By Gunnar Westberg*
The Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons had as members former leading politicians or military officers, among others a British Field Marshal, an American General, an American Secretary of Defence and a French Prime Minister.
The commission unanimously agreed in its report in 1996 that “the proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never be used – accidentally or by decision – defies credibility. The only complete defence is the elimination of nuclear weapons and assurance that they will never be produced again.”
So that’s it: Nuclear weapons will be used if they are allowed to remain with us. And even a “small” nuclear war, using one percent or less of the world’s nuclear weapons, might cause a worldwide famine leading to the death of a billion humans or more.
Lt Colonel Bruce Blair was for several years in the 1970s commander of U.S. crews with the duty to launch intercontinental nuclear missiles. “I knew how to fire the missiles, I needed no permission,” he states. In the 1990s he was charged with making a review for the U.S. Senate on the question: “Is unauthorised firing of U.S. nuclear weapons a real possibility?”
Blair’s answer was “Yes”, and the risk is not insignificant.
On Hiroshima Day, Aug. 6, this year, a major newspaper in Sweden, Aftonbladet, carried an interview with Colonel Blair, now head of the Global Zero movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons. The reporter asked: “Mr Blair, do you think that nuclear weapons will be used again?” Mr Blair was silent for a while and then responded: “I am afraid it cannot be avoided. A data code shorter than a Twitter message could be enough.”
Blair reminds us of the story of the ‘Permissive Action Link’, a security device for nuclear weapons, the purpose of which is to prevent their unauthorised arming or detonation.
When Robert McNamara was U.S. Secretary of Defence in the mid-1960s, he issued an order that to be able to fire missiles from submarines, the commanding officer must have received a code which permitted the launch.
However, the navy did not want to be prevented from firing on its own initiative, such as in the case that contact with headquarters was interrupted. The initial code of 00000000 was for this reason retained for many years and was generally known. McNamara, however, did not know this until many years after he left the government.
A Soviet admiral once told me that as late as around 1980 he could fire the missiles from a submarine without a code.
When systems of control of the launch systems are discussed, we often learn – as a kind of post scriptum – that there is a Plan B: If all communication with HQ is dead and the commanders believe the war is on, missiles can be fired. We are never told how this works. But there is a plan B.
What is the situation today? Can an unauthorised launch of nuclear weapons occur? Colonel Blair says “Yes”. Mistakes, misunderstandings, hacker encroachments, human mistakes – there are always risks.
After the end of the Cold War, we have learnt about several “close calls”. There was the Cuban missile crisis and especially the “Soviet submarine left behind”. There was the Petrov Incident in September 1983. There was the possibly worst crisis – worst but little known – of the NATO exercise ‘Able Archer’ in November 1983 when the Soviet leaders expected a NATO attack any moment – and NATO had no insight into the Soviet paranoia.
There are numerous other dangerous incidents about which we have less information.
Martin Hellman, a mathematician and expert in risk analysis, guesses that the risk of a major nuclear war may have been as high as one percent per year during the 40 Cold War years. That sums up to 40 percent. Mankind thus had a slightly better than even chance of not being exterminated. We were lucky.
Maybe the risk is smaller today. But with the risk of proliferation, with new funds allocated to nuclear weapons research and with the increasing tension in international relations, the risk may be increasing again.
As long as nuclear weapons exist the risk exists. The risk of global omnicide, of Assured Destruction.
It is nuclear weapons or us. We cannot co-exist. One of us will have to go.
A prohibition against nuclear weapons is necessary. And it is possible.
*Gunnar Westberg, Professor of Medicine in Göteborg, Sweden, and Co-President of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) from 2004 to 2008, describes himself as “generally concerned about with what little wisdom our world is governed”
Edited by Phil Harris
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service.
This article was originally published by the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research (TFF)