By the 1980s, the threat of nuclear war felt imminent. Unreleased public information films, that were later leaked, intended to instruct us on how best to survive a nuclear attack. Across America, classrooms ran drills. Bunkers were a familiar sight in the UK. 

With the end of the cold war, that threat seemed to fade away. But renewed concerns have emerged in recent years. Politicians are again discussing nuclear issues and some leaders are rattling their sabres.

What exactly is the threat of nuclear war today and should we be more concerned about it? 

Nuclear war was a concern in the 1980s: Why are we less worried now?

© IWM

Extract from Protect and Survive: “You can protect yourself and your family”.

Voice over: "In the 1980s, the threat of nuclear war felt imminent. Unreleased public information films, that were later leaked, intended to instruct us on how best to survive a nuclear attack. Across America, classrooms ran drills and bunkers were a familiar sight in the UK. With the end of the Cold War, that threat seemed to fade away.

But renewed concerns have emerged in recent years. Politicians are again discussing nuclear issues and some leaders are rattling their sabres."

Footage of President Kennedy: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile as an attack.”

Voice over: "So, are we in a new nuclear age?"

Dr. Lauren Sukin: "Concerns about nuclear terrorism started popping up around 2001. The Russian
war in Ukraine - we’re again seeing global conversations about nuclear weapons come to the forefront.

Voice over: "There are four types of nuclear risk: Nuclear proliferation, which is the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear technology or materials to countries that do not yet have them. Vertical proliferation,  which relates to nation states increasing or improving their existing stockpiles. Nuclear accidents, and then we have the threat of nuclear use, such as Russia's threats to use nuclear weapons in their war in Ukraine.

Conflicts have once again put weapons in the forefront of international security concerns. But what exactly is the threat of nuclear war today? And should we be more concerned about it?

Voice over: "The United States and Russia possess nearly 90% of the world's nuclear weapons. So who controls the weapons and how quickly can they launch?"

Dr. Lauren Sukin: "The United States and Russia could launch a nuclear weapon anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes. That means these countries could use missile systems to send nuclear weapons across the globe."

Voice over: "Their three delivery systems include Land-Based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) and Long Range Bombers."

Dr. Lauren Sukin: "The nuclear weapons that exist today are in large part vastly more destructive than the ones that were used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

Voice over: "Their Presidents have absolute control."

Dr. Lauren Sukin: "In the United States, the President can unilaterally authorise the use of nuclear weapons. The formal chain of command does not present opportunities for resistance to that policy and there's no accountability mechanism that the President would have to go through. In other countries, using nuclear weapons can happen relatively quickly with very few veto players in the room. 

In a country like Russia, this is made worse. There are very few individuals in any room that Putin is in with the ability to say no to his policy suggestions. If he wanted to use nuclear weapons, it would be quite difficult to stop him. That's not to say that that is the intention of the Russian government but stopping a nuclear attack, once it's in motion, is extremely difficult, if not impossible to do."

Voice over: "This may be an alarming concept, especially when unpredictable personalities are involved, but there are some arguments in favour of this policy."

Dr. Lauren Sukin: "You must always be able to maintain what we call a ‘second strike capability’. And that means having a timely response if you're attacked. Think about the timeline of an attack. The President must then make a decision to arm the existing nuclear weapons and to launch them. That decision has to be passed down the chain of command and then systems are put in place for those weapons to be used, all within a matter of minutes. There's no time for significant intervention and the President can't go seek authority from Congress."

Voice over: "Is mutually assured destruction still our best guard against nuclear war?"

Dr. Lauren Sukin: "Mutually assured destruction is a major force in nuclear politics and one of the reasons why we rarely see nuclear states confront each other outright. 

Part of the power of nuclear weapons comes from the ability to say, “If you punch me, I'll punch you back”. No one takes the first strike because they know that the strike that comes back at them will be just as bad, if not worse. They'll only take lower level actions or no actions at all to disturb each other."

Voice over: "Nuclear threats are monitored closely by experts."

Dr. Lauren Sukin: "In North Korea's case, often these are printed in state run newspapers. Sometimes leaders make threats much more publicly."

Putin (in Russian): “Any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences
should it directly attack our country." 

Dr. Lauren Sukin: "They might give a speech leveraging nuclear weapons without necessarily using them or like President Donald Trump's threats from his personal Twitter account."

President Trump: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury”. 

