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Prospects of Nuclear War: MAD, China, and Al-Qaeda’s Nuclear Scientists

When one thinks about if a nuclear war could happen, it usually concerns some of the world's most prominent superpowers, like the United States of America facing off against a threat across the ocean. What threat exactly? I don’t know… maybe someplace scary and communist like North Korea or China. Or maybe the Taliban will be the next super villain constructing a nuclear arsenal on their way to enact a jihadist crusade against the west. Or maybe Russia will sneak up on us and create the USSR 2. Nuclear war exists all over popular culture, too. Off the top of my head, I think of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War: a game that came out late last year, which helped to push the Call of Duty franchise over $3 billion in net bookings in 2020. This game had a story mode in which one of the endings literally concluded with a USSR militant group launching American nukes in every major European city. The idea of nuclear war has been somewhat romanticized, and I want to get to the bottom of it by first explaining why we haven't done it yet, why certain countries wouldn’t do it, and where serious threats may lie.

“Red Iceberg” Published by St. Paul, MN: Impact Publishing, 1960

We’ve been developing nuclear weapons for a little over half a century. Aside from the USA's attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, we haven’t had a single nuclear conflict since. However, once the USSR caught wind of the damage the USA's nukes did in Japan, they were quick to make their own show of force. The USSR and the USA were the largest economies coming out of WWII. They additionally, for better or worse, had conflicting economic ideologies. In America, this is what we know as the Red Scare: the crusade against the hammer and sickle. Both superpowers began to amass arms, allies, and resources. Proxy wars were started in developing countries where each faction was backed by a respective superpower. The Korean War permanently split Korea into two, the Vietnam War was a result of Red Scare propaganda pushing America to fight a futile battle against the Viet Cong, and the US and USSR literally built a wall dividing Berlin into two distinctly different regions. This was the Cold War: a passive battle of information and conspiracy that was aestheticized as a conflict between Capitalism and Communism. On top of all of this, we had the procurement of nuclear arsenals, of which both sides had enough to destroy the planet several times over.

To put this in perspective, The ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) stated that, “A nuclear bomb detonated in a city would immediately kill tens of thousands of people, and tens of thousands more would suffer horrific injuries and later die from radiation exposure.

In addition to the immense short-term loss of life, a nuclear war could cause long-term damage to our planet. It could severely disrupt the earth's ecosystem and reduce global temperatures, resulting in food shortages around the world.” There are an estimated 12,890 nuclear warheads in the world with 3,750 of them being active. A nuclear war, put shortly, would be the end of humanity. And the end of humanity is only a few nuclear codes away from being a reality.

This is a real feel good article isn’t it?

Of course, having the capacity for harm is vastly different than being an active threat. Imagine a person running at you with a knife and another with an AR in safety. Who's more dangerous? The guy with the knife. Who can cause more harm? The guy with the AR. And the guy with the AR is kind of where we are right now. The US isn’t actively using nukes. We aren’t aiming the gun at anyone, but our finger is on the trigger, and it stays there because of something called the MAD Theory, otherwise known as Mutually Assured Destruction. Going back to the gun analogy, guns, in a perfect world, are meant to be the ultimate de-escalation of violence. The point of having one in public is to try to limit the amount of people killed through intimidation and security. Nukes work in a similar way. This is where we are: a gigantic mexican standoff between all of the world’s nuke holders. MAD Theory is what held the world in balance during the peak of the Cold War, where we had more than 70,000 active nuclear warheads. While it is assuring to know that everyone is collectively interested in human preservation, MAD Theory has one pretty big problem. With everyone at this standstill, Nuclear weapons have become an ultimatum when dealing with countries without them. You aren’t in the club unless you had some stake in the game, and not having them puts you at the mercy of larger forces. Suddenly, everyone acquires humanity-ending bombs through a phenomenon called nuclear proliferation.

Currently the countries that have nuclear weapons are the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, Pakistan, India, North Korea, and Israel. The US, UK, and Russia have all been reducing their arsenals, however the American Federation of Nuclear Scientists has stated that the other countries intend to continue production and maintenance as usual. Let’s start by talking about China. Simply put, a nuclear war would not be US vs. China. China has no reason to use its nuclear arsenals right now. MAD Theory definitely contributes to this, but China is also doing quite well for itself in the status quo. The Centre for Economics and Business Research stated that China is on track to overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economy by 2028. China’s economy has been predicted to have an annual growth 5.7% from 2021-25 before slowing to about 4.5% a year from 2026-30. Compare this to the predictions made for the United States whose growth slows to about 1.9% a year between 2022-24 and then 1.6% afterwards. Researchers based this data off of the impacts of the coronavirus on the respective economies stating, “The COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding economic fallout have certainly tipped this rivalry in China’s favour.” Additionally, China has been expanding its foreign aid. Chinese foreign is heavily linked Chinese investment and trade. Their foreign policy interests coincide with the profits it can make by investing in cheap labor. This isn’t China pulling a cheap trick. Many prominent nations aid developing ones in order to improve foreign relations and profit from the relationship. Through the power of domestic economic growth and increased foreign aid, China can very well overtake America without ever threatening violence. And even if we were to return to the absurd hypothetical of a China initiated war against the US, a cynical may point out that more countries would owe their allegiance to the former over the latter. China wielding that much power as an authoritarian state definitely raises concern, especially when considering that China is also trying to develop its own state surveillanced internet service. This service would directly compete with the one we currently have access to, but that is a topic for another day. Point being that China has more reason to stop nuclear conflict than to start it.

