War by miscalculation or by mistake?
Is a major war in which thermonuclear weapons could obliterate most of society no longer unthinkable? Is it even possible? As the old bipolar strategic balance of the Cold War now has a third pole – an increasingly nuclear-armed China – is the infamous Doomsday Clock one tick closer to Armageddon?
Many believe that the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 was the closest brush with nuclear war so far. While that may be true, at least two other incidents cannot be dismissed. In 1979, the then-commander of the strategic air command was awakened in the middle of the night by a watch officer at Offutt Air Force Base south of Omaha, Neb., and informed that radar had picked up some 200 incoming Soviet warheads.
The general, a lawyer by training, knew first reports were invariably wrong. Before going to a higher defense condition, the general told the watch officer to double and triple check the alert. With a time of flight of Soviet warheads to target of less than 30 minutes, seconds counted. Fortunately, it was a false alarm. The outgoing watch team failed to scrub its computers after a test. But suppose the general had panicked.
Possibly much closer to danger was NATO’s Able Archer command post exercise in November 1983. For a short time, the Soviets misbelieved that Able Archer could be a cover for a first strike. Given President Reagan’s rhetoric about the “evil empire” and his Star Wars program announced that February, the already paranoid Soviets needed little to feed those fears. Fortunately, the Soviets finally stood down.
Forty years later, while there are many times fewer nuclear weapons, there are more nuclear-armed states. Among them are India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea and potential “break out” states such as Iran. And the United Kingdom and France each possess more than 200 nuclear warheads.
These realities raise many profound and deeply troubling questions. Do the nuclear deterrence theories and practices developed during the Cold and post-Cold War apply? How should the U.S., China and Russia approach this three-way standoff? Given Russian suspension of the New START Treaty and China’s refusal even to discuss nuclear weapons, is arms control dead? And what crisis management arrangements are in place to prevent any situation from escalating or leading to war?
Some scenarios would make Herman Khan’s “Thinking the Unthinkable” and his escalatory ladders to thermonuclear war seem mild. And many can be miscalculations or misjudgments, as in Able Archer. The more obvious ones could include nuclear states outside China, Russia and the U.S.
While Pakistani nuclear weapons are indeed secure with a three key system to prevent unauthorized use, a conflict with India is not impossible. Suppose Kim Jong Un believed his regime were at risk. Would he use nuclear weapons to remain in power — the Putin question over Ukraine? And how would South Korea and Japan respond given that both have advanced civilian nuclear capabilities?
If Iran moved closer to developing nuclear weapons, or was about to test one, would Israel tolerate that situation? Or would Jerusalem pre-empt? If Israel did, and a war broke out with Iran, would it be limited to both states? Or would it spread? And in those circumstances, would Saudi Arabia or Egypt consider a nuclear weapons option?
In the first months of the George W. Bush administration, Chinese F-8 fighters collided with a U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft, forcing it to crash land on Hainan Island. That incident was resolved peacefully. Suppose China’s continued violation of Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) leads to a shoot down or collision.
Could any of these or other events happen? In August 1964, one did. A local North Vietnamese commander authorized an attack on a U.S. Navy destroyer operating in the Tonkin Gulf, mistakenly concluding it was part of a naval raid north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). That eventually plunged the U.S. into the Vietnam War.
Even a cursory reading of these and other possible scenarios leads to one overriding question: Is the U.S. prepared for any of these scenarios and even thinking about them in a careful, thoughtful way? Given that the government did not react well to a Chinese “spy” balloon sailing across its borders, this is not an idle question.
No doubt the U.S. military and intelligence communities have heavily invested in this contingency thinking and planning. But are we really ready if one erupts? That question needs answers and needs them now.
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.
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