Human beings have not experienced an all-out nuclear conflict. But, with nuclear capability increasing and man’s finger on the button, it is only a matter of time.
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Not long after the start of his term, U.S. President Donald Trump made a strategic shift toward a new nuclear strategy—the development of “low-yield” nuclear weapons. The decision came as a robust response to increased threats from nuclear powers Russia, China and North Korea.
A low-yield nuclear weapon has a smaller blast radius than standard nuclear bombs, which rely on immense force to take out a target. The extensive collateral damage of most nukes is a deterrent to their use.
According to the Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, low-yield nuclear weapons “help ensure that potential adversaries perceive no possible advantage in limited nuclear escalation, making nuclear employment less likely.”
Much of this posturing in America comes in retaliation to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s boasts about his country’s new arsenal of “invincible” nuclear weapons. They include nuclear-powered subs, underwater drones, nuclear-powered missiles and a hypersonic, intercontinental ballistic missile.
These last two raised the most eyebrows. Russia’s nuclear-powered cruise missile can not only take random paths to circumvent enemy defenses, more horrifying, it can fly around for months on end due to its near limitless nuclear-powered energy. The intercontinental ballistic missile brings as much alarm. Its speed (20 times the speed of sound) and maneuverability reportedly allows it to avoid even the world’s most advanced missile defense systems.
There are doubts in some circles whether any of this technology exists. However, the U.S. called Russia’s activities a clear violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which bans the production, testing and deployment of land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 310 to 3,400 miles.
In February, Mr. Trump chose to officially suspend America’s participation in the agreement, saying the U.S. “cannot be the only country in the world unilaterally bound by this treaty.” He added, “We will move forward with developing our own military response options and will work with NATO and our other allies and partners to deny Russia any military advantage from its unlawful conduct.” The U.S. plans to completely leave the pact by the summer of 2019.
From tweets about “fire and fury” and “dotards” to possible peace, talks with North Korea have been no less topsy-turvy. Washington and Pyongyang arranged a second summit between President Trump and leader Kim Jong Un, who first met in Singapore in the summer of 2018. In the meantime, analysts are accusing North Korea of continuing nuclear and missile development, citing details from commercial satellite imagery.
Pyongyang has vowed to pursue nuclear development until the U.S. removes its troops and the nuclear umbrella defending South Korea and Japan.
Yet America is showing no signs of pulling back. The U.S. Congressional Budget Office recently issued a report projecting the cost of nuclear weapons over the next decade at nearly a half trillion dollars, up almost a quarter from the last estimate two years ago. Much of this spending will go toward new technology such as low-yield nuclear weapons.
Former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry was quoted by The Guardian as saying he was less worried about the number of nuclear warheads left in the world than by the return of Cold War talk about such weapons being “usable.”
“The belief that there might be tactical advantage using nuclear weapons—which I haven’t heard that being openly discussed in the United States or in Russia for a good many years—is happening now in those countries which I think is extremely distressing.”
“Low-yield” is a relative and somewhat deceptive term when describing this latest weapon of mass destruction. The weapon’s so-called limited damage capability is really only in relation to the power of the vast majority of nukes in America’s stockpile, which, almost 75 years after Hiroshima, are measured in kilotons and megatons of the explosive power of TNT.
To better grasp this, consider the Mother of All Bombs or MOAB dropped in Afghanistan in 2017. The pinpoint blast was intended to hit an ISIS complex, yet unleashing this conventional (non-nuclear) weapon’s 11 tons of explosive power still came with consternation. Was it worth unleashing this level of ordinance just to kill under 100 ISIS fighters and destroy numerous bunkers and caves?
As you try to wrap your mind around 22,000 pounds of explosives being dropped on a target, consider that a small, low-yield nuke equals 1,000 MOABs—approaching the size of the bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II. But the similarities between the MOAB and an atomic bomb pretty much stop at their destructive force.
The long-term impact of an atomic weapon is much more ominous.
Conventional bombs like MOABs explode based on a simple chemical versus a nuclear fusion or fission reaction. The splitting of atoms in a nuclear reaction releases a spectacular amount of energy, enough to level an entire city and vaporize its citizens. In addition, it releases harmful radiation. The majority of deaths after Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred long after both bombs were detonated.
That was decades ago. Today, a hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb, the kind North Korea warned it would test in 2017, relies on yet a different nuclear reaction process, making it 1,000 times more powerful than the atom bombs dropped on Japan.
Clearly, comparing nukes is like comparing a hurricane, tornado or earthquake. The damage left in their wake is all relative and leaves your head spinning.
The recent development of the B61-12 nuclear bomb by the Pentagon was aimed right at a certain sweet spot—developing a weapon with precision guidance along with “dial-a-yield” capability.
