The Growing Risk of Nuclear War

With Putin and Trump in Charge, the Risk of Nuclear War Returns

You thought the threat of global annihilation was history? Better think again. Hard.

More stories by Peter Coy

January 31, 2019, 2:00 AM MST

At the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30, 2018.

Photographer: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

While the world’s attention is occupied by Brexit, Venezuela, and a hundred other concerns, an almost forgotten monster is raising its head: the threat of nuclear war.

Nuclear war gets surprisingly little attention considering there are enough nukes to end human civilization in hours. It feels like a relic of another era—of perestroika and glasnost and that famous walk in the woods. We’ve moved on to other concerns. Besides, what can anyone really do?

The reason to pay attention is that arms control—especially between the U.S. and Russia—has broken down. A fresh nuclear arms race appears to be taking shape. As for what anyone can do: Arms control moves forward in response to public pressure, when humanity speaks louder than arms merchants and bellicose world leaders. Sanity can prevail. It’s been more than 70 years since the U.S. detonated the first two atomic weapons in war, and not one has been used in combat since.

Feb. 2 is when the Trump administration has said it could suspend its obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. If it announces a full withdrawal, the treaty will die in six months. A treaty controlling anti-ballistic missiles was allowed to expire in 2002. That would leave just one binational treaty: New Start, which covers long-range missiles. Up for renewal in 2021, it has grim prospects. Trump has called it “one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration.”

At that point there would be very little to constrain a race for nuclear supremacy between the two countries that together own more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads. “All signs point in the direction of a serious combined nuclear-conventional arms race in Europe,” Nikolai Sokov, a former Soviet and Russian arms negotiator who is now a senior fellow of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif., wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, China is modernizing its arsenal as it tries to edge the U.S. military out of its growing sphere of influence in Asia; nuclear states India and Pakistan remain nemeses; and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seems to be reneging on promises to denuclearize. On Jan. 24, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced it is keeping the Doomsday Clock at 11:58 p.m. for a second year. This is the closest it’s ever been to midnight, tied with 1953, the year the U.S. and Soviet Union began testing hydrogen bombs.

It’s dismaying how far arms control efforts have backslid since 1987, when Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev joined President Ronald Reagan to sign the INF Treaty. A chuckling, relaxed Reagan salted his remarks at the ceremony with three Russian folktales. Gorbachev, speaking in Russian, dared to hope that the date of the signing (Dec. 8) might “be inscribed in the history books” and that the agreement would create a better future “for our children and grandchildren, and for their children and grandchildren.”

To keep those kids safe, it makes sense to start with the brewing arms race between the U.S. and Russia, the most potent nuclear powers. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship on several fronts. Su-27 fighter jets have repeatedly intercepted U.S. military aircraft flying in international airspace in the past year, raising the risk of an accident. China is a bigger long-term threat to U.S. dominance because of its economic strength, but at the moment it’s Russia’s very weakness that makes it dangerous. As North Korea’s Kim knows, nukes are an underdog’s best friend.

The Trump administration’s approach to a warlike Putin is essentially “peace through strength.” The president took the advice of John Bolton, his hawkish national security adviser, when he gave preliminary notice in October of his intent to pull out of the INF Treaty, which bars all nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (300 to 3,400 miles).

Echoing President Obama, Trump accuses the Russians of developing a cruise missile that violates the INF Treaty. On Jan. 23 the Russian military showed foreign envoys the missile—known as the SSC-8 to Americans and the 9M729 to the Russians—and contended that it wasn’t covered by the treaty because it couldn’t fly more than 500 kilometers. The Americans say the Russians are lying, and NATO allies agree.

Defense analysts say the U.S. also wants out of the treaty so it’s free to deploy missiles in East Asia to counter China, which didn’t sign the pact. Ditching the treaty will free the U.S. to respond to Beijing’s militarization in the South China Sea while matching and eventually outdoing Russia in Europe. “Until people come to their senses, we will build it up,” Trump told reporters the day after giving notice in October. “It’s a threat to whoever you want. And it includes China, and it includes Russia, and it includes anybody else that wants to play that game. You can’t do that. You can’t play that game on me.”

Trump is right that Putin is the main bad actor. The trouble with a peace-through-strength strategy, though, is that neither Russia nor China is willing to cede nuclear superiority to the U.S., so all the U.S. gets from pulling out of the treaty, instead of trying again to rescue it, is a fresh arms race. America also loses the right to inspect Russian missile sites, which Reagan—the “trust but verify” president—made sure was in the 1987 treaty. And the U.S. can’t count on spending its rivals into submission, because nuclear weapons are actually quite cheap compared with conventional armaments on a megadeath-per-dollar basis. They are, in more than one sense, the Great Leveler.

