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5 Ways a Nuclear War Could Go Down (And Billions of People Would Die)

But to count on such clarity is a huge and potentially disastrous gamble. What happens if a demonstration of resolve merely provokes a corresponding act from the other side? One flexing of nuclear muscle (at sea, perhaps, or far from population centers on land) then leads to another. No one backs down, and so the next shot is a little closer to something that matters. Or perhaps a human being – again, always the weakest link in the nuclear chain – interprets a “demonstration” as the prelude to full-blown attack, and decides that safe is better than sorry. When it comes to strategic nuclear exchanges, there is no prize for second-place. The temptation to act, barely restrained during a crisis, might become overwhelming.

The fallacy at the center of this concept is the classic strategic error of assuming the predictability and controllability of inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable events.  A nuclear show of force rests entirely on the hope that enemy leaders will clearly see a demonstration shot for what it is and not overreact. But misperception is a key part of international relations, and it is pure folly to assume that a nuclear explosion will have a clarifying, rather than a panicking, effect on the enemy.

4. We’re Dragged into it by Someone Else:

Sometimes, your worst enemies are your friends.

South Africa once had a nuclear arsenal. That’s not a widely known fact; the United States had its suspicions for years and tried in both Democratic and Republican administrations to put a stop to it, but to no avail.  It’s probably not a reality anyone wants to think about too closely today, especially after the white apartheid government gave them up before handing power to the black majority at the end of the 1980s. It’s never been clear what the South African whites thought they were going to do with them, but one theory is that the weapons were meant to be an insurance policy against being overrun by some putative alliance of Soviet-armed Africans in nearby states.

The goal, however, wasn’t to kill the invading armies. Instead, it was to reveal the arsenal during the conflict – maybe even engaging in one of those “demonstration shots” – and thus spark a superpower crisis that would drag the United States into the mess and (I guess) save Pretoria at the last minute.

Even if the United States has no plans to involve itself in a nuclear conflict, U.S. allies or other powers might have ideas of their own. South Korea, for example, a few years back floated the idea that the United States might want to consider returning tactical nuclear arms to the Korean peninsula, a notion from which the Americans quickly distanced themselves. (We removed them all from South Korea in 1991, and they’re not going back.)  If Iran gets a bomb Turkey or Saudi Arabia might follow suit. In each case, the presence of a nuclear weapon might be part of a smaller nation’s national defenses, but it is more likely to be bait for the U.S. to intervene before things go nuclear.

The step along this path to war involves the intervention of another power like Russia or China. In 1973, the Soviet Union threatened to intervene militarily in the Yom Kippur War a gamble that provoked an American move to a heightened state of nuclear readiness. What happens if fighting in the Middle East or Asia involves Russia or China, and smaller decides that a South African strategy of nuclearizing the conflict is the only hope of bringing the Americans into the fray?

Small states don’t have to develop their own arsenal for things to go awry. The path to nuclear war can always involve the traditional problem of alliances, and the constant danger, whenever nuclear armed powers are in proximity to each other, that one side or the other will see nuclear weapons as their trump card in a confrontation.

5. The “Sore Loser Scenario”:

Finally, there are paths to nuclear war that rely on the most durable source of war there is: human stupidity. If the major powers don’t bumble into a nuclear war, or get dragged into one by their friends, they can always just choose to launch one themselves.

During the Cold War, NATO’s strategy was actually quite simple. We can’t defeat you, we told the Soviets, and so if you invade Western Europe, you will be placing us in a position where we will have no choice but to repel you with battlefield nuclear weapons. You Soviets, having been nuked, will have no choice but to respond, at which point the U.S., Britain (and maybe even France) will turn the USSR into glass, even as you will do the same to us. So let’s not take that fateful step, because the first rifle fired in Wurzburg will inexorably lead to the last missile that falls on Vladivostok.

This chain of deterrent logic no longer applies to possible conflicts with Russia or China, in part because there is no longer a large battlefield between the U.S. and its nuclear opponents. If war breaks out over some smaller issue, there will be no way to pull back or even stabilize a military standoff, and a military loss by China or Russia is highly likely against a far superior (yes, even today) American force.