Threat of Nuclear War 55 Years After the Cuban Missile Crisis

The 55th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis – a very important event on the historical calendar – will be marked in coming days. On September 8, 1962, the first batch of R-12 missiles, soon to be followed by others, was delivered to Cuba as part of a secret Soviet Armed Forces’ operation codenamed Anadyr. On October 4, warheads for the missiles reached Cuba. The Americans learned about this soon after from U-2 spy plane photographs. The best-known images documenting the presence of the Soviet missiles were recorded during an October 14 flight. Within the next two weeks, tensions surged so rapidly that the world approached the brink of nuclear war for the first time in history. 

Luckily the threat of war receded, in no small part thanks to the Soviet Union’s free concessions, including its consent to withdraw the missiles from Cuba. Since then, the Cuban missile crisis has figured prominently in textbooks on international relations and political decision-making. The work of President Kennedy’s crisis staff has been hailed as a classic example and is studied at all world universities to this day. 

Moreover, the Cuban missile crisis is of fundamental importance as a clear psychological and political watershed in the attitude to nuclear weapons and the possibility of their use. It finally became clear that the actual use of nuclear weapons cannot be limited to one or several strikes and that it is practically guaranteed that belligerents would fire a massive salvo that would wipe out the US, the USSR and the rest of the world. The nuclear winter theory has been generally accepted as reflecting the global consequences of a nuclear exchange, and its innumerous critics were totally marginalized by the academic mainstream. Most scientists were insisting that nuclear war would lead to the assured destruction of human civilization and therefore could not be allowed to happen. 

The crisis also showed that politicians in both superpowers were unprepared to accept millions of victims at home as a consequence of several hours of nuclear exchanges. As a result, the role of nuclear weapons underwent a fundamental change. They were no longer regarded as real breakthrough weapons for front-scale operations or even army-scale operations (a case in point is the exercises on the Totsky range in 1954) and became a virtual deterrent. Real wars were planned and conducted as if there were no nuclear weapons at all (the US in the war in Vietnam, the USSR in the war in Afghanistan, etc.). And this was the main lesson of the Cuban missile crisis. 

The decade that followed saw the emergence of the “negative deterrence” doctrine that regarded the lack of forces and assets for neutralizing an enemy salvo as the main guarantee of the non-use of nuclear weapons. It was this that should have deterred a strategic response. The doctrine resulted in the signing of the Soviet-US Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972. 

So, actually using nuclear weapons was out of the question even at the height of the Cold War in the Reagan period (the first half of the 1980s), although there is ample evidence indicating that one of the scenarios of NATO’s Able Archer exercises in 1983 envisaged – subject to the Soviet Union’s response – their use as a screen for the Americans to launch a real nuclear strike on the USSR. However, these plans were voted down by Reagan’s European allies, who did not want to become collateral damage in a US nuclear war. And this was also one of the effects of the Cuban missile crisis. 

Reagan was also the first to start looking for ways to win a large-scale nuclear war, transforming these virtual weapons into real ones again. The plan was to take the arms race to outer space as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars as it was nicknamed. 

Even after the Cold War, the Americans were sorting out options to escape the dilemma of mutually assured destruction (MAD) in a nuclear war. The solution seemed to lie in rejecting negative deterrence and creating a powerful antimissile defense system capable of repelling enemy retaliation, freeing up the Americans to launch a first strike attack that would destroy most of the enemy’s nuclear capabilities, while a weakened retaliatory strike would be fended off by the ABM system. This amounted to inflicting irreparable damage on the enemy while escaping the same for the United States. As a result, the Americans walked out of the ABM Treaty in the late 1990s and began building a global antimissile system based in the Arctic, Europe and the Pacific. 

The next step towards dismantling the legacy of the Cuban missile crisis in US nuclear policy was the dramatic change in the political situation in the world after the Ukrainian crisis. Escalation scenarios have not ruled out a direct military clash between NATO and Russia in the European theater of operations, which, in turn, could escalate into a “limited” nuclear war in Europe. It is believed that a potential nuclear conflict of this sort might follow two scenarios. First, a massive salvo (about 10,000 TNT equivalent megatons) is fired, resulting either in a MAD situation or in the US ABM system managing to repel the attack.  Second, both sides exchange limited salvos or deliver a series of single strikes (about 100 TNT equivalent megatons in all), while refraining from a wholesale attack. In this case, nuclear weapons become a tool in a front-scale operation (or a strategic operation in the theater at most) without any global consequences. Chances of the US ABM system repelling the attack grow exponentially. 

The ongoing US program to modernize aircraft-delivered B-61 nuclear bombs is an indication of the American focus on the latter scenario. In the context of a global 10,000-megaton salvo, these bombs are of secondary importance, since the emphasis will be on intercontinental missiles. But in a front-scale operation, nuclear bombing might be a priority, given the volatility of the operational situation. 

Finally, there is a totally new dimension to a potential nuclear conflict following developments in North Korea that have been largely provoked by US President Donald Trump. The recent series of North Korean missile and nuclear tests makes the anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis anything but a purely academic event. It is increasingly clear that the legacy of the crisis, which demands that nuclear war be avoided at all costs, is losing all significance. 

The potential nuclear clash will involve the US and a much weaker adversary, North Korea, rather than the United States and Russia, which seemingly obviates global consequences. Indicatively, the US “nuclear discourse” has been focused, since the spring of 2017, on the “single use” of nuclear weapons in the Korean conflict. As is clear, the only opportunity for North Korea to resist a US attack is to launch nuclear strikes on America’s allies in the region. Its first target is certainly Seoul. In principle, it does not even need delivery vehicles, since Seoul is located practically on the border with the DPRK. It will be enough to detonate a nuclear device in North Korean territory somewhere near the border with South Korea. Another option is to attack Japan or, ideally, Guam. After that the Americans will certainly wipe North Korea off the map (possibly even by conventional firepower without resorting to nuclear weapons). 

In this context, the reader may be interested to know that the US military regard North Korea’s single use of nuclear weapons as quite acceptable and even desirable. First, this will give them a free hand against North Korea. Second, the worldwide taboo on using nuclear weapons as a crucial element of the post-Cuban missile crisis world order will disappear without a trace. But it will be Americans rather than North Koreans who will be behind its demise. After that, all other nuclear powers will be free to use their arsenals not only in Korea but also in other front-scale operations (Donbass, Iran, Syria, the India-Pakistan conflict, and all the way down the list). The only condition is that a “single” use should not escalate to the level of a global exchange. 

Taken all together, this anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis seems likely to be the last anniversary of the world order maintaining a global taboo on the use of nuclear weapons. The world may enter a totally new epoch with nuclear explosions as everyday reality. And Trump will bear far more responsibility for it than Kim Jong-un.    

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.