A Nuclear Reader: Section 3

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How likely is a failure of nuclear deterrence?

As in the last section, we need to deal with the two failure modes of deterrence: a partial one that results in either a nuclear terrorist incident or a limited nuclear war, and a complete failure that results in full-scale nuclear war.

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has quoted the odds of a nuclear terrorist attack within the next decade as being roughly 50-50 [ Bunn 2007, page 15]. David Albright, a former weapons inspector in Iraq, puts those odds at less than 1%, but notes, "We would never accept a situation where the chance of a major nuclear accident like Chernobyl would be anywhere near 1 percent ... A nuclear terrorism attack is a low-probability event, but we can't live in a world where it's anything but 'extremely low-probability.' " [Hegland 2005]. In a survey of 85 national security experts, Senator Richard Lugar found an average estimate of 29% for the “probability of an attack involving a nuclear explosion occurring somewhere in the world in the next 10 years,” with 79 percent of the respondents believing “it more likely to be carried out by terrorists” than by a government [Lugar 2005, pages 14-15]. While even the most optimistic of these estimates is alarming, their wide range emphasizes the need for our proposed in-depth risk analysis studies to reduce the uncertainty.

There is significant evidence supporting the need for greater attention to this issue. If you haven't already watched it, the "Attack on Pelindaba" video on our home page is a must see. It conveys the danger more graphically than anything else I've found. While it runs slightly over 12 minutes, even the first few minutes will do the job. The danger becomes even more obvious when combined with information from Matthew Bunn's MIT thesis, Guardians at the Gates of Hell:

Al Qaeda has ... explicitly set inflicting the maximum possible level of damage on the United States and its allies as one of their organizational goals. Intercepted al Qaeda communications reportedly have referred to inflicting a "Hiroshima" on the United States. Al Qaeda's spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, has argued that the group "has the right to kill 4 million Americans -- 2 million of them children," in retaliation for the deaths the group believes the United States and Israel have inflicted on Muslims. Bin Laden sought and received a religious ruling (fatwa) from an extreme Saudi cleric in May 2003 authorizing the use of weapons of mass destruction to kill American civilians [page 38]

The al Qaeda terrorist network and elements of the global network it has spawned have made repeated attempts to get nuclear bombs or weapons-usable nuclear materials to make them, and they have repeatedly tried to recruit nuclear weapons scientists to help them [page 15]

Osama bin Laden has made his desire for nuclear weapons clear in public statements. Al Qaeda launched a focused effort to get such weapons ... long before the 9/11 attacks, and this effort has continued [page 20]

terrorist teams [have been] carrying out reconnaissance at nuclear weapon storage sites and on nuclear weapons transport trains in Russia, whose locations and schedules are [supposed to be] state secrets; [There have also been] reports that the 41 heavily armed terrorists who seized hundreds of hostages at a theater in Moscow in October 2002 considered seizing the Kurchatov Institute, a site with enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for dozens of nuclear weapons ... Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese doomsday cult [responsible for the 1995 poison gas attack on the Tokyo subways which killed 12 and injured over 1,000] ... reportedly recruited staff members at the Kurchatov Institute [page 36 and 44-45]

It is small comfort that terrorist nuclear ambitions have been thwarted thus far. Al Qaeda failed to destroy the World Trade Center with its 1993 truck bomb but, to almost everyone's great surprise, succeeded eight years later. The bipartisan National Threat Initiative is dedicated to preventing another, even more catastrophic shock, but needs greater public awareness and support to combat the current complacency.

Society is even less concerned about the risk of a full-scale nuclear war, largely seeing it as a relic of the past. Many people believe that the arms reductions of the last twenty years have made the world safe. But, reducing from roughly 75,000 nuclear weapons to 25,000 today made the world only relatively safer, not truly safe. Others believe that because World War III would be so destructive, no one in his right mind would start such a devastating conflict, and there is therefore no need to worry. But in times of crisis we are often not in our right minds.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara [McNamara 1986, page 13] sums up what he learned from participating in three world crises – Berlin in 1961, Cuba in 1962, and the Mideast war of 1967 – each of which had the potential to go nuclear: “In no one of the three incidents did either … [the United States or the Soviet Union] intend to act in a way that would lead to military conflict, but on each of the occasions lack of information, misinformation, and misjudgments led to confrontation. And in each of them, as the crisis evolved, tensions heightened, emotions rose, and the danger of irrational decisions increased."

Because the Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world has come to nuclear war, studying its evolution can help us avoid making the same mistakes twice. In 1962, over Soviet objections, America deployed nuclear-armed Jupiter intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM’s) in Turkey. From our perspective, installing these weapons secured NATO’s southern flank, helped cement relations with Turkey, and enhanced our nuclear deterrent. The Russians viewed these missiles very differently.

