Is Nuclear Escalation Inevitable? The Next Global Conflict

I. The Cold War, Reheated?

When implements of warfare like the nuclear bomb get talked about, the language used is that of scientific discovery. It was a “breakthrough,” the discovery of the atomic bomb, which leveled the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. The invention of the nuclear bomb, a device that made parts of Bikini Atoll permanently uninhabitable, represented an “advance” in scientific innovation for military weaponry. Although these platitudes are true to an extent, they belie what nuclear weapons truly are when it comes to scientific innovation.

People think of scientific progress as moving along in a linear fashion, with each further progression of the line signifying a new discovery that improves upon all other discoveries before it. An often unstated assumption that guides this view of science maintains that with each new scientific finding, moral judgment only happens after the fact. Merely figuring out a scientific possibility does not, on its own, contain any moral content. It is what people do with that information that determines the morality of a scientific discovery. Although this view has an intuitive appeal, and is certainly logical in many cases, the existence of nuclear weapons pushes this theory to its limits, and perhaps over them. The sole purpose of a nuclear weapon is to cause mass destruction and death. Knives can kill, but they also can cut twine, chop vegetables, and whittle sticks. The nuclear warheads that sit in undisclosed stockpiles around the globe have only one reason to exist, a reason for which they will hopefully never need to be launched.

The power of nuclear weapons is so formidable that even the mere invocation of their name induces terror. People who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s can recall curling themselves into balls under their small school desks for bomb drills, a practice equally necessary and futile against the utter havoc wrought from the detonation of a nuclear weapon. The Bay of Pigs incident nearly heated up the supposed Cold War between Russia and the United States, in large part because of the potential threat of nuclear weapons. Politicians, strategists, and political scientists talk about potential conflicts all the time, usually to avoid the possibility of such a conflict coming to pass. People in those situations can keep a cool head as they look over the data and intelligence, from which they can hopefully create some useful policies and models. When a phrase like nuclear warfare gets mentioned, however, keeping a cool head can prove a difficult task.

Cold War fears, as it turns out, are no longer a receding fact of history for citizens of the United States. Upon hearing that the North Korean government had developed a nuclear warhead small enough to be launched via missile, President Donald Trump of the United States proclaimed, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The phrase “fire and fury” leaves plenty of room for interpretation, but consider that the world has already seen a nuclear weapon go off — more than once. Anything above that must be a massacre of truly disturbing proportions. Trump’s threat invokes even more terror when one considers that the North Korean population has little means of action against their dictatorial government, which continues to effectively hold them hostage. This means that any attack with the destructive capability of a weapon like a nuclear bomb will result in the killing of thousands of innocent people whose only fault was being born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That the general public of the world understand the threat of nuclear weapons is important. But beyond that, the particulars of a nuclear weapon, and what their continued existence does for a world, are muddy or misunderstood. Despite what a classic film quotation would tell us, there is no learning to love the bomb; there is only learning to learn it and, hopefully, to ensure that no more of them continue to exist in the world.

II. How the Bomb Blows

As their name implies, nuclear weapons operate through specific kinds of nuclear reactions: either fission or a fission/fusion reaction. The latter occurs in the use of a thermonuclear bomb, whereas the former is the process used in an atomic bomb — the kind first used by the US in 1945. To the extent that these bombs are scientifically crafted devices, they undeniably impress. The entire mechanism of both major types of nuclear bomb derives from a small reaction, yet leads to an explosion of massive proportions. A little thing makes a lot of energy. In layperson’s terms, the two major types of nuclear bombs work these ways:

  • Fission bombs, which are commonly referred to as “atomic bombs” (atom bombs are nuclear bombs; the two terms get used interchangeably, sometimes erroneously as thermonuclear bombs use more than fission reactions), explode after an atom’s nucleus (hence, “atomic” bomb) is split. In fission bombs, this splitting occurs when an atom of a radioactive element like uranium gets triggered into a series of nuclear reactions caused when the uranium atom is split, which sends rapidly moving neutrons into other nearby uranium atoms. From this violent reaction, the fission bomb will detonate.
  • Thermonuclear bombs utilize the same radioactive material employed by fission bombs — uranium or plutonium — and also require fission to create the necessary explosion. But in addition to fission, thermonuclear weapons use extreme temperatures and pressure to generate the explosion. The Union of Concerned Scientists breaks this process down succinctly: “Instead of colliding two sub-critical pieces of nuclear fuel [as in a case of old-school atomic weapons, like those used in 1945], modern weapons detonate chemical explosives around a sub-critical sphere (or “pit”) of uranium-235 or plutonium-239 metal [these are the two radioactive materials used for modern atomic bombs]. The force from the blast is directed inward, compressing the pit and bringing its atoms closer together. Once dense enough to reach the critical mass, neutrons are injected, initiating a fission chain reaction and producing an atomic explosion.”

