1. The Dangerous Nuclear Weapons States

An unarmed Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) launches during an April 26, 2017 test from Vandenberg AFB, California. Source: U.S. Air Force / Sr. Airman Ian Dudley (news article)

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Decision to Drop the Bomb (1965)


Civilized life on Earth will not survive the reckless manufacture and lethal distribution of starlight on the terrestrial surface. Nuclear weapons, small synthetic stars produced by humans to kill other humans over internecine arguments, have the capacity to end civilization. They have not been subject to robust debate by the U.S. public since the end of the Cold War.

Over the past few months, I’ve delved into the many subtopics of nuclear weapons: how they work, how we designed and tested them, how we build them, deploy them, pay for them, how we morally justify them, how they affect diplomacy, and how humanities’ militaries intend to use them. At each turn I’ve found something surprising, something shocking, something that undermines our assumptions . Those assumptions are what allow us to feel safe and live our lives as though there weren’t a guillotine of our own making hanging over our heads.

I want to you to know what I now do. The story of nuclear weapons is mind bending and reads like hard science fiction while retaining the distinguished virtue of being true. The high technology of the 1960’s is just as attention grabbing and reality warping today as it was then. The same people that argue breathlessly over the impact of artificial intelligence would be arguing fervently over nukes if they were transported back in time. In the time since that era, we’ve merely made the technology more reliable, smaller, more efficient, and more accurate. The essential principles still stand. Nonetheless, while the weapons and nuclear science are impressive and sophisticated, the most difficult things to understand aren’t inherently technical in nature. Instead, the most difficult thing is to challenge the assumptions that dwell within your mind that you did not even know were there.

Today, the United States is the hegemon of a unipolar world. We currently have no external enemies that constitute an imminent existential threat. Our glib assumptions and wealth allow some of us to elide a raging conflict over the destiny of civilization. No longer. We must now turn the critical lens upon ourselves. We decorate life with many rules to make it more enjoyable, but at its core is just one: “Survive.” We exist only on this planet, and setting fire to Earth’s surface would violate that inviolable rule.

A piece of Trinitite, the slightly green slightly radioactive glass produced by the 1945 Trinity Test that inaugurated the atomic age. Photo adapted from Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0 Photo brightness and contrast modified from original.

Nuclear policy should be this easy. It’s not, and that’s a tragedy that may incur yet further tragedies. With some rules, it’s fine to tiptoe right up to the line without crossing it, but the nuclear taboo is not one of those rules. We must get this one right at all costs because nothing else matters if we don’t.

Unfortunately, the lurch toward nuclear disaster is accelerating. The story of how and why this is true is steeped in history, but a December 2016 quotation by then President-elect Donald Trump makes the seriousness of this claim clear: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” (video) This was offered by way of clarifying an ambiguous tweet. It’s not difficult to imagine this quote uttered by the Joker.

Now in office eight months later, in the midst of rising tensions with North Korea, the President made the following statement: “As I said, they [North Korea] will be met with fire and fury and frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.” A month after that, on the dais in front of the United Nations General Assembly, he threatened, in stark violation the UN charter, to “totally destroy North Korea”, a nation of twenty five million people.

“All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”
Charter of the United Nations, Article 2, Paragraph 4

While it would be a lie to say the nukes are back (they never left), the current level of danger is reaching extreme levels. To quote the President, following an meeting with his top military commanders on October 6, 2017, “You guys know what this represents? Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.” A reporter asked, “What storm, Mr. President?” to which he responded, “You’ll find out.” In the background, the generals, their spouses, and the First Lady feigned smiles.


In the introduction to “Insane Before the Sun”, we discussed the existential stakes of humanity’s survival, briefly introduced Noam Chomsky’s Three Pincers framework, and encountered the Joker as he schemed to set the people of Gotham against each other with explosively booby trapped ferry boats. It was hinted that the calculations that went into the ferry standoff were strikingly similar to those of a nuclear war.

Just as in the ferry standoff, in a nuclear standoff, both countries hold each others’ detonators. However, there are two differences. In the real world, the time lag between pressing the button and your adversary’s destruction is not instantaneous. The second is that the ferry boat people were on the clock, whereas our trial extends into the indefinite future.

Dispiritingly, the instantaneousness of the situation the Joker designed is more humane than its real world counterpart. The ferry bombs go off immediately, leaving little room for the worst case scenario where everyone dies. In the case of nuclear arms, typically a country will have, depending on how good their detection methods are, a window of three to seven minutes for close range Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) to thirty minutes for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Within this window, the afflicted country will know they are doomed and have the opportunity to punish their opponent. In theory, a combination of good will and abject terror maintains sufficient deterrence to prevent first strikes. This doctrine is known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), and the logic of it is such that no sane person would devise it voluntarily.

These days, when most Americans think of nuclear threats, they think of the well publicized North Korean missile tests or Iran’s uranium centrifuges. However, for these two countries, it would be crazy to actually use these weapons in a first strike. The weight of the world would come down on them. Tellingly, unclassified recent U.S. intelligence assessments emphasize the role of deterrence to invasion in their quest for weapons.

