I modernize an old post, adding copious footnotes, along with significant editing. Oh, and I guess I talk a lot about nuclear weapons and what the future holds for them.
This post was originally published in 2016. It has been modernized for your edification.1
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Progress has not saved us. Though it’s easy and maybe even forgivable to think that it has. We live longer. We have more personal autonomy and wealth. And on the other side there’s less hunger and poverty, along with less death and violence.
This post is going to examine that last assertion: things are less violent. In particular I want to talk about nuclear weapons. (“Nukes” for those who enjoy colloquial brevity like I do.)
One of the best known cases for a decrease in violence comes from Steven Pinker. He made the argument in his book The Better Angels of our Nature. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, prophet of black swans and catastrophes of all sorts, disagrees with this. Taleb contends that Pinker confuses the absence of volatility with an absence of fragility. For a book length rebuttal of Pinker I would recommend Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age by Bear F. Braumoeller (published in 2019, and reviewed by me in 2020) Braumoeller regularly consulted with Taleb in the course of writing the book. Pinker makes some good points, but having considered both arguments, on this issue I agree with Braumoeller and Taleb.
This is an important issue, and often we’re so wrapped up in our present conflicts that we neglect to take a longer term historical outlook. We lack a certain form of wisdom. This post is about what will happen if we aren’t wise. In particular what a lack of wisdom might mean as far as nukes.
As you can imagine if our survival hinges on our wisdom, then I’m not optimistic. As such, I personally predict that nukes are in our future. In this, as with so many things, I am contradicting conventional wisdom. Or at least I’m contradicting what most people believe about nuclear weapons. If they in fact believe anything at all. If they do, they might be thinking something along these lines:
It’s been over 70 years since the last nuke was detonated in anger. (In fact the original post was written on the 71st anniversary of Nagasaki) Yes, we have nukes, but we’re not going to use them. Sure some crazy terrorist may explode one, but the kind of all-out exchange we were worried about during the cold war is not going to happen.
First don’t underestimate the impact of a lone terrorist nuke, and secondly don’t write off an all-out exchange either. Particularly if we’re going to poke the bear (i.e. Russia, and to a lesser extent China) in the manner I described in my last post.2
The first question to consider is why are we still worried about nukes 70 years after their invention? Generally the development of a technology is quickly followed by the development of countermeasures. To take just one example, being able to drop bombs from the air was terrifying to people when that first became a possibility, but it didn’t take long to develop fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft guns, and surface-to-air missiles. Then why, 70+ years after Hiroshima and 50+ years after the development of the ICBM, can we still not defend ourselves? Can’t we shoot missiles down? Well first off even if we could, a lot of people think building a missile defense system is the ultimate way of poking the bear. Though I don’t fall into that camp despite my reluctance, in general, to poke the bear. But even if we decide that’s okay, right now it just isn’t technologically feasible to make a missile defense system that works against a country like Russia or China.
At this point I’d like to offer up data on the effectiveness of various anti missile systems and unfortunately there’s not a lot of it, and what there is isn’t good. If North Korea or Iran happened to launch a single missile at the United States we might be able to stop it, but when asked what he would do in that case one knowledgeable US official is reported to have said:
If a North Korean ICBM were launched in the direction of Seattle, …[I] would fire a bunch of GMD interceptors and cross [my] fingers.
Some clarification: GMD stands for Ground-based Midcourse Defense and it’s our current anti-ballistic missile platform. Also North Korea currently doesn’t have a missile capable of reaching Seattle, or at least it didn’t in 2016, these days they probably do.
Recent tests of our anti-missile systems have been marginally promising but they have mostly been conducted in a reasonably controlled environment, not on actual missiles being fired by surprise from a random location, at a time chosen by the aggressor for optimal effectiveness.
Tacked on at the end of the Wikipedia article on the US’s efforts at missile defense is a great summary of the difficulties of defending against a Russian or Chinese ICBM. In short:
Boost-stage defenses are the only layer that can successfully destroy a MIRV (an ICBM that has multiple warheads.)
