Over the next six months, I will be publishing a series of blogs on the likelihood of strategic global nuclear war. Although I am not a certified expert on the subject, during my five years of preparation for writing the First Strike Series, I have read hundreds of articles and books from prominent think tanks about strategic nuclear war with Russia and China.
Among the more notable sources are the RAND Corporation, the Wilson Center, Brookings Institution, Pavel Podvig’s research project Russian Nuclear Forces, and Seth Baum’s Global Catastrophic Risk Institute.
The first part of this series will be devoted to the extremely difficult quantitative probability, if any can be assigned, to the likelihood of global nuclear war. The second part will be devoted to determining who, if any, of the planet's eight billion inhabitants will survive, based on targeting. Finally, I will describe the type of life that the few survivors may have.
Part One: What Effect Does the War in Ukraine Have?
A. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – 2023 Doomsday Clock
On January 24, 2023, John Mecklin, editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, announced that the clock had been pushed forward to 90 seconds to midnight. This decision was based primarily on Russian threats to use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine. As you will see later in this series, if Putin is faced with a loss in the Ukraine, the likelihood of the use of tactical nuclear weapons rises exponentially. The Bulletin also noted that in addition to the Ukraine situation, there are several other developments that have pushed the clock closer to midnight than it was even at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Mecklin wrote:
The US Defense Department claims Beijing may increase its arsenal fivefold by 2035 and could soon rival the nuclear capabilities of the United States and Russia, with unpredictable consequences for stability. North Korea has greatly stepped up its intermediate- and long-range missile testing. … Iran continues to increase its uranium enrichment capacity. … India continues to modernize its nuclear arsenal of some 160 warheads, with new delivery systems now under development to complement or replace existing nuclear-capable aircraft, land-based delivery systems, and sea-based systems. Pakistan has an arsenal of similar size and continues to expand its warheads, delivery systems, and fissile material production.
So we are in deep trouble since in human history, confrontations are often settled by reaching the top rung of the escalation ladder in resolving conflicts and then waiting to see if the other side wants to match the madness.
B. Chemical, Biological, and Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs)
It is very unlikely that NATO has developed a strategy to deal with the eventuality of chemical, biological, and tactical nuclear weapons. Certainly, we can see an escalation taking place. The United States is supplying F-16 airplanes and Patriot missile batteries that have taken out some of Russia's most advanced hypersonic missiles. In addition to these weapons, advanced tanks and drones have been supplied to the Ukrainian war effort. Most experts on this matter doubt that Russia will resort to any of the above-mentioned means because to do so would mean that the very ground they are seeking to acquire would be contaminated for years. But if they do, it may be a good time to head for West Texas or other areas of the United States that would fare better than either the East or West Coasts during a global nuclear war.
C. Unlike Khrushchev Who Had to Answer to the Politburo, Putin Answers to No One
Petr Kucherenko, Russia’s Deputy Minister of Science and Higher Education, was the latest victim of Putin’s purge when Kucherenko reportedly branded the invasion of Ukraine as a “fascist invasion.” According to my count, that brings the number of oligarchs, most who have died under mysterious circumstances since the Ukraine invasion, to forty. If that doesn't make Putin dangerous enough, then imagine what a successful Ukraine offensive might do this spring. Certainly, if Putin is facing defeat, which might be the only thing he has to answer for, he will employ a strategy known as “gambling for resurrection.” It is similar to what President Jimmy Carter did when he sent helicopters to rescue the hostages in Iran. It is a strategy that has little chance of success, but it is the only arrow left in Putin’s quiver.
That is why I often believe that how war ends is much more important than how it starts. Can Putin be given an off ramp even if Zelensky opposes one?
In the next blog, we will look at actual theories and methods used by the experts to assign a probability of global nuclear war. We will utilize the frequentist inference, the Bayesian inference, and even superforecasting, which holds that the more degrees of uncertainty you can distinguish, the better poker player you are likely to be.
As a prelude to the next blog, it is worth noting that Swedish scientists have placed the chances of global nuclear war at 17 %. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has purchased a large supply of Nplate—used to treat acute radiation syndrome (ARS).