In late January 1995 Russian early-warning radars detected a single rocket launch off the northwestern coast of Norway. The location of its launch coupled with its trajectory appeared to resemble that of a Trident submarine-launched nuclear missile. Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin was accordingly summoned and given Russia’s nuclear weapons command suitcase. He, one man, had mere minutes to decide whether or not to fire Russia’s nuclear missiles.
Of course it wasn’t a nuclear attack. The rocket in question did not come from a nuclear Trident missile submarine but from Norway’s Andøya island rocket test site. It was an experimental test carried out by the Americans. Something which the Russian radar operators who detected it hadn’t realized. Such a misunderstanding saw Russia’s nuclear forces put on high-alert and the Russian leader given approximately ten-minutes to decide whether or not to launch immediate nuclear strikes against American and European targets. Something which could have easily killed millions of people. And that wasn’t even during the era of the Cold War.
Russian early-warning systems are not much better today than they were 20-years-ago. In fact Russia today no longer has satellites to detect nuclear launches and instead relies on radar installations which detect incoming missiles entering their range. Which would be approximately 10-15 minutes after those missiles were initially launch. This in turn limits even further the short time the Russians will have to decide whether or not to respond quickly, decisively and, of course, soberly.
Presently relations between the Russians and the western powers are at an all time low. After Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region in Ukraine last year tensions have increased, as have mutual suspicions and ill-feelings. In the midst of these tensions the Russian government has affirmed that they believe they have the right to deploy nuclear weapons and their delivery system to that contested territory if it wanted, even though they do not have any intention to do so. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin also said last March that Russia has been ready for a nuclear alert to make sure no-one attempted to force them out of Crimea which Russia has swallowed whole.
The break-down in communication and the ill-feeling between Moscow and the west has doubtlessly seen Russia become more wary of its neighbours and NATO than it had been back in 1995. This in turn increases the likelihood of misunderstandings and the likelihood of an accidental nuclear launch (contrary to assertions made by President Ronald Reagan some 30 years ago nuclear missiles cannot be recalled after they are launched). Even one nuclear warhead being accidentally launched from either side without any subsequent escalation could wipe out a whole city and its inhabitants within minutes. A risk which is certainly not worth taking and should be thoroughly mitigated.
When re-assessing the lessons he learned from his life’s experiences former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (when interviewed extensively as part of the 2003 biographical-documentary The Fog of War) pointed out that rationality alone will not stave off the risk of a highly destructive nuclear war. He instanced the infamous case of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Level-headedness and rationality didn’t save the day back in October 1962. “It was luck that prevented nuclear war,” McNamara asserted. After all, all the relevant actors were, in his view, completely rational and sober actors. Regardless of that fact in 1962 those rational actors came extremely, and scarily, close to igniting a nuclear war which would more likely than not have ended in the “total destruction of their societies.”
McNamara also asserted that the primary lesson one should take from the historic episode that was the Cuban Missile Crisis is that, “The indefinite combination between human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations.” Unlike in conventional wars there can be no learning period with nuclear arms.
Today with the political impasse with Russia over Eastern Ukraine it is of paramount importance that the world powers do not find themselves in a situation whereby simple misunderstandings could lead to what has in the past been euphemistically dubbed a nuclear “exchange”. Something which could, over a simple misunderstanding and/or accident, happen within minutes. That would be the worst possible outcome for obvious reasons. If saber-rattling continues and intensifies Russia could potentially posture in Eastern Ukraine with nuclear weapons to show it is not relenting its hold on that territory. And it would, predictably, justify such aggression by saying it is simply asserting its right of sovereignty over that region. NATO would, in turn, put its own nuclear forces on high alert and justify doing so as a necessary step to counter Russian aggression. Both sides would be completely justified in their own eyes and would be acting rationally in accordance with the theory of deterrence.
But as was the case with 1962 rational actors alone will not be enough to avert the possibility of a catastrophic nuclear war. If the western powers and Russia do end up having a nuclear stand-off over Crimea, sheer luck may be the only thing left to, once again, save the day.
Photo by James Vaughan, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license