What is the optimal response to a nuclear attack?

This article claims that the only sensible response to a nuclear attack is an appeal to international law.

The only sensible military response would be nonnuclear, with a prohibition on military operations outside the bombed country’s own borders, because the latter would carry an unacceptable risk of further escalation and omnicide.

Why? Isn’t that crazy?

Daniel Ellsberg claimed that the most likely outcome of a nuclear war would be a nuclear winter during which 98 percent of humanity would starve to death if they did not die of something else sooner.1 That seems to assume that a country like the US or Russia were involved. Leading climatologists have simulated a nuclear war between India and Pakistan during which each uses a third of its nuclear arsenal: The simulations suggest that such a war would most likely be followed by a nuclear autumn, during which only a quarter of humanity would starve to death if they did not die of something else sooner.2 A third of the combined nuclear arsenals of India and Pakistan represents only 2 percent of the US nuclear arsenal.3

Those simulations are not implausible speculations. Simon Beard, a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge in the UK, found 8 different groups that had estimated the probability of a nuclear war in the next year. Their numbers ranged from one chance in 10,000 to 7 percent. The study with seemingly the best methodology estimated a 0.7 percent chance in the next year. If that rate holds constant for the next 70 years (less than the life expectancy of a child born today4), it would translate into a 40 percent chance of a nuclear war in that time period.5

However, that 40 percent chance of a nuclear war is probably conservative, because it assumes that the probability of a nuclear war on any given day or year is constant. Sadly, nuclear proliferation is continuing, which suggests that the probability of a nuclear war will likely increase over time until something makes it impossible for anyone to make nuclear weapons again for a very long time.6

This is supported by the accompanying figure, which shows the 74-year history of nuclear proliferation with a forecast of the next 74 years based on the model that seemed to best fit that history. When the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) took effect in 1970, there were 5 nuclear weapon states. When the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty was ratified in 1988, there were 7. When US President George W. Bush declared an “Axis of Evil” on 2002-01-29, there were 8. Now there are 9.

Number of nuclear weapon states, past and forecasted

Figure 1. Number of nuclear-weapon states, past and forecasted with quantified imprecision. NPT = Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. INF = Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty.

The research behind this plot is summarized in a Wikiversity article on “Forecasting nuclear proliferation,” where all are invited to revise that work as long as they write from a neutral point of view citing credible sources. This article concludes that nuclear proliferation will likely continue until either (a) a nuclear war destroys everyone’s ability to make more such weapons for a very long time, or (b) an international movement has far more success than similar previous efforts in providing effective nonviolent recourse for grievances of the poor, weak and disfranchised.6

Kaku and Axelrod (1987) reviewed US government documents discussing military planning from 1939 to 1980. They noted that after World War II, “with the German and British militaries in tatters, only one force stood between the [primary architects of US foreign and military policy7] and their ‘natural right of succession’: the Red Army.”8 US government leaders commissioned several assessments of a potential nuclear first strike by the US against the Soviet Union (USSR, now Russia). All concluded that a US first strike could not destroy the ability of the USSR to retaliate. Many who commissioned those studies were greatly disappointed.

George Kennan, who invented the US policy of “containment” regarding the USSR, ultimately turned against “containment.” Instead, he advocated making Germany into a demilitarized zone, free of nuclear weapons, and having the US commit to never being the first to use nuclear weapons. Both of these recommendations were ignored. Documents quoted by Kaku and Axelrod (1987) make it clear that the primary purpose of the US nuclear weapons program under Truman was world domination, not merely containment of the Soviet Union.9 The record of US foreign and military policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is consistent with claims that many US leaders sought and may still seek world domination, as documented in the historical review by Kaku and Axelrod (1987).

Recently, Rolf Mützenich, the leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, a junior partner to Chancellor Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU bloc, said that US nuclear weapons in Germany should be removed, because they provide a bigger threat than a benefit to Germany. Most leading German politicians disagreed, claiming that even suggesting such an action damaged Germany’s reputation in the world.10

The present analysis suggests that Mützenich is correct: Germany could still stay in NATO while removing itself from a list of primary targets if the US got into a nuclear war. This would make Germany safer.

Beyond that, every nation on the planet could increase the security of their own people by (a) working to strengthen international law to include substantive sanctions against any country whose nuclear weapons seem to have been used and (b) instituting a national security tax on trade with nuclear-weapon states in proportion to the threat represented by their nuclear arsenals. Comments on these claims can be posted to the Wikiversity article on “Forecasting nuclear proliferation.”6

Copyright 2020 Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. Spencer Graves

1 “Daniel Ellsberg reveals he was a nuclear war planner, warns of nuclear winter & global starvation”, interview of Ellsberg by Amy Goodman and Juan González (https://www.democracynow.org/2017/12/6/doomsday_machine_daniel_ellsberg_reveals_he); see also Ellberg (2017) The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (Bloomsbury).

2 Toon et al. (2017) “Atmospheric effects and societal consequences of regional scale nuclear conflicts and acts of individual nuclear terrorism,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 7:1973-2002.

3 Wikipedia, “List of nuclear-weapon states”. That article includes a list of the 9 current nuclear-weapon states. On 2020-05-06, it showed the US having 6,185 nuclear weapons, of which 1,600 were deployed. Toon et al. 2017 simulated the use of 50 nuclear weapons by each of India and Pakistan. That’s 1.62 percent of the total, round up to 2 percent, and 6.25 percent of the 1,600 nuclear weapons deployed by the US.

4 Wikipedia, “Life expectancy” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_expectancy).

5 Wikiveristy, “Time to nuclear Armageddon” (https://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Time_to_nuclear_Armageddon).

6 Wikiversity, “Forecasting nuclear proliferation” (https://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Forecasting_nuclear_proliferation).

7 These “primary architects” were identified in this 1987 review as the US Council on Foreign Relations.

8 Michio Kaku and Daniel Axelrod (1987) To win a nuclear war: The Pentagon’s secret war plans (Black Rose Books, esp. pp. 64-66).

9 Michio Kaku and Daniel Axelrod (1987) To win a nuclear war: The Pentagon’s secret war plans (Black Rose Books, esp. pp. 64-66).

10 Timothy Jones, “Germany: SPD call to withdraw US nuclear arms stokes debate”, Duetsche Welle, 2020-05-02 (https://www.dw.com/en/germany-spd-call-to-withdraw-us-nuclear-arms-stokes-debate/a-53314883), accessed 2020-05-06.