Tag Archives: nuclear attack

Normal Nuclear Accidents

In March 2022, a nearly tragic accident involving India and Pakistan pointed to another path to nuclear war. The accident highlighted how complex technological systems, including those involving nuclear weapons, can generate unexpected routes to potential disaster—especially when managed by overconfident organizations.

India and Pakistan possess more than 300 nuclear weapons between them, and have fought multiple wars and faced many military crises. On March 9,2022 three years after their dispute over Kashmir escalated into attacks by jet fighters, the Pakistan Air Force detected “a high speed flying object” inside Indian territory change course and veer suddenly toward Pakistan.* It flew deep into Pakistan and crashed. The object was a BrahMos cruise missile, a weapon system developed jointly by India and Russia. India soon stated the launch was an accident.

The firing of the BrahMos missile falls within a long history of accidents involving military systems in India. Military aircraft have strayed across the borders during peacetime. India’s first nuclear submarine was reportedly “crippled” by an accident in 2018, but the government refused to divulge any details. Secrecy has prevented the investigation of an apparent failure of India’s ballistic missile defense system in 2016. Engagements between India and Pakistan can arise from such accidents, as in 1999 when a Pakistani military plane was shot down along the border by India, killing 16 people. Pakistan has had its share of accidents, including a Pakistani fighter jet crashing into the capital city in 2020.

All these weapons systems are inherently accident-prone because of two characteristics identified by organizational sociologist Charles Perrow decades ago—interactive complexity and tight coupling—that combine to make accidents a “normal” feature of the operation of some hazardous technologies. The first characteristic refers to the possibility that different parts of the system can affect each other in unexpected ways, thus producing unanticipated outcomes. The second makes it hard to stop the resulting sequence of events. For Perrow, “the dangerous accidents lie in the system, not in the components,” and are inevitable.

Perhaps the best and most troubling proof of this proposition is in the realm of nuclear weapons—which embody all the properties of high-risk technological systems. Despite decades of efforts to ensure safety, these systems have suffered many failures, accidents and close calls. During 1979–1980, for example, there were several false warnings of Soviet missile attacks, some of which resulted in U.S. nuclear forces being put on alert.  

Given the secretive nature of Indian nuclear policymaking, little is known about India’s nuclear command and control system. However, the 1999 Draft Nuclear Doctrine called for “assured capability to shift from peacetime deployment to fully employable forces in the shortest possible time.” The combination of technology and plans for being able to rapidly launch nuclear weapons raises the risk of accidental and inadvertent escalation to nuclear war.  

South Asia’s geography is pitiless. It would only take five to 10 minutes for a missile launched from India to attack Pakistan’s national capital, nuclear weapon command posts or bases….Compounding these dangers is the overconfidence of India’s officials, who displayed no recognition of the gravity of the Brahmos accident.

Excerpt from Zia Mian, M. V. Ramana, India’s Inadvertent Missile Launch Underscores the Risk of Accidental Nuclear Warfare, Scientific American, Apr. 8, 2022

Tactical Nuclear Warhead to Respond ‘in Kind’ to Attack: W76-2

The US Navy has now deployed the new W76-2 low-yield Trident submarine warhead. The first ballistic missile submarine scheduled to deploy with the new warhead was the USS Tennessee (SSBN-734)…The W76-2 warhead was first announced in the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) unveiled in February 2018. There, it was described as a capability to “help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities,” a reference to Russia. The justification voiced by the administration was that the United States did not have a “prompt” and useable nuclear capability that could counter – and thus deter – Russian use of its own tactical nuclear capabilities…

We estimate that one or two of the 20 missiles on the USS Tennessee and subsequent subs will be armed with the W76-2, either singly or carrying multiple warheads. Each W76-2 is estimated to have an explosive yield of about five kilotons.* The remaining 18 missiles on each submarine like the Tennessee carry either the 90-kiloton W76-1 or the 455-kiloton W88. Each missile can carry up to eight warheads under current loading configurations…

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has further explained that the “W76-2 will allow for tailored deterrence in the face of evolving threats” and gives the US “an assured ability to respond in kind to a low-yield nuclear attack.”

Excerpt from William M. Arkin and Hans M. Kristensen, US Deploys New Low-Yield Nuclear Submarine Warhead, FAS, Jan. 29, 2020

*The Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons.

Armed Attack on Truck Carrying Nuclear Fuel: Brazil

Armed men shot at members of a convoy transporting uranium to one of Brazil’s two working nuclear power plants on a coastal road in Rio de Janeiro state on March 19, 2019 police and the company managing the plant said.  They said the truck carrying the nuclear fuel and its police escort came under attack when it was passing by the town of Frade, about 30 km (19 miles) from Angra dos Reis, where the reactor is located.  Policemen guarding the convoy returned the attackers’ fire, police said. They said there were no injuries or arrests and the armed men fled.

Excerpts from Brazilian nuclear plant uranium convoy attacked by armed men: police, Reuters, Africa, Mar. 19, 2019

How to Hide Nuclear Bombs in the Ocean: Nuclear Submarines

The INS Arihant’s India’s nuclear submarine inaugural voyage in November 2018 was a triumphal step forward in India’s long, often tortuous quest to deploy atomic weapons at sea…  Hiding missiles in the ocean solves these problems, giving India more confidence that its forces could survive a nuclear attack from China or Pakistan, and hit back.But managing such weapons is not easy. One difficulty is ensuring that a submarine can receive orders without giving away its location. India has been building low-frequency radio stations, which use large antennas to propel signals underwater, for this purpose. Yet these are also vulnerable to attack, which is why some nuclear-armed states use airborne transmitters as well.

A second hitch is that the k-15 missiles aboard the Arihant can only fly a puny 750km, which means that the submarine would have to park itself dangerously close to China’s coastline to have a hope of striking big cities. Longer-range missiles, which could be fired from the safety of Indian waters, are in the works. But bigger missiles, and more of them, necessitate a bigger hull. That, in turn, requires that the nuclear-powered subs be fitted with bigger reactors—a fiendish technical challenge.

A third problem is keeping the Arihant safe. Nuclear submarines can only do their job if they can slip silently out of port and into the oceans. They are typically chaperoned by leaner attack submarines. But admirals complain that the navy, whose share of the defence budget has dwindled to 15%, has just 13 of these. The delivery of new French attack subs has been delayed.

Meanwhile India’s nuclear arsenal is swelling. A recent report by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a research organisation, estimates that it has 130-140 nuclear warheads, with enough fissile material for 60-70 more. The stockpile, though smaller than Pakistan’s and half the size of China’s, has roughly doubled since 2010. Many of the new warheads will go to sea. A second nuclear submarine, the Arighant, is nearing completion, and a third is in the works.

India’s Nuclear Submarines, Economist,  Nov. 17, 2018, at 44