IS IT TIME TO REVISIT WHAT HAPPENED?
For people of my generation, it is a continuing question. Should we go about killing people and develop even more weapons of mass destruction to kill even more of them? The answer is easy for both parts of the proposal. We should not be killing people and we should not be developing the means of unleashing even more horror by killing more of them. Yet, we still do. And by “we,” I mean “them,” too.
In 1945, we detonated the only two atomic weapons ever unleashed on human populations. We dropped them on unsuspecting people, falling by gravity through the skies over Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Was that the right thing to do? There is more to the question.
It should seem obvious that no one has the right to inflict such terror. But it turns out that the answer is more complicated than the question. And a more detailed discussion is necessary to determine the consequences of such action. What would have happened in the closing moments of World War II if such awful weapons of terror had not been sent forth.
What follows in this series are some of the factors for your consideration, for I think that the question still remains unanswered. Perhaps I should start with the extent that these “atomic” weapons are deployed and currently poised to change our history further. Here, I am using data from the Sipri Yearbook 2022″ [www.sipriyearbook.org].
Worldwide, there exist approximately 12,705 nuclear weapons. 3,732 are currently deployed, with 2,000 more ready to be so. Nine countries possess all of these weapons.
The vast majority are maintained by the United States [1,744 deployed, 5,428 in total] and Russia [1,588 deployed, 5,977 in total]. The United Kingdom deploys 120 [out of 225 total], and France, 280 [290 total]. China appears to have a total of 350 nuclear weapons.
India first tested such a weapon in 1974, and Pakistan in 1998. India has a total of 160 weapons, and Pakistan, 165. Israel may have 90 warheads, and North Korea, possibly 20.
It is interesting to note that when the USSR freely broke out its individual Republics in the 1990s, Ukraine immediately became the third most powerful nuclear nation, with approximately 4,000 warheads. After negotiations, the new nation of Ukraine chose to give up those weapons. Of course, concerns were voiced that Ukraine could become the subject of future Russian aggression. Some assurances of protection were apparently given.
And I wonder here about the long-term ambitions of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. They attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. Among their goals were apparently the removal of the American Military Base in Saudi Arabia [now gone]. But perhaps their greater ambition included violently securing nuclear warheads so recently developed by Pakistan.
I recently watched the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” I marveled at how many truths that dark comedy whispered. The famous scenes about Sterling Hayden’s “Life Essence,” the cowboy pilot, Slim Pickens, riding down the “Bull Bomb,” or Peter Sellers’ mine shaft solution as he walks again for “Mein Fuhrer,” are bizarre and hilarious. Except when they are not.
The comedy speaks of much to be fearful of. In May of 2022, a prominent Russian spokesman broadcasted a bizarre statement and accompanying video, threatening to destroy the United Kingdom through either a nuclear missile strike or a submarine-fired nuclear torpedo. The presentation included a colorful video with animation depicting the consummation of the spokesman’s threat. Go to YouTube and check it out for yourself [search for “Russian video nuclear attack Britain”].
The Russian spokesman speaks of a 100-megaton nuclear warhead. Although a weapon of such size has never been tested, the statement may be in reference to the largest nuclear weapon ever exploded, that being a bomb of 50 megatons ignited by the Russians in 1961 and called the “Tsar Bomba.”
The largest nuclear bomb ever tested by the United States was 15 megatons. These large thermonuclear [also referred to as “Hydrogen”] bombs are apparently not limited in size or power beyond the capability of a system to deliver them. They involve both “fission” and “fusion” nuclear reactions.
The frightening possibilities of such a “Megadeath” arms race led Russia and the United States to negotiate a series of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaties. Yet, such cooperation has, over recent years, become strained, and Russia has recently pulled out of the “Strategic Arms Reduction Talks” [START] Treaty. I do not think it to be a coincidence that Russia has recently released long-held secret footage of the “Tsar Bomba” explosion.
And, with such nuclear firepower deployed, accidents have happened. The events involving nuclear warheads are called “Broken Arrows.” They can include an accidental or unauthorized launch; nuclear detonation; non-nuclear detonation or burning; seizure, theft, loss, or jettison of a nuclear weapon.
