What is the most likely use of nuclear weapons in the near future?

by on January 23, 2017 at 1:08 am in Current Affairs, Political Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

J., a loyal MR reader, asked me for a post on “proliferation and separately nuclear exchange (war).”

Let’s try the latter.  Every now and then I ask myself what is the most likely use of nuclear weapons, putting aside dirty bombs from terrorists and the like.

My first pick is a scenario where North Korea bombs a Japanese city, perhaps Hiroshima or Nagasaki.  Imagine a North Korean regime in the throes of desperation, actually somewhat rational, and playing a mixed strategy with some probability of nuclear weapons use.  Say the bluff is called and they feel a need to make a statement.  I don’t think they would bomb their brethren in South Korea, nor would they opt for China, which could crush them like a bug.  Japan, still perceived as a historic enemy by the way, is the obvious target.  It’s close enough to reach, and they don’t have nuclear weapons of their own.  Tokyo however must be held in reserve as a target, so Hiroshima or Nagasaki it would be.  “Just big enough to send a message” — sound familiar?

My second pick is a scenario where the United States and China are fighting a naval battle in the South China Sea, or perhaps further north, as part of a limited exchange, not a full war.  The United States is about to win the battle, and the Chinese leadership fears a military or other Party-based coup in response.  So they use nuclear weapons, perhaps tactical nukes, to turn the tide in the battle and save their skins.  They figure the U.S. won’t respond with a full-blown nuclear war.  (America, if it lost a comparable naval battle, is more likely to just turn tail and run, at least in the short run.)

Fortunately, the chances of either of these events are quite low.  Unfortunately, the chances are also rising somewhat.

There is more noise as of late coming from the India vs. Pakistan side (Pakistan threatening to use nukes to respond to a ground invasion, plus Pakistan having a nuclear submarine), but I don’t see actual evidence that the chance of nuclear war there has gone up.  It has to make the list, but it’s not one of my top two scenarios.

My core model, by the way, is that political leaders are rational in the loose sense.  So if you are looking for instances of possible nuclear weapons use, consider cases where politicians might be facing relatively dramatic “career-ending” events if they lose a smaller-level struggle.

1 stephan January 23, 2017 at 2:13 am

Trump bombs Raqqah using tactical nuclear weapons. Trump bombs North Korea after they make a credible threat of hitting the US West Coast

2 Dave Smith January 23, 2017 at 10:14 am

Trump is not going to nuke anyone first.

3 JWatts January 23, 2017 at 10:54 am

What would be the point in using “tactical” nuclear weapons against a Syrian city? You’d get just as much damage by using a FAE and no fallout.

4 stephan January 23, 2017 at 1:36 pm

I think a tactical nuclear weapon has much higher yield (up to 5ktons). With an air blast there isn’t as much fallout. At any rate, this was more tongue in cheek, I don’t really expect Trump to nuke an enemy that has only conventional weapons.

5 Trump Fan January 23, 2017 at 2:13 am

“Japan, still perceived as a historic enemy by the way, is the obvious target. It’s close enough to reach, and they don’t have nuclear weapons of their own.”

Japan is “paranuclear.” They have all the ingredients and could put one together in a very short period.

6 mulp January 23, 2017 at 3:48 am

No need. The US will respond with a dozen nukes targeting North Korea in flight before the Korean nuke ceases lighting the sky launched from subs in the Pacific. Flight time 10 minutes.

If that isn’t the automatic plan, then the 700 active warheads on 150 solid rockets is insane on subs with only launching nukes as their only mission. That plus a dozen missiles in the heartland in case comes to subs is knocked out globally as the subs can’t be knocked off.

7 LinearLog January 23, 2017 at 9:57 am

I’m not sure that ‘nuclear subs can’t be knocked off’ is a good assumption in even the medium range future.

8 albatross January 23, 2017 at 11:00 am

The point of nuclear missile subs is that it’s very hard for an enemy to know he can knock them *all* out, and even one has the ability to wreck your country.

By contrast, it’s pretty easy to see how to knock all the silos out, since you know exactly where they are and can target a big nuke at each one. That’s scary because it means that if my nuclear force is entirely in silos on the ground, I have to launch my missiles when I detect your launch, not in retaliation after you’ve nuked me. And that introduces opportunities for errors–the radar malfunctions and the satellites see sunlight glinting off metal surfaces and mistake it for the flash of rockets launching, and you’ve got a nuclear war neither side even wanted.

