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Source: The Economist (US), Dec 19, 1998 v349 i8099 p70(1).

Title: Four: There's no need to worry about nuclear war.(small nuclear
warfare likely in coming century)

Full Text COPYRIGHT 1998 The Economist Newspaper Ltd. All rights reserved.

FOR most people the end of the cold war meant an automatic reduction in the need to worry about nuclear weapons. In one respect they were right; the chances of an all-out nuclear holocaust killing a substantial percentage of the world's population has been much reduced. But the chances of a smaller nuclear exchange may have already increased, or be about to. There are three factors which govern the chances of nuclear war: the number of nuclear powers; the likelihood that one of those powers will reach a point where it sees the use of nuclear weapons as its best option; and the possibility of mistakes. Together they make nuclear war seem quite possible, even likely, in the next half century.

The number of states with nuclear weapons seems likely to rise, though it is hard to say how far. The major checks on the process are lack of desire, lack of resources and lack of technology. The lack of desire is nicely re-inforced by the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which reassures countries their neighbours will not be giving them reason to want the bomb by developing one of their own. But the treaty is not an insurmountable problem for a leadership that really wants the weapons.

When countries do have a burning desire for nuclear weapons, it can normally be put down to a need for symbolic prowess or the existence of an adversary of some sort--be it next-door neighbour or far-off hegemon--who already has them. The keeping-up-with-the-Joneses aspect of the process makes proliferation self-reinforcing; each new nuclear power stokes the fires of proliferation that glow in its neighbours' hearts.

The barriers to proliferation in terms of resources and technology are real but surmountable. The Manhattan Project showed that it is possible to develop a nuclear weapon even when limited to the technologies of the 1940s. Countries as poor as North Korea and Pakistan have found themselves well enough equipped to have a go. They needed a bit of outside help--but the more nuclear powers there are, the more likely it is that outside technical help will be available. Better technology makes a nuclear capability even easier to develop, and mature technologies are ever more widely spread. It is quite possible that technologies being developed for other purposes (such as lasers, which are useful for all sorts of advanced materials processing) will make the process cheaper and easier still. Although it is conceivable that there will be no new nuclear powers in 2020, it is also quite possible that there might be half a dozen or more, some in East Asia and others in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The possession of nuclear weapons does not mean that they will be used. With the exception of America, none of the current nuclear possessors has let a bomb off in anger. But for a country to become a nuclear power at all suggests that there will be some circumstances in which its leaders would consider the possibility of using their weapons. More nuclear-capable countries mean more such possibilities.

The most obvious spur for use would be invasion. A nuclear power might well threaten to use nuclear weapons if invaded, and eventually carry the threat out. The idea that nuclear weapons in and of themselves deter such invasions is wrong, as Israel found in the Yom Kippur war. Such invasions come about when the invaders calculate that their victim will not, in the end, go nuclear. The more often they happen, the more likely it is that someone will get such a calculation wrong. The Egyptians and Syrians may have come close in 1973.

Some students of international affairs argue that, while a nuclear power might retaliate against a non- nuclear aggressor, it would never dream of doing so against a nuclear neighbour--which, in its turn, would have been deterred from invading in the first place. Nuclear deterrence, this school of thought asserts, was shown to work globally in the cold war and can now be expected to work regionally. Wider ownership of nuclear arsenals could actually make the world a more peaceful place (though that peace might involve sitting powerlessly by as states did horrible things within their borders, or to little non-nuclear neighbours).

There may be some truth in this. The leaders of newly-nuclear countries are no more likely to be suicidally irrational than the leaders of the cold war nations were. Deterrence might be enhanced in regional conflicts, where the fallout from the war would clearly affect all concerned. But some truth may not be enough.

A lot of the stability of the cold war, especially in its later years, can be ascribed to the ability each side had to mount a devastating retaliation after suffering a first strike. Acquiring this ability is costly: you need more missiles, mobile missiles and missile-toting submarines. If politicians in newly-nuclear countries make the investments needed to ensure that they will have nuclear weapons even after a first strike, their neighbours will get ever more scared. If they do not, their own military men will spend an increasing amount of time worrying about the danger of losing all their nuclear might to an enemy's first strike. Such "use-them-or-lose-them" worries promote instability in crises.

Particularly perturbing crises--fundamentally immune to deterrence--occur just before a neighbour achieves an operational nuclear capability, when there is an opportunity to nip the threat in the bud with a nuclear or non-nuclear strike on the nascent nuclear-weapons complex. (The 1981 Israeli strike on Iraq's Osiraq reactor is an example.) If your intelligence is wrong, and your target has already fielded the fruits of its nuclear labours, this could be a very costly mistake.

On top of that, there is the ever-present risk of accident. Mistakes like the American shooting-down of an Iranian airliner in 1988 become a lot more dangerous in a crisis where there are nuclear weapons armed and ready. During the Cuban missile crisis, a bear snuffling around the perimeter fence of a Minnesota airbase led to aircraft carrying primed nuclear weapons rolling down the runways ready for take off in neighbouring Wisconsin. Military establishments with poor discipline, poor training and poor civilian oversight are particularly prone to such accidents, and it is almost certain that as the number of nuclear powers increases the reliability of the average military establishment looking after those weapons will drop. If a weapon goes off by accident, as they sometimes nearly did in the cold war's early years, who is to say that enemies will not be blamed--and bombed.

Lastly, there is the possibility of a nuclear war triggered by something other than a state. A continued collapse in Russia would be one way in which terrorists or criminals might gain possession of nuclear weapons; a world in which there had been another surge in proliferation might offer a variety of other routes.

And the terrorists might not even need nuclear weapons to trigger nuclear war. America's nuclear arsenal is assumed to deter chemical and biological threats as well as nuclear ones. Similar attitudes are doubtless widespread among nuclear powers. If they persist, then the ability to trigger a nuclear war will be spread far wider in the future than it has been in the past. It used to be the case that you needed an army or a nuke of your own if you wanted to start a nuclear war. In a few decades it might be possible with a simple biotechnology laboratory and the most evil of intentions.

 
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