Hans Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project, Federation of American Scientists, Washington DC and co-author of “The Growing Threat of Nuclear War and the Role of the Health Community” (World Medical Journal, 2016) tells Peter Goodwin why we need to take the threat of nuclear war seriously.
NUCLEAR DETERRENCE HAS HELD THE PEACE FOR 70 YEARS—WHAT’S WRONG WITH IT?
“It comes with a terrible risk, obviously, which is that you have to threaten other countries to behave and so through that threat you—literally— have to plan for their destruction and you have to plan for your own destruction as well.
So this is an ironic “peace” to have over so many decades.”
DOES IT WORK?
“Nuclear weapons are very dangerous and very scary. So there is a deterrence effect, absolutely, the question is whether it works always—and [whether] we can count on it—and that’s where people get a little concerned that you can get into very dicey crisis situations. And it’s not a given that nuclear weapons would not be used because they’re scary.”
WHAT ARE THE ARSENALS, WHERE ARE THEY, HOW MANY WEAPONS ARE THERE AND HOW ARE THEY PLANNING TO BE USED?
15 000 Warheads, Nine Countries
“Today there are nine countries that have nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia have the most. China, France, Britain and India and Pakistan, and Israel and North Korea [have the rest]. And all together, if you count everything they have in their nuclear arsenals—the weapons that can be used, plus the ones they’re working on dismantling but nevertheless not quite done—altogether we’re close to 15 000 nuclear weapons.”
THIS MEANS WHAT?
“Try to put 15 000 “X”s on a map. How would you use them? If you just take the portion of them that are in the military arsenals—a little less than 10 000—those are the ones there are plans for. So there are “X”s on the maps where military facilities [are], command and control centers, storage sites, missile silos—you name it—harbors, airfields. There are plans in all these countries for where these weapons would land.”
Real Military Plans
“It’s a real effort. It’s a real strategic intention. It’s not just something that you have in your basement that could be a scary thing.”
IF YOU TARGET A LEGITIMATE MILITARY TARGET, AIRFIELD OR WHATEVER, WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES FOR THE REST OF THAT COUNTRY?
“Depending on the size of the weapons you use they are “bad” or “really bad”! The point being that there’s no such thing as a “clean nuclear attack”. They’re all aimed at destroying facilities. And if you want to destroy a facility you have to obliterate it. And that is done either by:
If it is an underground facility—you dig a giant hole and it’s really dirty because a lot of material is blown up into the atmosphere and falls over great distances.
“You can try more clean attacks, so to speak (even though that’s a bad word) where you explode the weapon more precisely in the air so the pressure wave more precisely destroys the facilities. But in all of these cases it’s dirty business.”
HOW EASY IS IT TO ACHIEVE A MILITARY OBJECTIVE?
“Well generally targeteers (sort of) joke that if the weapon arrives over the target it will be destroyed. The point being that the uncertainty seems to be more in the delivery – that missiles can go wrong. Or there can be atmospheric interference, or what have you.”
“But if the missile manages to deliver the weapon over the great distance, and it survives the re-entry through the atmosphere, and it gets to the point over the target where it has to detonate, and [if] the fuse works, then it will destroy the target.”
“Sometimes they have to layer. Sometimes they have to use two or three nuclear warheads to destroy a target, depending on how “hard” it is. But generally speaking we’re talking about one or two weapons per target.”
SO WHAT WOULD RUSSIA AND AMERICA DO?
“The way they talk about their intentions in a war is [that it is planned to be] very much in phases. That you have a crisis that deepens and turns into a shooting war—a conventional war at first. And it gets hotter and at some point they—for various reasons—decide to “escalate” (people call it)—escalate to nuclear use.”
“That would probably start—at least according to the plan—gradually. That they would begin to signal that: “We are serious about this. We’re using a few weapons here and if you don’t back down we’ll go further.”
“Now the other side may not buy it. They might decide: “Yeah. Well we’re here too. We can do things as well.” And counter attack. That counter attack might be comparable, or they might decide to go much bigger, and then basically settle the battle.”
War à la Carte
“What I’m saying is there are lots of different nuances in the war plans. Some are a few weapons. Some are hundreds of weapons—depending on what you are trying to inflict on the adversary.”
SUPPOSING JUST A FEW WEAPONS ARE USED BETWEEN RUSSIA AND AMERICA. WHAT HAPPENS?
A Few Small Nukes?
“Well if a few weapons are used they would most likely be used in (sort-of) periphery scenarios—in a region, for example, where the forces are battling each other. Then they would use a “nuke” against the other side in an airfield or battle group or whatever it might be.”