Image sourced from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) June 15th, 2020

To quickly address the other concern, no, we wouldn’t have a nuclear war with al-Qaeda or any other jihadist terrorist organization. Ever since 9/11, Americans have been scaring themselves with the prospects of Nuclear Conflict with the likes of ISIS. Usually, we divide nuke-holders into two groups: reliable and unreliable factors. Hypothetically, terrorists would be unreliable factors because of their disregard for human life in the light of their god or some other larger cause. The idea of these sycophants getting their hands on a weapon of mass destruction is chilling, but this isn’t ever going to be an issue for a few reasons. One, many of these terrorist cells are decentralized. Organization is very important when leading attacks against the state. Yes, al-Qaeda may occupy some regions of Africa, but it would never get to the point where we would have to treat them as a state. The best way to deal with them is with a unified front. It is the job of the UN to drive terrorism out of its area of jurisdiction via government support and peacekeepers, but there will never be a nuke involved. The second reason is that nuclear arsenals require a lot of money and maintenance. Even if they could get their hands on it, terrorists would probably prefer conventional weapons. They don’t have the resources to keep these weapons at the ready. The third reason is that there are no known terrorist cells to have access to nuclear weapon scientists. Believe it or not, making a nuke takes a lot of work. These workers require strong infrastructure to protect. When considering organization, resources, and information, it should be clear that the likes of al-Qaeda will never make their own nukes. More likely are the creation of dirty bombs. Nuclear fission takes an expensive facility and lots of resources, but a dirty bomb is just attaching something radioactive to C4. Dirty bombs are bad news because of the radiation damage it causes. Radiation levels can remain dangerously high for many years after an attack. Ironically enough, far-right American extremists have been found to carry out more credible threats for this type of attack. It shouldn’t be hard to believe this between the events of Charlottesville and the Insurrection at the Capitol. One thing is for sure, a nuclear war would not be born from terrorism.

Now, let’s go over some of the countries we may need to look out for. With the massive superpowers not willing to start a war due to globalization, this doesn’t stop smaller countries from quarrelling, and sometimes the bigger countries increase tensions. Take Iran for example. In 2018, President Donald Trump exited the Iranian nuclear deal. This was a deal that requested Iran to not have nukes in exchange for better trade. With the US gone, Iran has little incentive to comply. If that wasn’t bad enough, Trump additionally started to provide aid to Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program. Saudi Arabia and Iran are enemies, so when Iran sees the US do this, they’re going to feel the need to start their own program.

Kim Jong-un meets with nuclear weapons scientists including Hong Sung-mu (right) and Ri Hong-sop (second left) AFP Contributor from the Getty Images

Ultimately, this leads to more nukes, not less. Luckily, the Biden Administration is already looking to return to the Iran nuclear deal. Of course, we couldn’t talk about nukes unless we mentioned the infamous little rocketman, Kim Jong-un. North Korea initially armed itself to legitimize their country. Additionally, NK has been consistently doing nuclear tests stretching the range of their weapons. The USA’s ally, South Korea, neighbors North Korea which puts it in a lot of immediate danger. Unlike China, North Korea does not have strong infrastructure or foreign connections. This makes the nation much more unpredictable, but we can assume that North Korea has nukes as a form of self defense more than anything else. It’s a warning to anyone that wants to challenge their state. Let’s end by going over the most overt threat of Nuclear War: the India-Pakistan conflict. For over 50 years, India and Pakistan have been at each other’s throats fighting over the Kashmir territory. Between Pakistani militant groups and India paramilitary attacks, these two countries continue to push boundaries with each other, and they both happen to have nuclear weapons. One might look at the India-Pakistan conflict and conclude that they would not use these nukes. Bombing Kashmir would eliminate the competition, but it completely defeats the purpose of pursuing it at all. The land would become unusable. However, these countries have developed a different type of arsenal: tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). TNWs are defined in US context as land-based nuclear missiles with a range of less than 300 miles. Definitions vary country to country, but the general consensus is that tactical nukes are low yield, radioactive bombs that cover less area and range. They are comparable to conventional missiles and are therefore more viable in warfare. The scalability of these missiles can increase radiation damage while also being able to decrease the effective blast zone. MAD Theory doesn’t work in this situation because the nukes are no longer humanity-ending. All of the sudden, nuclear arsenals become assets as India and Pakistan can strategically target convoys and facilities. These weapons of mass destruction were made for combat, and it is likely that they will be introduced to conventional warfare within the next few decades.

Breaking it all down, nuclear war is not very likely, but people tend to fear the wrong things. Our issues may not lay in the east, and the conflict may not even initially concern us. Nonetheless, nuclear weapons will certainly take more lives than it will save. The best case scenario is to pursue the disarmament of all nukes as requested by the United Nations. To that, I say that you have a better chance of creating a single global government than you do getting rid of nukes.

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