In the context of this ongoing war, there’s a critical story involving the likelihood of nuclear war. It would be reassuring to believe the chances of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine were trivial. They’re not. The world is facing the greatest risk of nuclear confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I began studying nuclear warfighting in the late 1960s and continued my studies through the depths of the Cold War in the ’70s and ’80s. It seemed that knowledge was moot after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It wasn’t.
Of course, my academic studies were not my first encounter with the reality of nuclear war. Like most people my age, I participated in nuclear bomb drills in elementary school in the 1950s. These included taking the duck-and-cover position under your desk to protect against flying glass from the blast and blistered skin from scalding heat waves.
It didn’t stop there. We studied concentric radii of blast, heat, and radioactivity emitted by a Hiroshima-type bomb and the new, more powerful thermonuclear devices.
We learned how to identify radioactive dust (it’s light grey) and how long to remain in bomb shelters until the dust dispersed from the wind and rain. We knew which radio stations to tune in to for civil defence updates. We knew our local civil defence (CD) volunteers by name and easily recognised the yellow hard hats they wore with the CD logo on the front. We knew how much water and food to store in a bomb shelter.
We were ready
This childhood training seemed about to prove its worth in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. I recall seeing the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer with a map of the Northern Hemisphere from Cuba to Canada and concentric circles showing the range of Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles being delivered to Cuba. I quickly determined that my hometown was within range. Nothing else seemed to matter.
When my academic studies on nuclear war began in 1969, the topic already seemed quite familiar. I read the leading treatises, including On Thermonuclear War (1960) by Herman Kahn, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957) by Henry Kissinger, The Delicate Balance of Terror (1958) by Albert J Wohlstetter, and many other works.
I went on to receive a Master’s degree in international relations from The School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, the top-rated academic institution in its field and a leading centre of studies in American Foreign Policy.
Later, I spent time inside the top-secret Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the first atomic bombs were developed. I was studying the complex dynamics of simulating nuclear tests without actually detonating devices.
Nuclear tests were banned in the atmosphere and underwater by the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. All testing, including underground, was banned by The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty of 1996, but the US did not ratify that treaty. From childhood to graduate school and beyond, my immersion in nuclear war-fighting strategy seemed complete.
What I learnt about the threat of nuclear war
Many dismiss the topic as too theoretical because ‘there has never been a nuclear war’. That’s not true. The US conducted the first and only nuclear war from 6–9 August 1945, when we dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan and killed about 200,000 people (the exact number is unknown). Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945, shortly after the bombings. There was nothing theoretical about it.
The basics of nuclear war-fighting include counterforce (aiming at military targets), counter-value (aiming at civilian targets and infrastructure), first-strike capability, second-strike capability (ability to strike back after you have been hit first), and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD).
MAD refers to the condition where both sides have second-strike capacity, but neither side will strike first because they know they will be hit in return and both sides will be destroyed. MAD is sometimes compared to two scorpions in a bottle.
What both sides can agree on
Despite the many theoretical contributors and evolution of strategies over the decades, all experts on nuclear war agreed on one thing — don’t go there. By this I mean, with the possible exception of a crazed dictator, no leader would ever launch a nuclear war out of the blue or at the beginning of a conflict.
If a nuclear war ever happened, it would be the result of escalation. A conflict that started with conventional weapons could end up as a nuclear war if the belligerents were nuclear powers and the two sides escalated to the point where one side felt cornered and had no options except to use nuclear weapons.
Ironically, in that situation, the non-cornered party might use nuclear weapons first in anticipation of a strike by the cornered party in order to avoid relying on its second-strike capability. So, it goes into the world of game theory.
All the best,
Strategist, The Daily Reckoning Australia
This content was originally published by Jim Rickards’ Strategic Intelligence Australia, a financial advisory newsletter designed to help you protect your wealth and potentially profit from unseen world events. Learn more here.