“And so the impact of that is: If it’s on the ground you would have radioactive fallout wherever that weapon is used. And we’ve done some simulations where you could see how that fallout would drift over Europe if just six weapons were used—a very small attack.”
Chernobyl on Steroids
“If they escalate to bigger use you’re talking about broad sweeps of countries and continents that would be contaminated with radioactive fallout.”
SUPPOSING A MORE LIMITED WAR TOOK PLACE: CHINA, INDIA, PAKISTAN OR KOREA — WITH RELATIVELY FEW WEAPONS. WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IN A LIMITED WAR?
The Big Two
“Different nuclear weapon states think differently about potential use. They come from a different place, so to speak. The United States and Russia are engaged in a many decade long Cold War. And where nuclear planning went insane, it was at all levels. So Nuclear War fighting was very central to their thinking about it.”
Other countries didn’t go so far. China, certainly, has had a much more relaxed nuclear posture. It hasn’t really entertained the thought of nuclear war fighting. It thinks about the role of its nuclear weapon more in (sort of): “We have a big hammer and if you do something that’s really bad we’re going to hit you with it.”
“That’s not to say that China is going to stay like that for ever. They may be influenced to update or modify their nuclear thinking as well. But there is a clear difference so far in the way small nuclear weapons states think about potential use.”
“India and Pakistan are particularly dicey because the two countries are in a very long-term border dispute and again-and-again get into these border fights that could go bad and escalate.”
“And we’ve just had one just a few months ago, again where they were shooting at each other with conventional weapons and leaders on both sides starting to refer to nuclear weapons. [This is] a sort of reminder. “We have this if you go further and do something bad.”
So people are worried that if something could turn into a nuclear use it could very well start in the Pakistan Indian scenario.
HOW MIGHT COUNTRIES LIKE FRANCE AND THE UNITED KINGDOM BE PLANNING TO USE THEIR WEAPONS?
“Well France and Britain are (sort of) in the shadow of the United States—to some extent—within NATO. Both countries, of course, insist that they have there own independent deterrent, but their thinking about it is very much in the context of US-Russia, East-West scenarios.”
“Britain in particular, of course, is very coordinated with the United States in terms of how it thinks of using its nuclear weapons. France is a little more independent, and are thinking about an all-around—360 degrees so to speak (as they talk about it)—“deterrence thinking”—it could be anywhere, so to speak. So they’re a little more open-minded geographically about where potentially it could be used.”
Threaten First Use
“But neither Britain nor France are very happy about (sort-of) “rattling the nuclear sword”. They’re more—you could say—traditional about holding it in reserve in the very far background.”
DO HOW DANGEROUS IS ALL OF THIS, IN YOUR VIEW?
Safer, but not safe
“It depends on what you compare with, of course. Because if you compare with the Cold War where East and West literally held a gun to each other’s head—and things [were ready] to blow any minute—we lived thirty minutes from annihilation every day. That was the reality in those days.”
“And the stakes were enormous, and people were willing to go far because of those stakes.”
“We’re not in such a situation today, even though there are still risks. The risk today is more that you could have nuclear use coming out of an accident or a misinterpreted crisis escalation where the two sides read each other wrong, or something like that.”
“Or you could have smaller nuclear powers like India and Pakistan that get into a shooting war that escalates to nuclear that then draws in bigger nuclear powers because they want to back the side of their potential ally.”
Creepy Nuclear War
“So you can have those sorts of creepy escalation scenarios.”
Terrorist, Rogue State
“And the last one, of course, is (sort-of) the wild card—a crazy scenario, involving North Korea, for example—where the leadership somehow decides that all is lost and we’ll just have to use a nuclear weapon against something, or even sell a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group or something like that.”
DO YOU THINK THEN THAT NUCLEAR WEAPONS ARE MAKING THE WORLD A MORE STABLE, BALANCED PLACE – LESS LIKELY TO BE DANGEROUS IN THE FUTURE? OR OTHERWISE?
Fight Fire with Fire?
“That’s a really tough call—because it is [just] because of nuclear weapons threatening us that we feel afraid and have to spend out resources on maintaining our nuclear weapons and threatening others. That cycle seems to be alive and well, unfortunately.”
“But if you’re thinking about World War Two types of scenarios—where big powers suddenly go at each other and they battle with conventional forces for years and years—that type of scenario is much harder to imagine and we haven’t—thank God— had one for a long time now—70 some years.”
Do Bombs Preserve Peace?
“There are people who will argue that it is because of nuclear weapons that we haven’t had those big wars. But, mind you, we’ve had plenty of small wars and we’ve also had plenty of proxy wars where nuclear powers were directly involved and proxy powers were battling each other.”
Proxy Mid-East War
“We have a situation in Syria right now where several nuclear powers are in direct military contact with each other.”