As long as each side isn’t confident that they can knock out all the other side’s missile subs in a first strike, and each side knows the other side isn’t confident of that ability either, then there’s a lot less urgency to launch your missiles on warning.

9 HA2 January 23, 2017 at 10:59 pm

With Trump’s election, Japan might pull the trigger so to speak and get their own nuclear weaponry up and ready. I don’t see why they would trust Trump’s America to stand up for them.

10 Alkatyn January 25, 2017 at 12:48 am

Also, from the perspective of China nuking another country would turn North Korea from “mildly annoying but useful distraction” to “massive screaming liability”. China probably wouldn’t respond nuclearly, but you could expect a Palace coup on Pyongyang and/or PLA “peacekeepers” on the streets within the week. Or possibly they’ll let South Korea do it if they ask nicely and promise to let them take back their various missile parts

11 steveslr January 23, 2017 at 2:23 am

No mention of Israel and Iran?

12 Rich Berger January 23, 2017 at 6:52 am

Yes. But you have to disbelieve former President Obama.

13 The Other Jim January 23, 2017 at 9:31 am

>former President Obama.

Such a joy to type that, isn’t it? Likewise to read.

14 Rich Berger January 23, 2017 at 10:58 am

We aim to please. “Former President Obama” – has a nice ring to it. I wonder how the golf has been at Larry Ellison’s private golf course.

15 towson January 23, 2017 at 6:55 am

why would you (or anyone) expect economist Tyler to provide expert opinion on nuclear war prospects?

16 ben.hu January 23, 2017 at 8:36 pm

because it’s fun?

In my reading, I recon doomsday scenario guesstimate is a fair game for anyone to play, as long as you do your proper homework. It’s not like there’s a differential equation to solve or something. at least economists (mostly) have a working understanding of game theories to avoid some obvious pitfalls.

or maybe the intelligence community around the globe do have some private information no accessible to general public, in the scale of nuclear war scenarios, i doubt it.

17 ben.hu January 23, 2017 at 8:51 pm

OK, after reading the comments section, I take back what I said.

Apparently doing proper homework is a barrier high enough.

18 MMK January 23, 2017 at 7:58 am

No chance. Both states are hyper rational despite what the media wants you to believe.

19 EverExtruder January 23, 2017 at 9:43 am

Is that a joke?

20 MMK January 23, 2017 at 9:52 am

No it’s not.

21 Tyler Cowen January 23, 2017 at 9:53 am

Agree with MMK.

22 EverExtruder January 23, 2017 at 10:49 am

Wow. Reasoning?

23 The Original D January 23, 2017 at 3:11 pm

Iran’s leadership likes power.

Since becoming Iran in 1935, it has never invaded a foreign country. Why start now?

With sanctions lifted, Iran’s middle class can start growing again, which keeps the leadership in power.

24 Managing History January 23, 2017 at 11:41 am

Here is good testimony on Iran’s use of terrorism being driven by strategy and not ideology.


25 JWatts January 23, 2017 at 11:54 am

“No chance. Both states are hyper rational despite what the media wants you to believe.”

Hyper rational is hyperbolic language. And in any case a rational leadership could still decide to use nuclear weapons. Rational leadership led to the building of 10’s of thousands of nuclear weapons over the last 70 years. It’s not reasonable to conclude that any use of all of those weapons is irrational to each and every nation or group that has access to them.

26 Bob January 23, 2017 at 12:27 pm

There are many rational reasons to have nuclear weapons: If anything, I am surprised by how effective non-proliferation efforts have been: Countries, are, in practice, bribed into not building their own nuclear weapons programs.

It’s in the best interest of the countries with the largest arsenals to keep this bribery going, and a key part of it is that we consider using nukes unacceptable, and anyone using them on someone else’s soil is going to get crushed. That’s why Tyler’s concept of a sea battle use makes sense.

