Nuclear warfare

The Titan II Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) carried a 9 Mt W53 warhead, one of the most powerful nuclear weapons fielded by the United States during the Cold War.

Nuclear warfare (sometimes atomic warfare or thermonuclear warfare) is a military conflict or political strategy in which nuclear weaponry is used to inflict damage on the enemy. Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction; in contrast to conventional warfare, nuclear warfare can produce destruction in a much shorter time and can have a long-lasting radiological warfare result. A major nuclear exchange would have long-term effects, primarily from the fallout released, and could also lead to a "nuclear winter" that could last for decades, centuries, or even millennia after the initial attack.[1][2] Some claimed that the result would be that almost every human on Earth could starve to death.[3][4][5] Other analysts however dismiss the nuclear winter hypothesis, and calculate that even with nuclear weapon stockpiles at Cold War highs, although there would be billions of casualties, billions more rural people would nevertheless survive.[6][7][8][9]

So far, two nuclear weapons have been used in the course of warfare, both by the United States near the end of World War II. On August 6, 1945, a uranium gun-type device (code name "Little Boy") was detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9, a plutonium implosion-type device (code name "Fat Man") was detonated over the Japanese city of Nagasaki. These two bombings resulted in the deaths of approximately 120,000 people.

After World War II, nuclear weapons were also developed by the Soviet Union (1949), the United Kingdom (1952), France (1960), and the People's Republic of China (1964), which contributed to the state of conflict and extreme tension that became known as the Cold War. In 1974, India, and in 1998, Pakistan, two countries that were openly hostile toward each other, developed nuclear weapons. Israel (1960s) and North Korea (2006) are also thought to have developed stocks of nuclear weapons, though it is not known how many. The Israeli government has never admitted or denied to having nuclear weapons, although it is known to have constructed the reactor and reprocessing plant necessary for building nuclear weapons.[10] South Africa also manufactured several complete nuclear weapons in the 1980s, but subsequently became the first country to voluntarily destroy their domestically made weapons stocks and abandon further production (1990s).[11] Nuclear weapons have been detonated on over 2,000 occasions for testing purposes and demonstrations.[12][13]

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the resultant end of the Cold War, the threat of a major nuclear war between the two nuclear superpowers was generally thought to have declined. Since then, concern over nuclear weapons has shifted to the prevention of localized nuclear conflicts resulting from nuclear proliferation, and the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Types of nuclear warfare

The possibility of using nuclear weapons in war is usually divided into two subgroups, each with different effects and potentially fought with different types of nuclear armaments.

The first, a limited nuclear war[14] (sometimes attack or exchange), refers to a small-scale use of nuclear weapons by two (or more) belligerents. A "limited nuclear war" could include targeting military facilities—either as an attempt to pre-emptively cripple the enemy's ability to attack as a defensive measure, or as a prelude to an invasion by conventional forces, as an offensive measure. This term could apply to any small-scale use of nuclear weapons that may involve military or civilian targets (or both).[dubious ][according to whom?]

The second, a full-scale nuclear war, could consist of large numbers of nuclear weapons used in an attack aimed at an entire country, including military, economic, and civilian targets. Such an attack would almost certainly destroy the entire economic, social, and military infrastructure of the target nation, and would probably have a devastating effect on Earth's biosphere.[3][15]

Some Cold War strategists such as Henry Kissinger[16] argued that a limited nuclear war could be possible between two heavily armed superpowers (such as the United States and the Soviet Union). Some predict, however, that a limited war could potentially "escalate" into a full-scale nuclear war. Others[who?] have called limited nuclear war "global nuclear holocaust in slow motion", arguing that—once such a war took place—others would be sure to follow over a period of decades, effectively rendering the planet uninhabitable in the same way that a "full-scale nuclear war" between superpowers would, only taking a much longer (and arguably more agonizing) path to the same result.

Even the most optimistic predictions[by whom?] of the effects of a major nuclear exchange foresee the death of many millions of victims within a very short period of time. More pessimistic predictions argue that a full-scale nuclear war could potentially bring about the extinction of the human race, or at least its near extinction, with only a relatively small number of survivors (mainly in remote areas) and a reduced quality of life and life expectancy for centuries afterward. However, such predictions, assuming total war with nuclear arsenals at Cold War highs, have not been without criticism.[7] Such a horrific catastrophe as global nuclear warfare would almost certainly cause permanent damage to most complex life on the planet, its ecosystems, and the global climate. If predictions about the production of a nuclear winter are accurate, it would also change the balance of global power, with countries such as Australia, New Zealand, India, China, Argentina and Brazil predicted to become world superpowers if the Cold War ever led to a large-scale nuclear attack.[8]

A study presented at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December 2006 asserted that even a small-scale regional nuclear war could produce as many direct fatalities as all of World War II and disrupt the global climate for a decade or more. In a regional nuclear conflict scenario in which two opposing nations in the subtropics each used 50 Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons (c. 15 kiloton each) on major population centers, the researchers predicted fatalities ranging from 2.6 million to 16.7 million per country. The authors of the study estimated that as much as five million tons of soot could be released, producing a cooling of several degrees over large areas of North America and Eurasia (including most of the grain-growing regions). The cooling would last for years and could be "catastrophic", according to the researchers.[17]

Either a limited or full-scale nuclear exchange could occur during an accidental nuclear war, in which the use of nuclear weapons is triggered unintentionally. Postulated triggers for this scenario have included malfunctioning early warning devices and/or targeting computers, deliberate malfeasance by rogue military commanders, consequences of an accidental straying of warplanes into enemy airspace, reactions to unannounced missile tests during tense diplomatic periods, reactions to military exercises, mistranslated or miscommunicated messages, and others. A number of these scenarios actually occurred during the Cold War, though none resulted in the use of nuclear weapons.[18] Many such scenarios have been depicted in popular culture, such as in the 1962 novel Fail-Safe (released as a film in 1964); the film WarGames, released in 1983; and the film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, also released in 1964.