Russia v. America?
“Russian forces are there. US forces are there. They’re not there with nuclear weapons but they’re there militarily and you can imagine an escalation of such a conflict that gets both countries at each others’ throats directly and escalates from there—broadens from there.”
MANY PEOPLE ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT THEIR ATTITUDES TO NUCLEAR WEAPONS BUT– SOMETIMES IN COMPLETELY OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS. HOW DO YOU RECONCILE THE DIVERGENCE OF VIEWS?
“It’s one of the biggest puzzles about nuclear weapons. Because they’re so scary—because they’re so frightening—they lead to two fundamentally opposing solutions. One is that, [as] some people say: “They’re terrible and we need to get rid of them all.” The other is: “They’re so terrible, therefore we need them!”
“So from the same fear comes two fundamentally different solutions. One is you live with it. And the other is you try to get rid of it! “
“It depends who you talk to. Some countries say they’re very basic and fundamental to their security—global peace and stability. There are other countries—most countries—that are really opposed to them. They would like to see them just go away.”
Ban the Bomb?
“So we’re having right now a very interesting dilemma along those lines in the United Nations, where a vast majority of countries have voted a resolution that says we need to have a treaty that bans nuclear weapons, and we need to begin to negotiate the content of that treaty and: “How are we going to do it?”
“Nuclear weapons states don’t want to be part of that. They see nuclear weapons have a role. And many of the nuclear weapons states allies don’t want to be part of it. They say we still need to rely on nuclear weapons.”
COULD INDIVIDUAL COUNTRIES DECIDE TO GIVE UP THEIR NUCLEAR WEAPONS ONE BY ONE?
“Under the current circumstances I don’t think so. There was a window after the end of the Cold War where countries such as Britain were—[although] not officially planning to get rid of it— were taking steps where they were seriously appearing to go in that direction.”
“They had a real tough political debate about whether they should extend their ballistic missile submarine force and build a replacement for it. They’ve now decided to do that.”
“There was a period there when it seemed potentially likely that had improvements in East-West relations between NATO and Russia continued you might have had a situation where Britain would have been willing to be the first one to give up nuclear weapons.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen now. Europe is certainly in a very different place—not just in nuclear issues but in general stability issues and security people are beginning to see more fear in the overall—not only military but also political—development. And that it’s not as stable and predictable as they might have thought.”
AS AN EXPERT WHO’S LOOKED AT THIS IN DEPTH WHAT ARE YOUR RECOMMENDATIONS FOR AVOIDING CATASTROPHE IN THE FUTURE?
“The tasks at hand are certainly two-fold. One is to reduce the arsenals in a responsible way. We are still way beyond what is reasonably needed for basic deterrence.”
Ninety Three Percent
“You can see the United States and Russia are completely “out of whack” with the rest of the countries in the world that have nuclear weapons. There’s no other nation that believes you need to have more than a couple of hundred weapons for a nuclear deterrent yet these two countries alone have 93 per cent of the world’s arsenals.”
“So these two countries have, foremost, a responsibility to freeze their arsenals and reduce them—continue to reduce them drastically.”
“Once you go down that path, that raises some other new questions you have to think about. The dynamic, then, between the countries that are left will be different, because they have similar arsenals, similar sizes. And so there might be a new dynamic that you have to think carefully about.”
“So there’s something about reducing arsenals in and of itself that can contribute to the right direction, I think, but the other one is to reduce the way you operate and posture those forces so you reduce the likelihood that they can come into use.”
“And that involves, for example, eliminating pathways to accidental launch—the technical “glitches” or misinterpretations of—or radar signals and what have you—that can lead to launch of nuclear weapons because of an accident or mistake.”
“You also want to think about how to reduce the alert level of nuclear weapons so that nuclear weapons are not as threatening on a day-to-day basis. We don’t foresee nuclear weapons being used any time so you might want to ask: ”So why do we want to be able to launch nuclear weapons at a short moment’s notice?”
“On all of these levels there are things you can do to reduce nuclear dangers.”
WHAT WOULD YOU RECOMMEND ABOUT WHAT PEOPLE SHOULD BE DONING AND BE THINKING ABOUT RIGHT NOW?
“They should definitely be thinking about how to continue reductions both in numbers and also the role of nuclear weapons. But foremost: Don’t get caught up in this temptation that we see right now to respond to East-West crisis in sort of a “Cold War” fashion.”
Dangerous Cycle of Threats
“There is a worrisome degree of willingness among some people both in Russia and also in NATO countries to, sort of, say: “We now have a crisis. Therefore we need to do the appropriate things. Therefore we need to posture more offensively …….”
“That is an enormously dangerous cycle to get into, and it’s really hard to get out of.”