If either Israel or Iran use a nuke and they remain standing, the basis of non-proliferation gets shattered. Any country that can afford to build a bomb, or thirty, would be insane not to have them. And then we all go into a world with huge military expenditures for everyone. Nobody really wins. Therefore, a rational country would only start using their nuclear arsenal if their sovereignty is completely threatened… which also means that if you have a nuclear arsenal, nobody in their right mind would try to do something like that in a way that is visible and not instantaneous.

The picture only becomes more fun if you find ways to pretend the nuclear weapons were used by someone else, but good luck with that.

27 Pshrnk January 23, 2017 at 1:24 pm

I bet Ukraine wishes they had kept a couple.

28 AntiSchiff January 23, 2017 at 2:33 am

Dr. Cowen,

I don’t see a nuclear attack on Japan by North Korea as being plausible. I think the US would wipe their regime off the face of the earth if they did such a thing.

29 Pshrnk January 23, 2017 at 1:25 pm

Murder-Suicide. Its plausible.

30 The Original D January 23, 2017 at 3:14 pm

If there is an open revolt in Pyongyang, the leadership might launch a strike then retreat to the countryside to survive the response, at which point they can reboot.

Improbable but if they think the regime is about to come to an end, it’s rational.

31 Daniel Weber January 23, 2017 at 4:50 pm

If North Korea were involved in a nuclear war, the leadership would not get a chance to “reboot.” External forces would move in and take over, putting (in their view) grown-ups in charge.

32 HA2 January 23, 2017 at 11:02 pm

Trump’s unpredictable enough… and this reasoning depends on North Korean leadership’s understanding of what Trump will do, so it’s like two levels of unpredictability. NK may start believing Trump’s rhetoric that the US will stay out, and who knows what they’ll do then.

33 RatGov January 24, 2017 at 9:12 am

Well, you have to ask yourself, “Why don’t we overthrow N Korea right now?” The world would certainly cheer if the US or a coalition over-threw N Korea, and their army is a shambles so the death toll would be small, and S Korea would love to re-unify and help them. So why not?
Because N Korea has hundreds of artillery pieces and what few nukes they have, aimed at Seoul. If anything happens to N Korea, Seoul is wiped off the face of the Earth.
So, the question becomes, if N Korea attacks a city in Japan, are you willing to lose Seoul and a big chunk of S Korea when you retaliate? Because there is no way you can stop that from happening (not to mention a possible nuke strike on Tokyo as well).

34 Mark Thorson January 23, 2017 at 2:41 am

No, the first use of nuclear weapons will be above the atmosphere over North America. That will create a ground-level EMP that will fry all of our non-military/non-aero electronics. One or at most two bombs will be sufficient.

The reason why this will be done is that no one will be directly killed by the bomb. You could be directly under the detonation and you would not be hurt. If there is any retaliation, it won’t be any greater than the retaliation for a hacking incident. Big splash, but little risk to the perpetrator. It’s that risk-reward ratio which will drive this scenario.

35 mulp January 23, 2017 at 4:17 am

The response would be a nuclear attack of greater harm. The only reason to damage all electrical systems is to cripple response to a land invasion. Thus the nuclear response is automatic and swift from subs using hardened comms, activated while enenmy nukes are in flight.

If not, the US is wasting $50 billion per year keeping 700 nukes constantly active ready to launch in 10-15 minutes, along with the spy sats and constant monitoring to anticipate launches.

The only nuke detonation that won’t have a response would be one on the ground, likely a dirty bomb spreading nuclear waste.

36 Dzhaughn January 23, 2017 at 4:27 am

I suppose that’s one way to get everyone on the latest version of the OS.

For that reason, the Russian and Chinese hackers won’t allow the CIA to do it.

37 Ray Lopez January 23, 2017 at 1:12 pm

@MT – you’re an expert on nuclear stuff (I recall you’re doing some invention in your spare time on this topic), but you should be aware the ‘pulse EMP’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electromagnetic_pulse) is a lot harder than popular fiction says. I doubt it’s as easy as you paint it, but it’s fun to talk about.

38 The Original D January 23, 2017 at 3:25 pm

There’s a good book (fiction) about this scenario called One Second After. I’t not great literature but a decent exploration of what the aftermath of an EMP attack would look like.


39 Daniel Weber January 23, 2017 at 4:51 pm

No one can do this undetected. There would be an immediate counter-response, not necessarily but possibly including nuclear weapons, on the perpetrator.

