Risk of Nuclear Weapons Use Still Lower Than During Cold War

UN disarmament research chief incorrectly assesses the risk of nuclear war.

Renata Dwan, director of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), told reporters in Geneva on 21 May that the risk of nuclear weapons being used is at its highest since World War Two. This is not ‘use’ in the sense of ‘the nuclear deterrent is in use every day of every week all around the year’, as argued by MP Julian Lewis in a recent House of Commons debate; this is ‘use’ in the sense of nuclear warfare. 

Dwan mentioned various reasons for this increased risk, including nuclear modernisation programmes, the erosion of traditional arms control, new types of war, the prevalence of armed groups and private sector forces, new technologies and the blurring of the line between offence and defence.

Regarding the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Dwan stated: 

I think that it’s genuinely a call to recognize – and this has been somewhat missing in the media coverage of the issues – that the risks of nuclear war are particularly high now, and the risks of the use of nuclear weapons, for some of the factors I pointed out, are higher now than at any time since World War Two. 

The main problem with Dwan’s position is that, although the risk of nuclear weapons use has increased in recent years, the risk was higher at several points during the Cold War, including during the Berlin Crisis (1958–1961), the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), the Sino–Soviet border conflict (1969), the Yom Kippur War (1973) and exercise Able Archer 83 (1983).  

Two incidents during the Cuban Missile Crisis were particularly risky, and both involved tactical, counterforce nuclear weapons. As noted in Bagwell and Dudin’s 2013 Discretion Analysis Final Report, during the crisis a U-2 spy plane undertook an air sampling mission, testing the atmosphere over the Arctic Ocean for residue from Soviet nuclear tests. Since the flight plan did not take the aircraft closer than 100 miles to Soviet airspace, it was not considered risky and continued as scheduled despite the ongoing crisis. Unfortunately, the U-2 accidentally crossed several hundred miles into Soviet airspace, apparently due to a navigational error. Soviet fighters scrambled to intercept and American fighters rushed to protect the U-2. Since US forces were at DEFCON 3, the American fighters carried nuclear air-to-air missiles rather than their usual conventional weapons. While in theory the nuclear missiles could only be used on the authority of the president, there were no physical means to prevent a pilot firing the missiles at his own discretion. Fortunately, the U-2 reached US airspace and landed safely without being intercepted. 

The second incident occurred on 27 October 1962, the day before the crisis ended, and just hours after a U-2 spy plane had been shot down over Cuba. Early in October, the 69th torpedo submarine brigade of the Soviet Navy had been ordered ‘to strengthen the defense of the island of Cuba’. The brigade consisted of four diesel-electric Foxtrot-class submarines, each armed with 22 torpedoes with a range of 19 km. Unknown to the US, one torpedo on each submarine had a 10-kilotonne nuclear warhead.

The US issued a message stating that practice depth charges would be used to force blockade-running Soviet submarines to surface. However, one of the submarines, B-59, had for two days been unable to come to periscope depth to use its antenna. As such, it had not received that message. When US naval vessels followed through on the threat of using low-yield depth charges to bring B-59 to the surface, the submarine’s senior officers argued about whether or not to respond with their nuclear torpedo. The submarine's commander, Captain Valentin Grigorievitch, ordered the officer who was assigned to the nuclear torpedo to assemble it to battle readiness, adding:

Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing summersaults here… We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not become the shame of the fleet.

His second-in-command, Vasili Arkhipov, persuaded Grigorievitch not to fire, but to surface and wait for orders from Moscow.

‘The lesson from this’, argued director of the National Security Archive, Thomas Blanton, ‘is that a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.’ Historian Arthur M Schlesinger Jr. observed, ‘This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history’.

While the Cuban Missile Crisis is arguably the most well-known nuclear crisis, the Sino–Soviet border conflict of 1969 is probably the least. On 2 March 1969, Chinese soldiers killed a group of Soviet border guards on Zhenbao Island, a disputed island in the Ussuri River. In the following months, several battles were fought along the Russian–Chinese border. Nuclear threats were part of the Soviet strategy to resolve this conflict, but China did not think the threats were credible: that is, until 27 August when CIA Director Richard Helms told the press that the Soviet Union had approached foreign governments to gauge their reactions to a potential Soviet pre-emptive nuclear strike on China. By mid-October, China’s fear of a Soviet nuclear attack was such that the central leadership, including Mao Zedong, fled Beijing. China’s fledgling nuclear forces were ordered to full alert on 18 October, the only time this has occurred. Two days later, negotiations with Russia began, ending the conflict.

Despite increasing nuclear risks in recent years, there have been no reports of national leaders fleeing their country’s capital city out of fear of a nuclear strike. Fighters with air-to-air nuclear missiles are not being scrambled to protect aircraft from enemy interceptors. And it is unlikely that there are any naval captains in recent years who have shouted ‘We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all’ while ordering a nuclear torpedo to be readied for firing.

In short, the risk of nuclear weapons use is not higher now than at any time since World War Two. However, Renata Dwan’s statement on nuclear risk was published by various news outlets around the world, which accurately assessed that such a statement was newsworthy. Unfortunately, this has potentially misinformed and scared millions of people around the world.

Sam Dudin is the UK Nuclear Policy Research Fellow at RUSI.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.



Sam Dudin

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