The Consequences of Nuclear War

The Consequences of Nuclear War

The Consequences of Nuclear War

 Nuclear War: Nuclear warfare (sometimes atomic warfare or thermonuclear warfare) is a military conflict or political strategy in which nuclear weaponry is used to inflict damage on the enemy. Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction; in contrast to conventional warfare, nuclear warfare can produce destruction in a much shorter time and can have a long-lasting radiological warfare result. A major nuclear exchange would have long-term effects, primarily from the fallout released, and could also lead to a “nuclear winter” that could last for decades, centuries, or even millennia after the initial attack. Some analysts dismiss the nuclear winter hypothesis and calculate that even with nuclear weapon stockpiles at Cold War highs, although there would be billions of casualties, billions more rural people would nevertheless survive. However, others have argued that the secondary effects of a nuclear holocaust, such as nuclear famine and societal collapse, would cause almost every human on Earth to starve to death.

So far, two nuclear weapons have been used in the course of warfare, both by the United States near the end of World War II. On August 6, 1945, a uranium gun-type device (code name “Little Boy”) was detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9, a plutonium implosion-type device (code name “Fat Man”) was detonated over the Japanese city of Nagasaki. These two bombings resulted in the deaths of approximately 120,000 people.

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Developments in the technologies of nuclear weapons, their delivery, and their defense are rapidly changing. The popular perception of global nuclear development is that after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race between the superpowers ended. And to be sure, there were a few years there in which the US and the Russian Federation worked together to get rid of redundant and unnecessary weapons systems and pare down their arsenals.

Nuclear War
Nuclear War

But those numbers not only weren’t going down to zero, but they also concealed a grimmer reality: the nuclear arms complexes were never really dismantled, and the broader military-industrial complexes in both nations readily adapted to the new situation.

By the measures of some analysts, the “lethality” of the US nuclear arsenal—defined as the probability of the weapons to destroy “hard to kill” targets like bunkers and silos—actually peaked in the early 2000s, after the Cold War, and is still higher than it ever was in the 1980s. This is a counterintuitive concept for people who are used to the narrative of nuclear decline since the end of the Cold War.

How To Survive A Nuclear War

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons prevents nuclear weapons states from transferring them to other states or helping them to make their own, whilst tacitly acknowledging that owning nuclear weapons isn’t illegal per se. The treaty also imposes an obligation on nuclear weapon states to “pursue negotiations in good faith” on the destruction of remaining stockpiles, whilst also preserving the right of states to research and utilize nuclear energy for peaceful means. This last provision has led to several instances where states have been accused of developing a nuclear weapons program under the guise of civilian research, such as Iran and North Korea.

Survive A Nuclear War
Survive A Nuclear War

In 1996, the International Court of Justice was invited by the UN General Assembly to issue an Advisory Opinion on the question “Is the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstance permitted under international law?” In the Court’s judgment, they found that there was no explicit or customary prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons, but that, generally, the use of nuclear weapons would be contrary to international humanitarian law (particularly the prohibition against using weapons that cannot distinguish between combatants and civilians). Further, there is a ban on the use of weapons that do excessive damage to the environment, which would obviously be the case with nuclear weapons. However, the Court also held that “in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake,” the legal situation was less clear and it was impossible to say whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons in such a case would be legal. On the whole, nobody came out of this case pleased – nuclear weapons remain in a state of legal limbo, without any clearly defined parameters for their use except “only when your state’s survival is at stake.”

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A war today or tomorrow, if it led to nuclear war, would not be like any war in history. A full-scale nuclear exchange, lasting less than 60 minutes, with the weapons now in existence, could wipe out more than 300 million Americans, Europeans, and Russians, as well as untold numbers elsewhere. And the survivors, as Chairman Khrushchev warned the Communist Chinese, “the survivors would envy the dead.” For they would inherit a world so devastated by explosions and poison and fire that today we cannot even conceive of its horrors. So let us try to turn the world away from war. Let us make the most of this opportunity, and every opportunity, to reduce tension, to slow down the perilous nuclear arms race, and to check the world’s slide toward final annihilation.
—John F. Kennedy again, a real fountain of excellent quotes.

