The sabre-rattling between Pyongyang and Washington is masking a dangerous destabilisation in deterrence – making nuclear war by accident a real possibility.
AS YOU read this, about a dozen submarines are lurking in the world’s oceans, equipped to launch nuclear missiles. Four are American; the rest might be British, French, Russian, Chinese, Indian or perhaps Israeli. Some of them are packing massive heat, equivalent to thousands of times the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima. All are being very, very quiet.
Why? In a word, deterrence. In the event of a nuclear strike or massive conventional attack on the sub’s owner or its allies, that nation can unleash horrendous retaliation – so no one dares attack in the first place.
Deterrence is credited with preventing nuclear conflict since the beginning of the cold war, but it is under increasing stress. Most obviously, North Korea has entered the game. It says it is developing nuclear weapons precisely to deter a US nuclear strike, but with the rhetoric getting out of hand, nuclear conflict could become more likely rather than less.
But beyond that headline news lies a less well-known, but potentially more disturbing, story. A series of seemingly minor technological upgrades have been destabilising the foundations of deterrence, sparking a new nuclear arms race with unforeseeable consequences. “The danger of an accident leading to nuclear war is as high now as it was during periods of peak crisis during the cold war,” says Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.