Safe, Harmless, Giant Atomic Bombs?


With tensions flared up in Crimea between Russia, Ukraine and the West, talk of the Cold War has rebooted old thoughts of nuclear war. But can that harrowing reality come to the forefront of the international community once again over two decades since the fall of the USSR?

For starters, nuclear weapons exist, so yes, in the same way that more access to guns increases the murder rate, the presence of more nuclear weapons in the hands of many increases the possibilities for nuclear war, even today.

Still, the fact that they have only been used twice in our history demonstrates the respect that human beings have for the destructiveness of these weapons, making any scenario that includes a nuclear weapon going off a low-probability bet.

In order to figure out the relative probability of a nuclear war occurring, we must begin by listing all the actors in this situation in order to decipher who is most and least likely to use them.

The list: Pakistan, North Korea, Israel (they have never acknowledged that they possess nuclear weapons, but that’s like LeBron James telling us that he can’t dunk), Russia, the United States, India, the United Kingdom, China and France are the only countries with known nuclear weapons, while Iran is hovering around the edge of this conversation (with Turkey and Saudi Arabia to follow?).

International law is the only way to govern these devices from outside the country, and since international law not based on a ratified treaty is basically like a Goosebumps Choose Your Own Adventure book, the only way to get an idea of any leverage the world has on this issue is to look at active treaties.

There is really only one that could have any teeth, if it were in effect.


In 1996, a large majority (over two-thirds) of the United Nations General Assembly passed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, a treaty that banned all nuclear explosions in all environments for both military and civilian purposes. This treaty is not in force because China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the United States have signed, but not ratified the treaty (which is like writing a check but not signing your name)* while India, North Korea and Pakistan did not even sign it in the first place.

*The next time you hear a fellow American complain about how the United Nations doesn’t cater to American interests, remind them that it might have to do with the five countries in the security council that have veto power (of which we are one), something which allows them to kill any agreements with impunity (since the Security Council is the only part of the UN with real power). This is an absurd statement, and we are most certainly part of the larger problem at hand.

To sum up, two-thirds of the world’s nuclear powers have refused to ratify an agreement to limit nuclear explosions within the vicinity of planet Earth. This proves that there is a situation that exists where someone would be willing to use these weapons of mass destruction.

Keep in mind that at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos in January (a three day conference where all the power brokers in the world meet to discuss large scale issues), no one raised the possibility of a crisis in Ukraine when discussing threats to global stability, and one month later, Putin invaded Crimea.

This is to say that no one can completely predict the future (shocker, right?), but as we see the world today, these look like the seven most probable situations for nuclear war to occur, in descending order from least to most likely.

7) China vs Japan

This was the high profile threat to global security that received the most attention in Davos, as China and Japan have intensified their pissing contest over the Senkaku Islands (which is actually a front for the real struggle, regional power).

Given the importance of both China and Japan to the global economy, it’s a longshot that this standoff will escalate to full-scale war, let alone nuclear war, but both countries possess the resources, so that scenario remains in play.

Let’s just hope that if this situation does arise, the complex web of allies between the two countries (Russia, Europe, Pakistan, India, the United States) will fare better than Kevin Bacon did in halting the chaos.

6) Iran Nukes Israel

Whether Iran has a nuclear weapon is a contentious debate that only a handful of people know the real answer to. We already have plenty of proof that they sell weapons to Hamas, a terrorist group that continuously launches rockets at Israel (here’s a sampling of one year’s worth).

Their last President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was in the business of saying some pretty inflammatory things about Israel, but whether these were actual fighting words or “hold me back bro!” outbursts we’ll never know, as Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2013 due to his relatively moderate platform.

The desire to nuke the only Jewish state in the region has been demonstrated at some of the highest levels of government in Iran, but their will and the capacity to carry out a nuclear assault are in doubt.

In addition, game theory states that if Iran were successful at hitting Israel, they would almost certainly see at least one nuclear weapon headed back in their direction.

The only way Iran would make this move is if they are an irrational actor (someone who does not act according to logic). However, their willingness to come to the table on nuclear negotiations in the wake of the damage sanctions have done to their economy suggests that they are a rational actor (someone who acts in their own self-interest).

Despite how much you hear about the coming war with Iran from certain sections of American politics it’s more of a red meat, campaign talking point than a real security concern.

5) Crimea

As much as our infotainment complex has tried to make this about America, this conflict is much more about the future of Eastern Europe than any residual Cold War baggage between the United States and Russia. This graphic illustrates how Russia has Europe by the balls when it comes to supplying its energy.

This situation with Russia ranks ahead of Iran due to the fact that Putin is on record pining for the days of the U.S.S.R, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s assertion that Putin is “not operating in reality.”

Throw in a tanking Russian economy (which is basically just a petrostate anyway, it’s not an advanced economy), and this worst case scenario assumes that the markets continue to crater, which sparks Putin to try to recreate a modern Soviet Union in order to unify the populace and take their attention away from the economy–the only real thing that supports his power.

Time and time, and time again, Putin proves that projecting strength is his modus operandi.

If he were to attempt to recapture the old Soviet states, war with Europe becomes a real possibility, which would inevitably drag the United States into it. All of a sudden we’re looking at a standoff with at least four nuclear nations.

