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Accidental Nuclear War: A Timeline of Close Calls (futureoflife.org)
40 points by atlasunshrugged 83 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 29 comments



It's close calls like these that make me especially concerned that North Korea now has nuclear weapons. MAD works fine, as long as you assume both sides are perfectly rational and competent. But even when countries put great effort into safety and control, accidents happen. And sometimes the only thing that stops Armageddon is someone using common sense, and remembering that the other side is human too. North Korea is well known for cutting corners, and they have a population largely insulated from the outside world, under strict totalitarian rule. When their radar malfunctions and says a dozen nukes are inbound, how likely is it that some officer is going to realize that just doesn't make any sense, and go against orders trying to confirm it?


Yep. That MAD prevents nuclear strikes is an absolute article of faith at this point, used to reject unease outright; not an objective, practical calculus. Like all natural phenomena there will be exceptions and deviations. A nuclear incident is inevitable.

The real question to my mind is whether the benefit of nuclear deterrence suppressing non-nuclear conflict is greater than the cost that will be incurred from MAD failures/exceptions. But that's an almost impossible question to answer today. Still, it's a more honest perspective. I suspect we don't look at in this way because the public would almost certainly decide (perhaps irrationally) that they're far more afraid of a nuclear strike than the slow slaughter of conventional warfare, creating pressure to discard nuclear weapons entirely.


To be honest I think North Korea is less of a concern than Pakistan and Saudi. North Korea has nearly always shown itself to be rational actor. It's predicable in its unpredictability. Pakistan it's nuclear control is less so, especially if you adhere to the reality that Saudi has de facto nuclear weapons there also. In reality Pakistan nukes might be the only reason the US stays in Afghanistan.


NK has very limited arsenal, there's enough redundant sensors and monitoring systems to verify their launches + midcourse defense to intercept (for now). I hope planners have revisited doctoring to account for new detection tech - more comprehensive, redundant and rapid compared to the cold war - and have formulated different response models to different actors. Right now only Russia has enough nukes to threaten second strike that would warrant immediate retaliation.

IMO modern monitoring in general skews conservative responses, it would be pretty rare for malfunctions across multiple detectors to show multiple launces / full mad scenario that require immediate counter-strike. It's almost worth taking risk of hypothetical hit and then counterstrike with certainty then retaliate prematurely on false alarms.


Are you sure? What about HEMP a.k.a. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-altitude_nuclear_explosio... before intercept?

Brrz, Brrrz, Brrrrz!

/me vanishes, spraying rainbow colored sparkles... ;->


Yeah with MADD it seems like only a matter of time when somethings fail (human(s) tech, combination) and a catastrophic mistake is made.

Too many situations started, and were saved simply by happenstance or imperfect information.

IIRC during the Cuban missile crisis local Russian commanders had the authorization to launch if they felt the US was invading. Because of course, you couldn't have a deterrent if you weren't able to launch during a communication blackout. Of course that also meant that any given accident or misunderstanding could lead to a launch and full scale response. Control of starting the war was now in the hands of folks with even less information...

MADD seems to guarantee a war as much as deter it.


Related: an excellent Sandia Labs documentary on various close calls we've had and how the United States learned from those events and engineered a variety of safeguards: https://share-ng.sandia.gov/news/resources/news_releases/alw...

It's an highly recommended overview of many of the issues surrounding accidental — or unauthorized — nuclear explosions (it was originally made for internal use at the Lab).


Nuclear proliferation brings us closer to mass atrocity and I worry deeply about it


It’s mentioned in the article and I recommend reading “Command and Control” by Eric Schlosser if you want to scare yourself half to death by reading about how careless we’ve been with our “toys”.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6452798-command-and-cont...


Related: Fail-Safe (1962) is a fictional novel where attack codes are transmitted to a group of US bombers on airborne alert (standing by to attack the USSR) - due to the failure of an electrical component. I think it's still very relevant in this day and age.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fail-Safe_(novel)#Plot_summary


We should really move towards nuclear disarmament, these weapons need to go, we have been lucky so far, but we will not continue to be. It's playing with fire.


