Paul Dibb’s account of the 1983 Able Archer incident (and blog posts here and here) is disturbing—as much for the questions it doesn’t raise as for the details of the misperceptions that nearly led to a nuclear exchange. His account does two things well: it highlights some of the dangers inherent in nuclear deterrence towards the end of the Cold War, at a time when numerous crisis stability mechanisms were in place, and it draws out lessons for the evolving US–China relationship. But it doesn’t ask the most important questions. First, is continuing reliance on nuclear deterrence by the nuclear weapon possessors and their allies, including Australia, a wise strategic choice? And, second, are officials, political leaders, and analysts being honest with themselves and the public regarding the ethical dilemmas associated with nuclear weapons?
As Dibb admits in his article, ‘we shouldn’t be complacent when it comes to contemplating the risk of nuclear weapons being used one day’. In my opinion, failing to at least raise these questions is an example of just such complacency.
Deterrence proponents justify the retention of nuclear weapons using the theory that they help prevent major conventional wars—wars that could engulf the world, as happened twice last century, causing immense destruction and suffering. It’s often argued that these weapons are a necessary evil, that we’re all safer with them than we would be without them. But is this actually true, or is it part of a mythology that has been built and sustained by influential nuclear proponents? The historic record of the nuclear age, which is being painstakingly pieced together using freedom of information requests, provides concrete evidence that the world has come extremely close to nuclear catastrophe on numerous occasions. The record also shows that most of these incidents have been kept hushed up for decades due to official concern that they could undermine public faith in nuclear deterrence. Is this responsible and ethical behaviour? Surely not—and those who continue to claim that nuclear weapons, including weapons on high alert, pose acceptable levels of risk need to take a long hard look at their arguments.
Eric Schlosser’s new book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident and the Illusion of Safety ought to be compulsory reading for everyone involved in nuclear decision-making. Schlosser provides a vivid and well-researched account of safety breakdowns in the US nuclear weapons program from the 1950s to the 1980s, including accidents in which nuclear-armed aircraft and submarines jettisoned nuclear weapons on land or into the ocean. Although some came horrifyingly close, none of these accidents resulted in detonations, but in many cases the nuclear weapons, some of which are 260 times more powerful than the device that devastated Hiroshima, weren’t subsequently retrieved. At least nine of these immeasurably dangerous and highly toxic weapons still remain unaccounted for today.
Schlosser gives a particularly dramatic account of an accident that occurred in 1980, when a nuclear missile exploded in its silo, propelling its nuclear warhead into a ditch near Damascus, Arkansas. A review article in The Economist describes these revelations as ‘jaw-dropping’ and asks ‘how did the world become so complacent about nuclear weapons?’ This is an urgent question, especially when one considers the US safety record in tandem with that of the UK, which has also experienced numerous nuclear accidents and incidents since 1960, including a series of serious fires at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire as recently as 2012. This begs the question of how many other close calls there have been, beyond the US and UK. I shudder to think about it, given the growing array of countries that now possess or are seeking nuclear weapons, including those classed as ‘fragile’ due to their inability to cope with day-to-day governance challenges.
This might seem an abstract issue from Australia’s perspective, given its remote location and non-nuclear status. But Australian decision-makers shouldn’t detach themselves from the logical and ethical dilemmas surrounding nuclear reliance. Australia’s 1970s decision to forgo the development of an indigenous nuclear arsenal is admirable, but its officials and political leaders still consider US nuclear weapons to be a core part of the country’s defence and security, despite the absence of an existential threat. In these circumstances, is Australia’s nuclear reliance ethical, given that the US public is exposed to nuclear dangers on a daily basis, while the Australian public can sit back in the safety of geographic remoteness? In particular, is it ethical for Australian officials to caution their US counterparts not to pursue nuclear cuts too rapidly, when the US public is carrying the burden of risk? Personally, I don’t think so. The very least Australian officials and political leaders can do to address this unethical state of affairs is to seriously examine the alternatives to nuclear reliance in a way that is open, honest, and progressive.
Tanya Ogilvie-White is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Patrick Donovan.