False alarms, accidents and misunderstandings involving nuclear weapons are inevitable. The UK Trident missile test of June 2016 reminds us that nuclear weapons are complex technological systems which can fail or interact with human actors in unexpected ways. Former US Secretary of Defense William Perry argues that it is more through good luck than good management that we have avoided a catastrophic nuclear war. However, the history of nuclear close calls shows the importance of restraint and the recognition of mutual interests for avoiding disaster.
In his memoir Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, tells about being awakened at 3:00am in November 1979 by his military assistant and told, “Sorry, sir. We are under nuclear attack.” Brzezinski wrote, “I knew everybody would be dead in 28 minutes… If that was the case, I was going to make sure we had lots of company.” The false alarm was caused by a training tape inserted into a NORAD computer; Brzezinski was mere moments from calling President Carter when the alarm was cancelled.
In 1983, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov may have saved the world. Soviet leadership was gripped by a ‘war scare’ encouraged by the aggressive rhetoric and actions (e.g., US aircraft repeatedly probing Russian defence radars) of the Reagan administration. On 26 September, a Soviet early warning satellite mistook sunlight reflecting off of clouds for the launch of US missiles. Petrov, uncertain and in violation of procedure, chose to report the warning as false.
Donald Trump’s stated fondness for high-pressure and zero-sum negotiation increases the dangers of both conventional and nuclear miscalculation. The Cuban Missile Crisis was peacefully settled in part because of Kennedy’s willingness to (secretly) trade Jupiter missiles in Europe for Soviet missiles in Cuba. Can Trump show the same willingness to compromise even if it means ‘losing’ somewhat?
China maintains a low level of nuclear readiness with warheads and missiles kept de-mated. However, Chinese crisis planning seems to call for raising nuclear alert through mating of warheads to missiles and the movement of mobile missiles out of their garrisons. How might Donald Trump react to these steps during a crisis over Taiwan or disputed territory in the South China Sea?
Pakistan and India appear to be engaged in an arms race of nuclear-capable missiles. For example, in January 2017, Pakistan tested both the Babur-3 nuclear capable sub-launched cruise missile and an Ababeel ballistic missile which MIRV capable. India continues to develop the K-4 submarine launched ballistic missile. It is important to remember that Kashmir is still a burning issue that can prove to be a flashpoint of a nuclear Armageddon.