While the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and other factors contributed to Khrushchev deploying similar IRBM's in Cuba, this disastrous decision started with a nuclear version of tit-for-tat as noted by Khrushchev's advisor Fyodor Burlatsky: “Khrushchev and [Soviet Defense Minister] R. Malinovsky … were strolling along the Black Sea coast. Malinovsky pointed out to sea and said that on the other shore in Turkey there was an American nuclear missile base. In a matter of six or seven minutes missiles launched from that base could devastate major centres in the Ukraine and southern Russia. … Khrushchev asked Malinovsky why the Soviet Union should not have the right to do the same as America. Why, for example, should it not deploy missiles in Cuba?” [Burlatsky 1991, page 171]

Once the crisis started, it developed a life of its own. George Ball, a member of the White House ExComm which advised Kennedy during the crisis, stated that when a group of Kennedy’s advisors met years later "Much to our own surprise, we reached the unanimous conclusion that, had we determined our course of action within the first forty-eight hours after the missiles were discovered, we would almost certainly have made the wrong decision, responding to the missiles in such a way as to require a forceful Soviet response and thus setting in train a series of reactions and counter-reactions with horrendous consequences." [Ury 1985, page 37]

Douglas Dillon, another member of Kennedy’s ExComm, was less concerned and, at a 1987 conference commemorating the crisis’ 25th anniversary stated: "My impression was that military operations looked like they were becoming increasingly necessary. … The pressure was getting too great. … Personally, I disliked the idea of an invasion [of Cuba] … Nevertheless, the stakes were so high that we thought we might just have to go ahead. Not all of us had detailed information about what would have followed, but we didn’t think there was any real risk of a nuclear exchange." [Blight & Welch 1989, page 72]

In contrast to Dillon’s belief that some other ExComm members had detailed information about what would have followed an invasion of Cuba, facts that later became available showed that none of them had the least idea of what would likely have transpired. Unknown to Kennedy and his ExComm, the Russians had battlefield nuclear weapons in Cuba and came close to giving permission for their use against an American invasion, without further approval from Moscow [Chang & Kornbluh 1998; Blair 1993, page 109; Fursenko & Naftali 1997, pages 212, 242-243, 276]. Not knowing of these weapons, there was strong pressure within the ExComm and from Congress [Fursenko & Naftali 1997, pages 243-245] to invade Cuba and remove Castro once and for all.

Another ominous aspect of the crisis was uncovered when key players from both sides met on the 40th anniversary of the 1962 crisis. A Soviet submarine near the quarantine line had been subjected to signaling depth charges, commanding it to surface, which it eventually did. But not until forty years later did Americans learn that this submarine carried a nuclear torpedo and that the Soviet submarine captain, believing he was under attack, had given orders to arm it. Fortunately, the submarine brigade commander was on board, over-ruled the captain, and defused the threat of a nuclear attack on the American fleet [Blanton 2002].

The world held its breath as Soviet ships approached the American blockade. If neither side backed down, war seemed inevitable. Finally, Khrushchev stopped the Soviet ships just short of the blockade. While Kennedy won that round of the Cold War, nuclear chicken does not always have a winner. It is a dangerous game to begin with, and even more so when, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis, winning depends on your opponent having less concern than you for maintaining political power. (As part of the resolution of the crisis, Kennedy agreed to remove the American missiles in Turkey, but he insisted that part of the agreement be kept secret. The 1962 midterm elections occurred soon after the crisis ended. With the secret protocol unknown, Kennedy was seen as winning the standoff and the Democratic Party fared significantly better than anticipated prior to the crisis. In contrast, Khrushchev fell from power two years later, partly due to Russia’s humiliation in the Cuban Missile Crisis [Dobrynin 1995, page 93].)

It might be hoped that humanity, after staring World War III in the face, had learned its lesson and that a similar crisis was inconceivable post-1962. Unfortunately, at least two events that could initiate a similar crisis have since occurred. As noted in an earlier section, the current deployment of an American missile defense in Eastern Europe has the potential to produce a second Cuban Missile Crisis, and has been likened to that standoff by Putin [Putin 2007]. (See also my recent update for ominous new warning signs.) And, in the 1980’s, Ronald Reagan threatened to reimpose a naval blockade of Cuba to stop it from aiding a leftist insurgency in El Salvador [LeoGrande 1981]. Such an action would have violated one of our key concessions (lifting the blockade) in return for which the Russians removed their Cuban missiles. Had Reagan reimposed the blockade, the Russians might well have threatened to redeploy missiles unless the blockade was immediately lifted. Such a reaction was made more likely by the fact that, at that time, Reagan was in the process of deploying Pershing IRBM’s (the "Euromissiles") in Western Europe. While not as close to the Soviet border as the Turkish Jupiters, the only way the Soviets could match such weapons was with missiles based in Cuba.