There have been at least 32 “Broken Arrow” incidents, none of which involved a nuclear explosion. But six nuclear devices were lost and not recovered. Are there more we don’t know of?
There have also been at least two occasions that we know of when stubborn Russian officers refused to launch a nuclear attack when circumstances otherwise supported it. The first occurred in 1963, when the world came so close to a nuclear World War III. We know it as the “Cuban Crisis,” but “Crisis” is insufficient to describe how close we came to an explosion of Terror.
Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles were already in Cuba in 1963 when President Kennedy and the United States instituted the blockade. By then Russia had sent three additional nuclear-armed submarines to the Caribbean with authority, alarmingly, in the discretion of the boat captain, to fire a nuclear torpedo!
Unable to contact Russia and fearing that a United States attack on Cuba had begun, one Russian Captain gave such an order. With the torpedo armed, the Captain obtained the second half of a key which allowed the firing of the weapon. What was left was only the agreement of the Russian Governmental Agent on board. He refused to give it.
Kennedy and Khrushchev were given one more chance to back away. Only later did we learn that the United States removed missiles from Turkey as Russia removed missiles from Cuba. The Russian Government Officer later died of radiation poisoning due to exposure in a previous Russian nuclear submarine accident.
We also know of a second time that the doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction” [MAD] was almost initiated. It occurred in 1983 at a computerized Russian Early Warning Station in the Russian Arctic.
Suddenly, alarms went off and large computer screens announced that a missile had been launched by the United States. The path of the missile was clear. It was headed to Russia.
The “MAD” doctrine required an immediate nuclear response. Mutual destruction was to be assured after such unilateral nuclear action by either country. Yet, the Russian in charge waivered. He wanted verification. Visual or by radar. And, despite the risk and the overwhelming pressure, the Russian leader decided to wait.
Then the computer reported the launch of two more American missiles toward Russia! Still, the Russian leader waited. The minutes seemed to stop, time willing to drag him along as punishment for his inaction. Yet, still he waited. He wanted confirmation. Finally, the missiles came within range of the land-based radar.
He immediately called for the report.
The computer was wrong and malfunctioning. But for one man’s stubborn determination, the world might be much different today, and you might not be reading this story. Was this Russian leader seen as a hero for saving the nation, or was he cashiered out of the service for not following procedure?
Neither. He was dressed down for not filing a proper and complete report. Then he was forgotten. But not completely. His name was Stanislav Petrov.
What might have happened if nuclear weapons had actually been fired? There is a smartphone “App” for that too. Several of them, actually, each which will allow you to pick a city anywhere in the world and decide what size nuclear bomb to detonate over it. You can choose the one dropped on Hiroshima or the “Tsar Bomba” weapon, 3,300 times more powerful, and see the devastation that would be inflicted. Concentric circles describe the types and extent of the horror [Google “Nuke Maps”].
Herman Kahn, in his 1960 bible-sized treatise, “On Thermonuclear War,” hypothesized how long it would take for economic conditions to recover, depending on the number of weapons dropped. For not everyone would die.
Kahn provided a table with his estimation of such a nuclear war’s economic consequence. For each total of the number of humans killed, he estimates the number of years to recover economically. At the low end, two million dead, it might take one year to return to pre-war economies. At the high end, 100 million people killed, he figured that it would take 100 years to economically recover.
His data may no longer be appropriate, but his point is well taken. It is not only the immediate loss of human life, but the catastrophic impact on the ability of the economy to sustain future populations.
And remember that Kahn was writing in 1960, when the world population was about 3 billion. Today, it is almost 8 billion people.
And how do we now describe the risk to Nuclear Power Plants in the crosshairs of warring nations? It is hard to believe that such conflicts are still happening, but that is also part of the reason for this discussion.
The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Southeastern Ukraine is the largest such plant in all of Europe. It provides one-fifth of the Ukrainian electrical demand. In March of 2022, invading Russian troops assumed control of the plant’s operation. In September of that year, Russia annexed the region.
During the war, electricity was cut off from the plant and safety systems were operated by diesel generators. Recently, Russia has ordered the evacuation of 18 settlements surrounding the plant. Is this a modern example of another “Broken Arrow,” or another weapon of mass destruction to be used as leverage against the population?
Is this nuclear power too great for humans to handle?
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