It is understandable that following the conclusion of the Cold War, the consideration of nuclear conflict subsided to some degree among policy makers and the general public.
However, while the overall number of nuclear weapons has decreased, the number of actors and potential actors with nuclear weapons is quite larger than at the height of the Cold War.
This overall leaves us with a greater likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons, though not all of the potential scenarios are apocalyptic affairs, which can only increase their likelihood.
The most obvious interstate nuclear scenario is an exchange between India and Pakistan, as the two have fought several wars and skirmishes.
Pakistan in particular has expressed interest in theater nuclear weapons in the event of Indian forces seizing Pakistani territory, as per “Cold Start”.
This is problematic, as India has stated it will use nuclear weapons “in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere.”
Anywhere would presumably include 50-80 Kms inside Pakistan, leaving millions dead in the first 24 hours of a nuclear war in South Asia.
Read More: Why Pakistan Might Actually Nuke Itself
Despite these staggering numbers, India and Pakistan only have about 120 weapons each.
The truly frightening numbers come from Russia and the United States, who each have more weapons ready to fire than all the other nuclear powers have in total.
Historically, it is this alarming number of Weapons of Mass Destruction that is attributed as having prevented the outbreak of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
This fear of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) carries over to the present day, making an intentional strategic nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia unthinkable.
However, both the words “intentional” and “strategic” are highly weaselly and dangerous.
Near misses between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia have occurred alarmingly frequently.
The Cuban Missile Crisis is often considered both the high point and last point of likely intentional strategic nuclear exchange between the Cold War competitors, but it was far from the last near miss.
Accidental nuclear launches have been, and continue to be a major concern. An escalation of a conventional conflict could also conceivably result in nuclear war.
Such a scenario nearly occurred during the Kosovo War, and was narrowly averted by singer James Blunt [seriously], and is increasingly conceivable were “little green men” to appear in the Baltic States.
Were NATO to defeat the Russians in a conventional contest over the Baltic States, which is admittedly not a given outcome, the Russians might respond with what has been deemed as a “deescalatory” nuclear strike, which would use either long or short range nuclear weapons to target military targets anywhere from Europe to the continental United States, in order to bring the opposing force to the negotiating table.
Likely targets would include the NATO nuclear weapon states: the US, United Kingdom, and France as well as NATO allies who “share” US nuclear weapons: Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey.
Notably, the use of nuclear weapons of any variety was tightened in Russia’s 2010 doctrinal document, but the risk of an escalation of a conventional conflict, or a tactical strike remains.
In addition to interstate conflict, non state actors are also a troubling consideration in regards to nuclear weapons.
Pakistan and India have traditionally been identified as potential sources for nuclear weapons or material to be stolen from, but great progress has been made on this front.
A less obvious, and thus more insidious, potential source for nuclear weapons is South Africa.
Armed men broke into the Pelindaba in 2007, only narrowly being scared off after stealing a cellphone.
It is unclear exactly what the objective of this raid was, but it was clearly planned well enough to account for disabling alarms and electric fences.
This leads some to believe that the objective was to steal enriched uranium.
Regardless of the specific threat, the prospect of nuclear conflict remains, and is arguably more likely than ever before.
Awareness of specific issues related to nuclear conflict, and how to contain that potential, should then be a priority of a public interested in avoiding the utilization and normalization of these weapons.
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