Friday, March 4, 2022

Elephant in the Room: the Limits of Nuclear Deterrence

Ruh-roh.  Turns out the BIG 5 nuclear powers aren't as stable as we might like.  And the others (call them the small 4)?  They are all an accident waiting to happen.
Things have a funny way of turning on a dime, or at least giving that appearance.

Here we were, waiting for the whole Covid Fiasco to die down, so we could resume something like normal life, but suddenly (not actually suddenly, but that's the favored narrative) Russia invaded Ukraine, and everything is upended and uncertain again.

To make matters worse, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has made repeated threats about the war turning nuclear.  To make matters even worse, over the 22 years he has ruled Russia, threats like this are out of character for him.  

For two decades, most western military and geopolitical analysts thought of Putin as stable, clever, and practical.  He was a chess player.  He didn't become emotional and he didn't generally overstep.  Now analysts are starting to wonder about his mental state.

This is a good thing to wonder about.  The man is an absolute ruler, who has at his command the largest nuclear arsenal in the world.  He could, more or less singlehandedly, launch a series of events that might end all human life on Earth.

Yes.  Vladimir Putin.  All by himself.  Could end human civilization, and potentially all life on the planet.  And depending on how poorly things go for Russia (and himself) in the weeks and months ahead, he may well decide that's what he wants to do.

Which makes you kind of wonder... how did we get here?

The Castle Romeo nuclear test, Bikini Atoll, March 26, 1954

The Birth of Atomic War

In August 1945, at the tail end of World War Two, the United States tested a couple of atomic bombs on the Japanese.  The narrative in America (and the West) is that the bombs ended the war, but that isn't quite true.  

Fact is, the war was already over.  The evil Japs were toast.  Oh, whoops!  Should I not call them evil?

In any event, the war was over because the Germans had already been finished off.  As part of a prior agreement with Churchill and FDR at Yalta, Josef Stalin had just switched the Red Army over to fighting the Japanese

The Japanese land army, exhausted from a protracted guerrilla war against the Chinese, were incapable of fending off the battle-hardened Soviets.  The Americans and English had destroyed the Japanese navy.  What was left of the Japanese military was in danger of being annihilated.  

With the war over, we dropped the atomic bombs mostly because we had them, and wanted to try them out.  No one outside of Japan felt much sympathy for the Japanese guinea pigs at the time, because the Japanese had been very, very bad themselves. 

For a brief moment, the United States was the only country in the world with atomic weapons.  But almost exactly four years later, in August 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon, the RDS-1.

The nuclear arms race was on. 

The so-called "Tsar Bomba" superbomb test, October 30, 1961, Severny Island, the Russian Arctic.  Tsar Bomba was the most powerful nuclear explosion in history, yielding 50 megatons, more than 3,500 times stronger than the "Little Boy" bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima. 

Mutual Assured Destruction

As the Nuclear Arms Race carried on, the two major nuclear countries, the United States and the Soviet Union, developed missile arsenals so large (and pointed at each other), that they were capable of destroying all life on Earth many times over.  

Later, a clever idea occurred to the humans who had launched this homicidal/suicidal race.  The idea was Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).  It was a theory of deterrence, suggesting that no nuclear armed power would ever launch the nukes, because to do so would virtually guarantee their own destruction.

There is a glaring hole in this theory, however.  As far as I can tell, the first time this logical flaw was pointed out to a mass audience was in the movie Dr. Strangelove, which came out in 1964.

The flaw is simply this: Mutual Assured Destruction assumes that all parties to it are rational actors.  Rational actors, we can guess, don't want to die and don't want their own countries, and the entire world destroyed.

But what happens if not all parties are rational actors?  Generally speaking, most humans are not rational, and are primarily driven by emotions. 

As we indicated earlier, Putin's current behavior is at odds with his past behavior.  He is not himself.  What if he had a stroke?  What if he is in the early stages of cognitive decline, or even dementia?  What if he is secretly dying?

What if he no longer cares if he lives or dies?

There are no checks and balances on his behavior.  He can do whatever he wants with the Russian nuclear arsenal.

Here comes another elephant.

The Irrational Actors

The first five countries to possess nuclear weapons were all world powers, either militarily or economically.  They were the United States (1945), the Soviet Union (1949), England (1952), France (1960), and China (1964).

In 1968, these countries signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which sought to stop any other countries from acquiring nukes.  

Basically, these countries said, "We're all strong, pretty stable, and can be trusted to be somewhat responsible with these nukes.  But we don't know that about anyone else."

As we've seen, assuming the rationality of these countries is a questionable thing to do.

But even worse, since that treaty was signed, four other, smaller countries have acquired nuclear weapons.  These countries are anything but stable, rational actors.

They are Pakistan, India, North Korea, and Israel.  

Pakistan and India are mortal enemies, who have conducted full scale wars against each other four times - in 1947, 1965, 1971, and 1999.  They are in a constant, simmering feud over the ownership of the Kashmir region, and there are regular cross-border incursions and terrorist attacks committed by both sides.  

Pakistan and India are thought to have about 150 nuclear missiles each, which is a tiny amount by the standards of the big powers.  

But even a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan will likely kill hundreds of million of people initially, and perhaps a billion more from disease and starvation worldwide in the five years to follow.

Israel is considered an apartheid state, and engages in near-constant low-grade warfare against the Palestinians under their control, Syria, Hezbollah, and by extension Lebanon.  Israel's mortal enemy is Iran, and Iran has enough conventional missiles to carpet-bomb nearly every square inch of Israeli territory north of the Negev Desert.  

In recent years, Israel's prime minister has been the criminal Benjamin Netanyahu.  From 2019 to 2021, Israel, riven by internal divisions, failed to form a government three straight times.  

In an existential scenario where Israel finds itself in a war with both Hezbollah and Iran simultaneously, a war Israel cannot win, what would stop them from launching nuclear missiles? 

North Korea, the fourth of the small 4 nuclear powers, hardly needs any introduction.  It is run by the madman Kim Jong-un, the third (and hopefully final) member of the Kim ruling dynasty. 

North Korea, never far from disintegrating into famine, is bristling with weapons of all kinds, including nuclear weapons.  It routinely threatens places within its reach with destruction, including South Korea, Japan, Australia, and both Hawaii and the west coast of the continental United States.

North Korea, all by itself, is a powerful argument against anyone having nuclear weapons.  Taken as a group however, it becomes clear that the human race should no longer have nuclear weapons, and never should have built them in the first place. 

Image of a nuclear winter, from the movie The Road.

Words of Wisdom

"Nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth; to mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family, and the earth itself."

- Philip Berrigan


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