Why Nuclear Nations Want To Keep Their Warheads In Their Silos
The first rule of nuclear club? Do everything you possibly can to not end the world.
For the last 70 years or so, the world has lived in fear of what seemed like a nearly inevitable third global conflict. In a phrase commonly attributed to Einstein, we didn’t know with what weapons it would be fought, but we knew that World War 4 would be fought with sticks and stones.
Today, we have the general outline of how the end of the world could unfold, and it starts with a major miscommunication between the United States and Russia and involves hundreds of nuclear warheads delivered by ICBMs. The result would be one of the shortest wars ever fought because, within an hour, there’d be pretty much no point in fighting over the ruins of human civilization.
Given enough early warning, some key government officials would survive in underground bunkers built to withstand a direct hit. Submarines and buried bases could also keep fighting falling on backup communication lines which both U.S. and Russia have been working on for decades. Yet fighting with all the important cities and infrastructure nodes obliterated, and millions of very scared and rapidly dying survivors trying to find safety would be useless. And the miasma of radioactive soot and debris would do untold damage to other would-be participants who would have their own crises to deal with rather than taking sides and amassing their armies.
But what seems to get lost in all this panic is that as much as the U.S. doesn’t want a nuclear apocalypse, neither does Russia, or China, or India, or anyone with nukes. Nuclear weapons are a deterrent. Only the certifiably insane will build them with the hope of using them.
For the world’s nuclear powers, the missiles tipped with city-leveling bombs are a bit like taking years of all those advanced self-defense training classes. Sure, you learned how to block knives, tear guns out of people’s hands if they’re too close, and maybe even kill your attackers, but you hope you never end up in a dark alley having to use those skills because the consequences of even one mistake are often fatal.
The Nuclear Mitigation Paradox
Even North Korea’s missile tests should be taken as advertising its capabilities to discourage any thoughts of a regime change rather than a willingness to go to war with global players with massive armies. We know that rebuilding the post-nuclear world would be horrific, and once the missiles start flying, pretty much any plan will be at the whim of a thousand unpredictable factors.
Russia and the U.S. have plans to keep functioning as nations after a nuclear war, but those plans are almost impossible to thoroughly test for feasibility because an actual dress rehearsal for such a scenario today could trigger fears that one of them is preparing for an exchange and create a real risk of one.
Consider a NATO exercise called Able Archer 83 which was supposed to be a simulation of how a conventional Soviet attack could be met with a nuclear strike by the United States. All the troop movements looked like the real deal to the USSR and until the exercise ended without incident, Soviet jets, troops, and missiles were on standby, ready to start World War 3 at any moment. So just imagine what moving thousands of troops and ICBMs around a country while cloistering important officials in doomsday bunkers and shutting down common communications channels to mimic post-strike blackouts could say to adversaries trying to listen in for any sign of potential launch.
Testing nuclear interceptors on a regular basis is far from ideal too because if those interceptors seem to be working reliably, it raises fears of one of those nuclear nations warming up to the idea of launching a first strike with much less fear of retaliation. Looking virtually invulnerable while possessing a few thousand operational missiles with 300 kiloton to 500 kiloton yields is pretty much guaranteed to incite panic among other nuclear powers, and trigger an extremely agitated exchange or two that heightens the chances of a nuclear volley that will try to preempt and overwhelm any defenses.
You may be noticing a pattern here. No matter what you try to do to mitigate the threat of nuclear war or its impact on you, you end up raising the chances that it will happen.
Call it the Nuclear Mitigation Paradox if you will, and the only way to escape it is for nations that can wipe out civilization as we know it is to become allies in all respects, especially militarily. But the trust required to create a supranational global military just isn’t there, and the reaction of other nations probably wouldn’t be positive because they would have no hegemons to play off each other to ensure their survival or gain commitments.