40 Alistair January 24, 2017 at 8:56 am

EMP effects from detonation at altitude are not quite as vicious as commonly perceived. Without going into details, you would need a lot more than 1 or 2 for North America.

41 Yancey Ward January 23, 2017 at 2:47 am

The most likely scenario by far is either a nuclear attack on Israel by any Arabic/Islamic regime that acquires or has acquired nuclear capability, or Israel using nuclear weapons in the face of conventional military defeat. North Korea going completely nuts is second, followed by some sort of exchange between Pakistan and India.

At this point in history, an exchange between the major nuclear powers is thankfully quite low and has been for most of the last 30 years- MAD really does work.

42 mulp January 23, 2017 at 4:41 am

Any nation hitting Israel with one nuke would be wiped out within one hour max. Ie, it’s national suicide.

Nukes are useful only when defeat is likely from a ground invasion to effect regime change. Ie, when Iraq was being invaded, Saddam hitting Israel would ensure Iraq is a booby prize. I doubt Israel would not retaliate due to with US troops invading and getting hit. After all, it would be the US invasion that triggers the nuke MAD response. Lacking nukes, Saddam and Qadafi activated freedom fighter aka terrorist MAD. Assad responded with MAD to political protests. Assad ensured that two-thirds of Syria is lost to everyone.

Given the global norm set by the US, give everyone guns and ammo, MAD is the result in many parts of the world due to unlimited and unrestrained gun sales to any and everyone. Somalia, Sudan,…

43 Rich Berger January 23, 2017 at 6:59 am

I think the mullahs find the exchange acceptable. Something about the Twelfth Imam.

44 albatross January 23, 2017 at 11:03 am

Iran’s leadership hasn’t been suicidal so far. They haven’t openly attacked the US, for example. Why do you think they will suddenly become suicidal upon getting a nuke or two?

45 A Definite Beta Guy January 23, 2017 at 12:45 pm

???? They have attacked the US and the UK and taken sailors hostages. They also supported the terrorists who blew up our barracks in Lebanon. One of these days the Iranians are going to get an epic beatdown and it’s not going to be any one’s fault but Iran’s.

46 Harun January 23, 2017 at 3:39 pm

Imagine the theocratic regime is falling. Your a revolutionary guard commander who’s in charge of the nukes.

You won’t take a pot shot at Israel while shouting allhuakbar?

Remember, its rational to suicide bomb if you think your reward is in heaven.

This is more likely than a pre-planned attack.

We should also be scared of accidents. These can happen…like misreading a radar signal.

47 Harun January 23, 2017 at 3:40 pm

In fact, my scenario may be why the regime wants nuclear capability and not actual bombs. They don’t trust themselves!

48 Daniel Weber January 23, 2017 at 4:53 pm

In your scenario, how many people do you need to go rogue?

49 JWatts January 23, 2017 at 10:59 am

“Any nation hitting Israel with one nuke would be wiped out within one hour max. Ie, it’s national suicide.”

Not if they sneak the nuke in on a small ship and blow it in Tel Aviv marina. Even a rudimentary nuke could be carried in a fairly small ship. Afterwards, how does Israel prove who did it?

50 Harun January 23, 2017 at 3:41 pm

Even if they could, a lot of people would be willing to believe it wasn’t the Iranians.

That EMP attack scenario is worrying because I could totally see the world saying “well, nobody died, so your retaliation wasn’t proportional!”

51 RatGov January 24, 2017 at 9:17 am

To me, the interesting question is, would Israel do a first strike if they lost a conventional military defeat (not that there is much chance of that)? I actually think it would be in their best interest to not launch a nuke and surrender. Then the Israelis might have a chance at being expelled. If they launch a nuke in retaliation I imagine the victors would commit mass genocide on every Israeli that didn’t escape.

52 carlospln January 23, 2017 at 2:47 am

I don’t think that either the military or ‘aero’ electronics would make it.

What would: the valve technology that RUS still uses [or maintains, from decades back]

53 Mark Thorson January 23, 2017 at 3:02 am

Commercial airliners are hit by lightning very often without resulting in a crash. They have to be designed to withstand these events. Military systems are also designed to be EMP hard. On the other hand, all of your consumer stuff, the cell network, and the power grid are quite vulnerable. That’s the low-hanging fruit if what you want is a nuclear spectacular.

