Responding to a nuclear attack

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What's the best response to a nuclear attack?

That's a difficult question. The opposite is much easier:

  • What's the worst response to a nuclear attack?
The evidence summarized in this article suggests that the worst worst response to a nuclear attack would be a nuclear response.
If you think otherwise, please revise this article accordingly, subject to the standard Wikimedia Foundation rules of writing from a neutral point of view citing credible sources. Or post your concerns to the "Discuss" page associated with this article.

This claim is clearer, more succinct, and slightly stronger than the Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races, "that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought", issued 2022-01-03 by the leaders of the first five nuclear-weapon states.[1] This repeated a statement made 1987-12-11 by US President Ronald Reagan and USSR head of state Mikhail Gorbachev.[2]

In the following we review the evidence for and against this claim and then comment on the credibility of the logic that led to the creation of the world's current nuclear arsenals and seems to be driving the current "modernization" programs in the US, Russia, China and elsewhere.

Summary of research on the consequences of a nuclear war[edit | edit source]

It is theoretically possible that a nuclear exchange would end like World War II with no more than two nuclear weapons being used. It is also theoretically possible that nuclear weapons in a new war would only target deserted areas like the locations where more than 2,000 tests of nuclear weapons have been conducted so far.[3] Either of those scenarios would slightly increase the level of harmful background radiation worldwide leading to a minor increase in cancer rates but would otherwise have minimal impact on all but a relatively few people.[4]

However, a nuclear war with such negligible results is highly unlikely. More likely is the deaths in a few hours of millions, perhaps billions of people, the overwhelming majority of whom would be civilians. More would die of radiation poisoning over the next few months and years.[5] If more than a few dozen nuclear weapons are used, then "nuclear war would also produce nearly instantaneous climate change that among other effects, would threaten the global food supply. Even a regional nuclear war ..., such as between India and Pakistan,[6] in which less than 3% of the world’s nuclear weapons were detonated, would suddenly decrease the average global temperature by 1°C–7°C, precipitation by up to 40%, and sunlight by up to 30%. ... Such a conflict would decrease crop production to an extent that it could seriously threaten world food security and even trigger global famine",[7] according to Robock and Prager (2021). In theory, crop losses of between 10 and 25 percent for 5-10 years[8] might not threaten a global famine or even an increase in malnutrition if people ate more plant-based foods and less meat. In practice, famines never work that way: There is hoarding, and many who do not die of starvation succumb to diseases or secondary wars driven by the food insecurity, according to Helfand (2013). Nobel Prize Economist Sen observed that, "no famine has ever taken place in a functioning democracy."[9] This generalizes the observation that Ireland was a net food exporter during its infamous potato famines of the nineteenth century.[10]

In the spring of 1961, "The total death toll as calculated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff [top US military leaders], from a U.S. first strike aimed at the Soviet Union, its Warsaw Pact satellites, and China, would be roughly six hundred million dead. A hundred Holocausts", according to Daniel Ellsberg, who served as a nuclear war planner for presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon[11] before releasing "The Pentagon Papers" in 1971. Six hundred million was roughly 20 percent of the total human population on earth in 1961, and that didn't count any in the US who might be killed in retaliation. In 1957, roughly 4 years earlier, Mao Zedong, then the Chairman of the People's Republic of China, said that a nuclear war could kill a third of humanity, perhaps half, "but imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist."[12]

