Shortly after midnight on September 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov saved the world. He had just arrived on duty at Serpukhov-15, a secret bunker outside Moscow where the Soviet Union monitored its early-warning system satellites. If the United States ever launched nuclear missiles against the Soviet Union, those working in such installations would be the first to know.
That night seemed to have been when just such an attack was happening. A Soviet satellite detected an incoming nuclear missile from the United States — then four more soon after. The alarms rang throughout the bunker, and Petrov had to make a decision: to report that a nuclear attack was underway, or to report it as a false alarm.
As the commanding officer, it was his responsibility to report the satellite data to his superiors, which would reach the Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov. Based on nothing more than an educated guess and what he called “a funny feeling in my gut,” Petrov reported the “attack” as a false alarm.
If he had made a different decision — or if someone else had been on duty that night — and reported the satellite’s data as genuine, it is plausible the Soviet leader would have decided to launch retaliatory strikes against the United States, causing a nuclear war.
Of course, Petrov was right — it was a false alarm, although he didn’t know it for sure at the time. It turns out the satellite had detected the sun’s reflection off of some clouds and mistook it for several nuclear missiles.
How did the Cold War end without the United States or the Soviet Union ever launching a nuclear attack against the other? Supposedly, mutually assured destruction (MAD) — the idea that neither side had an incentive to launch nuclear missiles against the other because the other side would in turn be obliterated— explains it.
There is some truth to this. However, MAD is based on certain fallacies — namely, that people are perfectly rational agents and that nuclear weapons systems are technologically flawless. We know both things to be false.
Rather, what got us through the Cold War was not MAD, but “some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion,” according to General George Lee Butler, the last commander of the Strategic Air Command (responsible for U.S. nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bomber aircraft, two of the three parts of the “nuclear triad”).
The 1983 incident was not an isolated one. In fact, there have been so many close calls of a nuclear war or accident occurring that it is hard to disagree with Butler, who became active with the nuclear disarmament movement after he retired from the military:
- In 1960, a U.S. early-warning system in Greenland falsely detected dozens of Soviet missiles headed toward the United States, causing NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) to go on maximum alert. The false alarm was caused by the early-warning radar misinterpreting the moonrise over Norway for an attack.
- Two nuclear bombs were accidentally dropped over North Carolina in 1961 when a bomber broke apart in midair. They failed to detonate “by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross,” said Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
- During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, a Soviet submarine nearly launched its nuclear weapon against U.S. forces because its commander mistakenly believed it was under attack from an American destroyer. Vasili Arkhipov was just one of three officers on board who refused to consent to the launch. If he had agreed, the attack would have commenced.
- In 1979, national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was awakened by a phone call at three in the morning telling him that NORAD had detected a large-scale Soviet nuclear attack underway. Brzezinski was literally one minute away from notifying President Jimmy Carter and recommending he launch retaliatory strikes when he received another phone call telling him it was a false alarm: A NORAD staffer had accidentally placed a training tape into an operational computer.
- In 1995, Russia’s early-warning system detected a Norwegian research rocket and interpreted it as a nuclear attack. President Boris Yeltsin activated his nuclear briefcase and prepared to launch Russia’s nuclear weapons. Minutes later it became apparent it was a false alarm.
- A B-52 bomber flew over several states armed with six nuclear missiles in 2007 — without anyone on board knowing they were there.
- In 2010, a launch control center in Wyoming lost contact with 50 of its intercontinental ballistic missiles, with the system for safeguarding, controlling, and launching the missiles down for an hour. It was caused by faulty installation of a computer circuit card.
In January 2017, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists updated its “Doomsday Clock” to two and a half minutes to midnight, the closest the world has been to an apocalyptic scenario in several decades. (Founded seventy years ago by several scientists to gauge the threat of nuclear war, it is also now updated to include threats from climate change and emerging technologies.)
As the Bulletin notes, the threat of nuclear conflict remains despite the end of the Cold War:
Over the course of 2016, the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats, nuclear weapons and climate change.
