Missing the Target: Counter-Proliferation

When considering traditional and persistent threats such as nuclear proliferation it is easy to fall into the trap of focusing on threats from overseas. But what if the deadliest adversary was not only within our own borders but within the very system of government we rely on to govern our state itself. What if the weapons we developed to serve in our own defense were the ones that eventually destroy us. If we were our own worst enemy, would we even know?

Consider the following scenario. The rapid advancement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme results in a period of tension with the United States. Counter-proliferation talks begin in good faith but after they deteriorate, the United States takes the executive decision to make a pre-emptive strike as Intelligence indicates North Korea is preparing for launch. Launching the least powerful nuclear weapon carried on a Trident missile submarine against the capital Pyongyang results in a quarter of a million casualties from the initial strike. Civilians are torn apart by the initial blast or incinerated by the heat wave. Within three weeks the death toll rises to half a million as the survivors die slowly from radiation poisoning. The inevitable retaliatory strike kills just as many in Washington D.C.

"It’s a near miracle that nuclear war has so far been avoided."
Naom Chomsky

I’m sure the antecedents of this scenario are recognisable in recent events. Along with the threats from rogue states and lone actors, this is one of most likely worst case scenarios envisioned by security analysts advising governments throughout the western world. Nuclear states are widely considered too integrated, informed and aligned to be a likely threat. But what is often overlooked is that even if mutually assured destruction is an effective deterrent, which it is not, a state of total nuclear war isn’t required to destroy a state. In fact, the state affected need not even be involved in the causal conflict.

Consider the following scenario. In response to a Kashmir occupation in which Pakistan deploys the vast majority of its forces, India engages in a bloody conflict resulting in the overwhelming defeat of Pakistani forces and the loss of India’s field command echelon and field communications. Without leadership or orders from New Delhi an inexperienced and confused temporary command decide to begin the march towards Islamabad. Unbeknown to them, Pakistani first strike policy demands a counter-attack in this scenario and a single nuclear warhead is launched against New Delhi precipitating a vicious nuclear exchange lasting until a mutual stand-down is eventually negotiated. India and Pakistan possess a nuclear arsenal of a few hundred nuclear weapons each. The resulting nuclear winter covers the entire globe for years, eclipsing the sun, dropping the global temperature and killing off up to 40% of the crops. The world population starts to starve after 60 days and 1-2 billion die from starvation in a winter that lasts for years.

India and Pakistan have a long history of military conflict, especially over the Kashmir region. As a nuclear power and the weaker military force, Pakistan has strict red lines on the use of its nuclear deterrent. Both these states are nuclear states, and as such their only obligation under international law is to attempt to reduce their stockpile to zero as soon as possible. However, much like every other nuclear state they have ignored this obligation.

"Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."
Veda Vyãsa

Without any legal or political means to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons in smaller nuclear states like India and Pakistan, scenarios like this are increasingly likely. They are also largely ignored by policy-makers as problems too large and complex to deal with. Even the public have become so disaffected they are largely resigned to their fate and choose not to discuss the topic or engage their political representatives over it. Therefore, contrary to security assessments, smaller nuclear states do represent a larger threat than lone actors or rogue states. But they are not the largest threat.

Consider the following scenario. European powers backed by the United States provide extended covert and overt support for pro-European elements in the Ukraine, supporting successful bids to join the European Union and NATO. Russia naturally sees the expansion of western power along its border as a national security threat. Russian special forces and intelligence elements are deployed in support of rebel groups, Crimea is annexed and much of western Ukraine falls under de-facto Russian rule. With covert military support from western powers the conflict spills out to adjacent Baltic nations, provoking NATO involvement and precipitating a full scale war between NATO and Russia. Against the combined power of the United States and Europe, Russia is overwhelmed and in accordance with its own military doctrine it prepares to deploy its nuclear arsenal. The US, UK and France make a pre-emptive strike in accordance with their policy and the exchange costs the lives of 400 million people. 90% of the remaining population of the planet die from radiation and starvation in a nuclear winter that lasts decades and destroys almost all food supplies on the planet.

These existing nuclear states are exempt from almost all international counter-proliferation laws are widely ignored by counter-proliferation efforts. Yet, they represent the greatest threat, not just to European security, but to humanities continued existence.

This article is part of the Institute for European Intelligence and Security's "Missing the Target" series. The series draws on expert opinion through registrant articles on the flaws in the analysis of threats to European security. This article is a private contribution offered in the interests of debate by an independent registrant. Views expressed are not endorsed by the Institute and do not constitute their official position.