Turco et al. (1983) published the first predictions of a nuclear winter based on climate modeling that considered smoke anticipated from fires started by a massive nuclear weapons exchange between the US and the Soviet Union. They found that "average light levels can be reduced to a few percent of ambient and land temperatures can reach -15° to -25°C" with smoke transported from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere, all of which "could pose a serious threat to human survivors and to other species." Various teams have published comparable analyses since then with different and increasingly sophisticated models, beginning with Aleksandrov and Stenchikov (1983), with essentially the same conclusions.[13] Coup et al. (2019) predicted hard freezes in the summer in most of the Northern Hemisphere including the US, Russia, and most of Europe during the first three years following such a war, where temperatures drop below −4 °C, making it impossible to grow crops in those regions. China would suffer a similar fate, with only its southeast portion remaining above freezing in the summer. Much of Southern Mexico, Central and South America, and the Southern Hemisphere would also be negatively impacted, but not to the same extent. These climate modeling results make Mao's predictions from 1957 seem wildly optimistic: Any humans in the US, Canada, or most of Eurasia who survived the nuclear exchange would have extreme difficulties finding enough to eat in that part of the world -- "imperialism razed to the ground", according to Mao. However, crop yields in most of the rest of the world would also be extremely depressed, which Mao had not considered. The results would threaten famine vastly worse than what has been predicted following a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.[14]

Of course, no one knows for sure how many people would die directly and indirectly from a nuclear war. However, it is doubtless obvious to some that the worst response to a nuclear attack would be a nuclear response:

  • A nuclear response to a nuclear "warning shot" with minimal destruction could too easily escalate until the nuclear arsenals of all parties were expended and the life expectancy of all survivors worldwide was dramatically reduced.
  • At the other extreme, a nuclear response to a massive first strike against a thousand cities would most likely increase the death toll and reduce the life expectancy of survivors in the country responding with nuclear weapons (and, of course, in other countries not officially involved in the nuclear exchange).

A 2022 study of the impact of a nuclear war on food production predicts that at least 2 billion (over a qurter of humanity) could die from a nuclear war between India and Pakistan and at least 5 billion (over 60 percent of humanity) could die from a nuclear war between the US and Russia.[15]

Turcotte (2022) concluded that if the 2022 Ukraine 'conflict ends without the annihilation of our species, it should nonetheless be regarded as a planet-wide near-death experience, and the “Peoples of the United Nations” should demand the total elimination of nuclear weapons as quickly as humanly possible, as well as the establishment of new common security measures that will move us much closer to sustainable peace throughout the world.' In spite of this concern, Turcotte recommended military action to support Ukraine but short of declaring war on Russia.

Leading experts have made alarming comments about the likelihood of a nuclear attack, possibly by a terrorist organization. In 2004 Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information wrote: "I wouldn't be at all surprised if nuclear weapons are used over the next 15 or 20 years, first and foremost by a terrorist group that gets its hands on a Russian" or Pakistani nuclear weapon.[16]

Other experts seemed even more concerned: A nuclear terrorist attack in the US was considered "more likely than not" within the next five to ten years, according to Professor Robert Gallucci of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in 2006 or in the next decade per former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Graham Allison in 2004.[17]

The Wikipedia article on "National Response Scenario Number One" describes "the United States federal government's planned response to a nuclear attack." It focuses primarily on "the possible detonation of a small, crude nuclear weapon by a terrorist group in a major city, with significant loss of life and property."[18] This article discusses preparing for a nuclear attack but not how to respond.

Nevertheless, if the worst response to a nuclear attack is a nuclear response, that has other policy implications for leaders of nuclear and non-nuclear countries world wide. However, an analysis of those implications will be left for future work.[19]

Non-nuclear responses[edit | edit source]

As of this writing, the international response to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has included the following options other that have (a) not used nuclear weapons nor (b) directly threatened Russia with the use of nuclear weapons, but (c) have increased the costs to the leaders of Russia for this invasion:

  • Sanctions have been imposed on trade in some Russian products. Some of these sanctions have had a major impact on the Russian economy. Previous research suggests that such sanctions may not be enough and may have been counterproductive on other situations, increasing domestic support for the regime sanctioned or at least not reducing its domestic support.[citation needed]
  • Sanctions targeting specifically the top leaders of the country, especially the head of state like the private yachts of Putin and the Russian oligarchs.[citation needed]
  • If a nuclear attack is followed by an invasion, survivors of the nuclear attack can respond with small arms fire and improvised explosive devices like Molotov cocktails. If they avoid assembling in large groups, it would be difficult for an invader to gain military advantage from more use of nuclear weapons.[citation needed]
  • Other countries can transfer weapons to the country attacked. To limit the risks of escalation, such international aide could be limited to limited to arms, munitions, and surveillance-only drones that could be carried by foot soldiers. These might include hand-held missiles like the Stinger surface-to-air missiles. The Stinger weighs 34 lb (15.2 kg) with a launcher. The missile without a launcher is 119 thousand 2020 US dollars, which is huge compared to an automatic rifle but tiny compared to a helicopter gunship or fighter aircraft that it can destroy.
  • International aide organizations might lobby for limited cease fires that allow the delivery of food, water, and medical aide like the w:Commission for Relief in Belgium, which arranged for the supply of food to German-occupied Belgium and northern France during the First World War. A similar relief effort dramatically reduced the death toll from the Russian famine of 1921–1922 during the Russian Civil War.[20]
  • As of this writing, calls to declare a "no-fly zone" over Ukraine have been resisted, perhaps recalling the disaster that has befallen Libya since the United Nations declared a "no-fly zone" there in 2011 and the US, Britain and France violated the terms of the UN authorization by providing air support for anti-government forces resisting the official government. Any attempt to enforce a "no-fly zone" with forces other than surface to air missiles could represent a dangerous escalation that could too easily expand the war to include other countries.[citation needed]

This list of possible non-nuclear responses is clearly only illustrative and not exhaustive. The main point here is that there are non-nuclear options.

Credibility of national security experts[edit | edit source]

The history of armed conflict should raise questions about the credibility of those advocating use of military force: In all major armed conflicts in history, at least one side has lost. Often the official winners lost substantially more than they gained.

Moreover, roughly the same logic that is used to justify building and maintaining nuclear weapons is similar to that used to justify other questionable "defense" policies like the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, US and other foreign involvement in the Vietnam War, and the many failures of efforts by European powers to maintain or reclaim their colonial empires after World War II.

Let's consider only one example: In 1999 an America West flight made an emergency landing when two Saudis tried to break into the cockpit. From that and other incidents, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other security agencies of the US government knew that the Saudi ambassador to the US and employees of the Saudi embassy and consulates in the US were involved in preparing for something like the suicide mass murders that occurred on September 11, 2001. This information was classified "Top Secret" and declassified in 2016.[21]

  • With that documentation, why did the US invade Afghanistan and Iraq and not Saudi Arabia, and why is this history still largely overlooked by the major media in the US?
  • More generally, with this track record, why do the existing security philosophies, security experts, and major media have any credibility on questions of national security?

Modern research has suggested the following:

