Destroyer of Worlds: Why the Danger of Nuclear War Persists

The Cold War is over, but the risk of atomic miscalculation is not


You can thank your lucky stars the only raiders wearing football pads in America today are the Oakland Raiders. The main reason we’re not living in a wasteland devastated by nuclear war is because we lucked out.

That’s at least the conclusion of a recent report by the London-based research institute Chatham House.

“Evidence from many declassified documents, testimonies and interviews suggests that the world has, indeed, been lucky, given the number of instances in which nuclear weapons were nearly used inadvertently as a result of miscalculation or error,” the report argues.

These atomic near-misses are rare, but considering the magnitude, they’re also way too common. This is a counterpoint to the long-running theory that nuclear deterrence can save the day. We’re referring of course to the theory that if nuclear-armed nations risk mutual annihilation, then they will not escalate to nuclear war.

Largely, it’s a pretty plausible theory. The United States and the Soviet Union never nuked each other, after all.

But if it’s possible for nuclear weapons to be used inadvertently despite deterrence, and the risks of that happening are in fact quite high—when factoring in the possibility of millions dead—then you might not want to put total confidence in that theory.

U.S. Trident II missile test. Department of Defense photo

Lots of ways to die

Chatham House counts 13 events that could have led to the accidental exchange of nuclear weapons. The institute doesn’t claim this list is comprehensive—these are just a few examples of the ones we know about.

The first is Operation Anadyr in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet military authorized four Soviet missile submarine commanders to use nuclear weapons without approval from Moscow.

When a U.S. warship depth-charged one of the submarines—the Soviet submarine B-59—it was only the intervention of a subordinate officer that convinced the captain not to start World War III.

In 1979 and 1980, America’s ballistic missile radars detected two false alerts that nearly triggered a nuclear release. In the first event, the Air Force’s PAVE PAWS radar was “inadvertently fed test scenario data concerning a Soviet nuclear attack.”

The second incident involved a malfunctioned computer chip. The Air Force only confirmed the warning as faulty within a minute of National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski alerting Pres. Jimmy Carter that the homeland was minutes from being annihilated by more than 2,000 Soviet strategic nuclear warheads.

There’s many more. The Soviet Union’s missile detectors picked up a false warning in 1983—likely misreading the reflection of the sun’s light off the atmosphere. Fortunately, the Soviet commanders correctly judged the warning as a mistake.

“The entire incident played out in secret, and it was only many years later that the full details of this incident were made public,” the report states.

Able Archer 83—the infamous November 1983 NATO nuclear-war scenario—is perhaps the closest we came to the end of the world since the Cuban Missile Crisis. There were numerous procedures used during the exercise, including calling simulated nuclear attacks “strikes” over the radio, that the Soviets could have potentially misinterpreted as the real thing.


We’re still in danger

These incidents also continued well past the end of the Cold War.

During the failed Soviet hardliner coup against Pres. Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, Gorbachev was temporarily cut off from his own nuclear forces. It’s unlikely the Soviet missile forces would have taken orders from the hardliners, but it was still worrying.

As nuclear weapons proliferated, the dangers of inadvertent use proliferated with them. During the Kargil crisis of 1999—set off by a series of military exercises by India and Pakistan—the Pakistani generals moved nuclear weapons out of storage into a position where they could be fired.

Had the crisis continued further, or had Indian forces launched an offensive into Pakistan, there could have very well likely been a nuclear attack on India.

Chatham House also brings in the U.S. Air Force’s recent nuclear force scandals for criticism. While not risking the accidental release of nuclear weapons, the U.S. experienced two major incidents in the past eight years that are still quite concering.

In 2007, the Air Force lost contact with six nuclear cruise missiles for 36 hours after the missiles were placed unguarded under the wings of a B-52 bomber. “Had the plane experienced any problem in flight, the crew would not have known to follow the proper emergency procedures with nuclear weapons on board,” the report states.

A big shake-up also occurred last year. After a major investigation by the Air Force and Navy, several officers with responsibility over U.S. nuclear forces were dismissed or demoted after numerous security lapses at missile bases.

It might seem like these accidents and near-misses are an exception to more than a half-century of nuclear peace. But the report argues that accidents are likely, given human frailty and the peculiar nature of nuclear weapons. During times of political crisis, the risk of inadvertent use is at its highest.

In a modern flash-point like the Korean peninsula, “it is a reasonable assumption that an exercise similar to Able Archer-83, which simulated command and control, in the region could be confused with an actual attack and provoke a nuclear response,” the report warns.

Nukes are also complex weapons—and their capabilities are kept as secret as possible. According to the report, this makes it difficult to learn from past mistakes. Each event is treated as a singular event, and the fault is put onto individuals rather than seeing these incidents are a systemic problem.

To make matters more risky, few people are—by necessity—responsible for making the decisions regarding whether nukes should be used. The flip side is that fewer people are there to check for a potential miscalculation.

“A shared belief in nuclear deterrence is not the only plausible explanation for our escape from nuclear war; rather individual decision-making, often in disobedience to protocol and political guidance, has on several occasions saved the day,” the report states.

So thank your luck—and thank those individuals who disobeyed.

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