The Doomsday Machine Part II: The Threat of a Nuclear Crisis

If you missed Part I of this article, you can find it here.

One of the responsibilities with which President Donald Trump has been entrusted is the stewardship of America’s nuclear arsenal. The implications of this situation demand a closer investigation of whether and how geopolitical crises escalate to the nuclear level. For example, some dispute the idea that a state would ever intentionally launch a nuclear strike against another nuclear-armed state, for fear of the inevitable nuclear retaliation that would render such a decision tantamount to national (and potentially global) suicide. But it is still possible for a crisis to escalate to the nuclear level, regardless of whether either party actually intends it to, due to the inherent instability that nuclear weapons introduce into the equation. When nuclear states are inevitably drawn into conflicts with each other, they will be tempted to threaten a nuclear attack in order to force a less resolved adversary to foldto make a “threat that leaves something to chance.” This amounts to a state threatening nuclear use, even if it does not intend to actually carry through with the threat, in order to coerce its adversaries into backing down.

In the lower stages of a crisis, this threat might take a relatively ambiguous form. For example, China might not come right out and explicitly brandish its nuclear weapons against Japan over the Senkaku islands—instead, it might issue a series of veiled statements suggesting the possibility in the hopes that Japan takes the hint. At this point, the risk of a nuclear exchange is relatively low, since China’s threat is not yet a credible one. But if Japan sticks to its guns and refuses to fold, China might calculate that it would be worth it to step its rhetoric up a notch and threaten nuclear use more explicitly. It is important to point out that whether China actually intends to nuke Japan is immaterialChina only needs Japan to think that it is willing to. Yet suppose that Japan still refuses to back down because of its belief that the risk of a Chinese nuclear strike is still low or, more precisely, low enough that the benefit of winning the dispute over the Senkakus justifies the risk. China, willing to tolerate another slight increase in the risk of a nuclear exchange, escalates the crisis again by becoming even more forceful with its threats. What is happening here is essentially an extremely high-stakes game of Russian roulette, in that at each progressive stage in the crisis, both sides are running a cost-benefit analysis: is the risk of nuclear war high enough that it is no longer worth taking? Or, is the benefit of winning the dispute by pushing the crisis even further substantial enough to outweigh the risk?

To return to our example: the crisis is now close to breaking point, and tensions are high on both sides due to the palpable risk of a nuclear exchange. Neither side can be entirely sure to what extent the other is bluffing. Japan might suspect that China won’t sacrifice the lives of millions of its citizens in a nuclear exchange, but it can’t be entirely certainafter all, China has made it exceedingly clear at this point that it regards the Senkakus as vitally important. Now, China faces a choice: does it escalate the crisis even more? Perhaps by placing its nuclear weapons on high alert, or delegating launch authority to low-level commanders, as a show of commitment to following through with its threat? The argument in favor of taking this risk is that Japan will think that China really is serious (even if it’s not) and give up. In China’s mind, the benefit of winning the dispute through this strategy may outweigh the incremental increase in the risk of nuclear war, and it may advance the crisis accordingly. But what if Japan miscalculates? China’s bluff may convince Japan that it is not only intending to use nuclear weapons, but is already in the process of doing so. This situation, in which Japan believes a nuclear strike from China to be imminent, is one which incentivizes a preemptive strike, thereby precipitating a nuclear exchange even though neither side originally sought one.

Another risk of nuclear proliferation concerns accidental launches as a result of technological failures. The nuclear arsenal of the United States has been subjected to a truly distressing number of false alarms. Beyond the incident which opened Part I of this article, the Cold War saw a host of close calls. In 1983, a Soviet early warning radar system detected the launch of five American nuclear missiles aimed at the Soviet Union. The Soviet officer on duty, instead of following procedure and initiating a retaliatory strike, reported a false alarm to his commanders (before he knew that he was right). It was later found that the reflection of the sun off the tops of clouds was responsible for the alert. In 1995, a Russian early warning radar system yet again detected what appeared to be the launch of a US ballistic missile aimed at Russia. Russian nuclear forces quickly went on full alert, and President Boris Yeltsin activated his nuclear football in preparation for a retaliatory launch. It was later found that the missile in question was actually a Norwegian scientific rocket. In 1960, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the agency responsible for detecting potential nuclear strikes, discovered what appeared to be dozens of nuclear missiles launched at the United States, and the American arsenal was immediately placed on maximum alert. It was later found that NORAD’s computers had misinterpreted the moonrise as nuclear missiles. If the best-secured arsenals in the world are susceptible to these kinds of failures, then it does not seem like a stretch to posit that the comparatively shoddy arsenals of far less experienced countries without the resources or the willingness to invest adequate attention into proper safety measures will do even worse. Only an extraordinary amount of luck prevented these incidents from spiraling into full-blown nuclear annihilation, and it would be dangerous to give fractious competitors embroiled in a mess of geopolitical tensions the opportunity to test that luck again.

