This article was originally published by The Hill.
We know that the risk of nuclear war is not zero. Humans are not capable of creating foolproof systems. Nuclear weapons systems are particularly problematic since the possession of nuclear weapons carries an implicit threat of use under certain circumstances. In accord with nuclear deterrence theory, a country threatens to use nuclear weapons, believing that it will prevent the use of nuclear weapons against it.
Nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons are currently under the control of nine countries. Each has a complex system of command and control with many possibilities for error, accident or intentional use.
Error could be the result of human or technological factors, or some combination of human and technological interaction. During the more than seven decades of the Nuclear Age, there have been many accidents and close calls that could have resulted in nuclear disaster. The world narrowly escaped a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Human factors include miscommunications, misinterpretations and psychological issues. Some leaders believe that threatening behavior makes nuclear deterrence more effective, but it could also result in a preventive first-strike launch by the side being threatened. Psychological pathologies among those in control of nuclear weapons could also play a role. Hubris, or extreme arrogance, is another factor of concern.
Technological factors include computer errors that wrongfully show a country is under nuclear attack. Such false warnings have occurred on numerous occasions but, fortunately, human interactions (often against policy and/or orders) have so far kept a false warning from resulting in a mistaken “retaliatory” attack. In times of severe tensions, a technological error could compound the risks, and human actors might decide to initiate a first strike.
There are many other factors that affect the risk of nuclear war. These include an increase in the number of countries possessing nuclear weapons and a greater number of nuclear weapons in each country’s nuclear arsenal. Both of these factors increase complexity and make the risk greater. Additionally, the higher the alert status of a country’s nuclear arsenal, the shorter the decision time to launch and the greater the risk of nuclear war. The risks are compounded when tension levels increase between nuclear-armed countries, increasing the likelihood of false assumptions and precipitous action.
Nuclear policies of the nuclear-armed countries can also raise the risk level of nuclear war. Policies of first use of nuclear weapons may make an opponent more likely to initiate a first strike and thus make a nuclear war more likely. First use is generally a default policy, if a country does not specifically pledge a policy of no first use, as have China and India. Policies of launch-on-warning cut into decision time for leaders to decide whether or not to launch a “retaliatory” strike to what may be a false warning The deployment of land-based missiles also raises the risk level due to the “use them or lose them” nature of these stationary targets.
In addition to identifiable risks of nuclear war, there are also unknown risks — those that cannot be identified in advance. Unknown risks include little-understood possibilities for cyber-attacks on nuclear weapons systems, attacks that could potentially either activate or deactivate nuclear-armed missile launches.
Given the catastrophic consequences of nuclear war, including destruction of civilization and human extinction, identifying and eliminating the factors making nuclear war likely or even possible is imperative. There are simply too many possibilities for failure in such a complex system of interactions.
This leads to the conclusion that the risks are untenable, and all nations should move rapidly to negotiate the elimination of all nuclear arms. While doing so, nations would be well served to adopt and declare policies of no first use and no launch-on-warning, and to eliminate vulnerable land-based missiles from their arsenals.