Above: a visualization of a hypersonic nuclear missile. Image source: Real Clear Defense, 2019.

You are reading a State of Dystopia post. These entries note the news events that put us on the cyberpunk dystopia timeline. Read them now to see the future we’re going towards. Or read them in the future to figure out where things went wrong.

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Otherwise, onto the fun topic of nukes:

If you’re reading this, much of what you see online probably does have a dystopian inflection. Climate change is coming. Perfect surveillance states are arriving. Wealth inequality is preposterously extreme while the economy collapses, and a pandemic rages.

Well, that’s all true. This is not an effort to discount any of the things you’re worried about.

I’d contend, however, that you probably don’t worry enough about nuclear war.

It’s not, after all, a sexy issue. It’s a fear located in history to many–recent history, but history nonetheless. The cold war is over, and kids today learn how to prepare for active shooters in schools rather than nuclear bombs.

Plus, nukes aren’t new. Not the way drones or autonomous robots are new. Hell, do nukes even have anything to do with cyberpunk?

But the fact of the matter is, despite some nuclear arms control progress, the world is likely as at risk of nuclear catastrophe as it was during the Cold War. Perhaps even more so. And unlike climate catastrophe, which is unfolding over the course of decades, nuclear war could one-shot civilization pretty much instantly.

This post is pretty straightforward. There are two halves. The first is about why you should care more about nukes. The second is about where we are on the nuclear doomsday clock.

If you properly appreciate the risk of nuclear war, skip the first part. Otherwise:

The case for you caring more about nukes

To make my argument of why you should care about nukes at least as much as you care about other dystopian threats, first I’d like to present a short list of nuclear close calls. Pardon the history lesson, but it’s important.

(By the way, you can check out this Wikipedia page for a longer list and some additional details).

Nuclear close calls during the Cold War

  • In 1961, Strategic Air Command lost contact with NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and early warning system sites simultaneously. This was interpreted as either a coordinated attack or an extremely unlikely coincidence. Strategic Air Command prepared a nuclear-armed force ready for takeoff, but luckily, they figured out there was no attack just in time.
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962: A Soviet submarine came extremely close to launching a nuclear torpedo at an American fleet. Two out of three ranking naval officers approved, but one vetoed. Because of our good luck with that dissenting vote, a nuclear strike never happened.
  • In 1967, a solar flare jammed NORAD radar. The United States prepared a nuclear bomber counter-strike, but figured out it was a solar flare.
  • In 1979, a computer error at NORAD led defense officials to believe hundreds of Soviet missiles had been launched. Nuclear bombers were prepared for takeoff, and the president was told he would need to decide to retaliate within 3 to 7 minutes. Luckily the error was discovered after a few minutes (someone had loaded a training scenario into a computer).
  • In 1983, the USSR’s nuclear early-warning system indicated an imminent nuclear strike from the United States. Luckily for us, a Soviet officer believed it to be an error—as the system showed a handful of missiles, and presumably the US would launch hundreds or thousands if it were real. The officer managed to convince his superiors to hold off on retaliation until a ground radar confirmation.
  • One month later, in 1983, NATO conducted training exercises in Europe. They were simulating an escalation to nuclear war. The preparations taken were realistic to the point that some Soviet officials suspected the training exercise was a ruse for real nuclear strike preparations. The USSR’s nuclear forces and air units were placed in East Germany and Poland, ready to go at a moment’s notice.

And with that in mind…

  • The world has had nuclear weapons for 75 years. The world has had more than one nuclear country for 71 years (since the USSR successfully developed a nuke in 1949).
  • In the space of those 7 decades, the world has come to the brink of nuclear war several times, as mentioned. As much as human caution and wisdom prevailed in those incidents, can you seriously say some luck wasn’t involved?
  • Yes, many of these were due to computer errors on relatively ancient machines (by modern standards). But would you argue that government bureaucrats don’t make mistakes anymore, or that our current systems are invulnerable to tampering?
  • The Cold War may have ended, and the USSR may have dissolved, but the nukes have not gone anywhere. Ballpark: Russia has 6,300-6,500 nukes. The U.S. has 5,800-6,100. The UK, France, and China each have 200-300. India and Pakistan each have 150-ish.
  • The number of countries with nuclear weapons has grown since the peak of the Cold War and is likely to increase. More countries = more factors, more tensions.

My pitch to you is simple: if, in only 7 decades, we nearly had nuclear war several times between only two powers, what are the odds we go another 7 decades with multiple countries armed? A century?