Even so, boost stage interception is really difficult particularly against solid fuel ICBMs of the type that Russia and China use.
And even then the only current technology capable of doing it has to be within 40 km (~25 miles) of where the missile is launched. For those in Utah that means that if you had an anti missile defense system located at Hill Air Force Base it could shoot down missiles launched from no farther away than downtown Salt Lake City.
The Wikipedia article concludes by saying that, “There is no theoretical perspective for economically viable boost-phase defense against the latest solid-fueled ICBMs, no matter if it would be ground-based missiles, space-based missiles, or airborne laser (ABL).” (A reference from the following paper.)3
In the end, it’s not hard to see why defending against nuclear missiles is so hard. Your defense can’t be porous at all. Letting even a single warhead get through can cause massive destruction. Add to that their speed and small size and you have the ultimate offensive weapon.
Thus far we’ve talked about the difficulties in defending against a Russian or Chinese ICBM. But of course we haven’t done anything to address why they might decide to nuke us. In 2016, it was a long discussion. In 2023 I just have to say “Ukraine” and “Taiwan”. That said, this isn’t the only area where we have to worry.
There is no shortage of terrorist groups who would love to nuke the US if they could get their hands on one. Thus far we’ve been lucky and as far as we know there are no loose nukes. (Having subsequently read Command and Control I’m less sure of that.) And I’m sure that preventing it is one of the top priorities of every intelligence agency out there, so perhaps it won’t happen. Still this is another situation where we’re in a race between singularity and catastrophe. On a long enough time horizon the chances that there will be some act of nuclear terrorism approach 100%. To argue otherwise would be to assert that eventually terrorism and nukes will go away. I will address the latter point in a minute, but as to the first I don’t think anyone believes that terrorism will disappear. If anything, most sources of grievance have increased in the last few years. If you think I’m wrong on this point I’d be glad to hear your argument.
Of course, if we never have an incident of nuclear terrorism, then, as I frequently point out, that’s great. If I’m wrong nothing happens. But if I’m right…
Perhaps you might argue that a single nuke going off in New York or Paris or London is not that bad. Certainly it would be one of the biggest new stories since the explosion of the first nuclear weapons and frankly it’s hard to see how it doesn’t end up radically reshaping the whole world Obviously a lot depends on who ultimately ended up being responsible for the act, but we invaded Iraq after 9/11 and they had nothing to do with it. Imagine who we might go to war with if an actual nuke detonated.
And then of course there’s the damage to the American psyche. Look at how much things changed just following 9/11. I can only imagine what kind of police state we would end up with after a terrorist nuke exploded in a major city. In other words, I would argue that a terrorist nuke is inevitable and when it does happen it’s going to have major repercussions.
But we still need to return to a discussion of a potential World War III, a major nuclear exchange between two large nation states. What are the odds of that? Since the end of the Cold War the conventional wisdom has been that the odds are quite low, but I can think of at least a half a dozen factors which might increase the odds.
1- Increased Antagonism between Great Powers:
This is the one I covered in my last post. We seem determined to encircle and antagonize the two major countries that have a large quantity of nuclear weapons. I previously spoke mostly about Russia, but if you follow what’s happening in the South China Sea or if you’ve heard about the recent ruling by the Hague we’re not exactly treating China with kid gloves either. I’ve already said a lot about this factor so we’ll move on to the others. (I left this paragraph unchanged from 2016, to demonstrate my prescience, or my realpolitik Patrick Buchanen bona fides, your choice.)
2- Ongoing Proliferation:
The next factor which increases the odds of World War III is the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I know that most recently Iran looks like a success story. Here’s a country who wanted nuclear weapons and we stopped them. Well that remains to be seen. (Indeed it does!) But it does seem intuitive that the longer we go the more countries will have nukes. It might be instructive to determine a rate at which this is happening. In 1945 there was one country. Today in 2016, everyone pretty much agrees that there are nine. Dividing 71 years by 8 we get a new nuclear nation every nine years. Which means that in 99 years we’ll have another 11 nations with nuclear weapons, assuming that the rate of acquisition doesn’t increase. But actually most technological innovation doesn’t follow a linear curve. Consequently we may see an explosion (no pun intended) in nations with nuclear weapons, or it may be gradual or it may not happen at all (again this would be great, but unexpected.)