Lewis’ Unlikely Nightmare Scenario
That brings us back to our bizarre modern politics where a handful of nations could end the world and suspect the others are ready to as well, yet they’re all similarly terrified of doing exactly that. In a way, this works in our favor and a lot of fevered dreams of accidentally starting World War 3 with a mistake that lights up a detection system and triggers a full blown exchange of ICBMs are very unlikely to ever actually result in doomsday. For example, take the latest iteration of this in a Twitter thread by Jeffrey Lewis, who specializes in trying to figure out how a nuclear war might break out in real life.
A mini-tweet storm on North Korea's ICBM, the missile defense system in Alaska, and accidental nuclear war with Russia. 1/
In his scenario, if North Korea lobs a nuke at the U.S. which counters with an interceptor volley, the stray interceptors which miss their target either due to bad aim or because it’s been destroyed, will end up over Russia and look a lot like ICBMs to their early warning systems. Because he fears they have a blind spot to North Korean launches, they might not realize the full context of what they’re seeing and decide to retaliate. So, in short, Kim Jong Un could end the world after all, just not by his own capability or on purpose.
With all due respect to Lewis, considering the fact that Russians have shown over the last 70 years that they don’t have itchy trigger fingers and that they want nuclear war just as little as the West, this latest riff on apocalypse borne out of sheer confusion seems just wrong. Even if his doubt that the current administration would work behind the scenes to negotiate how to handle the thread of North Korean ICBMs is likely to be correct, remember that Russia doesn’t want to actually start lobbing nukes before they’re absolutely sure of this decision and have demonstrated this in numerous close calls.
Lewis’ idea hinges on Russia insisting that North Korea’s ICBM was not a real intercontinental missile but an intermediate range one. But what he sees as blind spots in Russia’s early warning systems in regards to the DPRK may be a ploy to pacify Trump who Russia doesn’t see as a rational actor and who has a history of believing its media’s take on foreign affairs over his own staff, a long running trend they like to encourage. After all, what if Putin is nervous that a furious Trump actually tries to hit North Korea and starts a chain of events in which nuclear strikes are guaranteed to be exchanged?
Furthermore, Russia turning a blind eye to North Korea seems to be at odds with photos and videos of Russian troop movement towards its border with the DPRK. It would be truly bizarre to start moving weapons and people to a border of a country firing off missiles left and right and not invest in any sort of monitoring of what it’s up to and legitimately believing it poses no threat to the world at large, even if indirectly. Coupled with Russia’s commitment to invest trillions in upgrading its nuclear triad and monitoring systems, it’s not far fetched to say that it’s well aware of the threat.
They’re also very familiar with American interceptors, having debated about their presence in Europe with Obama for more than six years. So ultimately, if the DPRK ever launches an ICBM towards Alaska and the U.S. fires a volley of interceptors that make it into Russia, it’s reasonable to assume that Russians would take note of the events, the trajectories and altitudes of stray kinetic missiles, and be reaching out to confirm they saw interceptor fire, not nukes, while the U.S. would be calling them to warn them of potentially incoming kinetic missiles. The apocalyptic scenario is a lot more engaging on social media, but given the current and historical facts, thankfully, not very likely.
And this brings us to the upshot of all this. While nuclear war is a real and terrifying possibility, the powers that can bring it about don’t simply see it as a last resort, but a murder-suicide after even Plan Z has failed and all seems truly and hopelessly lost.
This is why crafting a foreign policy in fear of the wrong word or a computer glitch resulting in apocalypse will accomplish little but mutually assured frustration. We can’t tiptoe around in negotiations in fear that the answer to a demand will be an ICBM with multiple warheads, but we also can’t push the envelope with literal fighting words, ready to live out the end of the world. We can afford to be realistic instead of cowering in fear in the media and breaking out into a cold sweat at the negotiating table.
In the age of political extremes, we need to remember that most politicians can be, and are, rational actors in their own realms, especially when it comes to the question of nuclear weapons. Just because they don’t want to give up their arsenals doesn’t mean they want to use them, or casually dismiss major threats to the current uneasy balance between the nuclear powers. And they would much prefer their wars stay conventional and fought through proxies, not with bombs that can turn centuries of progress and technology to ash in mere seconds.