Cuban Missile Crisis: Where Could It Happen Today?

Things have changed since 1962. Hippies have given way to hipsters, cellphones give you the news faster than the local news team can, only two Beatles are left, and the Soviet Union doesn’t even exist anymore. The Cold War atmosphere has evaporated and the risk of all-out nuclear war has dramatically decreased. However, a similar type of nuclear crisis that happened in Cuba in 1962 unfortunately could still happen today.

Nine countries still have nuclear weapons and one more is suspected of developing them. Among them, these countries possess about 19,000 nuclear weapons, many of which are vulnerable to falling into the hands of terrorists. Moreover, with so many nuclear weapons lying around, the risk of miscalculation may be even more threatening.

Below is a list of the top three places a crisis could happen today:

1. ) Accidental Launch of Nuclear Weapons on Hair-Trigger Alert

Russia and the US still have thousands of nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert (meaning missiles are launched upon warning of an attack). With so little warning time, a small mistake could easily lead to a crisis. Here’s how: A US military official sees something resembling a Russian nuclear missile heading towards Washington, D.C. on his radar screen. The President is notified and has only minutes to gather intelligence and make a decision. It is later learned that the “nuke” was actually a scientific weather balloon that was given permission to fly over US airspace. Unfortunately, the relevant radar team was not informed and orders are given to launch a nuclear attack. It’s almost happened. The radar mistake was actually made by a Russian officer in 1995. Luckily, President Boris Yeltsin questioned the information. There was also an instance in the 1950s wherein a flock of birds was mistaken for a Soviet bomber attack. Hopefully, our radar technology has improved, but mistakes of this nature happen and leaders need more than a few minutes to check the facts.

More information on nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert can be found at Nuclear Threat Initiatives website.

2)      Regional Nuclear Standoff between India and Pakistan

A militant group based in Pakistan attacks Indian government buildings in New Delhi (similar to the 2008 attacks on public buildings in Mumbai). India mobilizes troops along the border Kashmir as a response. Pakistan deploys troops to Kashmir and sends a warning to India that they have the ability to hit India with a nuclear weapon in 8 seconds (as one Pakistani army general bragged to British officials in 2001). If Indian troops attack, Pakistan will launch a nuclear weapon at India. Pakistan resumes nuclear-capable missile tests and starts to build new launch sites near the border. India begins building their own launch sites while imploring Pakistan to halt all tests in order to avoid a nuclear attack from India. Neither country backs down.  Both begin to deploy nuclear missiles to launch sites. Each nation watches the other’s actions closely as any apparent launch or military action will bring nuclear war.

Check out Michael Krepon’s excellent post on escalation control in South Asia at the Arms Control Wonk website.

3)      Israel Threatens Iran With Nuclear Destruction

Iran’s nuclear program has caused tension with the West for years, but these tensions have radically increased since 2011. Western sanctions against Iran, threats by Iran to shut down an important trading sea-lane, the Sea of Hormuz, and the threat from Israel to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities if Iran does not halt their nuclear ambitions have all contributed to the international crisis.

Just imagine for a moment that the US decides to support Israel’s red line for Iran’s nuclear program. Diplomatic talks with Iran fail and Israel believes it has evidence of Iran crossing the red line. Bolstered by the support of the US and eager to show military strength in the region, Israel threatens to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities using a nuclear warhead. Or Hezbollah attacks Israel with a dirty bomb clearly drawn from nuclear material known to be in Iran. This is exactly the type of crisis that could easily slip out of control.

Ploughshares Fund’s Director of Policy and Government Affairs, Joel Rubin explores relations between the US, Israel, and Iran in his HuffPost blog.

These situations are frightening and more possible than they should be in a modern society. The number of nuclear weapons in the world has decreased dramatically, but their enormous destructive capabilities means that having even a small number in the world could still create unprecedented devastation.  So how do we avoid another nuclear crisis? The best way we know of is to get rid of the nuclear weapons altogether.

Photo by auweia