Nuclear proliferation and the specter of nuclear terrorism are creating additional possibilities for triggering a nuclear war. If an American (or Russian) city were devastated by an act of nuclear terrorism, the public outcry for immediate, decisive action would be even stronger than Kennedy had to deal with when the Cuban missiles first became known to the American public. While the action would likely not be directed against Russia, it might be threatening to Russia (e.g., on its borders) or one of its allies and precipitate a crisis that resulted in a full-scale nuclear war. Terrorists with an apocalyptic mindset might even attempt to catalyze a full-scale nuclear war by disguising their act to look like an attack by the U.S. or Russia.

Adding to the threat of nuclear terrorism and accidental nuclear war, Bruce Blair, a former Minuteman launch officer and now head of the World Security Institute, has raised serious concerns about who is really in charge of America's nuclear deterrent:

all U.S. presidents receive a misleading briefing on their nuclear weapons rights and responsibilities, and options. ... What is misleading about the briefing is that the president’s supporting command system is ... so greased for the rapid release of U.S. missiles forces by the thousands upon the receipt of attack indications from early warning satellites and ground radar that the president’s options are not all created equal. The bias in favor of launch on electronic warning is so powerful that it would take enormously more presidential will to withhold an attack than to authorize it. The option to “ride out” the onslaught and then take stock of the proper course of action exists only on paper. That is what presidents never learn during their tenures. Their real control is illusory. ... Military nuclear commanders designed the hardware and procedures of emergency decision-making to ensure that no president would actually deliberately opt to ride out a Soviet nuclear attack ... They knew full well that the U.S. nuclear command system would collapse under the weight of such a Soviet first strike, and that their ability to carry out their war plan ... depended completely on not waiting more than a few minutes before initiating a large-scale counterattack. ... if for some reason timely presidential authorization could not be secured, launch authority quickly cascaded down the military chain of command to ensure that U.S. missiles did not remain sitting ducks for very long. [Blair 2004B]

If, as Blair asserts, the safeguards on American nuclear weapons are deficient, that makes both nuclear terrorism and accidental nuclear war much more likely. And, unfortunately, his accusations are not that different from a previous such usurpation of power. When Robert McNamara was Secretary of Defense he ordered that locks known as Permissive Action Links (PAL's) be placed on all Minuteman nuclear weapons to prevent their unauthorized use. But Blair recounts:

Last month I asked Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, what he believed back in the 1960s was the status of technical locks on the Minuteman intercontinental missiles. ... McNamara replied ... that he personally saw to it that these [PAL's] ... were installed on the Minuteman force, and that he regarded them as essential to strict central control and preventing unauthorized launch. ... What I then told McNamara about his vitally important locks elicited this response: “I am shocked, absolutely shocked and outraged. Who the hell authorized that?” What he had just learned from me was that the locks had been installed, but everyone knew the combination. The Strategic Air Command (SAC) in Omaha quietly decided to set the “locks” to all zeros in order to circumvent this safeguard. During the early to mid-1970s, during my stint as a Minuteman launch officer, they still had not been changed. Our launch checklist in fact instructed us, the firing crew, to double-check the locking panel in our underground launch bunker to ensure that no digits other than zero had been inadvertently dialed into the panel. SAC remained far less concerned about unauthorized launches than about the potential of these safeguards to interfere with the implementation of wartime launch orders. And so the “secret unlock code” during the height of the nuclear crises of the Cold War remained constant at 00000000. ... The locks were [finally] activated in 1977.[Blair 2004A]

There are many potential triggers for World War III, all of which are ignored by the current conventional wisdom that sees Mutually Assured Destruction either as a relic of the past or as a successful strategy not to be tampered with. Examples include:

  • In 1908 a small asteroid or comet struck the Tunguska area of Siberia with the power of roughly a 10 megaton nuclear weapon, devastating over 800 square miles. A similar event in a more populated area could be mistaken for an attack and accidentally trigger a nuclear war.
  • ICBM's have approximately 30 minute flight times and many submarine launched ballistic missiles strike in half that time. When detection, initial decision and communication times are taken into account, that leaves little to no time for either the US or Russian President to make a decision on whether or not the threat is real, creating a nuclear hair trigger.
  • The threat of decapitation strikes, in which the leadership of a nation is destroyed before it can order a retaliatory strike, and the "use them or lose them" military attitude towards vulnerable ICBM's adds pressure on the hair trigger.
  • Stress, fatigue, alcoholism, and drug dependency adversely affect a large number of people involved in the monitoring, command and control of nuclear weapons [Frankenhaeuser 1988, Kringlen 1988]. A 2005 DoD study found that 18.5% of military personnel were heavy drinkers and 5% used illicit drugs [Bray 2006], but may under-estimate the incidence since participants in the survey self-reported their alcohol and illicit drug use.
  • During the Cold War, the US and Russia routinely tested each other's defenses with dangerously provocative acts. Russia's shooting down Korean Airlines flight 007 in 1983 and our 1988 downing of Iran Air flight 655 demonstrate that errors are all too possible, particularly during times of high tension. If Russian-American relations continue to deteriorate, such activities would be likely to resume.
  • Training exercises can be mistaken for the real thing. In 1979, a test tape, simulating a Russian attack was mistakenly fed into a NORAD computer connected to the operational missile alert system, resulting in an alert and the launching of American aircraft [Borning 1988].
  • War games can be mistaken for the real thing. NATO's 1983 Able Archer exercise is believed to have brought the superpowers the closest to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fear that such a war game could be used as cover for a first strike brought the Soviet Union to a high state of alert.
  • Past wars between Israel and its neighbors have resulted in nuclear threats between the superpowers, and could again in the future.