You get the idea.

Where are we now?

One of the best resources for the layman to consult in assessing nuclear risk? The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. The group was founded by scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project (the guys who built the atomic bomb in World War 2) almost immediately after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The mission of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is to inform about the man-made threats to human civilization.

The Bulletin is best known for the “Doomsday Clock,” which has been around since 1947. With a default setting of 7 minutes to midnight, the Doomsday Clock moves closer to or farther from midnight depending on world events.

The time currently? 2020 began just 100 seconds to midnight. The last time The Bulletin put us that close was 1953.

Sound overdramatic? It’s not.

(Side note: If you’re not convinced, consider the risks of being overly cautious about nuclear war vs. not being cautious enough).

We moved to this new time in January 2020, following a detailed analysis by the Bulletin of late 2019’s events. Meaning, most of the events of 2020 (a global pandemic and economic collapse, to name a couple) have yet to be calculated.

Things that moved us closer to midnight (according to The Bulletin’s 1/20 statement):

  • The Iranian pursuit of enriching uranium and better centrifuges, which comes as the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions on Iran.
  • Oh yeah, and drone-striking Iranian General Soleimani didn’t help reduce tensions.
  • The expiration of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The INF treaty was a foundation piece of international arms control. Think arms control doesn’t matter? Since the expiration of the treaty, the United States and Russia have begun developing weapons banned by the treaty.
  • Basically no progress on limiting North Korean nuclear development. Not that I blame North Korea for going that route, or Iran.
  • The continued pace of climate change, as well as emerging technologies like genetic engineering and AI, also all factor in. In real life, these things obviously still matter to geopolitical tensions, and thus nukes. But as they’re not directly related to nukes, I’m skimping on the details. You can (and should) read the full statement here.
    • Note that these constitute threats to civilization in their own right, and factor into The Bulletin’s statement.

That was just 2019 and the beginning of 2020. The picture, you may be shocked to learn, has not improved.

Things that have happened in the last few months:

  • The general erosion of US-China relations.
  • Meanwhile, tensions between China and India have skyrocketed, with dozens of troops killed along their mutual border. And the U.S. and India just signed a defense pact to share military intelligence, a sign both nuclear states are moving together in opposition to China.
  • Russia announced in July that it would be arming its Navy with hypersonic nuclear missiles. Supposedly able to travel at about 5x the speed of sound, these are pretty hard to intercept, and expand the horizon of where and how quickly nuclear missiles can reach their targets.
  • Throughout July, a series of mysterious explosions rocked Iran’s nuclear facilities. Likely Israel and/or the U.S. (It wouldn’t be the first time). Iran has, as far as we can tell publicly, done little in the way of retaliation to any country, claiming them as internal errors. How long will that last?
  • In general, the U.S. has been increasingly aggressive with nuclear-armed vessels the last couple years.
    • As stated, the U.S. and China have had several confrontations in the South China Sea. It’s a contentious area. These confrontations have included U.S. military drills, next to Chinese bases, simulating attacks on those bases. With nuclear bombers included in the exercises. The Pentagon has been deploying nuclear bombers to the SCS regularly this year.
    • The regular deployment of warships to the Arctic, close to Russian territory. In one instance, three nuclear-bombers approached a Russian naval base.
    • In other instances, in May and June 2020, nuclear bombers flew over the eastern side of Russian territory, leading to the immediate scrambling of Russian aircraft.

So to recap–where are we, as 2020 draws down?

Well, global tensions are at an all-time high. The U.S. and Russia, and especially the U.S. and China. Also the U.S. and Iran, India and Pakistan, India and China, Turkey and Russia…the list goes on.

Given the many close calls the U.S. and USSR had alone, it’d be shocking if there weren’t many more nuclear close calls the upcoming years. And as we enter the era of nuclear missiles too fast to intercept, pushing our luck seems suicidal.

But, before you go, there’s a ray of hope you should keep an eye out for:

The U.S. and Russia appear poised, at least for now, to extend their last remaining arms control agreement.

The New START treaty was brought to life in 2010, and is set to expire February 2021.

Previously, talks had been breaking down, and it seemed probable that the world’s two biggest nuclear powers would cease to have any arms control agreement after decades of cooperation.

So, I won’t tell you that this means you can stop worrying. But if the treaty is renewed, then we can breathe a little easier.

And that’s worth more than you might think.

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