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Can nuclear war be avoided?

September 4, 2015
Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara, former US Secretary of Defense and member of the Canberra Commission

The members of the Canberra Commission included former leading politicians and military officers, among others a British field marshal, an American general, an American Secretary of Defense, and a French Prime Minister. The Commission unanimously agreed in their 1996 report that the proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used — accidentally or by decision — defies credibility. The only complete defence, they concurred, is the elimination of nuclear weapons and assurance that they will never be produced again.

This is no less true today. Nuclear weapons will be used if they are allowed to remain with us. And even a “small” nuclear war, using one per cent or less of the world’s nuclear weapons, might cause a world wide famine causing the death of as many as two billion humans. 

For several years in the 1970s, Lt. Colonel Bruce Blair was a commander of crews with the duty to launch intercontinental nuclear missiles. “I knew how to fire the missiles,” he said. “I needed no permission.” In the 1990s, he was charged with making a review for the US Senate on the question: “Is unauthorized firing of US nuclear weapons a real possibility?” Blair’s answer was “yes,” and that the risk was not insignificant.

On Hiroshima Day this year, August 6, a major newspaper in Sweden, Aftonbladet, carried an interview with Colonel Blair, now head of the Global Zero movement. Reporter: “Mr Blair, do you think that nuclear weapons will be used again?” Mr. Blair was silent for a while and then responded: “I am afraid it can not be avoided. A data code shorter than a twitter message could be enough.”

Blair reminds us of the story of “The Permissive Link.” When Robert McNamara was US Secretary of Defense in the mid-Sixties, he issued an order that to be able to fire missiles from submarines the commanding officer must have received a code which permitted the launch. The Navy, however, did not want to be prevented from firing on its own initiative, if the contact with headquarters were interrupted, for example.  The original launch code of 00000000 was retained for many years for this reason, and was generally known. McNamara himself, however, did not know this until many years after he had left the government.

A Soviet admiral told me that as late as around 1980 he could fire the missiles from a submarine without a code.

When systems to control the launch of nuclear missiles are discussed, we often learn at the end, as a kind of post scriptum, that there is a Plan B: If all communication with headquarters are dead, and the commanders believe the war is on, missiles can be fired. We are never told how this works. But there is a Plan B.

What is the situation today? Can an unauthorized launch occur? Colonel Blair says “yes.”  Mistakes, misunderstandings, hacker encroachments, human mistakes—there are always risks.

When the Cold War ended, we learned about several “close calls.” New facts came out about just how close to nuclear war we came during the Cuban Missile Crisis, including an incident in which a Soviet submarine crew who had lost all contact with Moscow thought they were under attack by US anti-submarine charges and had to decide whether to launch nuclear-armed torpedoes. There was the Petrov Incident in September 1983. Possibly the worst crisis—worst but little known—was the NATO exercise “Able Archer” in November 1983, when the Soviet leaders expected a NATO attack at any moment and NATO had no insight into the Soviet paranoia.  There were, in addition, several other dangerous incidents for which we have less information.

Martin Hellman, a mathematician and expert in risk analysis, guesses that the risk of a major nuclear war may have been as high as 1% per year during the 40 Cold War years. This risk of our extermination was thus substantial—maybe somewhere between 30% and 40%  during the Cold War. We were lucky.

Maybe the statistical risk is smaller today than it was during the Cold War. But with proliferation, modernization, and increasing tensions in international relations, the risk may be growing again.  As long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk that they will be used exists. The risk of global omnicide, of Assured Destruction.

It is nuclear weapons or us. We cannot coexist. One will have to go.

A prohibition against nuclear weapons is necessary. And possible.

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