Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012).
Even if you’ve never won an office raffle, a sports pool or a lottery, consider yourself supremely lucky. Unlike the atomic bomb victims who were recognized by President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, you’ve never experienced the horrors of nuclear war.
That’s nothing any of us should take for granted, says former Defense Secretary William Perry. On at least three occasions, he noted recently, the U.S. military received false alarms of a Soviet nuclear attack. At least twice the Soviet military went on high alert from similar alarms. And anyone who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 survived "as much by good luck as by good management,” he added.
A scene from "Dr. Strangelove,” in which the bomber pilot (played by actor Slim Pickens) rides a nuclear bomb to its target in the Soviet Union.
The consequences of an accidental nuclear war would be staggering. Thousands of U.S. and Russian warheads, some of them orders of magnitude larger than the one that wiped out Hiroshima, are primed for launch on warning. Besides wiping out tens or hundreds of millions of people in urban centers, they would put a large fraction of the world’s population at risk from starvation.
A 2013 report by Physicians for Social Responsibility concluded that even a limited regional nuclear exchange — say between India and Pakistan — could "cause significant climate disruption worldwide” and jeopardize food supplies to as many as two billion people.
Many authorities believe the threat of accidental war is even greater today than during most of the Cold War. Last year, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved its famous Doomsday Clock forward to three minutes to midnight, its "direst setting” since the nuke-rattling days of the early Reagan era.
The group cited continued bluster and brinkmanship between NATO and Russia, including the shooting down of a Russian warplane by Turkey, as indicators of today’s risky nuclear environment.
National security experts and reporters such as Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control (2014), have compiled long lists of nuclear accidents and near-misses, some of which might have cost millions of lives but for a few quick-thinking heroes. Here’s a small sample:
–In 1958, a B-47 dropped a 30 kiloton Mark 6 atomic bomb into a family’s backyard in Mars Bluff, South Carolina. Its high-explosive trigger blasted the home and left a 35-foot crater. A few months later, another B-47 dropped a Mark 39 hydrogen bomb near Abilene, again setting off its high explosives but not a nuclear blast.
–In 1961, a B-52 exploded over North Carolina, dropping two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs. One of them nearly detonated after five of its six safety devices failed. The Air Force never did recover the uranium trigger.
–In October 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a Soviet submarine thought it was under attack from U.S. warships, which were practicing dropping depth charges in the Sargasso Sea. The submarine commander ordered a launch of nuclear missiles, but was persuaded to stop by his second-in-command.
Other near misses during that mother of all nuclear crises in 1962 included a reckless U.S. spy plane over-flight of Siberia, the explosion of a Soviet satellite that U.S. authorities interpreted as the start of a Soviet missile attack, American test launches of two nuclear-capable ICBMs, and a screw-up at a Minuteman site that allowed a single operator to launch a fully armed missile.
–In 1966, a B-52 bomber collided with a refueling tanker over Palomares, Spain and broke apart, dropping its four hydrogen bombs. Two of them partially detonated, contaminating a wide region with radiation.
–Two years later, a B-52 crashed in Greenland, losing three hydrogen bombs and contaminating nearly a quarter million cubic feet of ice and snow.
–In 1979, a technician mistakenly confused NORAD’s computers with a war games simulation, triggering signals of a Soviet nuclear launch. The Strategic Air Command scrambled its bombers before learning of the false alarm.
–A year later, a defective computer chip prompted the Pentagon to waken President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser with reports of a massive launch of Soviet missiles from submarines and land-based silos.
–In 1985, a glint of sunlight confused a Soviet early-warning satellite, which reported that the United States had launched five intercontinental ballistic missiles. Fortunately, the watch commander risked his career by not reporting the alarm, saving the day.
–In 1995, Russia’s early-warning system confused a small Norwegian weather rocket with an incoming U.S. Trident missile. The Russian military went on high alert, notifying President Boris Yeltsin and preparing a possible counter-attack before recognizing the mistake.
Tensions Reduce the Odds
As MIT nuclear expert Theodore Postol noted last year, "Had the false alert of 1995 occurred instead during a political crisis, Russian nuclear forces might have been launched. American early warning systems would have immediately detected the launch, and this might then have led to the immediate launch of US forces in response to the Russian launch.”
Recent years have brought us accounts of missing nuclear missiles, drug use by Minuteman missile crews, shocking security breaches, crew commanders falling asleep, computer failures, a silo fire that went undetected by smoke alarms, and much more.
And just this week we were reminded by the Government Accountability Office that the Pentagon’s "Strategic Automated Command and Control System” uses 8-inch floppy disks and 1970s-vintage computers.
The Pentagon insisted in 2014 that the system "is extremely safe and extremely secure” — after all, how many hackers know how to operate such ancient technology? — but Princeton University’s Bruce Blair, a former Air Force ICBM launch-control officer, said this week, "The floppy disks are associated with a nuclear-communications system that was unreliable even when the system was upgraded in the 1970s.”
No doubt the odds of any one of these accidents triggering a war or mass catastrophe were low. But odds increase with the number of incidents. If the probability of a disaster from one incident is only one in 100, the odds of ruin from 20 such incidents rise to nearly one in five. Those are not comforting numbers.
That’s why it’s critical that the United States and Russia get serious about promoting world security by eliminating first-use and "launch on warning” policies that heighten the risk of accidental wars. They must also sharply reduce the size of nuclear arsenals that are difficult to track, safeguard and maintain.
Instead, President Obama has embarked on a trillion dollar program of nuclear modernization and a dangerous policy of confrontation with Russia in Eastern Europe. (Russia is not blameless in these matters, of course.) Such policies are, in turn, prompting China’s military to pursue a nuclear expansion program of its own — including a dangerous shift to hair-trigger alerts and a launch-on-warning policy.
Former Defense Secretary Perry warns that all of this is putting the world "on the brink of a new nuclear arms race.” That’s not what we expected from the President who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in part for his call to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons. Let’s hope Obama’s visit to Hiroshima rekindles his commitment to helping create a safer world.