While Trump’s strategy for offensive weapons is problematic, his defensive strategy has issues as well. Like several of his predecessors, he wants to build a virtual shield to protect the U.S. from incoming missiles. “Our goal is simple. It is to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States any time, anywhere, and any place,” he said on Jan. 17 at the Pentagon.

A shield seems unobjectionable. But Putin worries, rightly or wrongly, that having one in place would tempt the U.S. to go nuclear first in the heat of battle, knocking out most of Russia’s firepower and then hunkering down behind its virtual wall to survive the retaliation. That sounds far-fetched to Americans, but Putin has often cited the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 as justification for Russia’s pursuit of advanced missiles. In December, Russian state television reported a successful test of the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle. Flying 27 times the speed of sound, it “essentially makes missile defenses useless,” according to Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov.

As the Avangard demonstrates, the main result of Trump’s missile defense strategy could be to engender the creation of ever-more-dangerous enemy missiles. That’s why some game theorists of arms control recommend the principle of mutual assured destruction. Their idea is that the world is paradoxically safer when neither nuclear superpower can defend its people from a nuclear onslaught, because then neither will dare go nuclear. (This logic does not, unfortunately, apply to a sneak attack by a regime such as Kim’s, which is why some kind of missile shield may be valuable after all. Designing a shield that would thwart Kim but not Putin is a complicated problem.)

The main goal of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control must be to prevent nukes from ever being launched, because even a small attack by one side could precipitate an all-out nuclear war. A firm commitment to no first use would diminish the chance of that. But the weaker side, the one that uses nukes as an equalizer, won’t make that promise. The U.S. refused to commit to “no first use” during the Cold War; it used the threat of nukes to keep Warsaw Pact forces from routing outnumbered NATO troops in Europe.

Now that the tables have turned and Russia is the one lacking conventional military strength, it’s Putin who could launch nukes first—or even just threaten to launch them—as a way to back an enemy down. These would be smallish weapons capable of wiping out battalions, not continents. The Pentagon assumes, based on mixed signals from Moscow, that Russia has formally adopted the Orwellian strategy of “escalate to de-escalate,” which is a bet that it could bloody the nose of the West without provoking a massive nuclear counterpunch. Pakistan and North Korea show the way. They “have engaged in coercive and violent provocations, calculating that their larger rivals would concede rather than risk escalation that could lead to nuclear use,” says a 2014 analysis by CNA, a research group in Arlington, Va.

To thwart the presumed Russian escalate-to-de-escalate strategy, the Trump administration wants the U.S. to develop its own arsenal of smallish weapons so it could respond proportionally to a Russian first use. The thinking goes that Russia won’t strike first if it knows the U.S. will swiftly retaliate at the same level. The Nuclear Posture Review released by the Department of Defense last year called for the U.S. to deliberately weaken some of its submarine-launched ballistic missiles, increasing the plausibility they could be used in combat. Production of the new warheads has begun. The administration also wants to develop a new sub-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile if the INF Treaty dies. An air-launched version, the Long-Range Stand-Off cruise missile, is already in the planning stages. The goal, says the Pentagon, is to “counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities.”

Nobody knows if the U.S. gambit would work to prevent or quickly end a nuclear war. However, building lots of nuclear weapons that are conceivably usable in wartime feels a lot like building tall piles of dry tinder and hoping no one lights a match. “There are so many more pathways for what could go wrong,” says Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Meanwhile, the demise of INF also casts a pall over New Start, which went into force in 2011. That treaty limits each side to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, whether they’d be launched from the ground, submarines, or heavy bombers.

The death of arms control would benefit shareholders of Boeing, Honeywell International, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman, among others. “Great Power competition should be good for heritage defense contractors,” Byron Callan, an analyst for Capital Alpha Partners, wrote in a Jan. 24 note to clients, while cautioning that “the U.S. defense budget will be fiscally constrained.”

It would be less positive for the general public, of course. For decades, defense contractors and the Pentagon have offered the American people the following weirdly rational deal: You give us trillions of dollars, and we will use the money to build nuclear weapons that will never be used. A single Ohio-class nuclear submarine—a “boomer”—can mete out 2,000 times the destructive power of the A-bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If all goes well, it will prowl beneath the sea for decades and then go to the scrapyard without having fired as much as a harpoon in anger.

Mutual assured destruction—the balance of terror between the U.S. and Russia—kept the peace precisely because it was balanced. Arms control agreements ensured that neither side was able to gain an unbeatable advantage. The demise of arms control could lead not just to more weaponry but to more instability and uncertainty. The less each side knows about the other’s capabilities and intentions, the more likely it is that war will break out by accident. “The situation we face today relative to nuclear dangers is equal to the darkest days of the Cold War, and nobody seems to understand that,” says William Perry, 91, who was secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton. “Our policies don’t reflect it, either in the United States or in Russia.”

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