Modern nuclear weapons are of the second of these two categories. The bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki represent an earlier kind of nuclear technology, albeit one that is more powerful on its own than most modern non-nuclear weapons. The effects of this kind of bomb cannot be overstated. Even those just outside the bounds of the zone where immediate and total destruction takes place will feel — not simply see — the strength of these bombs. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament reports that during one of the first thermonuclear bomb tests in 1952, which took place in the Marshall Islands, the detonation “produced a light brighter than a 1,000 suns and a heat wave felt 50 kilometres away.” The comparison of “1,000 suns” aptly characterizes these kinds of bomb, whose chemistry is not unlike that of our own sun. That sun, however, is at least a safe distance away.

“Operation Crossroads Baker” by the US Department of Defense via Wikipedia is licensed under CC0

Currently, firms like Lockheed Martin in the United States manufacture nuclear weapons, and countries around the world develop nuclear weapons through their own internal militaries. Any nuclear weapon in a given country’s stockpile is terrifying on its own, but the unique horror of the weapons being developed by military officials and technicians in North Korea has to do with their size. Many nuclear warheads sport a rather large frame, whereas North Korea’s newest weapons, if reports about them are accurate, are small enough to fit onto a guided missile. Just like the process of nuclear reactions themselves, it would be a small package delivering a gargantuan, life-ending payload.

III. Where the Bombs are Now

Alan Moore’s late Cold War graphic novel Watchmen concludes — some spoilers here, for those who haven’t read it — with a superhero named Ozymandias revealing to his former superhero colleagues that he staged a fake alien invasion that levels most of New York City. He claims his purpose is to bring the nations of the world together through that classic device of a “common enemy,” after which these nations will no longer be warring. Moore’s novel directly comments on the Cold War publication era of the novel, even though that war would be over in just two years with the Fall of the Berlin Wall. In doing so, Watchmen captures the philosophy that keeps nuclear weapons in the arsenals of major countries still today. Allied countries with nuclear stockpiles maintain their weapons out of fear that an unfriendly nation will use a nuclear weapon, or something of a similarly destructive capacity. This links with the fear of the “rogue state,” a country that will not follow along with the general consensus that nuclear weapons need to be decreased. No one relishes in the thought of a whole city or even country being evaporated in a few moments’ time. But as long as nuclear weapons exist, they will continue to exist — and, as the recent North Korea example shows, they might even continue to be propagated.

There are a couple of important conclusions to be drawn from the data above. First, the US and Russia remain the nuclear superpowers of the globe; even if North Korea were to develop a missile of the kind that is suspected, the US could quash its nuclear stockpile — to say nothing of the country as a whole — with just an infinitesimal amount of its own weapons. Second, the distribution of nuclear weapons is highly asymmetrical, with large numbers of weapons in just two countries and tinier but considerable amounts in other countries. Third, and most important of all, is the last horizontal category on the second graph above: “retired/waiting to be dismantled weapons”. Countries like France and the United Kingdom are clinging on to their small stockpiles, whereas the US and Russia intend to shed almost a third of their stockpiles.

There’s a reason why the US and Russia nuclear weapon numbers hover close to each other; in more ways than one, the Cold War never really ended.

From a financial and military perspective, this ridding of weapons may seem unusual. Financially, the move definitely involves incurring a significant loss. Writing for Foreign Policy, John Mueller observes that nuclear  weapons easily rank high on the list of ridiculous government expenses: the United States spent $5 trillion on nuclear weapons since 1940, and the Soviet Union drove itself into a financial black hole for, among many reasons, their investment in those weapons. Considering how few nuclear attacks there have been — a blessed relief for anyone who calls Earth home — by definition the weapons are a waste. They sit in government storehouses, unused, awaiting their half-lives.

In terms of military strategy, a small nuclear arsenal makes some sense. You don’t need to have a ton of nukes to get the job done, should a nation ever think itself in the position of needing to use one. The US only needed two to, as it saw it, bring an end to WWII with its bombing of Japan. However, reducing a stockpile when rival nations have stockpiles of a comparable or larger size can give a sense of retreat, of tacitly passing off the global nuclear superpower baton to a government who could well wield that baton against others. There’s a reason why the US and Russia nuclear weapon numbers hover close to each other; in more ways than one, the Cold War never really ended. Both countries hold roughly the same amount of nuclear weapons, and both continue to retire and eventually offload an identical amount of weapons.

In fact, since the Cold War and even during that time period, offloading has been the name of the game. Talks of total disarmament, while they do exist, is not a goal pursued by the major nuclear powers. But that doesn’t mean countries haven’t gotten wise to the steep costs of nuclear weapons, both manufacturing and maintaining them. Mueller notes that by 2002, the size of US and Russian arsenals decreased from 70,000 to 30,000, and by 2009 the number dipped below 10,000. Now the number stands just north of 10,000 between Russia and the US, and the global number hangs just below 15,000. Decreases notwithstanding, thousands of nuclear weapons induce terror in a way that, well, only thousands of nuclear weapons can. Until the number of those bombs on Earth is zero, the terror remains, and the potentiality for nuclear threat remains a possibility too destructive to shrug off.