The havoc that Trump threatens to unleash in the realm of nuclear policy does not stop with his permissive attitude towards the acquisition of nuclear weapons by non-nuclear states. Not only has Trump endorsed the spread of nuclear weapons to countries that do not currently possess them (known as horizontal proliferation), he has also announced his intention to expand the arsenals of the countries which already do, embarking on a concerted effort of vertical proliferation. He tweeted that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Asked about the possibility of an arms race with Russia, he allegedly replied: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” And most recently, he offered the following insight in an interview with Reuters: “It would be wonderfula dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack.” Given these comments, one would be forgiven for thinking that Trump’s intention is to “expand” the “nuclear capability” of the United States. However, these statements were followed by his handlers’ requisite damage control. Kellyanne Conway characterized Trump’s tweet as “talking about keeping us safe and secure” as opposed to a concrete policy change, adding that “perhaps he is also echoing what President Obama himself has tried to do here, which is get upgrades to our nuclear systems.” (The Obama administration initiated a $1 trillion program of nuclear modernization in exchange for Republican ratification of the New START treaty).

But why would it be a problem if the United States were to expand its nuclear arsenal or become embroiled in a nuclear arms race with Russia? First of all, it should be pointed out that contrary to Trump’s statements, the nuclear arsenal of the United States is currently unmatched in both strength and size. Further compounding this fact is the severe deterioration in Russia’s management of its arsenal. And the New START treaty is, in fact, far from one-sided, committing both countries to reciprocal and substantial arms reductions. Secondly, expanding the nuclear arsenal fails to provide any substantive benefit in terms of security. This is because the role which the nuclear arsenal plays in the national security apparatus of the United States is a very specific one: to deter the use of nuclear weapons by other countries. The maintenance of America’s nuclear weapons telegraphs to potential nuclear adversaries that any attempt to use their weapons against the United States will be responded to in kind, and thereby raises the costs of a potential nuclear strike far in excess of any potential benefits. But this level of deterrence in no way necessitates stockpiling even more nukes.

In fact, many argue that even the current arsenal of several thousand nuclear weapons is excessively large. The American nuclear arsenal currently possesses 87,500 times the blast power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, and a mere one-tenth of its 1,400 megatons would be enough to destroy the fifty most populous cities in the United States. It is fair to say that its level of destructive power is more than enough to faze any potential adversary. But even if there is indeed a legitimate case to be madecontingent on a potential reduction in the credibility of America’s deterrent capabilityfor maintaining the current levels of nuclear weaponry, Trump has yet to offer any substantive defense of why more nuclear weapons are necessary.

The arms race that would result from an American nuclear expansion would pose an acute risk to national security. First, a greater number of nuclear weapons naturally increases the opportunities for accidents and technological failures to happen. Again, the number of close calls with regards to nuclear weapons has been far too large to justify bringing even more into the world, especially in light of the potentially world-ending consequences of a mistake. But an arms race would also trigger profound geopolitical destabilization in terms of America’s already shaky relations with Russia. Trump’s admiration for Putin notwithstanding, the United States and Russia have been implicated in a tense stand-off in the military realm over perceived NATO expansion on the one hand and perceived Russian aggression on the other. There is no conceivable justification for putting further stress on this tense relationship, especially on the nuclear level. Russia would not sit idly by as America attempted to gain nuclear supremacy. The ensuing arms race would bring the world back to the insecurity of the Cold War, which is not a desirable end for anyone. If Trump wants to prove his skill at negotiating, he could start by furthering the mission undertaken by presidents before him: working towards a world without nuclear weapons. Finding a way to convince Russia to undergo substantial reductions in its nuclear arsenal, while preserving the American nuclear deterrentthat would truly be an achievement exemplifying the art of the deal.

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