Three Steps to Avert an Accidental Nuclear War

The world has crossed over to a new nuclear era, where a fateful error — rather than intentional aggression — is the most likely catalyst to nuclear catastrophe.

American leaders have been warned more than once of incoming Russian missiles — in each case, it was a false alarm resulting from technical or human error. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin was mistakenly alerted to a possible U.S. missile strike after the launch of a Norwegian scientific rocket.

After every incident, we deceive ourselves that we can solve the problem with better technology and training — or we reassure ourselves that the combination of diligence and good luck we experienced during the Cold War will continue. But do we really believe we can prevent a nuclear catastrophe indefinitely in a world with nine states with nuclear weapons and significant suspicion and hostility in many of their mutual relationships?

The risks of human error involving nuclear weapons are compounded by the potential for deliberate cyber-threats to warning and command-and-control systems. Hackers could insert a false warning of a nuclear attack into national warning and alert systems and falsely attribute that attack to an innocent country. At a time of heightened global tensions — with too little communication or cooperation between nuclear rivals, and only minutes of decision time — how would leaders of states with nuclear weapons respond?


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Ernest Moniz and Sam Nunn