Five ways that nuclear weapons could still be used
On 6 August 1945, the first atomic bomb to be used in anger detonated over the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, it was Nagasaki’s turn. That was the last such attack. Despite the worst of the cold war’s close calls, like the Cuban missile crisis, no other nuclear weapons have ever been used outside of testing. Seven decades later, it is worth asking: could it happen again? Here are five possible nuclear use scenarios.
Major power nuclear war
During the cold war, the most likely scenario seemed to be a conflict between the US and the Soviet Union, each of which possessed many thousands of nuclear weapons. Three other countries eventually entered into the “nuclear club” as well, developing relatively large, sophisticated arsenals with global reach. Today, the idea that the US, Russia, UK, France or China would start a nuclear war seems considerably more remote than it once was.
Tensions over regional affairs, such as the fighting in Ukraine, always carry the threat of spilling over
But it is not entirely off the table. The US and Russia still possess thousands of weapons each, with the other three nations possessing arsenals in the hundreds. Tensions over regional affairs, such as the fighting in Ukraine, always carry the threat of spilling over into larger conflicts. War strategists call this possibility “escalation”, where one side, perhaps without realising it, pushes the other side into a slightly larger response, which leads to another response, and so on until – at its very worse – a full nuclear exchange, the sort of thing that can kill millions.
None of these powers want this sort of thing to happen – it’s not in their interest to be mutually annihilated, and their arsenals are sophisticated enough that nobody thinks they could get away with a sneak attack without fearing reprisal. Despite sometimes having blistering rhetoric, they take pains to avoid it. Could it still happen? It’s not impossible. But it’s probably not as likely to happen today as it might have in the 1960s or 1980s, when tensions were at their highest.
What about the other nuclear powers, whose arsenals are smaller and who do not yet quite have global reach? Into this category we might put India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.
Could two of these nations wage war against one another? The scenario that has kept experts up at night for a long time has been that of a “nuclear exchange” between India and Pakistan, whose proximity, comparable nuclear arsenals, and long history of disagreements make their situation seem especially dangerous. Notably, they also have different nuclear doctrines: India, with its large conventional army, has indicated it would not use nuclear weapons first, but Pakistan has indicated that in the event of an overwhelming conventional attack, it may feel sufficiently threatened to go nuclear. These sorts of “asymmetries” make nuclear wonks anxious, because it means that each side has a different “red line”, and the other side may not know exactly where that line is drawn.
For many experts, something involving smaller nuclear powers might be the most likely scenario on this list for a significant nuclear exchange. Lest anyone who doesn’t live in these regions think that this is not something to worry about, scientists have run models that have concluded that even a relatively “minor” exchange of only a few hundred weapons, aside from killing millions in the region in question, might alter the global climate in such a way as to drastically reduce crop production.
Nuclear weapons state v non-nuclear state
Could a nuclear weapons state, minor or major, use such a weapon against a non-nuclear power? It’s obviously not impossible: the only time that nuclear weapons were ever used in war so far was one nuclear power with very few weapons (the US) against a non-nuclear power (Japan). In terms of major nuclear weapon powers, it seems unlikely that the states today with large conventional militaries would think nuclear weapons were worth using.
But what about states that are more vulnerable, with smaller militaries? One might worry, say, about a war between Israel and its
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