Former UK Defence Minister Des Browne is worried that Britain’s Trident submarines could be put out of commission by a cyberattack. What if, he asked the BBC last month, the prime minister “needs to reach for” nuclear weapons and they don’t work?
Putting aside the temptation to jump down all the rabbit holes opened by questions about cybersecurity and nuclear command and control systems, let’s take a literal look at what Browne asked. What if the person in charge of launching a country’s nuclear warheads decided to push the button and they didn’t detonate when they reached their targets? Or never left the subs or silos in the first place?
Here’s what wouldn’t happen.
The hundreds of thousands—maybe even tens of millions—of people who would have been incinerated in a matter of moments by those weapons would not be dead. Hundreds of thousands (or tens of millions) more would not be lying in agony among the smoldering, unrecognizable ruins of what used to be cities, waiting for medical care that would never arrive. Everyone who’d had them in the first place would still have working retinas, ear drums, and internal organs.
The targeted cities themselves—including the hospitals, schools, homes, businesses, and all the other bits and pieces that have to work more or less well together for life to go on—would continue to work more or less well together. All those lives would go on, having not just been obliterated.
There would be no radiation sickness from nuclear weapons explosions that someone, somewhere, had felt the need to “reach for”—no painful and merciless deaths from destruction of bone marrow, internal bleeding, infections, and central nervous system dysfunction in a matter of hours or days; no future cancers, birth defects, and other debilitating illnesses from bomb-dispersed radioactive fallout.
The world would still have to deal with global warming, but not with global famine from nuclear-war induced climate disruption. Winter would still arrive in parts of the world that have seasons, but if the US and Russian leaders felt the need to “reach for” the thousands of weapons on high alert and they all failed to work, we’d be spared the inconvenience of nuclear winter.
Does any of that sound like a problem?
Needless to say, in the real world, if the British prime minister (or the US, Russian, French, or Chinese president, or the Indian or Pakistani or Israeli prime minster, or the North Korean supreme leader) felt the need to “reach for” nuclear weapons, they would work, notwithstanding Browne’s pitch for a bigger cybersecurity budget, on the off chance something could go “wrong.”
On the other hand, what if we were to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons, putting them permanently out of reach? I’ll take that up next.