 days. The “Morris Worm” was the first successful “denial of service” attack, and a prototype for future attacks by Anonymous, etc. DARPA gradually morphed into the Internet, while attempts to burglarize and compromise computer networks morphed into “hacking.” Governments, corporations and terrorists rely heavily on computers, and use hackers to try to damage each other’s systems, to gain intelligence, and to falsify intelligence. A nuclear war could start as a result of deliberate hacking, or computer glitches or failures.
The US or other countries could choose a president who is ego-driven, uninformed, thoughtless, and irrational. Combinations of fear, nationalism, and religious extremism may lead to leaders who are unstable, dramatic and authoritarian. The circumstances exist in many places now where fears of immigration and racism are leading to the promotion of neo-fascist leadership. Death cults such as ISIS arise from the chaos of failed states, and embrace suicide. Leaders from democracies to republics to “caliphates” could launch a nuclear war because of anything from a mood swing to an apocalyptic belief in a heaven full of virgins, the End Times, or a pseudo-rational belief in “just war.”
It is now clear that even a “small” nuclear war would be globally catastrophic. The “nuclear winter” scenario first developed in the early 1980s was, if anything, optimistic. A “limited nuclear war” between India and Pakistan, for example, is modeled to leave 2 billion people dead. Other creatures are not counted. Due to changes in the ozone layer and stratosphere, temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere would drop 1-4 degrees C° reducing growing seasons catastrophically, and lasting 25 years.
Think tanks, “policy wonks” and politicians speak casually of and positively about the use of increasingly small, accurate nuclear weapons – not just for deterrence but also for war-fighting.
Old views of nuclear deterrence based on Cold War models of two adversaries are no longer applicable. There are currently nine nuclear-armed states, and 15, 350 known nuclear weapons. There are no nuclear war modeling scenarios such as the ones developed by RAND in the 1950s (chicken, the Prisoner’s Dilemma) that provide even a semblance of a rational ladder of escalation. A two entity “non-zero sum game” can be modeled easily. A 9 plus x non-zero sum game escapes mathematical capacity. Not that a President facing a nuclear attack would rapidly summon the Cabinet mathematicians.
Since nuclear detonations do not come with a return address or bar code, one or more sudden nuclear explosions could easily lead to a flailing response and rapidly escalating mutual “retaliation.” Miniature nuclear weapons can be placed on drones, small planes, or even SUVs. When an atmospheric explosion occurs, it will be difficult if not impossible to assign responsibility or to coordinate any rational response.
The known nuclear bombs, many much bigger than the ones that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, lie in submarine missile tubes, silos beneath the earth, and in aircraft. Once launch orders are given, there is no way to envision curtailing a catastrophic outcome.
Meanwhile, a single nuclear explosion in a populated area would create more havoc than Ebola, Zika, Elizabethkangia, influenza or any other infectious disease singly or in total. The world’s medical facilities would be strained, if not vaporized.
The risks of accidental nuclear war, either via unintended detonations or false alarms, are at least as high as ever – problems that are exacerbated by the above considerations.
Speaking of math, the famous mathematician, Vladimir Arnold, said “that all good things (e.g. stability) are more fragile than bad things. It seems that in good situations a number of requirements must hold simultaneously, while to call a situation bad even one failure suffices.” The poet Yeats put it more succinctly: “Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the earth.”
This list illustrates that many things simultaneously are chaotic. Things are falling apart. Even one bad event can trigger an apocalypse. The stability and peace we may see this day is vulnerable to even one thing going wrong, in which case the center, this beautiful planet in peace and beauty and diversity, cannot hold.
We realize that this list is intimidating and exhausting. It could lead to paralysis, denial, or displacement activities. In the future, we shall try to provide concrete, actionable, immediate steps for individuals, groups, and governments to take to reduce the threat of nuclear extinction. Our belief is that the only rational course for the world to take is to abolish nuclear weapons, to make them illegal. Chemical weapons, land mines and biological weapons are illegal. We can ban nuclear weapons, too.
127 nations have formally endorsed a ban on nuclear weapons, and The United Nations General Assembly voted on 7 December 2015 to set up a working group that will develop “legal measures, legal provisions and norms” for achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world. See http://v.org/NPT2015/Ban_outline2.pdf
139 nations have endorsed this program. It is simply not fair or just that leaders of the 9 nuclear armed countries can annihilate not only the people and life forms in their own countries, but also the people and species globally. This has not escaped the notice of people in South Africa, Latin America and all over the world. Economic or military dominance is bad enough, but for 9 distant countries to control life on earth is intolerable.
Human beings need to speak and act for all life on earth. No other species can sterilize the planet, and no other species can cancel the firestorm. We represent the voiceless ones. Nuclear weapons abolition can be achieved. Policing a total ban and improving verification would be a lot easier than competing in multiple arms races and protecting the weapons and weapons materials from terrorists or fanatics. It’s up to all of us.