The United States and Russia — which together possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons — remained at odds in a variety of theaters, from Syria to Ukraine to the borders of NATO; both countries continued wide-ranging modernizations of their nuclear forces, and serious arms control negotiations were nowhere to be seen.
Today, there are about 15,000 nuclear weapons worldwide. Approximately 14,000 of these are split evenly between the United States and Russia, while the United Kingdom, France, Israel, Pakistan, India, China, and North Korea have the rest.
The threat from nuclear weapons stems from multiple sources: A nuclear war could commence (intentionally or accidentally) as a result of either heightened tensions and rhetoric between nuclear powers (such as between the United States and Russia at the border of NATO countries in eastern Europe or between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea), or malfunctioning technology could inadvertently trigger such a conflict; A nuclear accident could happen like the one that almost occurred in 1961 over North Carolina; or nuclear materials could be stolen by terrorist groups seeking to detonate the devices in urban areas.
Despite the risk nuclear weapons pose, the United States is “modernizing” its nuclear arsenal to include “redesigned nuclear warheads, as well as new nuclear bombers, submarines, land-based missiles, weapons labs, and production plants,” at the cost of $1 trillion. As Hans M. Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists, and other authors for the Bulletin discuss:
The US nuclear forces modernization program has been portrayed to the public as an effort to ensure the reliability and safety of warheads in the US nuclear arsenal, rather than to enhance their military capabilities. In reality, however, that program has implemented revolutionary new technologies that will vastly increase the targeting capability of the US ballistic missile arsenal. This increase in capability is astonishing — boosting the overall killing power of existing US ballistic missile forces by a factor of roughly three — and it creates exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.
As Kristensen et al. explain, “The revolutionary increase in the lethality of submarine-borne US nuclear forces comes from a ‘super-fuze’ device that since 2009 has been incorporated into the Navy’s W76–1/Mk4A warhead” which is now likely installed on every warhead on the Navy’s nuclear submarines.
“Russian planners will almost surely see the advance in fuzing capability as empowering an increasingly feasible US preemptive nuclear strike capability — a capability that would require Russia to undertake countermeasures that would further increase the already dangerously high readiness of Russian nuclear forces,” Kristensen et al. note. Indeed, “it may well be that the danger of an accident leading to nuclear war is as high now as it was in periods of peak crisis during the Cold War.”
Instead of “modernizing” nuclear weapons, there is a sane alternative: abolish them. They do not bring security, but rather insecurity. The idea that they function as an effective deterrent is belied by the fact that human beings can be irrational and technology can fail. As a practical matter, there is little evidence their use would be effective at coercing an enemy during an actual military conflict: Japan finally surrendered in World War II not because of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but because of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, for example.
The idea of abolishing nuclear weapons is supported by numerous mainstream establishment figures, including the aforementioned General George Lee Butler (who has called nuclear weapons “immoral and therefore anathema to societies premised on the sanctity of life”) and former defense secretary William Perry (who believes that “the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater [today] than it was during the Cold War”).
The mechanism for abolishing nuclear weapons would be an international treaty. In fact, there is already one in place, known as the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which commits the nuclear-armed parties to not transfer nuclear weapons and technology to non-nuclear armed states, as well as “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” Non-nuclear armed parties commit to not developing nuclear weapons.
The problem is that the nuclear-armed parties of the NPT, including the United States, have essentially ignored their obligations under the treaty. Instead of dismantling their nuclear weapons, they are instead “modernizing” their nuclear arsenals. Frustrated by this state of affairs, most of the world’s non-nuclear armed countries are pushing for a new treaty, which would include an outright ban on nuclear weapons. Nuclear powers, including the United States, have boycotted the treaty negotiations.
It is clear the United States and nuclear powers have no intention of giving up their nuclear weapons any time soon. However, as the New York Times reported in May, “Treaty supporters have argued that if enough countries ratified an international agreement outlawing nuclear weapons, the political and moral coercive pressure would eventually persuade holdouts to reconsider.”
Thus, the moral responsibility to rid the world of these weapons is left to the citizens of the nuclear powers, including those of the world’s sole superpower.