I was on team total disarmament for a long time, but now I think very clear no-first-strike policies, limited arsenals, no automated controls, and clear, transparent, and multifactor launch decision chains are the way to go. Nukes are terrifying, but I think it's pretty clear that they have also put a lid on major international conflict. We're not putting the genie back in the bottle... so we may as well put the bottle in a bulletproof glass cage and keep it under heavy guard.


They've put the lid on direct military superpower conflict, so far, with some very close calls.

But there's been plenty of indirect superpower conflict, and in the last couple of decades this has moved into disinfo/infowar and direct cyberwar.

You might think this is less dangerous. But instead of ruined smoking cities you end up with governments run by foreign interests which are hostile to their own populations, supported by extravagant disinfo efforts designed to create confusion, paranoia, fear, and distrust.

That genie is going to be even harder to put back in its bottle.


Even if you can trace a direct line from "nukes preventing global conventional war" to our current mess of misinformation and cyberwar, is taking the lid off a hot war between China and the US (for example) the better alternative?


Lots of nasty viruses are literally inside bulletproof cages and under heavy guard inside high level biocontainment facilities, but there have still been instances where they've gotten out of the lab. (This is not a reference to SARS-CoV-2.)

Any time you're relying on humans not to do something that technically can be done, over a long enough period of time, someone eventually will probably do it. Disarmament puts much larger barriers in place than locking them up and putting walls of red tape around them.


What is the alternative though? Disarm completely except for North Korea and probably China and never knowing for sure that everyone else has totally disarmed?

I think we need to bring nukes right to the front of public consciousness so we can at least have the debate and make some sane policies. I've often wondered if a scheduled, highly public test would shock people into action.


Multilateral disarmament treaties similar to the SALT treaties with the USSR? Maybe at the UN level rather than simply administered by individual countries?


I'm not disagreeing with that in principle, but practically speaking North Korea is not going to cooperate and I doubt there's enough trust between the other nuclear powers for a full disarmament treaty. The second best, and more realistic, option is to make everything very public and transparent... which is really just MAD, but with smaller arsenals.


That sounds like a good way to get a major city nuked.

We already have enough conventional weapons to bomb NK back into the Stone Age, should it be necessary. I'm not sure which other countries you're referring to that are not trustworthy diplomatically, but, IIRC, there are only a handful who have nuclear capability (China, Russia, Israel?, Iran?), and those can be dealt with using existing satellite monitoring capabilities to detect nuclear buildup, and treaty monitoring.

I would much rather reduce arsenals to zero or near zero levels than risk having Jericho happen in my backyard.


So has NK allegedly, at least enough for Seoul and parts near the border in SK.


Sounds good, except that it will never happen.


Disarmament isn't going to happen but maybe setup several redundant globally accessible early detection systems based off common technologies, so everyone can be absolutely sure launches are not malfunctions. This may involve unpleasant tech transfers, but eliminating any opportunity for miscommunication seems worthwhile.


How would an accident in Greenland precipitate general war?

These kinds of hysterics don't help when analyzing a rather serious issue.


It says right there

>A radar alert from Thule, Greenland was sent to NORAD, announcing the detection of dozens of Soviet missiles launched for the United States


There was another accident in Greenland where a plane crashed carrying nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons did not have a nuclear detonation, but the conventional explosives inside did.


Yes, years before the accidental crash I'm talking about.


Use of the term "hysteric(al)" is a huge red flag for me. I virtually never see it applied reasonably. In this case, the article is simply outlining a history of the issue. The Greenland case is relevant and interesting.


I used the term specifically because their claims about the Thule crash don't add up. A nuclear detonation at Thule wouldn't mean general war (hackles would be raised but lots of other phenomenologies would be used as part of the warning, verification, and attack characterization processes).

EDIT: Also, at the distance the crash was from the base, assuming a weapon detonated on impact the facilities would have experienced ~1 psi of overpressure. I strongly suspect they'd still be operational afterwards.


I think part of it was just highlighting how often accidents occur and showing that with these weapons it could quickly lead to a huge response




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