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An Accident Waiting To Happen

By John Scales Avery

02 February, 2014

In Stanley Kubrick's film, “Dr. Strangelove”, a paranoid ultra-nationalist brigadier general, Jack D. Ripper, orders a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union because he believes that the Soviets are using water fluoridation as a means to rob Americans of their “precious bodily fluids”. Efforts are made to recall the US bombers, but this proves to be impossible, and the attack triggers the Soviet “Doomsday Machine”. The world is destroyed.

Kubrick's film is a black comedy, and we all laugh at it, especially because of the brilliant performance of Peter Sellers in multiple roles. Unfortunately, however, the film comes uncomfortably close to reality. An all-destroying nuclear war could very easily be started by an insane or incompetent person whose hand happens to be on the red button.

This possibility (or probability) has recently come to public attention through newspaper articles revealing that 11 of the officers responsible for launching US nuclear missiles have been fired because of drug addiction. Furthermore, a larger number of missile launch officers were found to be cheating on competence examinations. Three dozen officers were involved in the cheating ring, and some reports state that an equal number of others may have known about it., and remained silent. Finally, it was shown that safety rules were being deliberately ignored. The men involved, were said to be “burned out”.

According to an article in The Guardian (Wednesday, 15 January, 2014), “Revelations of misconduct and incompetence in the nuclear missile program go back at least to 2007, when six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were accidentally loaded onto a B-52 bomber in Minot, North Dakota, and flown to a base in Louisiana.”

"Last March, military inspectors gave officers at the ICBM base in Minot the equivalent of a "D" grade for launch mastery. A month later, 17 officers were stripped of their authority to launch the missiles.”

“In October, a senior air force officer in charge of 450 ICBMS, major general Michael Carey, was fired after accusations of drunken misconduct during a summer trip to Moscow. An internal investigation found that Carey drank heavily, cavorted with two foreign women and visited a nightclub called La Cantina, where Maj Gen Carey had alcohol and kept trying to get the band to let him play with them.”

The possibility that a catastrophic nuclear war could be triggered by a madman gains force from the recent statements of Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said repeatedly that, with or without US help, Israel intends to attack Iran. Such an attack, besides being a war crime, would be literally insane.

If Netanyahu believes that a war with Iran would be short or limited, he is ignoring several very obvious dangers. Such a war would most probably escalate into a widespread general war in the Middle East. It could cause a revolution in Pakistan, and the new revolutionary government of Pakistan would be likely to enter the war on the side of Iran, bringing with it Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Russia and China, both staunch allies of Iran, might be drawn into the conflict. There is a danger that the conflict could escalate into a Third World War, where nuclear weapons might easily be used, either by accident or intentionally.

China could do grave economic damage to the United States through its large dollar holdings. Much of the world's supply of petroleum passes through the Straits of Hormuz, and a war in the region could greatly raise the price of oil, triggering a depression that might rival or surpass the Great Depression of the 1920's and 1930's.

An accident waiting to happen

The probability of a catastrophic nuclear war occurring by accident id made greater by the fact that several thousand nuclear weapons are kept on "hair-trigger alert" with a quasi--automatic reaction time measured in minutes. There is a constant danger that a nuclear war will be triggered by an error in evaluating a signal on a radar screen.

A number of prominent political and military figures (many of whom have ample knowledge of the system of deterrence, having been part of it) have expressed concern about the danger of accidental nuclear war. Colin S. Grey (Chairman of the National Institute of Public Policy) expressed this concern as follows: "The problem, indeed the enduring problem, is that we are resting our future on a deterrence system concerning which we cannot tolerate even a single malfunction."

General Curtis E. Lemay, has written: "In my opinion a general war will grow through a series of political miscalculations and accidents, rather than through any deliberate attack by either side."

Bruce G. Blair of Brooking Institution has remarked that "It is obvious that the rushed nature of the process, from warning to decision to action, risks causing a catastrophic mistake... This system is an accident waiting to happen."

Fred Ikle of the Rand Corporation has written: "But nobody can predict that a fatal accident or unauthorized act will never happen... Given the huge and far-flung missile forces, ready to be launched from land or sea on both sides, the scope for disaster by accident is immense,.. In a matter of seconds, through technical accident or human failure, mutual deterrence might thus collapse."

In the perilous situation in which we find ourselves today, the only way that we can ensure that our children and grandchildren will live to enjoy our beautiful world, is to get rid of nuclear weapons entirely. To do so is the ardent wish of the vast majority of the world's peoples.

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm. He can be reached at avery.john.s@gmail.com



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