To return to the question asked by the title of this page: "How Likely Is a Failure of Nuclear Deterrence?", the information above provides strong evidence that the motto at the top of this page provides the correct answer when it says "The risk of a nuclear catastrophe is far greater than we think." Fortunately, by taking four simple actions, the second part of that motto can also be realized: "Our ability to reduce that risk is far greater than we imagine."



[Blair 1993]: Bruce G. Blair, The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War, The Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, 1993.

[Blair 2004A]: Bruce G. Blair, "Keeping Presidents in the Nuclear Dark (Episode #1: The Case of the Missing 'Permissive Action Links')," The Defense Monitor, Center for Defense Information, Washington, DC, February 11, 2004. Accessible online.

[Blair 2004B]: Bruce G. Blair, "Keeping Presidents in the Nuclear Dark (Episode #2: The SIOP Option that Wasn’t)," The Defense Monitor, Center for Defense Information, Washington, DC, February 16, 2004. Accessible online.

[Blanton 2002]: Thomas Blanton, October 16,2002 Interview, "The Cuban Missile Crisis: 40 Years Later," The Washington Post Online."

[Blight & Welch 1989]: James G. Blight and David A. Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis, Hill and Wang, New York, 1989.

[Borning 1988]: Alan Borning, "Computer System Reliability and Nuclear War," in Breakthrough: Emerging New Thinking, Anatoly A. Gromyko and Martin E. Hellman, Editors, Walker & Company, New York, 1988, pp. 61-64 .Accessible online.

[Bray 2006]:Robert M. Bray et al, 2005 Department of Defense Survey of Health Related Behaviors Among Active Duty Military Personnel, RTI/7841/106-FR, December 2006. Accessible online. Summary accessible online.

[Bunn 2007]: Matthew Bunn, Guardians at the Gates of Hell, Doctoral Thesis in Technology, Management and Policy, MIT, 2007. Accessible online.

[Burlatsky 1991]: Fedor Burlatsky, Khrushchev and the First Russian Spring, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1991.

[Chang & Kornbluh 1998]: Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, Introduction to The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Documents Reader, 2nd Edition, The New Press, New York, 1998. The Introduction is accessible online.

[Dobrynin 1995]:Anatoly Dobrynin, In Confidence, Random House Times Books, New York, 1995.

[Frankenhaeuser 1988] Marianne Frankenhaeuser, "To Err is Human: Nuclear War by Mistake?" in Breakthrough: Emerging New Thinking, Anatoly A. Gromyko and Martin E. Hellman, Editors, Walker & Company, New York, 1988, pp. 53-60, Accessible online.

[Fursenko & Naftali 1997]: Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, One Hell of a Gamble, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1997.

[Hegland 2005]: Corine Hegland and Greg Webb, "Terrorism: The Threat," National Journal, April 15, 2005. Accessible online.

[Kringlen 1988] Einar Kringlen, "The Myth of Rationality in Situations of Crisis," in Breakthrough: Emerging New Thinking, Anatoly A. Gromyko and Martin E. Hellman, Editors, Walker & Company, New York, 1988, pp. 61-64 .Accessible online.

[LeoGrande 1981]: William M. LeoGrande, "Getting Cuba," The New York Times, November 17, 1981, Section A; Page 31, Column 2]. Accessible online.

[Lugar 2005]: Richard G. Lugar, The Lugar Survey on Proliferation Threats and Responses, Office of Senator Lugar, Washington, D.C., June 2005. Accessible online.

[McNamara 1986]: Robert S. McNamara, Blundering Into Disaster, Pantheon Books, New York, 1986.

[Putin 2007]: Vladimir Putin, "Press Statement and Answers to Questions following the 20th Russia-European Union Summit, Marfa, Portugal," October 26, 2007. Accessible online.

[Singh 1999]: Simon Singh, The Codebook, Doubleday, New York, 1999.

[Ury 1985]: William L. Ury, Beyond the Hotline: How We Can Prevent the Crisis that Might Bring On a Nuclear War, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1985.

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