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Human Fallibility: A Critical Hole in Global Faith in Nuclear Security

President Xi Jinping’s surprise shake-up of China’s nuclear leadership reminds us how vulnerable we are to catastrophic misfortune.

Words: Orlando Bell
Pictures: Daniele Colucci

In August 2023, Xi Jinping suddenly fired the top two commanders responsible for China’s large land-based nuclear arsenal. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has not commented on the matter, but speculation circulates that General Li Yuchao and his deputy Liu Guangbin were involved in corrupt practices relating to the contracting of China’s new missile silos. 

It remains unclear if any information was compromised or security standards were breached, but the possibility of corruption within the Chinese nuclear apparatus raises grave questions surrounding the security of the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal. Meanwhile, analysts suggest the decision to replace these leaders with politicians external to the PLA Rocket Force is a signal from CCP leadership that this problem may run deeper within the organization.

Although this example is particular to China, the potential presence of corruption indicates a regularly overlooked flaw in the certainty of the rational choice nuclear deterrence argument: humans are inherently fallible.

Typically, we accept such fallibility in our leaders; they are human, but the acceptable margin of error nears zero in the case of such incomparable power. A misreading of an adversary’s intent, a failure of internal communication, or a leak of sensitive information by a corrupt official could all lead to a nuclear crisis from which de-escalation cannot be assured. Such a level of risk is unacceptable. Studies show that an exchange of just 1% of the world’s nuclear arsenal would cause a nuclear famine that devastates two billion people’s lives. In other words, even a limited nuclear war is not survivable. 

Close Calls

Proponents of nuclear deterrence would have you believe nuclear accidents and miscalculations are impossible. They argue our leaders would never consider such an inconceivable possibility and that layers of backstops, checks, and secret codes would prevent any possible unintended escalation. But the nuclear taboo has remained intact through luck, not skill

The record is scattered with terrifyingly close calls. Not only did US military officials recommend aggressive pre-emptive nuclear strikes on multiple occasions during the Cold War, but nuclear accidents are a very real possibility. Take, for example, the 1966 “broken arrow” incident in which an American B-52 bomber collided with a refueling tanker and released four hydrogen bombs onto the town of Palomares, Spain. Fortunately, none of the four bombs experienced a nuclear chain reaction, but the conventional explosives blasted radioactive plutonium across the Spanish countryside, a dirty bomb dropped accidentally on a US ally. A Soviet official at the time commented: “Only a fortunate stroke of luck saved the Spanish population of the area from catastrophe.” The US government had to buy much of the farmland from the locals and burn or store the contaminated land. More than 50 years later, the cleanup is not complete

With misread signals, communications flaws, corruptible commanders, miswiring, and accidental detonations already existing in the historical record, are we certain we wish to continue gambling on the security of nuclear safety systems? 

Even more extraordinary fortune saved the residents of North Carolina and much of the United States. A 1961 accident in which a fuel leak caused the mid-flight breakup of a B-52 created a tailspin. The centrifugal forces pulled a lanyard and a hydrogen bomb, approximately 1000 times more powerful than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, released and tumbled toward the earth. Unaware of this accidental launch, the weapons system automatically and successfully completed all weapons arming stages. The firing signal was sent when the weapon hit the ground. The only thing preventing this catastrophe and the potential death of tens of thousands of Americans was a singular on/off safety switch, identical in design to that of a household light switch. Such switches have been miswired before, so “safe mode” armed the weapon instead of deactivating it. In short, the people of Palomares and North Carolina were little more than lucky.

On multiple occasions, signals have been misread, and nuclear launch protocols have been initiated until somebody detected errors in warning systems resulting from weather, faulty technology, and ignored signals. Unauthorized arming is also not an impossibility. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, US personnel in Turkey loaded nuclear missiles onto planes without authorization from the US president or the secretary of defense. In 2007, in a remarkable lapse in nuclear security, six nuclear missiles were mistakenly loaded onto a US bomber readying for conventional operations. It took 36 hours for the US Air Force to realize the warheads were missing. Meanwhile, six nuclear weapons sat unguarded and armed on the tarmac. Eric Schlosser’s book, “Command and Control,” is scattered with similar close calls.

We have survived these accidents without catastrophe, but their sheer existence shatters the perception that their occurrence is impossible. In each of Schlosser’s cases, a full nuclear detonation was a very realistic possibility. How long are we willing to gamble with these stakes? As Martin Hellman points out, if you continue to play a game of chance, so long as the possibility of the event is above zero, then the likelihood it will eventually occur becomes a mathematical certainty. In the nuclear case, “the only way to survive Russian Roulette is to stop playing.”

Stepping Away

The system must work perfectly to ensure our continued safety against nuclear weapons. The morality and rationality of global leaders must hold, commanders must not be tempted by corruption or glory, electronic safety systems must not malfunction, and operators must not miscommunicate. Each day, the present system remains, and humanity gambles it will not have to live through the horrors of a nuclear conflict, and we do so based on precarious assumptions of rationality and a misplaced faith in the unimpeachability of security systems. 

With the leaders of China and Russia possessing enormous nuclear arsenals, failing to control corruption and dissent within their armies, and seeking to establish dynastic legacies based on the unquestionable legitimacy of both their historical narratives and future ambitions, is their continued rationality and temperament so reliable as to bet the future of humanity on its continuation? With misread signals, communications flaws, corruptible commanders, miswiring, and accidental detonations already existing in the historical record, are we certain we wish to continue gambling on the security of nuclear safety systems? 

At the very least, a commitment to reduce the number of missiles on “Hair Trigger Alert” can reduce the risk of uncontrolled, unintended, or unauthorized nuclear launch. In short, American intercontinental ballistic missiles are kept ready to launch. It is possible for missiles on “Hair Trigger Alert” to be in the sky within ten minutes of initiation. Such rapid response is rationalized as necessary to retaliate against an oncoming strike against the US, but this rationale is no longer persuasive. Day-to-day, the posture significantly increases the chance of an accidental or unauthorized launch or an intentional launch owing to a false warning being carried through to completion. In an arena where the margin for error is already low, existing US launch posture decreases the time in which errors can be corrected without raising the level of US national security — the US nuclear-armed submarines ensure retaliatory capacity without the need for this level of alert. Instead, if the actors involved made mutual commitments to step back from this posture and store nuclear warheads separately from their launch missiles, the threat level posed by irrational or ill-informed decisions would decrease significantly.

However, even this is not enough. Returning to Hellman, the only way to reduce the risk of nuclear disaster to zero is to stop playing the game. International leaders must move to prioritize strict multilateral arms control regimes and encourage all states, including the nuclear powers, to join the 122 nations that voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The TPNW explicitly prohibits using, possessing, and developing nuclear weapons. In short, it commits states to a nuclear-free world in which our leaders do not have such extraordinary power to destroy civilizations at the entrance of a launch code. 

Instability in China’s nuclear establishment has shone a fresh light on the broader issue that J. Robert Oppenheimer himself recognized long ago: humans can scarcely be trusted with the capacity to destroy ourselves. Our leaders, those with their fingers over the button, are corruptible, proud, short-sighted, and determined. In short, they are human. That is why they should not be unquestioningly trusted with this capability.

Orlando Bell

Orlando Bell works for Physicians for Social Responsibility as part of the Nuclear Weapons Abolition Program.

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