The Buzz

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

If China, for example, decides to press a claim in the Pacific and precipitates an open conflict with the United States at sea, it will almost certainly lose. At that point, China will have to make a choice: surrender whatever was at stake, or remove the U.S. fleet from the conflict by nuclear force. Likewise, if Russia and NATO come to blows in Europe – a scenario I thought ridiculous in the 1990s and now must reconsider – Russia will also lose, and like China will have no set of buffer states around it to prevent the fight from spilling back into Russian territory.

I call this the “sore loser scenario,” since the use of nuclear arms will serve only to make the victor pay a price equal to one the loser feels has already been suffered. Theoretically, the loser lashing out against the winner might create a kind of nuclear reset, but only the most optimistic Chinese strategist could hope that an act of the magnitude of a nuclear attack on a U.S. carrier could produce a military draw. (Put another way, it’s not a demonstration or a show of force if it involves instantly incinerating 5,000 U.S. military personnel.) The United States will be forced to respond, and then we’re off to the races.

Whether the Chinese really believe they could get away with this is unclear. But the Russians do, at least to judge by their own writings. In fact, the “sore loser” concept is embedded in Russian military doctrine. Russia is acutely aware of its conventional weakness; even as they torment Ukraine right under NATO’s nose, the Russians know that they have no chance against NATO without nuclear weapons, a role reversal between NATO and Russia whose irony has not gone unnoticed in the Kremlin. And so Moscow’s strategy, as analyst Nikolai Sokov and others have pointed out, is to use nuclear weapons in a “de-escalatory” capacity: that is, when they’re losing a war, they’ll engage in a limited nuclear attack to get the enemy to back down.

Sadly, this isn’t the product of some half-baked recent order from current Russian President Vladimir Putin. Back in 1999, when Yeltsin was still in charge and Putin had only just arrived on the Moscow political scene, the Russian military held a major war game, Zapad-99 (or “West-99,” in case anyone missed the point). In this scenario NATO, for some utterly inexplicable reason, seized the Russian city of Kaliningrad, an enclave on the Baltic coast. This idea is so crazy that I am loathe to believe that any Russian planner really believed in it, but in any case, NATO had its nefarious way with poor Kaliningrad, despite heroic Russian measures. And so the game’s final act was a set of four nuclear strikes on NATO, two on Western Europe and two in North America. This ended the war and forced NATO to give back the Russian enclave.

As in the Chinese scenario, it is difficult to imagine that any Russian planner worth his salt really thinks that even the most feckless U.S. president would back down after Russian nuclear strikes kill and injure millions in Europe and America. More likely, as even Russian commentators have suggested, this might be bravado for internal political consumption. It could also be what nuclear mavens call “declaratory policy,” or the things nuclear powers say they would do in hopes of having never to do them, and which may not be very close to what they really train and prepare actually to do in a nuclear war. That would be my guess, but Zapad-99 and subsequent Russia thinking on nuclear war is, by any standard, disturbing stuff.

Unfortunately, American exercises aren’t much better. In 2006, for example, the United States conducted a drill called “Vigilant Shield” in which we were at war with an assorted group of generic bad guys, including “Ruebek,” “Nemazee” and “Churya.” (If you can’t recognize Russia, North Korea, and China, you’re not using your imagination. I suppose it was easier than calling them “Ussia-Ray” and “Orth-Nay Orea-Kay.”) In the end, America settled everyone’s hash by launching a few strategic nuclear weapons at “Ruebek,” which brought the whole mess over whatever it was to an end.

One or two nuclear bombs, apparently, are aren’t all that destructive. In fact, “Vigilant Shield” included a hypothetical enemy nuclear strike against the Pentagon (which sits within sight of the Mall and just a short distance from the White House) that only killed 6,000 people. This remarkably low figure prompted journalist and Defense Department critic William Arkin to note that two of the core assumptions in the game were obviously that “nuclear warfare can break out for no particular reason at any particular time,” and that “small nuclear weapons, while bad, don’t really kill that many people.” 

Military establishments are supposed to be full of worst-case pessimists. Nuclear warfighting ideas, however, rely on incredibly optimistic assumptions about universal rationality, near-perfect information, accurate perception, the absence of panic, and an orderly ability to control escalation in the midst of chaos. Someone making those assumptions are not the people you want in the Oval Office when “Ruebek” and “Churya” are off their leashes.