How close are we to a nuclear war?

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On Tuesday, a missile landed in Przewodów, a Polish village near the border with Ukraine. Two people were killed in the explosion. Their deaths were a direct result of Russia’s continued invasion of Ukraine, although in the fog of war it was not immediately clear which party was to blame. Initial theories held that the missile was fired by Russia at Ukraine and strayed, although later US intelligence suggested it was instead part of an interceptor fired by Ukraine at a Russian missile. The consensus has form around this last idea.

If Russia had indeed attacked Poland, the world could be very different today. Poland is a member of NATO, and a deliberate attack on an alliance member demands a response from everyone. A world conflict could have followed. And in this context, we have to consider the extreme conclusion: Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, and there is reasons to believe that the Kremlin could use it.

But no one should rest easier knowing that the fallout from a defensive strike is to blame for what happened in Poland. Recent advances in defense technology have perhaps, paradoxically, upended the old concept of mutually assured destruction – the idea that the guaranteed annihilation of an aggressor by his nuclear-armed target would prevent such an attack. Instead, by trying to protect ourselves from nuclear weapons, we could compound their threat.

Although NATO countries, including the United States, have continuously armed Ukraine against Russia, early calls for the United States to create a no-fly zone over the country , basically a commitment to attack Russian aircraft, if they were to fly over Ukraine – were rejected by the Biden administration. The risk of starting a war with another nuclear-armed country, a war that could escalate into a massive and horribly destructive nuclear exchange, limits how countries fight and act. It is in part this constraint that has fueled the search for new technologies to circumvent the difficult problems of nuclear warfare.

Nuclear arsenals create a shared sense of vulnerability among the leaders of nuclear-armed nations. But the development of missile defense technologies unbalances the equation in several important ways. First, a good defense reduces the nuclear threat faced by a given nation, which could be encouraged to use its own weapons. two, facing one advanced missile defense system could lead an attacker to simply use more weapons in an attempt to overwhelm all possible interceptors. And third, a nation that finds itself in an arms race might attempt to reach the finish line quickly by firing weapons before the adversary’s defenses are operational. Despite these risks, the United States continues to develop anti-missile defenses: an entire agency at the Pentagon is dedicated to the work.

“You can think of two different levels of effectiveness for missile defenses,” James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. “One is Reagan’s dream of hermetic bubble around the United States which could never be penetrated. That would be great in my opinion, but they are completely technically unfeasible. The other is to have enough missile defenses to be able to defend against irregular retaliation from those countries, which is potentially extremely destabilizing because they would fear that if we landed a first strike on them their surviving missiles would could not penetrate our defenses, and that would encourage them to come first.

Of course, the weapons also improve. They can be launched from multiple locations, fly under the radar, and travel at remarkably high speeds. These advances shorten the response time after the detection of a nuclear attack, thus transforming the feeling of vulnerability of the leaders at such a moment: it is, in other words, more likely than ever that a bad decision will be made at haste.

Foreign policy scholars Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press said recent technological changes — better sensors and data processing, new weapons — herald a new era of nuclear vulnerability. “Nuclear deterrence may be robust, but nothing is automatic or forever,” they wrote in a paper 2017. Fast, potentially nuclear weapons like hypersonic missiles threaten old protocols designed around the predictable flight paths of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or the familiar radar signatures of bombers.

Kelley Sayler, writing for the Congressional Research Servicenoted that analysts identified two relevant factors here: “the weapon’s short flight time – which, in turn, compresses response time” and “its unpredictable flight path – which could generate uncertainty as to the intended target of the weapon and therefore increase the risk of miscalculation or unintentional escalation in the event of a conflict.

Hypersonic missiles travel at speeds of Mach 5 or more, and are harder to see and track for existing early warning systems. Hypersonic missiles are being developed by China, Russia and the United States and can carry both nuclear and conventional warheads. This arms race clarifies that the history of nuclear warfare has always been a competition between nations to develop superior technology. The United States commissioned the research and development of the atomic bomb partly out of fear that other countries, particularly Nazi Germany, would develop it first.

Over the course of a few years, the Manhattan Project has created the enduring bones of an entire secret nuclear weapons complex, with labs to design and iterate nuclear weapons and reactors to refine uranium into plutonium. On July 16, 1945, the first atomic warhead was detonated on what is now the White Sands missile range in New Mexico. Unintended atomic casualties were created moments later as fallout reached the sparsely populated scrubland around the site, contaminating the environment, food and water supplies with radiation. “My outer skin fell off gradually over the next few days,” 89-year-old resident reminded me of decades later.

Then, on August 6, the United States Air Force dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, they drop a second, on Nagasaki. The low estimate, made by the US military in the 1940s, is that the two bombs killed 110,000 people in total. In the 1970s, an international team led by Japan issued a high estimate of 210,000 killed. Although there is undoubtedly a specious post war story that President Harry Truman weighed the cost of the bombing against the cost of the invasion and made the affirmative decision to use the bombs, technology historian Alex Wellerstein has argued that Truman’s most important order came after the fact, on August 10.

“The day after Nagasaki, Truman issued his first affirmative bomb order: no more strikes without his express authorization. He never gave the order to drop the bombs, but he gave the order to stop dropping them. Wellerstein wrote:.

All weapons of war are tools in the service of a political objective. The decision to give the president direct control of the atomic bomb changed the politics of nuclear warfare, at a time when the United States was the only country to develop such weapons. This time was short. In 1949, the Soviet Union succeeded in detonating its first atomic warhead.

Rapid development followed. In 1952 and 1953, respectively, the United States and the USSR detonated hydrogen bombs – massively more destructive warheads with two nuclear cores packed into a smaller payload. Nuclear armaments have expanded beyond bombs dropped by long-range aircraft to include missiles carried by hidden submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, launched from the ground – weapons that could propel themselves into space and then crash to Earth thousands of miles away. These three points of origin – air, sea and land – would become known as the “nuclear triad” and would play an important role in deterrence: by expanding its arsenal, a world power increased its chances of successfully firing a strike of retaliation.

The Federation of American Scientists estimates that approximately 12,700 nuclear warheads now exist worldwide. The United States and Russia maintain nuclear triads, as they have for decades, with the potential to launch mere minutes after a certified command.

Nuclear weapons are unique among military technologies because of the extent to which they cause damage and how that damage inevitably falls on civilians. New weapons and new defenses will change the details, but the fundamental truth of nuclear arsenals is that they keep the whole world vulnerable.

The prospect of brutal and sudden destruction, by mistake, panic or anger, hangs over us at all times, as long as the weapons and the means to use them exist. Risks can be mitigated by careful stewardship and calm crisis management, but it can never be completely eliminated or manipulated.

“I’m wary of big concepts of rethinking deterrence or trying to escape deterrence. I think it’s just a feature of life, but it’s not an entirely sure thing either. The big issue is how to reduce the likelihood of going nuclear,” Acton said.


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