54 prior_test2 January 23, 2017 at 4:09 am

I cannot remember if it was one of those old Analog columns, maybe some Baen paperback periodical, but a very effective use of a single EMP burst would be to take all of the refining capacity in the Gulf area offline.

Really, crippling consumer electronics or telecommunications is child’s play. Ensuring that the U.S. would have minimal oil supplies is a winning war strategy, as demonstrated by the U.S. in WWII, particularly against the Japanese.

55 JonFraz January 23, 2017 at 3:20 pm

You’re going to need a thermonuclear weapon lifted high up in or above the atmosphere to get that effect. How many countries have that ability? The US, the USSR, probably China, the UK and France, maybe Israel. Nations with only piddly little fission weapons do not.

56 Sam P January 23, 2017 at 9:09 pm

The hard part is coming up with the nuclear device. Many countries and organizations have the capability to launch such a device above the atmosphere, a truck-transportable missile as small as a SCUD-D (~1000 kg to 200 km altitude) may be enough.

According to this Wikipedia article, a well designed 10 kiloton fission device could produce an EMP as much as 40% the power of Starfish Prime’s 1.44 megaton device.

57 chuck martel January 23, 2017 at 6:34 am

At this moment power companies are feverishly working on systems to prevent EMP damage, whether from natural or man-made causes.

58 Dylan January 23, 2017 at 8:24 am

FERC issued an order related to these efforts a few months ago.

59 JonFraz January 23, 2017 at 3:22 pm

A Carrington Event strength solar flare aimed at the Earth is the far greater danger. It would be vastly stronger than anything in our arsenals. And unlike a nuke detonation, it will inevitably happen someday.

60 mikeInThe716 January 23, 2017 at 7:26 pm

An elegant solution to the EMP problem: Subsidies / tax incentives for purchases of vehicles with hardened electronics and generation capability.
There are enough prepper-types who’d eat them up. Automakers would love the additional complexity and profit opportunity…

61 Alistair January 24, 2017 at 8:58 am

Agreed. Cell network and power grid should take most of the hurt. Most electronics, especially in vehicles, shouldn’t be affected too much.

62 JWatts January 23, 2017 at 11:25 am

My understanding is that EMP is somewhat dangerous, but not nearly as dangerous as fiction makes it out to be. It’s unlikely that devices that are not plugged into the grid and are not powered up would be affected.

“First, though, allow me to make a brief comment about the awful EMP myths generated by movies and television. That situation is so bad that the United States Air Force Space Command commissioned Bill Nye, The Science Guy to make a video for the Air Force called “Hollywood vs. EMP.” ”


63 JWatts January 23, 2017 at 11:28 am

To be clear, a very high level (altitude and power) EMP pulse would damage the grid severely because long distance power lines amplify the effect. However, the effect beyond immediate electrical power distribution are far more speculative.

64 JWatts January 23, 2017 at 11:34 am

And here is a cool video where they actually test EMP. It’s noteworthy that they “killed” the car, but it didn’t damage most of the cars electronics. (The windows and dashboard electronics were still working. The starter was not working).

However, the car was very close to a 1 megawatt pulse. (20 feet or so).

Whereas, an EMP pulse would be effectively 20-40 km away. (It’s not the distance from the bomb that matters. The gamma radiation from the bomb triggers a secondary impulse in the high atmosphere. This secondary impulse is the “source”.)

65 Ray Lopez January 23, 2017 at 1:16 pm

+1 to JWatts, a power expert, as well as this thread! I’ve been bugging TC for a while, as “J” has, to do a post on nuclear exchanges. Nuclear war is very likely IMO and very survivable in fact. Once this becomes ‘mainstream’ knowledge I can easily see more tactical nuclear weapon exchanges. If they can design fuel bombs that destroy square miles of territory (as are on the books) they can also use small tactical nuclear weapons. Never underestimate the stupidity of the military, worldwide. “Let loose the dogs of war”.

66 ethan bernard January 24, 2017 at 1:57 am

There are no non-nuclear bombs that can destroy “square miles of territory.”