But let’s assume the rate at which new countries are added to the nuclear club stays constant and it takes nine years on average to add a nation to the club and that in one-hundred years we’ve only added eleven more countries. This may seem fairly minor, but if we assume that any two belligerents could start World War III then we would have 55 potential starting points for World War III rather than the one starting point we had during the bipolar situation which existed during the Cold War.
In saying this I realize, of course, there were more than two nations with nukes during the Cold War, but everyone had basically lined up on one side or another. In another one hundred years, who knows what kind of alliances there will be. Even France and the United States have had rocky patches in their relationship over the last several decades. (More about France later.)
As I mentioned in my last point, for a long time we had a bipolar world. The Soviet Union only had to worry about the United States and vice versa. Now we have an increasingly aggressive China whose intentions are unclear, but they’re certainly very ambitious. And, from the standpoint of nuclear weapons, they’re keeping their cards very close to their chest.
Most people have a tendency to dismiss China because they are still quite far behind the US and Russia in the number of nukes they possess. But they’re catching up fast, and also since they weren’t really part of the Cold War they aren’t party to any of the restrictive treaties, which means that they have:
...considerably more freedom to explore the technical frontiers of ballistic and cruise missiles than either the US or Russia.4
4- Historical Arsonists:
This is a concept I’m borrowing from Dan Carlin, of the podcast Hardcore History, it’s the concept of the Historical Arsonist. These are people like Hitler, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, etc.5 who burn down the world, generally not caring how many people die or what else happens, in their quest to remake things in their image. You can see people like this going back as far as we have records up to as recently as World War II. While people like Pinker might argue that we no longer have to worry about this archetype, they seem to be a fairly consistent feature of humanity. If they haven’t disappeared, then when the next one comes along he’s going to have access to nuclear weapons. What does that look like? During Hitler’s rise he was able to gain a significant amount of territory just by asking, how much more effective would he have been if he had threatened nuclear annihilation if he didn’t get his way?
This brings up another point, are we even sure we know all the ways someone could use nuclear weapons? In the past one of the defining features of these historical arsonists was they took military technology and used it in a way no one expected. Napoleon was the master of the artillery and was able to mobilize and field a much bigger army than had previously been possible. Hitler combined the newly developed tank and aircraft into an unstoppable blitzkrieg. Alexander the Great had the phalanx.6 Nuclear weapons, as I’ve mentioned, are hard enough to defend against in any case, but imagine the most deviously clever thing someone could do with that, and then imagine that it was even more devious than that. With something of that level, you might have historical arson on a scale never before imagined.
5- Future Geopolitical Changes:
Nations can break up, governments change, national attitudes mutate, and more. We’ve already seen the Soviet Union break up, and while that went fairly smoothly (at least so far, it hasn’t been that long when you think about it.) There’s no reason to assume that it will go that smoothly the next time. Particularly when you look at the lesson of the former Soviet Republics who did give up their weapons. When you look at what’s happening in Ukraine it seems probable that they might now regret giving up their nukes. (In 2016 I was referring to Crimea, now the reference is obvious. “The more things change…”)
Of course the US isn’t going to last forever. I have no firm prediction on what the end of the country looks like. It’s possible that we’ll reach some sort of singularity long before that, but it may happen sooner than we imagine, particularly if the increased rancor of the current election represents any kind of trend. Thus if, but more likely when, something like that happens, what does that look like in terms of nukes? If Texas breaks off that’s one thing, but if you end up with seven nations who ends up with the nukes?
And then of course you could have the possibility of a radical change in government. Some people think that Trump would be catastrophic in this respect. On the other side of the aisle, many conservatives think that a country like France might get taken over by Muslims if demographic trends continue and immigration isn’t slowed. Certainly a book about the subject has proven very popular. Does a Muslim run France with nukes act exactly the same as the current nation? Maybe, maybe not.