Attempts have been made to evaluate the likely effects of a full nuclear exchange. Some have speculated that enough nuclear bombs going off at once would create a “nuclear winter” by blanketing the earth in long-lasting airborne sand which would filter out sunlight and result in the death of most life on the planet. In fact, studies have shown that even a small regional nuclear war with 100 Hiroshima-sized weapons could have devastating effects on agriculture worldwide. Even if this was not the result, the extreme increase in radiation would not only cause many health hazards and genetic abnormalities, but it would also contaminate the soil so that any crops that were produced could not be safely eaten. This would be similar to what happened in central Ukraine and southern Belarus after the Chernobyl disaster.

Many hawks have tried to downplay the possible effects of nuclear war, many even believing that a nuclear war is winnable (thus the massive amounts of spending on the Strategic Defense Initiative in the Reagan administration, as well as its successor National Missile Defense, both considered abject failures by outside observers). Scientists (the operative term being “scientist”, not strategists), as a general rule, tend to disagree.

The most effective technique to use in a nuclear war is quite simple: not to have one. India and Pakistan are two nations that, on the brink of war, decided to acquire nuclear weapons. In response to the other one acquiring and testing nuclear weapons, they began to increase diplomatic relations to the point where disputes between the countries are now settled over a game of cricket which has the effect of not destroying the region — and the added bonus that you can break at 3:30 for tea. The common dread of what a nuclear strike might lead to was not strong enough to prevent the Kargil War, a short but vicious conventional war over part of Kashmir in 1999, but the mere possibility of a nuclear exchange was enough to motivate the U.S. to mediate a rapid end to the conflict. On the other hand, a global nuclear exchange almost happened by accident several times so far due to errors in computer systems and/or the humans operating them.

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The concept of a “Fortress North America” emerged during the Second World War and persisted into the Cold War to refer to the option of defending Canada and the United States against their enemies if the rest of the world were lost to them. This option was rejected with the formation of NATO and the decision to permanently station troops in Europe.

In the summer of 1951 Project Vista started, in which project analysts such as Robert F. Christy looked at how to defend Western Europe from a Soviet invasion. The emerging development of tactical nuclear weapons was looked upon as a means to give Western forces a qualitative advantage over the Soviet numerical supremacy in conventional weapons.

Several scares about the increasing ability of the Soviet Union’s strategic bomber forces surfaced during the 1950s. The defensive response by the United States was to deploy a fairly strong “layered defense” consisting of interceptor aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles, like the Nike, and guns, like the Skysweeper, near larger cities. However, this was a small response compared to the construction of a huge fleet of nuclear bombers. The principal nuclear strategy was to massively penetrate the Soviet Union. Because such a large area could not be defended against this overwhelming attack in any credible way, the Soviet Union would lose any exchange.

This logic became ingrained in American nuclear doctrine and persisted for much of the duration of the Cold War. As long as the strategic American nuclear forces could overwhelm their Soviet counterparts, a Soviet pre-emptive strike could be averted. Moreover, the Soviet Union could not afford to build any reasonable counterforce, as the economic output of the United States was far larger than that of the Soviets, and they would be unable to achieve “nuclear parity”.

Soviet nuclear doctrine, however, did not match American nuclear doctrine. Soviet military planners assumed they could win a nuclear war. Therefore, they expected a large-scale nuclear exchange, followed by a “conventional war” which itself would involve heavy use of tactical nuclear weapons. American doctrine rather assumed that Soviet doctrine was similar, with the mutual in Mutually Assured Destruction necessarily requiring that the other side see things in much the same way, rather than believing—as the Soviets did—what they could fight a large-scale, “combined nuclear and conventional” war.

In accordance with their doctrine, the Soviet Union conducted large-scale military exercises to explore the possibility of defensive and offensive warfare during a nuclear war. The exercise, under the code name of “Snowball”, involved the detonation of a nuclear bomb about twice as powerful as that which fell on Nagasaki and an army of approximately 45,000 soldiers on maneuvers through the hypocenter immediately after the blast. The exercise was conducted on September 14, 1954, under command of Marshal Georgy Zhukov to the north of Totskoye village in Orenburg Oblast, Russia.


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