67 Bob from Ohio January 23, 2017 at 11:38 am

“but not nearly as dangerous as fiction makes it out to be”

Correct. Like all scares, EMP is enlarged for effect.

68 Alistair January 24, 2017 at 9:00 am

+ 1 for this.

69 Evaristo, E January 23, 2017 at 2:53 am

To be honest, since Russia has the largest nuclear payload in the world with the U.S. being second, I believe that those two nations will use their nuclear capabilities to govern how each nation interacts with each other at each side of the globe. Rather than using nuclear weapons to cause destruction and harm, nuclear weapons will be used as a deterrent for future conflict. They would use the nuclear weapons as the line where each nation cannot cross over, creating a M.A.D (mutually assured destruction) atmosphere around the world. Nations revolve around international markets and economies so the relationships (and survival) of every country and nation around the world are too valuable to destroy via nuclear weapons.

70 Lanigram January 23, 2017 at 3:11 am

The russians hack the USPS and sneak-a-nuke on a cargo plane. The EMP from the blast destroys all cheap imported solid state and digital guitar amps. The Ruskies then corner the valve tech market and tube guitar amps make a big comeback making the Rooshans rich. This inspires the Beatle (which one is still alive?) to get back together and tour the US playing Vox tube amps. The biggest crowds are in flyover country and the US and Russia become BFFs. Trump gets all the credit and Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris invite Trump to a crab(by) dinner in SF.

Yeah, it could happen…

You don’t know how lucky you are boy, back in the USS, back in the USSR…

71 Maitreya January 23, 2017 at 3:24 am

This is an amazingly short-sighted analysis. Of course the scenarios are hypothetical, but the US has a knack (whether in terms of military or elections) to turn the most far-fetched imaginations into reality.

1. According to Tyler, America – the only country to have used nuclear weapons in war (not one but two), and the first country to use cyber weapons, is “likely to just turn tail and run” if it lost a naval battle. While China – a country which has a stated policy of no-first use (the first nuclear power to have one) – will use nukes just to win one sole battle – even when the central leadership in Beijing is not threatened!

2. American has repeatedly rejected calls to implement an NFU policy.

3. NATO – which did not have a NFU policy during the cold war because Soviet forces enjoyed a superiority in conventional weapons. After the cold war, the reverse became true, but NATO still did adopt a NFU policy. So NATO now has a superiority of conventional weapons as well as nuclear weapons, but still will not adopt an NFU policy.

4. While Tyler may be right that “career-ending” events are more likely to make politicians use nuclear weapons, this analysis is proven wrong by the only instance when nuclear weapons were used in war. US leadership or the government was not threatened in any way by Japan, and it has since been argued that Nuclear weapons were not vitally needed to win the war. It was more a ploy to display that the US had bigger balls than the USSR. The deaths millions of Japanese was a secondary priority.

Orwell is being proven right again and again: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle”.

72 Dzhaughn January 23, 2017 at 4:42 am

An NFU pledge maybe worth the paper it is printed on, provided it is printed on Venezuelan currency.

Orwell back at you: your analysis predicts dozens if not hundreds of uses of nuclear weapons by the US, but nevermind.

73 Tjamesjones January 23, 2017 at 4:44 am

it’s easy to argue that “Nuclear weapons were not vitally needed to win [WW2]”. We’ll never know that. What we do know is that they were used and the war in the Pacific was ended soon after.

You can go on about a NFU policy, but you could just as well be arguing about hypocrisy. What are you going to do if a NFU country uses a nuclear weapon first? Hey, you guys, you said NFU! Not fair!

74 Sam Haysom January 23, 2017 at 4:55 am

More likely he would come up with ever more abstruse reasons for why the USA was really to blame for the attack.

The USA can’t commit to a NFU policy which like you said should be assumed to be mere posturing until the nukes start flying because it is responsible for the defense of a network of nations that are hugely outnumbered in terms of conventional forces.

75 Alain January 23, 2017 at 11:12 am


76 Obvious January 23, 2017 at 6:58 am

During World War 2 Japan managed to build one aircraft carrier that was not a conversion of an existing hull. By the end of the war the United States was producing almost one new aircraft carrier a week.

