The Cuban Missile Crisis 60 Years Ago, Ukraine Today: What, if Anything, Have we Learned?

The Twisted Myth that Nuclear Weapons Make Us Safer

“Mutually Assured Destruction” has been the MO of the world’s nuclear powers for decades. If Russia points a giant nuclear warhead toward the U.S., we would gear up to point an even more massive missile their way, and then, in theory, Russia shrugs its shoulders and says, “Eh, not worth it.” They would be completely “deterred” from advancing a nuclear attack based on the reality that doing this would mean the entire country, continent, and ultimately, the entire world, would become obliterated as we know it; the cost and the risk greatly outweigh any benefit. According to this thesis, the existence of nuclear weapons makes the cost of war seem frighteningly high and thus “discourage[s] states from starting any wars that might lead to the use of such weapons” (Kenneth Waltz, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Better,”) The idea that nuclear weapons make conventional war safer is a widely used as a framing for why we need nukes at all, with one specific reason being framing that nuclear weapons can still be the equalizer against superior conventional forces.

The official NATO website was updated as recently as a few days ago (May 17, 2022), and reads in its header, “NATO is committed to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, but as long as nuclear weapons exist, it will remain a nuclear alliance (emphasis my own).” What happens to the theories of “Deterrence” and “Mutually Assured Destruction” when we take a closer look? What is the possibility for NATO ever disbanding because a nuclear alliance is no longer needed? If all of the over 12,000 nuclear warheads in the world somehow magically disappear, would we be better off? Or would these theories prove correct, and would World War III start imminently with conventional weapons (or sticks and stones, as the saying goes)?

A recent (May 23, 2022) headline reads, “‘Destroy whole UK in two minutes!’ Russia MP threatens nuclear strike in on-air outburst” with a summary below, “A RUSSIAN MP has boasted during a TV interview that a nuclear strike could “destroy the whole UK in two minutes” amid mounting hostility between London and Moscow.”

This article certainly doesn’t seem to bode well for the theory that nuclear weapons make conventional war safer. On the contrary, Putin has been able to escalate war with Ukraine because of Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal, not despite it. Although the risk of this conflict actually going nuclear is low, the question is undeniably raised (again, for most, for the first time since the 19050s and ’60s) if future wars could escalate beyond the nuclear threshold.

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What’s the Current Status of U.S. and Russian Nuclear Weapons? How Many Exist and Just How Powerful Are They?

The interest in this question has gone up immensely over the past 50 days, since Russia first invaded Ukraine on February 24, and since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his country’s nuclear forces had been placed on “high alert” just a few days later on the 27th.

In 1986, there were 70,000 nuclear weapons on the planet—an entirely terrifying number. Nuclear weapons analysts estimate that the world’s nine nuclear states—China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States—have around 13,000 nuclear warheads in total today (Arms Control Association). That build-down started when U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, agreed under the INF Treaty on the Soviet Union destroying 889 of its intermediate-range missiles and 957 shorter-range missiles, and the U.S. destroying 677 and 169 respectively (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists).

 What are the specifics of where the remaining nuclear weapons possessed by the U.S. and Russia are located? How powerful are they, and, most relevantly, what is the readiness levels of these weapons to launch?

This graphic from Hans Kristensen at the Federation of American Scientists shows the locations of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Storage Sites in Europe, where there are currently an estimated 100 US Air Force nuclear bombs stored.

HOW MANY WEAPONS IN THE UNITED STATES?

  • WHAT ARE THE LIMITS? On April 8, 2010, the United States and Russia signed New START, a legally binding, verifiable agreement that limits each side to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 700 strategic delivery systems (ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers) and limits deployed and nondeployed launchers to 800 (Arms Control Association).
  • WHAT ARE THE ACTUAL NUMBERS? At the beginning of 2021, the U.S. maintained an estimated stockpile of approximately 3,800 nuclear warheads for delivery by 800 ballistic missiles and aircraft (Arms Control Association).

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Millennials Memeing Nuclear War

It seems like my generation has never before experienced this much nuclear fear. And what do we do with it? Laugh any way we can, for one. Putin has threatened the use of nuclear weapons by increasing Russia’s nuclear forces alertness levels and stating in a national address, “…For those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside, No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”

Nuclear simulations have come close to capturing the extra-short attention spans of millennials and gen-z, but there’s never been anything like the current real time situation that has ever put this much attention on the reality of the threat of nuclear weapons. And of course the only recourse for a heavy dose of reality is a flood of relevant comedy.

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How are we Back Here…? Reflecting on the History of Nuclear Close Calls as Putin’s Threat Reignites Cold War Fears of Nuclear War

“Sadly, we are treading back through old historical patterns that we said that we would never permit to happen again,”

Fiona Hill, Former Senior Director for Europe and Russia at the United States National Security Council, in an interview with POLITICO, today, February 28, 2022: ‘Yes, He Would’: Fiona Hill on Putin and Nukes

By

A nuclear “close call” is usually defined as an incident that could have led to at least one unintended, mistaken, or unauthorized nuclear detonation or missile launch.

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Current U.S. Nuclear Weapons Issues Updates — November 15, 2021

The current Continuing Resolution keeping the government running expires 12/3. Another Continuing Resolution is likely.

The Pentagon has released a major threat assessment of China at https://media.defense.gov/2021/Nov/03/2002885874/-1/-1/0/2021-CMPR-FINAL.PDF.

Under “Nuclear Capabilities” it concludes:

► Over the next decade, the PRC [People’s Republic of China] aims to modernize, diversify, and expand its nuclear forces.
► The PRC is investing in, and expanding, the number of its land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms and constructing the infrastructure necessary to support this major expansion of its nuclear forces.
► The PRC is also supporting this expansion by increasing its capacity to produce and separate plutonium by constructing fast breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities.
► The accelerating pace of the PRC’s nuclear expansion may enable the PRC to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027. The PRC likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the DoD projected in 2020.
► The PRC has possibly already established a nascent “nuclear triad” with the development of a nuclear capable air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) and improvement of its ground and sea-based nuclear capabilities.
► New developments in 2020 further suggest that the PRC intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force.

This is bound to have a major influence on Biden’s Nuclear Posture Review, to be released in early 2022. China’s expansion of its nuclear weapons capabilities, along with U.S. and Russian “modernization” programs, may also be big issues at the January 2022 NonProliferation Treaty Review Conference.

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