The subject is big – your life and the survival of your family and community. It involves nuclear weapons, which most people believe they can’t influence. It’s so big, so threatening, so overpowering, most don’t think about the problem at all.
Until you see a message on your phone:
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
That message was sent out on Saturday morning, January 13, all over the state of Hawaii. How did it happen?
A shift worker clicked the wrong line on a computer template menu. Which read:
PACOM (CDW) – STATE ONLY
That’s how you get an ICBM nuclear weapons alert that scares millions. For those who of us who work as data entry technicians formerly known as physicians (see “Treat the Chart, Not the Patient,”) this result is familiar and expectable. We click menus thousands of times a day. And no one ever makes an error?
That it took 38 minutes for the mistake to be corrected only shows how strong our denial of potential nuclear attack really is. Not only was the alarm easy to inadvertently trigger, but the system of checking such alarms so ineffective that parents were stuffing their kids into drainpipes and waiting for their imminent deaths.
Nuclear weapons are not merely terrifying, they are so mind bogglingly terrible we deny our denial of their threat.
The Return of Daniel Ellsberg
The movie “The Post” has acquainted a new generation with Daniel Ellsberg, the Rand corporation and Pentagon researcher whose 1971 disclosure of the “Pentagon Papers” led to a constitutional crisis and a revamp of American Vietnam War policy. But Ellsberg also worked on nuclear weapons policy, what Herman Kahn called “thinking about the unthinkable.” His enormous cache of documents demonstrating that low level battlefield commanders could start nuclear wars and that the Pentagon expected 600 million dead from a war with the Soviet Union become lost while avoiding Federal investigators. But he’s recently put out a book noting what others have said for decades:
1. On at least a half dozen occasions (others believe dozens) the U.S. and the Soviet Union almost started a nuclear war. Some of these incidents occurred because the sensors proclaiming a nuclear attack gave false readings due to operator error, flights of geese or bright sunlight. That’s something to ponder now that the software glitches Meltdown and Spectre have been discovered in virtually all of the world’s software.
2. A conflict between the Soviet Union and the US that would have killed hundreds of millions would most likely also have kicked enough dirt into the atmosphere to blanket the atmosphere for years, shutting out the sun and destroying plant growth, thereby killing humanity and perhaps most life on earth (nuclear winter.)
Nuclear security treaties have decreased this risk. Today’s warheads are smaller. But the risk of massive death and even nuclear winter is not negligible.
Take for example one of our fourteen US Trident submarines. Each has 24 missiles limited to eight warheads per missile. These multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRV) can only disperse over a set area, meaning a single US commander might only destroy 25-30 major Russian cities. However with the more concentrated American population, a corresponding Russian Akula sub with 20 missiles holding 10 MIRVed missiles could destroy far more than 20 major US cities. Think LA, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and other major metropolises all the way to Washington. Some of those warheads could include Electromagnetic Pulse weapons, which by destroying the electrical grid could according to one ex-CIA director eventually kill 90% of Americans. That estimate may be doubtful, but a few EMP weapons could conceivably destroy large swaths of the American economy for decades.
That’s the damage from one sub. One sub commander.
The Present Threat
Many argue that nuclear war has recently become more likely. Factors include:
1. An unstable and irritable North Korean regime which has produced working thermonuclear weapons and ICBMs, though it has not yet effectively combined the two. However, nuclear tipped ICBMs are a 1950s technology, and there are many other ways North Korean weapons could be delivered to South Korea, Japan or the US.
2. Abrogation of the Iran nuclear treaty, which could allow Iran to quickly create nuclear weapons and set off a Sunni-Shia nuclear arms race which might also engage Israel’s hundreds of nuclear weapons.
3. Changes in U.S. nuclear strategy, which could include more “low yield” tactical weapons that greatly blur the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear devices, plus a new Pentagon policy draft which declares cyberattacks potentially answerable by an American first strike.
4. Aggressive moves by the Russian federation to create new nuclear cruise missiles and perhaps a virtually undetectable nuclear torpedo whose large warheads could easily destroy coastal American cities like Los Angeles and New York.
5. Statements by national leaders. President Trump’s widely reported statement that “what’s the point of nuclear weapons if you don’t get to use them” appears if not apochryphal, at least poorly sourced. He has however said that Europe is “big enough” that nuclear weapons are not off the table, and during his campaign called for American nuclear weapons capacity to be increased “ten fold.”
It is hard to put the threat of nuclear weapons to personal survival at a specific risk level. However, given past experiences, it is arguable that the risk of nuclear weapon use to any American’s life may be on the order of an ongoing 1%.
There are approximately 325 million Americans. A 1% risk works out to a death rate of 3.25 million per year.
To place this in perspective, approximately 2.62 million Americans die every year.
By this reckoning the threat of nuclear weapons represents more potential deaths than occur from all the causes of mortality in the US, all the tumors, heart attacks, strokes, accidents and murders, and ravages of old age.
Asked why nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945, many nuclear weapons experts respond with a single word – “luck.” If many military commanders had followed their orders and protocols, it would already have happened. Many times over.
Survival is a bipartisan issue. Nuclear weapons may be too big to think about but not too big to use. We have to talk about them, in our schools, our religious institutions, our homes, and our political campaigns to create policies that lower the risk. The survival and health of you, your kids, your community and economy, merits attention.
Everybody dies. No one ought to die from nuclear weapons.