View from Brussels: Are we heading for nuclear tensions - again?

A leading figure in Federation of American Scientists seems to think so, writes Pelle Neroth, who remembers the cold war nuclear war scare of the 1980s

I was at a family gathering in southern England last week and took the opportunity to sound out the student members of the extended family on what students are thinking these days in Britain. The answer was racism, gender issues, that “horrible” Donald Trump and Brexit, which the students were against.

We compared notes and concluded that, while students today seem to listen to more or less the same kind of rock and dance music as when I was young and wear more or less the same casual clothes,  political priorities are not the same. I’m not a left-winger but in my recollection the student left used to be more worried about jobs, working-class versus middle-class opportunities and, above all, maintaining peace at the height of a dangerous Cold War.

When I was growing up in the 1980s, nuclear war and the possibility of it was a ubiquitous presence in everyone’s minds, but the student left was the most vocal and honest about these fears. You had huge demonstrations in London, Paris and at Greenham Common and the possibility of a nuclear conflagration between the Warsaw Pact and Nato was reflected in popular culture, from Raymond Briggs's cartoon When the Wind Blows to Pink Floyd’s The Wall (film and album), Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Two Tribes, to TV films like Threads, in which post-nuclear-apocalypse Britain was a place where it was better to be dead than living. My sister had to write a poem about life (sic) after nuclear war as a classroom exercise and I think hers was read out during assembly one morning later that week. One of her classmates took it upon herself to write letters to US president Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko to urge peace between the superpowers and illustrated it with childish drawings of peace doves. I don’t know if she ever received replies from Washington and Moscow.

Okay, my sample of relatives who are students in 2017 is maybe not representative but I asked them if they were worried about the threat of a nuclear war this time round. They were not. Hadn’t even considered the possibility.

Maybe, then, today's students should turn away from their habitual political priorities and take a glance at the recent issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists – a magazine which used to make worldwide headlines with its atomic clock ticking ever closer to midnight back in the 1980s. Now, with global tensions rising, it is once again an important read – I am sad to say.  

In it, Hans Kristensen, the director of nuclear information matters at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) has written an alarming article where he blames American modernisation of its nuclear forces as endangering the stable nuclear status quo which does, after all, exist between Russia, China and America.  Above all, he singles out the Pentagon’s new “super-fuze” missiles which possess unprecedented destructive capacity and which he and other commentators believe could make the Russians believe that the Americans might be planning for a nuclear first strike to take out most of Russia's nuclear retaliation capacity, with Russian missiles that survived the American first strike able to be mopped up by the US anti-missile defences being placed out in Nato members in eastern Europe with added defensive missile interceptor capacity located on board US Navy Aegis ships. These fears of being struck first and having  one’s nuclear strike capacity wiped out may force the Russians to contemplate their own nuclear first strike, which might get the Americans thinking more seriously about their own first strike and so on….an escalating cycle of mutual distrust.

I don't think the experts are saying we are in immediate danger of nuclear conflict, but it is never to soon to sound a warning about the emerging tensions. Is it? 

Of course it would be foolish to believe that the effects of such an exchange could be limited to the opponent’s nuclear missile facilities. Cities would be targeted and millions of civilians would die. 

It’s worth quoting the conclusion of the Federation of American Scientists’ article*:
“Under the veil of an otherwise legitimate warhead life extension programme, the US military has quietly engaged in the vast expansion of the killing power of the most numerous warhead in the US nuclear arsenal… And the capability upgrade has happened outside the attention of most government officials who have been preoccupied with reducing warhead numbers. The result is a nuclear arsenal that has been transformed into a force that has the unambiguous characteristics of being optimised for surprise attacks against Russia and the fighting and winning of a nuclear war.”

There are a number of times when we dodged the nuclear war bullet in the Cold War, particularly in the early 1960s when Kennedy was in power and the United States was offered a window of opportunity before the Soviets had built up their intercontinental ballistic missile force. Respected presidential biographer Robert Dallek writes that “the president (John F Kennedy) thought that nuclear war would bring about mutually assured destruction – MAD in the shorthand of the day - while the Joint Chiefs of Staff believed that the United States could fight such a conflict and win it.” The effects of an American first strike in 1962/63 were discussed at the highest levels, with the young Kennedy (and his bookish defence secretary Robert McNamara) standing pretty much alone against the butt-kicking, cigar-chomping Pentagon top brass who were sceptical of Kennedy, who had been a mere junior patrol boat officer in World War II while they were already commanding the air fleets that firebombed Japanese and German cities. There were crises over West Berlin and Cuba, over which a nuclear war very nearly broke out. My father recalled how, during the Cuba crisis in 1962, he was walking across Waterloo Bridge one beautiful October afternoon thinking he’d never live to see another weekend. And there were tensions during the 1980s where one Soviet nuclear defence officer, Stanislav Petrov, apparently saved the world by refusing to act on Soviet satellite information that turned out to be faulty when it sounded the alarm that an all-out US missile attack was taking place.

One of the reasons why the American political class haven’t talked more about it could be that the money is already flooding into congressional districts for the nuclear arms modernisation project. (Of course, rearmament benefits industry in the other big powers too.) It  creates jobs and it adds to America’s capacities as a technological superpower. The British seem preoccupied with their election – as well as, now, that evil attack in Manchester. But it is a dilemma, isn’t it, especially for engineers? Can one take a moral stand against the uses to which technology is put, when research and development in the arms industry provides an exciting challenge as well as a job?


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