  • People everywhere believe in rule of law, but people with power believe they should be above the law.[22]
  • Terrorism has increased since September 11, 2001, because, not in spite of, the decision by the US to invade Afghanistan and Iraq,[23] while ridiculing the Afghani offer to consider extraditing Osama bin Laden. Afghani officials requested evidence, which the US refused to provide.[24]
  • Violent revolutions are less likely to succeed than nonviolence, and only nonviolence is likely to build democracy [at least in the inventory of all the major violent and nonviolent governmental change efforts of the twentieth century compiled by Chenoweth and Stephan (2011)]; see Tables 1 and 2.[25]
Figure 1. How terrorist groups end (n = 268): The most common ending for a terrorist group is to convert to nonviolence via negotiations (43 percent), with most of the rest terminated by law enforcement (40 percent). Groups that were ended by military force constituted only 7 percent.[26]
  • Only 7 percent of terrorist groups that ended between 1968 and 2006 were defeated militarily. Most effective were negotiations like the "Good Friday Agreement" in Northern Ireland (43 percent) and law enforcement (40 percent). More terrorist groups won than were defeated militarily (10 percent); see Figure 1.[27]
  • Research on "normal accidents" or "system accidents" has established that it is impossible to design and manage complex systems to ultra-high levels of reliability. Maintenance on redundant systems is often deferred, because responsible managers don't want to spend money fixing something that works.[28] And procedures are sometimes secretly modified by people with different priorities from their management. For example, at least between 1970 and 1974 the codes in US Air Force launch control centers were all set continuously to 00000000.[29] This clearly negated the claim that only the President of the US could order the use of US nuclear weapons, secured by secret codes carried in a briefcase (called the "nuclear football") near the President at all times. Similarly, former US Secretary of Defense William J. Perry has said an actual nuclear attack on the US is far less likely than a report of one generated by a malfunction in the US nuclear command, control, and communications systems.[30]
  • Major media everywhere have a conflict of interest in honestly reporting on anything (like these research results) that might threaten those who control the money for the media.[31]
  • Everyone thinks they know more than they do,[32] which makes them easily misled by the media they find credible.[33]
Table 1. Major governmental change efforts of the twentieth century by dominant nature of the struggle (violent or nonviolent) and by outcome (failure, partial success, success) in the NAVCO1.1 data set compiled by Chenoweth and Stephan.[34]
Number of conflicts
violent nonviolent violent nonviolent
success 55 57 25% 54%
partial success 28 26 13% 25%
failure 134 23 62% 22%
total 217 106 100% 100%(*)
(*) Percent within conflicts of the same primary nature. Thus, the "violent" column percents add to 100. The nonviolent total differs from 100 only because of round-off.
Table 2. Average increase in Polity score from one year before to 1, 5 and 10 years after a conflict.(*)
violent nonviolent
years after 1 5 10 1 5 10
success 0.5 -1.6 -.5 5.9 10.1 10.0
partial success 1.4 2.1 1.9 4.2 6.8 7.6
failure 0.4 0.8 0.8 3.0 2.7 4.9
statistically significant no yes
(*) None of the changes following violent campaigns are statistically significant while all the changes following nonviolent campaigns are significant at the 0.05 level, and all but three have significance probabilities less than 0.001.

Recapitulation[edit | edit source]

In sum, the worst possible response to a nuclear attack would seem to be a nuclear response.

Existing nuclear weapons policies appear to be supported by propaganda that is effective, because it supports the preferences of those who control the money for the media,[31] and because everyone thinks they know more than they do.[32]

Acknowledgements[edit | edit source]

