Mitigating a Nuclear War risk

There have certainly been efforts for the last 40 years to reduce the risk of a nuclear war. For example, since 2010 every two years Nuclear Security Summits are held. Russia participated in the first three, but withdrew from the fourth one in 2016, blaming the USA for ‘taking over the leadership’. Probably the most comprehensive Summit was the one held in 2014 in the Netherlands, which was attended by 58 world leaders (5 of which from observing international organizations). The representatives attending the summit included U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. One concrete result of that summit was the progress reached in eliminating stocks of Highly Enriched Uranium (HER). It was reported at the Summit that between 2012 and 2014 15 metric tons of HER had been down-blended to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU), which will be used as fuel for nuclear power plants, equivalent to approximately 500 nuclear weapons.

So, there have been undoubtedly efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear war but they are not comprehensive enough and are introduced too slowly. There have been quite a few proposals on how to reduce the risk of nuclear wars. So, it is not the lack of knowledge that lies at the bottom of slow progress in risk reduction. It is the usual procrastination and mistrust that rather decreasing, actually increases the risk of a nuclear war. The best example are the five proposals put forward in 2013 by the two former US Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger and George P. Shultz, and two US National Security Advisers, Sam Nunn and William J. Perry for reducing the risk of nuclear wars, mainly addressing the US-Russia relationships:

  1. Securing nuclear materials to prevent catastrophic nuclear terrorism. Materials necessary for building a nuclear bomb today are stored at hundreds of sites in 28 countries—down from over 40 countries just 10 years ago. But many of these sites aren’t well secured, leaving the materials vulnerable to theft or sale on the black market. Important commitments were undertaken to secure nuclear materials and improve cooperation during the 2010 and 2012 Nuclear Security Summits. Yet no global system is in place for tracking, accounting for, managing and securing all weapons-usable nuclear materials.
  2. Changes in the deployment patterns of the two largest nuclear powers to increase decision time for leaders.
  3. Actions following New START. The progress in the strategic field has been considerable. But there should be further progress made under the New START agreement with the following prerequisites:
    • Strict reciprocity
    • Demonstrable verification
    • Providing adequate and stable funding for the long-term investments required to maintain high confidence in stored nuclear arsenal.
    • Consolidating and reducing U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear weapons not covered under New Start should be a high priority. The nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran undermine the Non-Proliferation Treaty and pose a direct threat to regional and global stability. Unless these two states are brought into compliance with their international obligations, their continued nuclear programs will erode support for non-proliferation and further nuclear reduction
    • Verification and transparency of nuclear-security agreements is absolutely essential to have confidence that they work properly. The U.S. should launch a “verification initiative” that involves the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories and global scientific experts in developing essential technologies and innovations for reducing and controlling nuclear weapons and materials. (Hoover_Institution, 2013).
Nuclear attack by North Korea might spark off a global nuclear conflict.

The second proposal of the former US Secretaries of State was referring to a detailed plan put forward by the Union of Concerned Scientists, engaged for years in developing various proposals for reducing the risk of accidental nuclear wars. It points out that despite the Cold War ending decades ago, the United States and Russia still keep hundreds of nuclear weapons on high alert, ready to launch. This rapid launch option, also called ‘hair-trigger alert’, significantly raises the risk of three types of unintended nuclear attack:

  • An accidental launch could occur through a system error
  • An unauthorized launch is a deliberate launch that would take place without a presidential order, perpetrated by either insiders or outsiders (e.g. through a cyberattack) or mistaken nuclear attack
  • A mistaken launch would be authorized by the president, but in response to a false warning of an incoming attack.

Because land-based nuclear missiles are stored at known locations, they are vulnerable to attack. Hair-trigger alert was originally intended to ensure that, were the missiles targeted, they could be launched in retaliation before being destroyed. Yet the United States’ retaliatory capabilities are already ensured by hundreds of nuclear weapons stored on submarines, which can’t be targeted. As a deterrent, the high alert status of U.S. land-based missiles is therefore irrelevant. Unlike land-based missiles, nuclear-armed submarines can’t be targeted while at sea, providing a credible nuclear deterrent.

Therefore, the nuclear powers should de-alert land-based nuclear missiles. For example, in case of the U.S., it should eliminate options for quickly launching missiles on warning of attack, and take its missiles off hair-trigger alert. At present, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in the United States are stored in underground siloes and controlled by nearby launch centres. Removing them from hair-trigger alert could be as simple as manually activating a safety switch that prevents the missile from being launched (these switches already exist and are used by maintenance crews). When the next false alarm occurs, leaders would then not be under the same pressure to launch, eliminating the risk of a mistaken launch, and reducing the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch (Union_of_Concerned_Scientists).

The continuing risk posed by nuclear weapons remains an overarching strategic problem, but the pace of work doesn’t now match the urgency of the threat. The consequences of inaction are potentially catastrophic, and nations must continue to move beyond their particular interests for the benefit of the whole Humanity. The most recent developments like those in North Korea and on the Indian subcontinent, not to mention the increased risk of cyberattack on nuclear control centres, make nuclear war far more probably that at any time since the end of the Cold War.