This is why it’s vitally important for the Obama administration to come up with some sort of cohesive plan that supports the democratically elected Ukranian government, and deters Russia from taking any more land in this conflict (Crimea might be a lost cause). Isn’t this situation the reason NATO exists? Lets leverage its power.

4) Terrorists Nuke Israel, the United States, or Europe

This ranks ahead of King Putin as the desire and the will to do so in various corners of the world is well-documented, but it’s slotted behind our next three because the means to do it is incredibly difficult to come by.

You can bet your bottom dollar that the CIA has a list of scientists in the world who possess the capability to build nuclear weapons, so if any happen to cavort with known terrorists, well, they’ll probably receive a visit encouraging them to stop. On top of this, the United States is developing technology to track all kinds of nuclear activity, on top of an already robust Nuclear MASINT. It’s just not that easy to obtain a nuclear weapon without the strength of a country behind you.

Still, the Soviet Union did not dispose of their 27,000 nuclear weapons with complete care, and while most that are still out there are probably degraded, there is a chance that one is not.

Russia is not the only country with problems on this front; we are not the picture of responsibility either, as the code to open up my phone is more complex than the United States’ code to launch nukes during the Cold War. Clay Davis shares my thoughts on this topic.

Our biggest threat for nuclear war is even more vulnerable than these two knuckleheads, making two appearances in our top three.

3) A Military Coup in Pakistan

In our worst-case scenario, after the ISI (Pakistan’s military services, who by all accounts are not our ally, save for the fact that we give them billions of dollars a year to be one) overthrows a mostly feckless civilian government, one of two things could happen.

  1. Religious radicals lead the charge within the ISI and decide to nuke the U.S.A. or Israel
  2. The ISI decides that in order to solidify its power grab, it will settle Pakistan’s eternal dispute with India by taking the Kashmir region once and for all.

The baggage between Pakistan and India is well documented, but it also must be stressed that there are ties between Jihadists and the ISI in Pakistan, which brings this conflict to a more global stage. Some of these radicals are so primitive, they still accept slavery as a legitimate idea.

In some provinces, the police essentially work for Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is an al-Qaeda/Taliban clone that operates in the tribal Pashtun area of northern Pakistan, and the Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. Along with al-Qaeda, this is the most powerful, well-organized terrorist organization in the Eastern world, as evidenced by their massacre in 2008 that murdered over 160 in Mumbai.

The ISI is in a constant state of conflict between serving the country of Pakistan and serving the interests of the terrorist groups that control certain areas. For Muslim extremists to obtain a nuclear weapon, Pakistan is their best bet. This is the first item on the list that isn’t completely implausible given the current landscape.

2) North Korea

Kim Jong-Un is in the middle of a power struggle within the North Korean regime (which is literally all we know about Kim Jong-Un since Dennis Rodman is our only ambassador to North Korea, and I really wish that wasn’t a joke).

They mess with South Korea all the time. It’s not hard to imagine something escalating in the South China Sea and the North Korean leader overreacting.

He is a 31-year-old son of a deceased, tyrannical dictator who told his people that he made the seasons change, supposedly shot a 38 on 18 holes with 11 holes in one, kidnapped two directors to remake Godzilla, claimed that he didn’t use toilets (because he was so super special that he didn’t need to) and called himself things like the “Guiding Sun Ray,” “Shining Star of Paektu Mountain” and “Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love.”

I would trust any kid raised by Dennis Rodman and Charlie Sheen to control nuclear weapons before I’d let Kim Jong-Un anywhere near them.

1) A Terrorist Event Destabilizes Pakistan

“Pakistan appears at the top of charts listing critical U.S. intelligence gaps. It is named as a target of newly formed analytic cells. And fears about the security of its nuclear program are so pervasive that a budget section on containing the spread of illicit weapons divides the world into two categories: Pakistan and everybody else.” – Washington Post

Considering that Pakistan deals with terrorist attacks on a near-daily basis (here’s a less than one-year sample), this is the most likely scenario for nuclear war, especially since Pakistan is alarmingly reckless when transporting their nuclear weapons, sometimes using everyday vans.

This report in The Atlantic was partially corroborated two years later by files that Edward Snowden released, which demonstrated that it is quite difficult to steal nuclear weapons from Pakistani bases, but when those weapons are placed in vehicles, no one has any idea how secure they are.

<br/><a href="" target="_blank">View Raw Image</a>

There are a lot of nuclear weapons out there. Given some of the new, powerful threats that have emerged in the era of the internet, these weapons of mass destruction look like 20th century relics that have little use in the 21st century battlefield, save for spreading mayhem, chaos, and suffering. We would be wise to heed our former President’s words on this issue.

“There is only one way safely and legitimately to reduce the cost of national security, and that is to reduce the need for it. And this we’re trying to do in negotiations with the Soviet Union. We’re not just discussing limits on a further increase of nuclear weapons. We seek instead to reduce their number. We seek the total elimination one day, of nuclear weapons, from the face of the Earth.”President Ronald Reagan

Jacob Weindling
Pure bred Coloradan with a dash of Masshole (go UMass). Sports and politics junkie. If I've learned one thing in life to this point, it's that stupid loses more games than smart wins.
Jacob Weindling
Jacob Weindling

Latest posts by Jacob Weindling (see all)