The point of all this is neither to convince you to drop everything and start building a bomb shelter (though if you already have one you shouldn’t demolish it.) nor is it to scare you. But Black swans are out there, and they don’t disappear just because we stop paying attention to them.
Some additional thoughts in 2023:
Ukraine has shown that Russia is more reluctant to use nukes than I previously thought. And we are definitely paying more attention to the problem of nukes than we were in 2016. But just because Russia hasn’t used them yet, doesn’t mean that they will never use them. And while awareness of danger is a good first step, it’s still only the first step. I don’t think anyone knows where Russia ends up if it decisively loses in Ukraine, particularly if it feels that the loss was because of the US and its allies.
Nukes are not going away. What do things look like in twenty years? How about fifty? No trend seems to be headed in a good direction.
I do think the run-down condition and poor performance of Russia’s military would lead one to believe that Russia’s nukes are similarly run-down and unreliable. We should probably scale down our estimates for how many are operational. However, while the fact that Russia is more moribund than we suspected is a good thing when it comes to fighting a conventional war, it’s a bad thing if you want safe and secure nukes.
I don’t know what the future holds, but I am certain that nukes will continue to be a part of it. Let us pray that they remain in the background rather than bursting onto center stage.
Much like my use of footnotes (I kind of went crazy…) I’m still trying to dial in the right level for donations. I am definitely not going to paywall any of my writing, but I might create a paid Substack subscription for people who want to express their appreciation. Until then you can continue to donate on patreon.
I am not merely taking these posts and republishing them. Rather I’ve gone through a number of steps to make them current. Here’s a list (it’s not everything but it’s the big things):
All references to time have been updated so “x years ago”, referencing the current year, etc.
If I have read a book or particularly trenchant article in the intervening years I will reference it.
My focus in the early years was more explicitly religious. As that element has been moved to my Patheos column I have taken the liberty of excising certain bits which might be distracting.
If, upon re-reading I came across something that now seems clunky, or unclear I have rewritten it.
A professional editor has also given it the once over. (Don’t expect too much. I perversely ignore many of his eminently sensible suggestions.)
Also I’ll be adding a lot of footnotes. Like this one!
In the post previous to this one, back in 2016, I had gone into a long discussion of NATO expansion. Mostly I was worried about how extending our security umbrella made war between the US and Russia more likely. Many of my concerns have played out with the invasion of Ukraine, but as we’re still in the middle of it, I’m not prepared to say whether, on the whole, I was right or wrong.
As you might imagine, Wikipedia has changed somewhat in the last seven years, but the closing section about the difficulties of missile defense is essentially the same, and the quote about “no theoretical perspective” remains there exactly as I quoted it.
https://nationalinterest.org/feature/should-america-fear-chinas-nuclear-weapons-11046 Given that in February Russia suspended it’s participation in NEW Start which was the only treaty left this may no longer be the case.
My editor (see point 5 of footnote 1) told me that I shouldn’t put Genghis Khan in this category, and referred me to Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. While I understand this point, it is also true that the Mongol Invasions are thought to have killed around 40-60 million people, or around 11% of the world’s population at the time.
This comment was left on the original post, and it’s so good I thought I’d include it here:
While it is true that Alexander the Great had the phalanx, so did Darius as he employed Greek mercenaries. The phalanx had been around for some centuries before Alexander arrived on the scene. Alexander was innovative in his use of cavalry, and like Napoleon, he was very good at the logistical aspects of war. But don't minimize Alexander's tactical ability, his audacity, and his charisma. Look at hisbattles such as Gaugamel when his hugely outnumbered army bent, but never broke. How does one man command such loyalty? It was their undaunted courage in the face of war elephants and scythe-wheel chariots that held the field until Alexander was able to exploit a Persian mistake, and audaciously attack straight through the encroaching encirclement to strike at Darius himself. Better, I think to talk about the messianic attributes of the arsonists than their innovative use of military technology.