December 5th, 2017

Faye Flam, reporting in Nuclear war could come with a flub, not a bang for Japan Times (a unique perspective), writes:

Talk with experts on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and it soon becomes clear that the biggest threat the world faces isn’t an intentional act of evil, but a confluence of stupidity and error. After all, the most frightening close calls during the Cold War started with trivial mistakes — a dropped socket from a socket wrench, for example, or a training tape put in the wrong computer.

With nine missile tests just this year, North Korea is quickly advancing the range of its nuclear weapons. The distance record goes to a missile called the Hwasong-12, which was launched May 14. It traveled about 800 km, but on a steep trajectory that demonstrated the power to have gone more than 3,800 km.

Some experts, such as Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, say that missile had an innovative design and showed evidence of real engineering competence, while others, such as German aerospace engineer Markus Schiller, aren’t so sure. Experts also disagree about how close North Korea is to being able to strike San Francisco or Washington, or whether the United States should negotiate a deal to prevent this from happening. But they do tend to agree that the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, is unlikely to launch an unprovoked attack, since the retaliation would obliterate his country.

The situation is nevertheless dangerous, given the possibility of error and misjudgment. “I cannot imagine any circumstance that would lead Kim Jong Un to launch an unprovoked nuclear attack on anyone,” Stanford physicist Siegfried Hecker said in a recent interview published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. But, he went on, “We can’t rule out a miscalculation or a desperate response to a crisis.”

Physicist David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, has made a similar point: “The biggest threat here seems to be to that you’d get to the point where you’d have a crisis — where people do things and other people misunderstand their intentions.”

Former Rand Corp. nuclear strategist Daniel Ellsberg has spent years thinking about how to avoid this sort of situation. While he’s best-known for leaking the Vietnam War documents known as the Pentagon Papers, he says his current focus is preventing nuclear war. His book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner will be released in December.

Full disclosure, for two years of my life I was responsible for the day-to-day care of eight tactical nuclear weapons on board the USS Bainbridge, CGN 25.

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