Nuclear Winter of Our Discontent

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A 1954 U.S. nuclear test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

Always interesting when the Army starts poking around the nation’s nuclear stockpile – seeing as the service is no longer a big player in the atomic realm – to see if atomic weapons still make sense.

Ward Wilson isn’t a soldier – he’s a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies – but his musing on the topic appears in the latest issue of Parameters, the Army’s professional journal.

By re-studying the U.S. nuclear bombing of Japan that ended World War II in 1945, and the brush with World War III that 1962’s Cuban missile crisis represented, Wilson tries to revamp our understanding of the utility of nuclear weapons.

What this new scholarship reveals is that the failure rate of nuclear deterrence is potentially higher than theory admits.

Nuclear deterrence has to be perfect, or close to perfect. A catastrophic all-out nuclear war could result from any failure of nuclear deterrence, so there is little margin for error. One could say for nuclear deterrence, failure is not an option. Yet these documented cases of nuclear deterrence failure raise the possibility that we have been far luckier, and have run far greater risks, than we imagined. If nuclear deterrence has a high rate of failure, continuing to rely on it for the safety and security of the United States would seem to guarantee its eventual catastrophic failure.

One of the great strengths of the military mind is its insistence on experience-based thinking. In the case of nuclear weapons, there has historically been plenty of theory, but not as much sensible, pragmatic thinking. It is time for a little more pragmatic analysis.

Sobering stuff. Full thing here.