Whilst lying on my trampoline one day, I watched a plane drift across an otherwise perfect blue sky. It was a small plane without contrails and, with its long wings curved at the ends, I thought it looked something like a WWII plane. It was only a single mark on a cold sky, but what if, instead, the sky above was ﬁlled with planes? I watched as the plane passed out of my peripheral vision, leaving behind an imagined imprint of chaotic aerial cluster, and, strangely, I thought that I could imagine the fear I would feel if I ever saw such a sight. There is surely something profoundly helpless about the image. Of course, I thought, as I sat up on my trampoline, there was no good reason to think that I would ever see such a sky. If worst comes to worst in my lifetime, the likelihood is that everyone is either going up in nuclear smoke or down under the rising sea.
I could imagine the fear I would feel if I ever saw such a sight…
Humanity’s nuclear stockpiles are such that we could obliterate the world several times over. This is rationally unthinkable. It’s called MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction. Major countries have the ability to escalate warfare to such an extent that there is no longer any beneﬁt in going to war. This rationale is borne out in the statistics – political scientist John Mueller’s research not only reveals that traditional warfare between the major states is now practically obsolete, but he also explains why this is reality. He claims that warfare is now less “rationally unthinkable” than it is “sub-rationally unthinkable”. What this means is that we are past the stage of it being self-evident that countries cannot afford to go to war, and we have reached the stage where the very thought of going to war doesn’t even cross our minds. Just as two archetypal 21st century men arguing over the heart of a pretty girl would no longer think of duelling to settle the matter, 21st century France and Germany likewise wouldn’t ever think of using traditional warfare to ﬁght for the heart of Mrs. Alsace Lorraine.
This is a good thing, isn’t it? We don’t want nations thinking about warfare, do we? For those of you who know straw when you see it and are suspicious of the ol’ back-to-back question, you probably know what I’m going to ask next… Is it actually a bad thing? Might not “rationally unthinkable” be good enough, and might not “sub-rationality unthinkable” be a step too far?
Imagine, if you will, that in the year 2060 nuclear weaponry became easily disabled. A less nuclear world might be less desirable than is commonly wished (after all, this 2060 would be a world in which we were at the mercy of whichever superpower has the power to disable nuclear weaponry) and we would have a pretty good idea as to whether the theory of MAD had served us well or if had all been luck. But what if, instead of a less nuclear world, we ended up, overnight, in a non-nuclear world? Currently, cyberwarfare is the discussion going on within military circles. Payloads, Worms, Trojan horses – all these can at the click of a link infect a computer system. The head of the US National Security Agency has warned that several nations now have “the ability to launch a cyber-attack that could shut down the entire U.S. power grid and other critical infrastructure.”
But what if we ended up, overnight, in a non-nuclear world?
The rise of the cyber is fast becoming an ineluctable danger. Take Trident. While some claim it is nonsense that Trident can be hacked, the argument going that it’s “air-gapped” away from the Internet, many are increasingly sceptical. Dr Andrew Futter’s research into the potential risks concluded that: “It will never be possible to say that the UK nuclear deterrent is entirely safe from cyber-attack… it will be exceptionally likely that one day it will fall, not only that, it could all fall.” While the world order would not be drastically altered by the hacking and neutralization of Trident; what if, as Dr Andrew Futter hints, they were all to fall?
Feasibility level: sci-ﬁ ? I stipulate that you must not dismiss this possibility as futuristic. The USA kicked off cyber aggression through Stuxnet, discovered in 2010, a 500-kilobyte computer worm which inﬁltrated 14 industrial and uranium-enrichment plants in Iran. All it took was for one unwitting person to install it and it spread across a whole country. In the 1960s we didn’t yet have cell phones. Imagine the global reach of cyber by 2060. It has already become the new arms-race of the 21st century – if one looks through the US Defence Department Task Force Report of 2013 and see the seriousness with which they treat the issue. The USA is already expanding the recruitment of qualiﬁed ‘cyber warriors’. I stumbled across this lovely passage in the Task Force Report: “Cyber Warrior is a new domain for the Department, and this new class of job will require career paths, training expectations and incentives to attract and develop the needed expertise. It is not clear that high-end cyber practitioners can be found in sufﬁcient numbers within typical recruitment pools.” This perky graduate recruitment scheme is frontier stuff – an attempt to turn atypicals (fat guys with Cheetos in their beards) into Konans of the future. The battleﬁeld is being redeﬁned, and the ultimate quest, the ﬁnal boss-battle, will be the disarmament of your opponent’s nuclear capabilities. Who can say that this might not end in a nuclear-free world stalemate?
The USA is already expanding the recruitment of qualified ‘cyber warriors’
Perhaps it would even be a do-gooder, someone who ubiquitously nulliﬁes the world’s arsenal in an attempt to save humanity from itself. Our world would be instantly changed. Might we look back on the bygone nuclear era as one characterised by peace? Terrorism begins to shrink into the mythical mist of the Tora Bora mountains, quaint in comparison to the vengeful return of the state. And what would we call this new world order? The Un-Peace of Westphalia. It is no longer inconceivable that nuclear weaponry could one-day be made instantly obsolete. History is a graph full of jagged lines, not smooth curves. On my trampoline the smooth bound up and the graceful falling down is physics. Thinking that they apply to history is deterministic, and is to be avoided. From the safety of our trampolines, we have to risk imagining a retro sky littered with planes of the past. This might be why John Mueller qualiﬁed his ﬁndings on the decline of traditional state violence as a “period of disuse.” Period, period.
NUCLEAR WEAPONS: FROM 1917 TO 2017
Apart from the nine nuclear weapon countries, there are 26 ‘umbrella states’ who have accepted a ‘security guarantee’
Belgium, Germany, Holland, Italy and Turkey have several hundred US nukes on their soil as part of their membership of NATO
The US spent $5.8 trillion on nuclear weapons between the early 1940s and 1996
During apartheid South Africa secretly developed, and then dismantled, a small number of nuclear warheads.
Iran is pursuing a uranium enrichment programme that could enable it to develop nuclear weapons in the next few years