The Nuclear Risk: Playing Russian Roulette with the Possibilities

Professor Martin Hellman, of Diffie-Hellman key exchange fame, has turned his
attention to the prevention of nuclear war.

Martin Hellman

Taking an engineering analysis approach, his conclusion that the risk is unacceptably high makes a lot of sense, and shocked me out of my complacency – The post-Cold War world isn’t that much safer than the Cold War world, given the continued instances where the US/NATO and Russia have come into conflict.  While none of these have made as great waves as the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis, the 1995 Norwegian Rocket Incident for the first time caused then-President Yeltsin to begin the procedures for nuclear release.  That’s a pretty close call, opening the Briefcase, ostensibly in a time of peace (while under momentary threat of decapitation strike).

Based on Prof. Hellman’s estimates (and mine, after walking through his logic), of a probable failure at every branch of the decision tree somewhere in the 10-100 year range (using orders of magnitude), the risk is unacceptable.  I would prefer not to die as a result of a series of mistakes that lead to Armageddon.

Currently, the system in the US is, as far as I can tell, configured in the same paradigm as it was during the Cold War – designed to facilitate a massive response to Warsaw Pact aggression (either a first strike or precipitating incident, such as escalation of conventional war).  As a result of the Norwegian Rocket Incident of 1995 incident shows, presumably the Russian system is still functioning in the same way.  So even though we’re no longer the “sworn enemies” of Carl Sagan’s metaphor, we are still “standing waist deep in gasoline” and holding the matches.  This isn’t a good place to be standing.  This isn’t even an appropriate posture anymore, but the design of technical systems (missile silo launch command centers, ballistic missile submarines on patrol) and the maintenance of cold-war policies lend themselves to this posture.  There is still a lingering distrust that the old adversary might suddenly attack, which seems particularly ludicrous.  But moving through the branches of a treed structure does present an unsettling possibility following a path to, or past, the brink.  While tensions are not as high as they were in 1962, it is possible things could run away.  As much as I doubt that Obama or anyone in this administration would attribute even the obliteration of Washington to Russia without a radar track originating in the Motherland, the counterstrike could still be executed, within the requisite 30 minutes or less demanded by ICBM flight times.  Standing outside the room where Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev are meeting in Canada right now are officers with satellite communications devices that represent the first links in the nuclear release chain.  I wonder what those officers joke about.

I doubt in the near future Obama, Medvedev, Cameron, Sarkozy, or Jiabao would drop the hammer, or be in a position to consider it, even in a crisis which invokes NATO article V (an attack on one member is an attack against all).  Although there have been recent conflicts between Russia and Estonia (a NATO member), and the ongoing conflict between Russia and Georgia may be a point of contention between East and West, these don’t appear to be serious enough to cause general alarm.  Or maybe it’s just out of mind by virtue of not being on CNN.

Even between India and Pakistan, it would seem that for the foreseeable future nuclear exchange is unlikely, but this may change if climate change or environmental degradation causes stress on water supplies or other strategic resources.  A conflict over Kashmir could escalate to the point of general war, and possibly nuclear war.  It is conceivable that a stolen nuclear device in detonated in India could set off an exchange between Pakistan and India, but it seems unlikely to set off a global conflagration.

It is possible that if Iran were to gain nuclear capability, elements may not be deterred by MAD—faced off against a nuclear armed Israel, a limited exchange is possible, but one would hope cooler heads will continue to prevail.  And if the worst comes, the war would be limited (if one could consider any exchange limited) by Iran’s presumably small arsenal.  Israel may have a significant nuclear arsenal, but as a nation not party to the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, their program remains shrouded in the deepest secrecy.

While several times during the cold war (and after) accidents threatened to unleash a full-scale exchange, one would hope that this posture is no longer maintained.  If Obama or Medvedev were awakened, I would hope he would roll over and say “go back to sleep, this has to be some kind of mistake.”  But he would have the power to get up and order a retaliatory strike, and in the decision window of less than 30 minutes, it could all go to hell fast.

So I’ll agree with Prof. Hellman that the maintenance of a hair trigger posture is insane and insanely dangerous, and we need to move towards a nuclear free world, or his global cap of 1000 warheads not on hair-trigger alert, described as “acceptable risk”.  In all seriousness, the immediate launch posture is unnecessary, as is the sheer number of warheads available for immediate use and in storage.  It is far too easy for one to be sold or stolen, and used by an entity not deterred by MAD (such as al Qaeda).  It is unlikely that an attack by a non-governmental entity would precipitate a retaliatory attack – who would we respond against?  And how?

Still too risky over a 100 year timeframe, the persuasive technology lab/peace innovation lab has some work to do to help get some traction.

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