Unlike most nuclear bombs, the B61-12 is guided, helping it better take out an intended target. Its adjustable blast yield—from low to even lower—only serves to enhance this precision. Its explosive power can be electronically adjusted from as little as 0.3 kilotons up to 50 kilotons based on need.
The weapon is widely considered the most dangerous in America’s arsenal.
The 12-foot, missile-shaped B61-12 induces fear, but not just because of its potential destructive capability. America’s B83 nuclear bomb, by contrast, is 1,200 kilotons (1.2 megatons). The B61-12 keeps military strategists and political leaders up at night due to its usability.
Nuclear weapons, once verboten in modern warfare, are now “thinkable for the first time since the 1940s” as one news outlet put it.
More usable weapons like the B61-12, according to the latest Nuclear Posture Review from the Department of Defense, are aimed at “enhancing deterrence.”
How can a more usable weapon make its use less likely?
The big boom and heavy damage radius of traditional nukes have always decreased their likelihood of being used. This is the basis of the mutually assured destruction doctrine, which states that, in the case of a full-scale nuclear war, the threat of annihilation of all involved creates a deterrence. There is a certain logic to this. No leader, regardless of his cruelty and ambition, wants to be responsible for the elimination of millions if not billions of Earth’s citizenry—especially if it is his own.
With mutually assured destruction, neither side has any incentive to initiate a conflict or to unilaterally disarm.
A smaller, more likely to be used nuclear weapon would naturally undermine this thinking, right? Not so, says low-yield bomb advocates. They believe an arsenal of low-yield nuclear weapons provides more options to retaliate and thus an increased deterrent. A smaller, controlled blast on more pinpointed targets counters an enemy’s perception that a nation’s traditional nuclear stockpile contains weapons “too big to use.”
Thus, the argument goes, by lowering the threshold for nuclear conflict you make nuclear conflict less likely.
If this slippery reasoning fails, however, the low-yield nuclear blast and the predictable cascading blasts from traditional nukes in response would be overwhelming.
But we should back away from the red buttons and assertions about supersonic missiles and briefly look at where the world stands with its nuclear arsenal.
Overall, the world is light-years beyond the Manhattan Project, which produced the atom bombs dropped during WWII. The current landscape is a mix of good news and bad, with much of it falling somewhere in between.
The two bombs America dropped on Japan in 1945 are the only times nuclear weapons have been used in combat. This may be the “best” news of all when it comes to nuclear weapons.
The capability of nuclear technology is so shocking that even the testing of such weapons was addressed in the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (unratified), to which the U.S. adheres. Therefore, again on the positive side, America has not detonated a nuclear bomb since 1992. Instead, the nation relies on “virtual testing.”
Eight other nations besides the U.S. currently have nukes.
More optimistic news? Russia used to stockpile a jaw-dropping 40,000 nuclear warheads with the U.S. on its heels hoarding upwards of 30,000. Now, the former USSR only has a reported 6,850 with the U.S. maintaining its second-place position with 6,450. That is an 83 and 79 percent decrease respectively. On just inventory numbers alone, it is hard to argue against this being “good” news. (Of course, zero would be better.)
The next closest in nuclear warhead inventory is France with 300, China with 280, Britain with 215, Pakistan with between 140-150, India with between 130-140, Israel with 80, and North Korea rounding out the list with between 10-20.
However, it is impossible to rationalize the fact that it only takes one nuclear weapon to eliminate hundreds of thousands, even millions, depending on the target. A chain reaction could annihilate billions.
With sensationalized news, political scandals, societal problems and other attention-grabbing events, the world’s nuclear threat has somehow found its way to the backburner over the years. This is a bit surprising given that there are more than 40 active armed conflicts going on around the world, several of them involving nuclear powers either directly or through proxy.
During the Cold War, talk of nuclear destruction and possible human extinction was much more common. With upwards of 70,000 nukes between the U.S. and Russia in 1986, of course it was. Now, the world ignores the threat of nuclear annihilation at its own peril.
You would be stunned to know how close we are to a nuclear event. Yet consider. The only thing standing in the way are the fallible, occasionally egotistical and impulsive, governments of men.
Consider the rudimentary process for a nuclear strike, at least in America. Vox laid much of it out in a comprehensive and startling article titled “This Is Exactly How a Nuclear War Would Kill You.”
The first step may be the most jarring: The president decides a nuclear strike is necessary.
One man is the only thing standing in the way of the potential destruction of 7.5 billion people. Such sway is inconceivable.
To be fair, the actual process is considerably more multi-faceted than a single hand hovering over a button. In the event of a threat, the president and his military commanders deliberate over whether a nuclear retaliation is necessary. But, as the commander-in-chief, he alone is responsible for giving the official order to strike. President Putin and Mr. Kim no doubt carry similar authority (if not more).