Thanks to Owen B. Toon, Alan Robock, and presenters at their irregular webinar series on impact on climate of a nuclear war. Of course, any errors and other deficiencies in this article are solely the responsibility of the author.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Wikisource:Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races. See also Borger (2022). Douthat (2022) discussed the current Ukraine crisis in The New York Times. He concluded that for us (presumably the US and perhaps its NATO allies) "To escalate now against a weaker adversary [Russia], one less likely to ultimately defeat us and more likely to engage in atomic recklessness if cornered, would be a grave and existential folly."
  2. Ronald Reagan; Mikhail Gorbachev (11 December 1987). "Joint statement by Reagan, Gorbachev". The Washington Post. Wikidata Q111845607. ISSN 0190-8286.  Reagan made that same statement 1984-01-25 in his fourth State of the Union Address.
  3. For a "List of nuclear weapons tests", see the Wikipedia article by that title.
  4. Johnston (2001) reported that only 521 of the more than 2,000 nuclear weapons tests were above ground. If 521 explosions of nuclear weapons in deserted places have not generated a substantive impact on human health, it seems unlikely that a nuclear war involving a few thousand explosions of nuclear weapons in deserted areas would be dramatically worse.
  5. Ellsberg (2017, pp. 2-3) includes a graph that the Joint Chiefs Joint Chiefs of Staff produced in the Spring of 1961 to answer President Kennedy's question, "If your plans for a general [nuclear] war are carried out as planned, how many people will be killed in the Soviet Union and China?" This graph was a straight line beginning at 275 million who would die during the initial nuclear exchange with another 8.25 million dying each month for the next six months, totaling 325 million deaths.
  6. Robock et al. (2007); Toon et al. (2019). Of course, a nuclear war could be started accidentally by any nuclear-weapons state, as suggested in the report of an Indian cruise missile that landed 2022-03-10 in Pakistan (Mashal and Masood 2022).
  7. Jägermeyr et al. (2020).
  8. as predicted by Jägermeyr et al. (2020) and others.
  9. Sen (1999, p. 32).
  10. e.g., Woodham-Smith (1962).
  11. Ellsberg (2017, esp. pp. 2-3) noted that 325 million would die in the Soviet Union and China and another couple hundred million in neighboring countries, totalling six hundred million.
  12. Dikötter (2010). See also Halimi (2018), which gives the date as 1957. There is some controversy about this quote; see the Wikipedia article on "Mao Zedong", accessed 2022-03-02.
  13. Coup et al. (2019, p. 8522).
  14. Ellsberg said that 98 or 99 percent of humanity would starve to death if they did not die of something else sooner (Ellsberg et al. 2017). Coup et al. (2019) suggests it won't be quite that bad but still pretty grim.
  15. Lili Xia; Alan Robock; Kim J N Scherrer et al. (15 August 2022). "Global food insecurity and famine from reduced crop, marine fishery and livestock production due to climate disruption from nuclear war soot injection". Nature Food 3 (8): 586-596. doi:10.1038/S43016-022-00573-0. Wikidata Q113732668. ISSN 2662-1355. 
  16. Nicholas Kristof (10 March 2004). "A Nuclear 9/11". The New York Times. Wikidata Q111906710. ISSN 0362-4331. 
  17. Orde Kittrie (22 May 2007). "Averting Catastrophe: Why the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty is Losing its Deterrence Capacity and How to Restore It". University of Michigan Law School. Wikidata Q111906652. 
  18. Accessed 2022-05-08, when it cited Jay Davis (25 March 2008). "After A Nuclear 9/11". The Washington Post. Wikidata Q111905675. ISSN 0190-8286. , Brian Michael Jenkins (12 September 2008). "A Nuclear 9/11?". The RAND Blog. Wikidata Q111906145. 
  19. Turcotte (2022) offered some suggestions. Recommendations more consistent with the analysis here is the Veterans For Peace Nuclear Posture Review (PDF), Veterans for Peace, January 2022, Wikidata Q111141993 They mention the "Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons", supported by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
  20. w:Herbert Hoover was a leading organizer in both these effort. He became known as the "Great Humanitarian" for this work. It may have helped him become President of the US, though the Wikipedia article on him does not mention that. (It does, however, cite sources that include the term the "Great Humanitarian" in their titles.)
  21. This is summarized with references in the Wikipedia article on "The 28 pages". These "28 pages" were declassified (with some redactions) on 2016-07-15 by then-President Obama. and made available on the web site of Copies of it were captured on that date and a few others including 2016-07-26 and stored by the Internet Archive. However, sometime between --07-26 and --08-03 it was removed from The Internet Archive officially has more recent copies, but spot checks suggest they are all blank.
  22. Tyler (2006). Anacharsis in ancient Athens said, "Laws are spider-webs, which catch the little flies, but cannot hold the big ones." Tyler and Huo (2002) found that minority African-Americans and Hispanics have essentially the same concept of justice as majority whites but different experiences.
  23. Pape and Feldman (2010). See also Winning the War on Terror.
  24. Guardian (2001).
  25. See also Winning the War on Terror.
  26. Jones and Libicki (2008, p. 19)
  27. Jones and Libicki (2008).
  28. e.g., Sagan (1993).
  29. Ellsberg (2017, p. 61).
  30. Perry and Collina (2020). Of course, a nuclear war could be started accidentally by any nuclear-weapons state, as suggested in the report of an Indian cruise missile that landed 2022-03-10 in Pakistan (Mashal and Masood 2022).
  31. 31.0 31.1 McChesney (2004). Cagé (2016). Rolnik et al. (2019). See also "Confirmation bias and conflict".
  32. 32.0 32.1 Kahneman (2011).
  33. Confirmation bias and conflict. See also McChesney (2004), Cagé (2016), and Rolnik et al. (2019).
  34. Chenoweth, Erica (2011), Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes (NAVCO) Dataset, v. 1.1, University of Denver, retrieved 2014-10-08