Behind the Veil of Mutually Assured Destruction: Unveiling the Probability of a Nuclear War

Behind the Veil of Mutually Assured Destruction: Unveiling the Probability of a Nuclear War

Since the first detonation of a nuclear bomb during the Manhattan Project in 1945, the dread of nuclear war has loomed like a mushroom cloud over human civilization. Despite the Cold War ending three decades ago, the threat of nuclear conflict, tragically, remains relevant. Now, as the world watches the tensions escalating in Ukraine, many fear a nuclear showdown may be closer than we think.

The Global Catastrophic Risk Institute has recently produced an analytical model for calculating the total probability of nuclear war. The paper, authored by Seth D. Baum, Robert de Neufville, and Anthony M. Barrett, presents an in-depth exploration of 14 interrelated scenarios for how nuclear war could break out. This sobering exercise aims to shed light on a subject that has been pushed to the fringes of our collective consciousness but has significant policy implications.

Factors influencing these scenarios include a state's intention to launch a first-strike attack, the escalation from conventional warfare or a non-war crisis, false alarms, and even the detonation of nuclear devices by non-state actors like terrorist groups. Each factor forms a complex web of variables that contribute to the overall probability of nuclear war.

As a starting point towards the quantification of these probabilities, the authors offer a database of 60 historical incidents that might have escalated into nuclear war. While they don't speculate on how close each incident was to triggering a nuclear conflict - a matter of complex historical interpretation - the dataset serves as a chilling reminder of how frequently the specter of nuclear war has reared its head.

This research is intended to provide a more profound understanding of the underlying nuclear war risk. It underscores the importance of continuing efforts to assess this probability, given the gravity of policy questions it impacts. How much attention should we give to nuclear war as opposed to other global catastrophic risks? Which policies are most effective in reducing the risk of nuclear war? How rapidly should nuclear disarmament proceed? What alert level should nuclear forces maintain? How should nuclear power be managed, especially in volatile regions?

The looming threat of nuclear war is a Pandora's box that humanity has been forced to grapple with for almost eight decades. The probabilities may be difficult to estimate, and the scenarios terrifying to contemplate, but the importance of this understanding cannot be overstated. It guides not only policy but also the actions and priorities of the global community.

As we witness ongoing conflicts around the world, such as the situation in Ukraine, we must confront the unsettling reality that nuclear war is not a relic of the past, but a potential crisis of the future. Armed with better knowledge and understanding, we can prioritize policies that not only reduce the likelihood of such a cataclysm but aim for the ultimate goal of a world free from the shadow of nuclear war.