Since 2006, each year the Director of National Intelligence presents the World Wide Threat Assessment to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In 2016 and 2017 the language used to describe the motives of Iran and North Korea were very similar. Quoting from the 2017 report:

With respect to Iran: “Iran is pursuing capabilities to meet its nuclear energy and technology goals and to give it the capability to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons, if it chooses to do so…. We do not know whether Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons…. Tehran’s desire to deter the United States might drive it to field an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).” (page 7)

With respect to North Korea: “We have long assessed that Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities are intended for deterrence, international prestige, and coercive diplomacy.” (page 7)

These two countries are building a deterrent to invasion, not an offensive weapon. This is not to say that it’s safe for these (or any) countries to acquire atomic weapons, quite the opposite. Even when they’re not used, deterrence to invasion can let a country partake in egregious military adventures abroad or abuse their population and visitors without fearing existential blowback.

Practically speaking though, they do not have enough firepower to threaten the fate of the world on their own. Iran has zero weapons, the controversy centers on their ability to produce them. North Korea, as of this moment, has only a handful. Without minimizing the particular threat faced by South Korea, Japan, and now the majority of the United States with the launch of the Hwasong-14, or the complex situation in the Middle East, if these countries can threaten the fate of the whole world, it is by initiating a chain of events that pulls larger, more dangerous powers into the mix.

There are nine states that possess nuclear weapons: The United States, Britain, France, Russia, Israel, China, Pakistan, India, and North Korea. Of these, the world endingly dangerous combinations are the old Cold War antagonists: the United States of America, the other nuclear armed members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the Russian Federation. The weapons counts in these countries are verified by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors under the authority of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s (NPT) Article III safeguards provisions and the New START bilateral treaty between the United States and Russia. Each alliance is equipped with a combined thousands of deployed weapons on bombers, submarines, and ICBMs on hair-trigger alert. Other flash points like India and Pakistan are exceedingly dangerous to the rest of the world due to the climatic effects of nuclear weapons.


In a war, where would the nukes land? According to ready.gov, the U.S. emergency preparedness website,

“In general, potential targets include
• Strategic missile sites and military bases.
• Centers of government such as Washington, DC, and state capitals.
• Important transportation and communication centers.
• Manufacturing, industrial, technology, and financial centers.
• Petroleum refineries, electrical power plants, and chemical plants.
• Major ports and airfields.”
ready.gov/nuclear-blast

This list of qualifications is recited bloodlessly, but nearly every major city meets these criteria. New York City is a port, financial center, and communication center as are Boston and Los Angeles. San Francisco is those things and also a major technology center; Detroit is a major manufacturing center. It would be lengthy and trivial to list how nearly all of the major population centers in the United States would join the list. The criteria also include military bases and power plants as targets. To put it glibly, this means nearly everything that could be conceivably useful to civilization that isn’t rural farmland could be nuked, and with that excepted mostly because you’d be bombing dirt.

Strategic planners like to use the neutral sounding terms “counter-force” to denote a nuclear strike on military targets and “counter-value” to connote targeting civilian population centers and economic targets — a war crime and a humanitarian disaster if not a war crime itself respectively. However, nuclear bombs are so large that unless a military target is located in a very remote, nearly unpopulated, area, it’s impossible for these weapons to discriminate between legal and illegal targets. It calls into question whether the term counter-force, signaling the planner’s intention, has more than a tenuous relationship to reality.

In July 1996, the Hague based International Court of Justice, the judicial body birthed by the UN Charter, offered an advisory opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons under international law at the request of the General Assembly. They found no specific law specifically authorizes nor prohibits nuclear weapons. However, the court found unanimously that,

(2C) “A threat or use of force by means of nuclear weapons that is contrary to Article 2, paragraph 4, of the United Nations Charter and that fails to meet all the requirements of Article 51, is unlawful;”

Article 2, Paragraph 4 is the same paragraph discussed earlier in the context of Donald Trump’s comments on North Korea. Article 51 is the part of the UN charter dealing with “Action with respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression”. By a 7–7 vote with the court’s President casting a tie breaking vote they further concluded:

(2E) It follows from the above-mentioned requirements that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law;
However, in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake

President Bedjaoui, describing his tie breaking vote stated, “…the Court does no more than place on record the existence of a legal uncertainty…. Nuclear weapons, the ultimate evil, destabilize humanitarian law which is the law of the lesser evil.” There were no justices stating that there were definitely circumstances in which the use of nuclear weapons would be unquestionably legal.

In this light, the practice of nuclear deterrence begins to seem less like a game of strategy and more like a decades long premeditation of criminality, given rhetorical life by the thin prospect of a set of perfect circumstances that may never occur. It’s absurd to think that a large scale nuclear attack, aggressive or retaliative, could ever not be criminal. Intentional strikes against civilians are a gross violation of international humanitarian law. That leaves only the possibility of small strikes against military forces, but small strikes would likely instigate a cycle of rapidly escalating violence. If a nuclear capable army invades, they won’t back down just because some of their forces were lost in a nuclear blast, there was a reason they were coming in the first place. Instead they would want to show that they won’t be cowed and fire a nuke of their own. What happens next? ☀


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Next: How Does a Nuclear Weapon Work?


This article is part of a series on nuclear war. Read more at Insane Before the Sun. Be one of the first to join the community on Facebook to connect with others interested in this topic.

This article previously included a video at the end that showed a simulated emergency alert on television in the UK, but it was removed for not quite fitting in with the rest of the article.

Edited for clarity on January 7, 2018. The “Let it be an arms race.” quote by Donald Trump was extended to show more context.