The United States and Russia keep nuclear-armed missiles on high alert, primed for launch, to allow them to be launched within minutes on warning of an incoming attack. At the same time, they need to ensure that the missiles are not launched by mistake based on a false warning, without authorization, or by accident. How secure are nuclear weapons against accidental, mistaken, and unauthorized nuclear explosions and missile launches?
Historical incidents show that system failures occur on a routine- even frequent basis. Such system failures reduce the number of effective safety measures in the system. System failures also make it more likely that under the time pressure and confusion of a crisis, or under an unexpected confluence of circumstances, safety measures will be eroded to the point that an unintended detonation or launch can occur. The fact that many dozens of incidents involving nuclear warheads are known to have occurred in the United States— and likely many more that has not been made public—indicates weaknesses exist in the chain of controls. There is presumably a similar list of Soviet and Russian incidents, only a few of which have been made public.
There is a long list of accidents involving nuclear-armed bombers. In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States kept bombers armed with nuclear weapons on “airborne alert.” Bombers were kept in the air 24 hours a day, every day, ready to respond to orders to fly to targets in the Soviet Union. Leaders feared that if the bombers were not already in the air when an attack came, they could be destroyed on the ground before they were able to take off, leaving the country with a reduced ability to retaliate. United States and Russia continue to keep nuclear missiles on high alert, ready to be launched within minutes. Like bombers, missiles are also subject to accidents and errors. Unlike bombers, however, missiles cannot be called back or retargeted after they are launched. Nor do they carry self-destruct mechanisms to abort a mistaken launch. Once fired, the missiles will proceed to their targets. This fact, coupled with the pressure to launch vulnerable land-based missiles quickly after receiving warning, means that accidents, erroneous warning of attack, or other technical glitches could lead to nuclear war. Half of US Air Force units responsible for nuclear weapons failed their nuclear surety (safety and security) inspections despite the fact that they had advance warning of the inspections. The more of these incidents that occur, the greater is the chance that one of them will lead to a nuclear detonation.
As the United States and Russia experienced, respectively, in Vietnam and Afghanistan, nuclear-armed states have been attacked and lost wars. Nuclear weapons have not given states the ability to persuade rivals to cease financing terrorism, stop illegitimate territorial expansion, uphold human rights, or stop conducting cyberattacks. The United States has made stopping these activities a high priority for national
security, but it is unrealistic to believe that its nuclear weapons will be able to halt them or force the countries involved to stop. In short, most security issues cannot be resolved by nuclear weapons.
If this wasn’t enough, The United States has warned Russia of “catastrophic consequences” if they were to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Nuclear weapons have existed for almost 80 years and many countries see them as a deterrent that continues to guarantee their national security. Experts estimate around 1,500 Russian warheads are currently “deployed”, meaning sited at missile and bomber bases or on submarines at sea. Nuclear weapons should only be used to thwart threats of a size and type that cannot be thwarted or defeated through other methods, given the huge risk of nuclear war. Keeping in view the recent developments between the two countries, a full-scale nuclear war between United States of America and Russia would see global food systems obliterated and over 5 billion people die of hunger.
Laraib Nadeem is a Defense Analyst based in Islamabad. She is interested in nuclear deterrence, political economy, and disinformation.