There is a small industry around a bizarre idea. Nuclear weapons are known to emit a powerful electromagnetic pulse when they explode. So grifters, cheap novel-writers, and proponents of moar defense spending push the idea that a random bad actor would detonate a nuclear weapon at high altitude over the United States and WIPE OUT ALL OUR ELECTRONICS!
This is a dumb idea, for many reasons. I have debunked it many times. The group referred to as “Nuclear Twitter” regularly mocks it.
I did not want to write about nuclear weapons use policies the day before Christmas Eve, but here we are. The issue and the way it is discussed has bothered me for a long time, but I have mostly stayed out of it. I’m not going to link to the other arguments. They can easily be found, including in today’s edition of a major paper. I’m not going to link because that shatters the argument into a thousand tiny subtopics. Read More
If you want to know what the next nuclear war will be like, read Jeffrey Lewis’s The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States.
Nuclear weapons have been used only once in war, by the United States against Japan at the end of World War II. Nuclear war was imagined many times, however, through the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. As the two countries’ nuclear arsenals grew, the common understanding became that in a nuclear war, hundreds of multi-megaton nuclear weapons would be exploded, and the direct damage would destroy the countries involved. Most of us would die immediately, more in the aftermath. It looked like the end of civilization. Read More
Moreover, I find the elaborate scenarios that nuclear strategists dream up to justify new weapons to be both militarily and politically unrealistic. They tend to assume that complex military operations will go off without a hitch the very first time they are attempted (and in the crucible of a nuclear crisis), and they further assume that political leaders in the real world would be willing to order the slaughter of millions for something less than existential stakes. My main concern has been that some gullible politician would actually believe that one of these elaborate scenarios would actually work and might therefore be tempted to try it. Just as bad: An adversary might think the United States thought it could win such a war and might decide it had no choice but to try to hit it first.
I also find the obsession with matching capabilities at every rung of some hypothetical “escalation ladder” to be slightly absurd. Is it realistic to think that U.S. leaders defending vital interests against a possible Russian threat would be stymied because they didn’t have a capability that exactly mirrored whatever Russia had or was threatening to do? Would a top advisor really say to the president: “Oh dear, sir, Russia just threatened to attack with a nuclear weapon with a yield of 7.2 kilotons. We have lots of 5-kiloton bombs and lots of 11-kiloton bombs all ready to go, but if we use the little one, they’ll think we’re wimps, and if we use the big one, then the onus of escalation will be on us. I guess they’ve got us over the whing-whang, sir, and we’ll just have to do whatever Putin says. If only we had built more 7.2 kiloton bombs than they did!”
The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) mentions some variant of “deter” 279 times. Deterrence is supposedly what today’s nuclear arsenals are about. The idea is that we have enough nuclear weapons so that if an enemy attacked us, we could still destroy them. That standoff, established after the nearly world-ending Cuban Missile Crisis, seems to have worked. Or it’s possible that the reason for no nuclear war in the past 56 years is that nations recognize that destroying the world is in nobody’s interests. Read More
For another war, because why not? The ones the last Republican President started are going so well.
Earlier this week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that he was ready to start talks with North Korea without precondition. “We’ll talk about the weather if you like,” he said. He omitted the part about their having to give up their nuclear weapons and missiles first. But then his own spokesperson undercut him.
Our policy on #DPRK has not changed. Diplomacy is our top priority through our maximum pressure campaign. We remain open to dialogue when North Korea is willing to conduct a serious & credible dialogue on the peaceful denuclearization, but that time is not now.
Donald Trump has been musing about nuclear war since the 1980s, and now he’s bringing our fears to life with his tweets against North Korea. Also, playing the role of a decisive and serious executive, he told the military back in July that he wanted to increase the US’s arsenal of nuclear weapons back to the maximum we had during the Cold War. That seems to have been the trigger for Rex Tillerson to call him a moron. Tillerson wasn’t wrong.
As always with Trump, it’s a good idea to have the facts before us. So here are some.
A president launches nuclear missiles via an electronic briefcase (“the football”) that is always at his side, carried by a service member at the O4-O5 level. That’s a major – lieutenant colonel or lieutenant commander – commander. The services rotate, and both male and female service members have been in this role. One of them made the news back in the spring of this year when he allowed Mar-a-Lago patrons to take selfies with him. Their role is to be unobtrusive and to follow orders. Read More