Let me scare you. I’m no actuary (my statistical savvy is pitiable) but I know enough to stand your hair on end – if your hair is still sensitive enough to react. (Most people live in denial, so their nervous systems no longer respond appropriately to certain dangers.) Global warming is one of the greatest threats to civilization, since most of its impending dangers are now almost certain to occur, but as an actuary I’d still call accidental nuclear war a more grave threat. Its odds may be lower, but nevertheless horrendously risky, and the outcome, if it happens, will be far more devastating than the consequences of global warming. Indeed, civilization probably would not exist after such a war, and possibly no human beings either, because of the “nuclear winter” that would follow, extinguishing life in the darkness, much as the dinosaur era ended in the darkness following a meteor’s impact.
Do I have your attention? Thank you.
I will exclude most of the causes of nuclear war that are discussed today in public policy debates, including all nuclear wars that might be started, however unwisely, by the deliberate intentions of any party. And I won’t try to gauge the prospect of nuclear winter, which has slipped off the radar screen completely during the past decade, though it is just a realistic a scenario as ever before. (Admit it: You’d forgotten about nuclear winter, hadn’t you?)
Instead, I’ll limit this essay entirely to war by mishap. Civilization destroyed by bungling, much as World War I was caused by bungling. And I won’t estimate the likelihood of war caused by mistakes by parties other than the United States and its allies, though we must expect the Russians to be as fallible as Americans.
The United States and Russia have committed themselves under the Moscow Treaty to each reduce their deployed nuclear weapons to about 2,000 by 2012, when the treaty will expire. However, they are free to keep as many warheads in storage as they choose, and they can be maintained in readiness for rapid deployment. Thus the United States alone with store many thousands of warheads indefinitely. But it is their 2,000 deployed warheads that are most worrisome, since they will still be on alert status, able to be launched within minutes. Indeed, they can be launched upon receipt of a warning that warheads have been launched by an adversary – whether or not that warning is accurate. As Alan Phillips and Steven Starr continually insist, this launch-on-warning status is tempting fate. That is the most urgent item requiring change, for therein lies the greatest risk.
In an earlier paper, Phillips once reviewed twenty instances when mishaps on the US side might well have resulted in nuclear war. Do read that document, which will give you nightmares, but here I will only recap three of those events to give an idea how varied these are and how lucky we are to have survived them.
Eleven of the twenty mishaps took place during the Cuban Missile Crisisof 1962, usually as a result of changes that had been made to increase military readiness. They all look about equally terrifying to me, so I’ll pick only one of them at random and quote Phillips about it:
“Oct. 25, 1962. At around midnight on 25 October, a guard at Duluth Sector Direction Center saw a figure climbing the security fence. He shot at it and activated the ‘sabotage alarm.’ This automatically set off sabotage alarms at all bases in the area. At Folk Field, Wisconsin, the alarm was wrongly wired, and the Klaxon sounded which ordered nuclear-armed F-106A interceptors to take off. The pilots knew there would be no practicre alert drills while DEFCON 3 was in force, and they believed World War III had started.
“Immediate communication with Duluth showed there was an error. By this time aircraft were starting down the runway. A car raced from the command center and successfully signaled the aircraft to stop.
“The original intruder was a bear.”
The other incidents on Phillips’s list of twenty are just as serious but without the funny punch-line. Heres’s another one:
“1979 Nov.9: Computer Exercise Tape. At 8.50 a.m. on 9 November, 1979, duty officers at 4 command centres (NORAD HQ, SAC Command Post, the Pentagon National Military Command Center, and the Alternate National Military Command Center) all saw on their displays a pattern showing a large number of Soviet missiles in a
full-scale attack on U.S.A. During the next 6 minutes emergency
preparations for retaliation were made. A number of Air Force planes
were launched, including the president's National Emergency Airborne
Command Post, though without the president! The president had not been
informed, perhaps because he could not be found.
“No attempt was made to use the hot line either to ascertain the Soviet
intentions or to tell the Russians the reason for the U.S. actions.
This seems to me to have been culpable negligence. The whole purpose of
the "Hot Line" was to prevent exactly the type of disaster that was
threatening at that moment.
“With commendable speed, NORAD was able to contact PAVE PAWS early
warning radar and learn that no missiles had been reported. Also, the
sensors on satellites were functioning that day and had detected no
missiles. In only 6 minutes the threat assessment conference was
“The reason for the false alarm was an exercise tape running on the
computer system. U.S. Senator Charles Percy happened to be in NORAD HQ
at the time and is reported to have said there was absolute panic. A
question was asked in Congress. The General Accounting Office conducted
an investigation, and an off-site testing facility was constructed so
that test tapes did not in future have to be run on a system that could
possibly be in military operation.”
Finally, lest you suppose that ending the Cold War put a stop to these terrifying incidents, I’ll pick one that was fairly recent when Phillips wrote his piece in 1997.
“Jan.95: Norwegian Meteorological Missile.
On 25 January, 1995, the Russian early warning radars detected an
unexpected missile launch near Spitzbergen (see photo). The estimated flight time
to Moscow was 5 minutes. The Russian President, the Defence Minister
and the Chief of Staff were informed. The early warning and the control
and command systems switched to combat mode. Within 5 minutes, the
radars determined that the missile's impact point would be outside the
“The missile was carrying instruments for scientific measurements. On 16
January Norway had notified 35 countries including Russia that the
launch was planned. Information had apparently reached the Russian
Defense Ministry, but failed to reach the on-duty personnel of the early
warning system. [Details in paper by von Hippel et.al., Scientific
As a poor statistician I would not estimate the risk involved in these events, but Phillips himself makes a rough calculation. He writes:
“There is no way of telling what the actual level of risk was in
these mishaps but if the chance of disaster in every one of the 20
incidents had been only 1 in 100, it is a mathematical fact that the
chance of surviving all 20 would have been 82%, i.e. about the same as
the chance of surviving a single pull of the trigger at Russian roulette
played with a 6-shooter. With a similar series of mishaps on the Soviet
side: another pull of the trigger. If the risk in some of the events
had been as high as 1 in 10, then the chance of surviving just seven
such events would have been less than 50:50.”
Now what shall we do about this? It’s a fair question to put to you, since these weapons exist on our planet only because we give some officials the power to make that decision for us. How about reclaiming some of your power? All good wishes to you.