The Chance of Accidental Nuclear War Is Growing
Recapitalizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent won't help. What's missing is a strategy and resources to reduce risks of cataclysmic accidents, miscalculation, and human error.
The Trump administration’s nuclear posture statement comes at a particularly rough time, reminiscent of the transition from President Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan. Back then, an outgoing president had watched his ambitious arms control agenda fall to tatters. Negotiations on nuclear testing and space warfare had gone nowhere, while the prospect of a second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty had been shredded by Soviet tanks rumbling into Afghanistan.
Then as now, Washington and Moscow’s strategic modernization programs were out of phase. One competitor or the other felt obliged to play nuclear “catch-up,” even when, as was true of the United States, it was actually ahead in the competition. Then, as now, there was much talk of Russian violations of treaty commitments. Some of it was true back then; this problem is far worse now.
Arms control and reductions don’t happen in a vacuum. When the Kremlin rides roughshod over the sovereignty of neighboring countries, diplomacy to reduce nuclear force structure takes a hiatus. Here again, the parallels between Carter/Reagan and Obama/Trump are striking. Crimea hasn’t just been occupied, like Afghanistan; it has been annexed, while Russian troops help proxies to establish dominion in eastern Ukraine and elsewhere along the Russian Federation’s periphery. To make matters worse still, the Kremlin has baldly interfered in democratic elections, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Under these circumstances, Trump’s nuclear posture could hardly be a statement devoted to peace, love, and understanding. Like others drafted in Republican administrations, it lends the Bomb more credence in shoring up deterrence while ascribing greater risks to disregarding deterrence orthodoxy. As this litany goes, gaps must be filled and credibility shored up by the only ways clearly understood by challengers: spending large sums of money and demanding more of a production complex already straining at the seams.
The drafters of nuclear posture statements are obliged to presume that using nuclear weapons in battle will be an orderly business; otherwise, the entire exercise would lose any semblance of logic and cohesion. But as the economist Kenneth Boulding has sagely reminded us, “If deterrence were really stable… it would cease to deter. If the probability of nuclear weapons going off were zero, they would not deter anybody.” Without the very real prospect of mushroom clouds, deterrence would be de-fanged.
Cutting-edge nuclear deterrence, in the view of the Trump posture statement, requires “tailored strategies” and “flexible capabilities.” This sounds reasonable enough until we remember Boulding’s admonition and strip the veneer off. The flip side of deterrence, as Boulding warns, is mushroom clouds. Tailored strategies and flexible capabilities require assigning nuclear weapons to targets.
This is where the logic and cohesion of nuclear posture reviews break down. What are the humanitarian consequences of targeting plans for nuclear weapons? And how is escalation to be controlled after these Gates of Hell are opened and the nuclear threshold is crossed? If the defenders of nuclear deterrence and the drafters of nuclear posture statements cannot answer these questions satisfactorily, their handiwork is built on quicksand. Adding new warhead designs and targeting options only make these questions more pointed.
Because nuclear orthodoxy cannot withstand public scrutiny on the fundamental questions of humanitarian consequences and escalation control, we wear blinders, seeking refuge underneath the warm, fuzzy blanket of deterrence. We insist on presuming that deterrence is sturdy – that there is a thick barrier between deterrence and battlefield use. But what if this thick barrier is in actuality a thin membrane that can be punctuated by human error, miscalculation, and accident? The close calls we have thus far managed to survive suggest this is the case. Until we recognize and act upon how thin the margin of error is between deterrence and the appearance of a mushroom cloud, we will continue to live in this house of cards.
Where do we go from here? During the first Reagan administration, when arms-reduction negotiations were suspended, when U.S. and Soviet forces were engaged in very dangerous military practices and the risk of accidents was high, a group of concerned citizens led by Senators John Warner and Sam Nunn focused on the need for improved communication channels and nuclear-risk-reduction measures between Moscow and Washington. Underneath the superstructure of nuclear deterrence, they proposed modest but necessary steps to prevent accidents, miscalculation, and the consequences of human error.
These conditions are once again evident, suggesting the same remedial approach: improved communication channels and the avoidance of dangerous military practices. Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and former Senator Nunn have suggested the pursuit of this agenda. They argue that the foremost nuclear danger of this era is not massive nuclear attacks like those postulated during the Cold War, but “fateful errors.”
This is a very different paradigm than the one on which nuclear posture statements are constructed. Trump’s nuclear posture focuses on the strategic competition between major powers, not the appearance of a singular mushroom cloud based on human error, unauthorized use, or accident that could lead to cataclysm. One paradigm seeks safety in nuclear excess and punishment; the other in diplomacy and prevention.
This is not an either/or choice. It makes no sense to recapitalize the U.S. nuclear deterrent, at a cost of well over a trillion dollars, while short-changing diplomatic and preventive initiatives related to war by accident, miscalculation, and human error. Safety from nuclear dangers requires a far wider aperture than the one now on offer.