Nuclear Miscalculations

Ian Maddox, Johns Hopkins University:

Deterrence functions by threatening to deliver an undeliverable punishment. As a result, nations stockpile destructive weapons, tensions brew, and large-scale war is avoided. This military strategy has played a major part in maintaining global security in the late 20th century. Deterrence policy ensured that the Cold War remained cold. Both the US and the USSR understood the price of mutually assured destruction (MAD) and prevented nuclear holocaust.

In the post-Cold War era, the US deals with nations with minor nuclear capabilities, such as North Korea and Iran. These nations have less experience with nuclear weapons, inferior destructive capability, and are in a rapid stage of arms development. The end goal is to prevent other nations from becoming major nuclear powers in order to maintain peace and security. Wiping out a nuclear program before or during the early stages of its development is most desirable. Under the Trump administration, US policy will continue to flex nuclear prowess and increase its nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, these actions would not improve US national security, but instead put our nation in extreme risk. Instead the US should take on a more meticulous policy of surveillance and diplomacy, while at the same time stressing the importance of nuclear non-proliferation in achieving world peace. Nuclear weapons are far more difficult to monitor, control, account for, and combat against than they appear. Aiming for nuclear zero is the most effective stance. Nuclear miscalculation and mismanagement are common occurrences, even in nations like the US.

Although the US is a major nuclear power, our nation does not have an expert nuclear track record. The success of deterrence theory in US policy making is likely nothing more than the triumph of chance and occasion. Nuclear arms are not as well monitored as they seem. The US has made an effort to hide these facts from their citizens since the Cold War era.

Two years ago, the Goldsboro incident was declassified. A 1961 US air force bomber broke in mid-flight, accidentally releasing two Hiroshima sized bombs near the city of Goldsboro, North Carolina.[1] Miraculously, the bombs did not explode, although Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stated[2], “[It was avoided] by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross…” Had these wires crossed, the city of Goldsboro and a large swath of North Carolina might have been destroyed in a self-inflicted nuclear attack.

A similar incident occurred nine years ago, when the US Air Force lost track of six nuclear weapons[3], each ten times the size of the “Little Boy” bomb. The warheads were mistakenly flown from North Dakota to Louisiana, a swath of land housing millions of civilians. If these bombs had fallen, the impact would have been sixty times more devastating than the bombing of Hiroshima.

Nuclear miscalculation can even be seen in test blasts conducted under direct government supervision. Just a few months ago, Atomic veterans[4], men subject to nuclear test blasts in the years following World War II, finally voiced their pain and frustration. Many of the men had already died from cancer and other diseases caused by the radiation from the explosion. These men are finally receiving recognition as veterans after decades of suffering.

Nuclear weapons are unruly tools of military strategy, and this should be recognized. “By nature, [nuclear] missiles teeter on the brink of failure, and new designs are often accident prone… Things can easily go wrong and frequently do,”[5] states Sanger and Broad from the New York Times. Rocketry developmental tests only have a success rate of 5-10%, while American commercial airline flights have a success rate of 99.99%.[6] These statistics do not reflect well on a policy of nuclear proliferation.

How many times has the US nearly destroyed itself? With a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the entire nation many times over, the possibilities are endless. Nuclear zero is what the US should strive for. We can only hope that the Trump administration does not pursue a more aggressive nuclear platform that could put the entire world at risk.


[1] Lacey-Bordeaux, Emma. “Declassified Report: Two Nuclear Bombs Nearly Detonated in North Carolina.” CNN. CNN, 12 June 2014. Web.

[2] Pilkington, Ed. “US Atomic Bomb Detonation Avoided by ‘the Slightest Margin of Chance'” The Guardian 27 Sept. 2013: n. pag. Web.

[3] Starr, Barbara. “Air Force Investigates Mistaken Transport of Nuclear Warheads.” CNN. CNN, 6 Sept. 2007. Web.

[4] Haberman, Clyde. “Veterans of Atomic Test Blasts: No Warning, And Late Amends.” New York Times 29 May 2016, Retro Report sec.: n. pag. Web.

[5] Sanger, David E., and William J. Broad. “Hand of U.S. Leaves North Korea’s Missile Program Shaken.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 Apr. 2017. Web. 21 Apr. 2017.

[6] Ibid


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