On 26 September 1983 Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, then a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces, was on duty when the Soviet nuclear early warning system reported incoming missiles from the United States. Petrov had just a few minutes to decide whether to awaken then Soviet premier Yuri Andropov who would, in turn, have to decide whether to launch a retaliatory strike.
For some reason Petrov decided this was a false alarm; which was what it proved to be. It was reported as a "technical problem." Armageddon averted.
In 1979 Zbigniew Brzezinski, then national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, received a 3 am phone call from the North American Air Defence Command, NORAD, advising him that the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, BMEWS, had detected multiple incoming missiles from the Soviet Union. Minutes later, while Brzezinski was mulling whether to awaken the president, NORAD phoned with a correction. It was all a mistake. Instead of seeing live data the on duty NORAD controllers had been viewing a training tape.
These are just two of the close calls that occurred during the Cold War. The world has come close to nuclear destruction more often than most people realise.
Imagine yourself in the position of Zbigniew Brzezinski or Lieutenant-Colonel Petrov. Imagine the terror if you can. I confess I cannot.
Russia and the US are on opposite sides of the world. During the Cold War alerts air defence commanders had the luxury of a few precious minutes to double check and make sure they did not start a nuclear war by mistake. How much time would Indian and Pakistani air defence commanders have; or Israeli and Iranian commanders? We are talking seconds rather than minutes in both cases.
What is likely to trigger a nuclear exchange?
Mad Iranian mullahs and Pakistani fanatics notwithstanding, it seems to me that the most likely causes of a nuclear war would be either a mistake or a miscalculation. What, after all, do you do if you believe the enemy missiles are seconds away? What do you do if your intelligence service tells you an attack is imminent?
If you truly believe you are about to be on the receiving end of a nuclear attack you have no choice but to launch immediately. It's your only hope of averting your own destruction. Perhaps if you strike first you can blunt the attack sufficiently to save something of your own side.
Such a situation is a catastrophe waiting to happen.
So what can be done? – The myth of nuclear disarmament
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