As the number of nuclear weapons decreases, countries simultaneously aim to modernize their arsenals with more advanced research into what best ensures the volatility and accuracy of the weapon. The continued interest in nuclear arms research suggests the likelihood of the view proposed by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which argues, “While the overall number of nuclear warheads may be decreasing, the long-term modernization programs under way in these states suggest that nuclear weapons are still a currency of international status and power.” SIPRI’s comments were initially released in 2012; now, with the fear of North Korea’s weapons development and the ongoing tensions between the US and Russia, SIRPI’s research proves more prescient by the day.

IV. Can the World Get Peace Through Bombs?

Everyone knows how to hyperbolize the threat posed by nuclear weapons — although the power of these bombs is such that it’s hard to hyperbolize them at all. But the prevailing consensus, which Jacob Nebel calls “disarmament pessimism,” firmly insists on the unlikeliness and even irresponsibility of advocating for a total removal of all nuclear weapons. This view affirms the “rogue state” fear, which states that so long as there exists a single state with a nuclear weapon, particularly one like North Korea (which has few geopolitical allies and a hostile relationship with much of the world and the countries near to it), other countries — particularly those like the US, with large military infrastructures and the capability to respond quickly to an attack — must keep at least some nuclear weapons in order to respond in kind during the worst case scenario. Paradoxically, these disarmament pessimists believe that peace is more likely to come from keeping some weapons in place while responsibly siphoning out excess bombs.

Nebel rebuts this view on two grounds. First, the political “experts” who assert the rogue state/mutually assured destruction premise have been wrong about the reality of nuclear conflict before. For instance, many thought the Cold War would last until at least the 21st century. In order for the geopolitical “certainties” of the rogue state theory to hold true, such a view would have to accurately reflect real world behavior informed or influenced by nuclear weapons. Since the predictive power of this theory is not absolute, there is no reason to treat “disarmament pessimism” as an ideological certainty, which it is for many Western powers like the United States. Second, where the existence of nuclear weapons is raised as a proof for a certain political event, Nebel writes, there are usually other variables at play whose explanatory power proves as convincing, if not more so, than the weapons. That a country chooses to acquire nuclear bombs does not mean one will find a lingering threat in the background. Nebel points to the example of France, who armed not out of fear of a rogue state but rather a desire to measure up to other major players in the global arena like the US, and Ukraine, who decided to enter the Non-Proliferation Treaty despite the threat of nearby Russia, whose goals to grow its empire remain unsatisfied.

Still, others claim, even if the rogue state and mutually assured destruction theories can’t apply in every case, they do prove persuasive in other instances. It is popularly held that India and Pakistan, two countries at constant tension at their borders due to a partition that left both parties unsatisfied, would have entered into full-scale war had it not been for their acquiring nuclear weapons. This theory has some legitimacy — the thought of an atom bomb could spook anyone into treading carefully — but some close political analysis reveals that it would be too simplistic to call India and Pakistan’s behavior a mere result of nuclear paranoia. As Mueller writes, it took Pakistan 28 years to develop nuclear weapons, during which there were constant border tensions and skirmishes. Having nuclear weapons may have prevented a worse kind of conflict, but it didn’t eliminate conflict entirely. Moreover, in recent years commentators with a close knowledge of the two countries have announced increasing fear of nuclear conflict between the two countries. This fear gains legitimacy when one considers the role played by non-state actors, who often get their hands on weapons created by state militaries. In his book The Atomic Bazaar, journalist William Langewiesche documents the terrifying possibility — no small one — that nuclear weapons drift into the hands of small non-state terrorist groups, who have far less scruples about mutually assured destruction and rogue states than the government officials who should be the sole owner of such weapons, should anyone own them at all.

When it comes to North Korea, the most pressing site of nuclear tension at the moment, the rogue state theory only holds if one believes the Kim dynasty to be suicidal. North Korea is a small country whose military vastly would vastly underperform any Western army, and however well its government can protect its capital of Pyongyang, it would fare less well in a land battle with a country like the United States. Should the North Korean government choose to launch a nuclear bomb anywhere other than into the sun, retaliation will be swift, and likely unmerciful. Considering that North Korea has self-interest, it will do what other nations have done before it: acquire and produce nuclear weapons because everyone else is doing it. The absurdity of the rogue state theory when it comes to North Korea echoes an earlier flawed theory, the one that ostensibly justified the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs had to be used, the United States argued, because Japan in WWII had a kamikaze mentality: it would not surrender until every one of its soldiers, and perhaps citizens, had died. Yet when the bombs dropped, Japan surrendered.

The logical fallacies and misunderstood theorizing behind the conventional wisdom about nuclear weapons is an odd mirror for the vast scientific inquiry that went into the development of the weapon. To be sure, humankind outdid itself when scientists discovered that from a split atom comes a military maneuver that can only be countered by itself. But that outdoing may be humankind’s undoing. Scientific progress is valuable, but not all forward movement in science is progress. The leaders of the world would do well to remind themselves of that when, in the face of a new threat, they revert to a playbook that’s done the world little good and an enormous amount of damage.