Voice over: "The biggest change in recent years to nuclear instability is undoubtedly the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. But how seriously are Western powers taking Putin's threats?"

Dr. Lauren Sukin: "I think many leaders take the threat of Russian nuclear use seriously. Western leaders may have exercised caution, choosing not to physically intervene in Ukraine, but instead to support Ukrainian forces. Russia may have been able to invade Ukraine because it had nuclear protection. There is deterrence on both sides that plays a role in shaping how the conflict emerges."

Voice over: "How likely is it that Russia will use its nuclear weapons?"

Dr. Lauren Sukin: "Russian nuclear doctrine suggests that nuclear weapons will only be used if the existence of the state is at threat. Now, there are some questions over what precisely that means. If, for example, Putin's authority is at threat, does that count as existence?

Russia has pulled back a bit on their nuclear threats. Recent intelligence suggests that Russia has recognised that NATO's counter-threat to react to any weapons use with a vast conventional campaign - the Russians are quite concerned about that happening and realise that nuclear use wouldn't be strategic. It's also possible that Moscow has experienced some pressure from China to make sure that the conflict doesn't go nuclear."

Voice over: "The frequency of threats can be a good indicator of how imminent nuclear activity is, and what has provoked it. North Korea is the only country in the world to continue testing nuclear weapons since the end of the nineties."

Dr. Lauren Sukin: "North Korea tends to make more threats prior to missile or nuclear tests. For example, in the ten days before a test, North Korea issues an average of three threats per day, which is almost twice as many threats as it makes about two months before such a test happens."

Voice over: "We can now use this data to better analyse the timing of North Korea's actions and to understand what North Korea is most concerned about."

Dr. Lauren Sukin: "North Korea makes more threats when it's more afraid, when there are big military exercises between South Korea and the United States we see more aggressive threats from North Korea."

Voice over: "Leaders have been using nuclear arsenals to deter their enemies for decades. But what do citizens think about nuclear weapons? The nuclear taboo concept suggests that the drastic consequences of nuclear use are morally unacceptable."

Man on street 1: “I share their concern”. 
Man on street 2: “I mean, how did we get stuck with nuclear weapons in the first place?”

Voice over: "But in recent years, attitudes seem to have changed."

Dr. Lauren Sukin: "Recent survey work show that a majority of the American public, Israel and the United Kingdom, are actually quite willing to use nuclear weapons. This willingness is concerning. If we allow that taboo to erode, if we accept a world in which politicians who chose to use nuclear weapons would not be punished for that choice, then using nuclear weapons becomes both easier and more possible."

Voice over: "Public education is important to understand the consequences of using nuclear weapons.
There's less of an understanding as we let historical memory die out. Many survivors of nuclear attacks have passed away in the decades since their ordeal. South Africa had a nuclear arsenal and then chose to give it up. So why is it so hard to rid the world of nuclear weapons?"

Dr. Lauren Sukin: "In my view, we're at a particularly difficult moment in time for disarmament to happen.
In part because nuclear weapons often become very embedded in states' military policies, and they provide protection against adversaries."

Voice over: "Over the years, multiple efforts have been made to get a treaty or agreement signed by all nuclear states, with the aim of reducing global nuclear weapons to safer levels. But the key players are yet to commit fully. But there are other things we can do to make sure nuclear weapons are never used."

Dr. Lauren Sukin: "Arsenals need to have safeguards to make sure that there are no accidental launches or mistakes that are made that could be interpreted as an act of warfare. Managing communications during crises is also critical. Developing crisis communications and hotlines so that if conflicts emerge, that infrastructure is already there."

Voice over: "The success of a nuclear deterrent relies on the other side believing you might use it, even if you never intend to. If your policy was not to retaliate and the enemy found out your intentions, your entire nuclear deterrent would become instantly meaningless. So, all of this destructive and expensive technology could be viewed as simply a tool in a game of bluff. Concerns have been centered on Russia and Ukraine over the last year."

Dr. Lauren Sukin: "Nuclear deterrence has kept the war non-nuclear. Even in Moscow, the destructive consequences of nuclear use are well understood and using nuclear weapons is never anyone's first choice policy. On an individual level, we need to recognise that these nuclear threats are real and important. That doesn't mean that we need to worry about nuclear war in our own backyards.

The lesson here should not be that states don’t need nuclear weapons for deterrence, but that nuclear weapons pose major threats and we need to come together as a global community to combat those threats."

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