From the moment the command to launch is made, nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles could be headed to their targets in as little as five minutes.
Realize that the entire system, no matter how smooth and efficient on paper, relies heavily on human involvement.
Hawaii’s false ballistic missile threat alarm in 2018 is a stark reminder of our system’s shortcomings. The island’s residents received a text message on their phones that read: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek shelter immediately. This is not a drill.”
The state’s governor later concluded that the warning and subsequent panic were caused by an employee pressing the “wrong button” during a shift change.
Are you nervous yet?
Mistakes like this make it abundantly clear that our government systems are prone to collapse under “very little pressure,” as First Lieutenant Bruce Blair told Harpers in the article “How to Start a Nuclear War.” He served in the U.S. Air Force as a launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early 1970s.
The Harpers article harkened back to the series of government foul-ups in the moments following the attacks on September 11, 2001. Senior administrators could not communicate with one another. Almost none of the officials in line to succeed the president followed their assigned procedures for evacuation to secure locations. President Putin, alarmed by the attacks, could not get in touch with President George W. Bush since Air Force One, which was running out of fuel and trying to land, could not receive phone calls.
Nevertheless, the human element has saved the world from all-out nuclear war.
In 1983, Russian officer Stanislav Petrov, later known as “the man who saved the world,” decided to ignore a missile attack system’s erroneous warning of nuclear weapons inbound from the U.S.
One would hope humans would always be involved when it comes to the decision to launch nuclear weapons. (Though, near the end of the Cold War, it is believed the Soviets sought to develop a “dead hand” in the control of their nuclear arsenal. This means that if sensors detected signs of an incoming nuclear attack, Russia’s entire nuclear force would launch immediately with minimal human involvement to save precious time in retaliation.)
The human element, however, speaks to a fundamental flaw in calculating nuclear threats—the assumption of an enemy’s reaction to said threat.
How realistic is it to accurately pin down the motivations of leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin? His assertions in the Ukraine or his nation’s encroachment on NATO territory could be interpreted (or misinterpreted) as pushing the world to the brink of conflict.
What about North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, whose woefully outmatched military could use nuclear weapons “as part of a last gasp, twilight of the gods, pull the temple down upon themselves kind of move,” as Bruce Klinger, a 20-year veteran of the CIA, put it.
Perhaps these and the seven other leaders of nuke-wielding nations would never go this far, but the bottom line is we are one human decision or miscalculation away from nuclear holocaust.
This should not sit well with the vast majority of us who could have absolutely nothing to do with the decision to end humanity.
A wise man once said that mankind only creates weapons he intends to use. This is not far-fetched. The fear this willingness generates is at the fundament of the mutually assured destruction doctrine or its latest iteration, which bases nuclear weapon deterrence on “usability.”
Man, in his creative genius, would utterly destroy himself if given the chance.
In the Bible, God spoke to this in the years following the Noachian Flood. As the Earth repopulated, mankind, all speaking the same language (Gen. 11:6), became focused and unified on a building project that directly violated God’s purpose.
As God observed all that transpired, He recognized that men would succeed in this purpose, and to their own detriment, unless He intervened. To stop their progress, He chose to scatter them from one another and “confound [mix] their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (vs. 7-8). God had to do this. Otherwise, He knew “nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” (Gen. 11:6-8).
Our Creator demonstrated that He is willing to intervene in man’s affairs for his own good—including preventing his complete destruction.
There is a coming time of “great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matt. 24:21). It will be the worst time in human history. Scripture nowhere promises that nuclear weapons will not be involved. In fact, the tragedies in Japan that ended the second world war leaves one to wonder if they will.
What is certain is, unless God intervenes, no flesh would be saved (vs. 22). All human beings would be wiped off the face of the planet.
But this is not what God ultimately wants. He is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (II Pet. 3:9). Allowing weapons of mass destruction to proliferate and take out His most precious creation—human beings—flies in the face of this plan. This is why weapons must eventually be eradicated.
God promises He will “judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken it” (Mic. 4:3-4). Reread and consider the reality of this detailed promise. Proper judgement. No oppressive regimes. No weapons. No war. Peaceful surroundings. No fear.
Notice human beings will be directly involved. By transforming weapons into agricultural equipment, man’s genius will be turned from eliminating life to helping sustain it. Our creativity will be put to good use, allowing us to eventually enjoy the positive fruits of our labors. It will be a truly wonderful time.
The pathway to this utopia will be long and winding, but the destination is real and will be reached.
They reveal in exquisite detail the process through which nuclear weapons will be eliminated and how man can finally stop living in fear of war and instead live in anticipation of peace.