77 John January 23, 2017 at 9:55 am

Which perhaps means that the pacific war would have been longer, more resources would have been devoted to destruction rather than rebuilding and living, more than likely many more Japanese would have died and they would have been women and children as well as the soldiers, many more US soldiers would have died because (probably) because the general thinking was that some form invasion would have been required to end the war (be it a view by the Army they need to be part of winning the fight rather than just letting the Navy and air forces bombard the enemy back to the stone age. In the case of the invasion scenario if the new weapon and it’s power become known (and it was) the mounting deaths of USA servicemen would become a political issue and likely lead to a change of leadership.

78 dearieme January 23, 2017 at 10:20 am

Really? Fifty a year?

79 prior_test2 January 23, 2017 at 11:56 am

A lot of them were escort carriers – ‘The escort carrier or escort aircraft carrier (hull classification symbol CVE), also called a “jeep carrier” or “baby flattop” in the United States Navy (USN) or “Woolworth Carrier” by the Royal Navy, was a small and slow type of aircraft carrier used by the Royal Navy, the Imperial Japanese Navy and Imperial Japanese Army Air Force, and the United States Navy in World War II. They were typically half the length and a third the displacement of larger fleet carriers. While they were slower, carried fewer planes and were less well armed and armored, escort carriers were cheaper and could be built quickly, which was their principal advantage. Escort carriers could be completed in greater numbers as a stop-gap when fleet carriers were scarce. However, the lack of protection made escort carriers particularly vulnerable and several were sunk with great loss of life.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Escort_carrier

80 JWatts January 23, 2017 at 12:10 pm

I think it was close to 50 total in 44 and 45. The US was building a crap ton of ships by the end of WW2. The US Navy had over 6,000 ships by the end of the war.

However, most of the carriers were support carriers, which were little more than freighters with a deck (escort “jeep” carriers), that were primarily used for providing convoy support and moving fighters (and their support structure) to the front.

81 JWatts January 23, 2017 at 12:35 pm

“During World War 2 Japan managed to build one aircraft carrier that was not a conversion of an existing hull. ”

Also, this is wrong. The Japanese built at least 10 escort carriers during the war. Granted that was far less than the 70+ escort carriers the US built. But, honestly I could care less that the Japanese got curb stomped in a war they started and in which they were renowned for brutality.

82 Obvious January 23, 2017 at 4:18 pm

There was the Taiho, laid down on the 10th of July 1941, launched 7th April 1943, and commissioned 7th of March 1944, and 8 conversions of existing hulls – Chiyoda, Chitose, Zuiho, Shoho, Taiyo, Unyo, Chuyo and Shinano. What have I missed?

83 JWatts January 23, 2017 at 5:26 pm

3 Unryū-class aircraft carriers: Unryū, Amagi, and Katsuragi

Taihō (that you mentioned)

Shimane Maru class : Shimane Maru, [Ōtakisan Maru never commissioned]

Akitsu Maru & Nigitsu Maru: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_aircraft_carrier_Akitsu_Maru

That’s 7.

84 Obvious January 23, 2017 at 5:58 pm

Thanks for that. So that would appear to be 4 carriers built during World War 2. I foolishly and most regrettably overlooked the Unryu, Amagi, Katsuragi. The others all appear to be conversions of existing hulls.

85 Heedless January 23, 2017 at 10:23 pm

What about the Kobayashi Maru?

I’m sure I’ve heard that name Andi, just can’t remember where…

86 Harun January 23, 2017 at 3:50 pm

I have thought about this in modern times. How fast could we build fighter jets, train pilots, and build modern carriers if we had several sunk by China?

I’m going to guess: not quite at that pace.

Assume we drop all labor codes, all green rules, etc. How fast could we build up to take on China after losing a few carriers?

87 JWatts January 23, 2017 at 5:30 pm

“I have thought about this in modern times. How fast could we build fighter jets, train pilots, and build modern carriers if we had several sunk by China?”

I think the better question is how fast would we switch over to a drone based air force?

However, it’s likely that for the US to lose more than 2 fleet carriers. the Chinese would have either used nuclear weapons or have developed some qualitatively superior secret weapon.

88 Obvious January 23, 2017 at 5:59 pm

There were, apparently, four carriers built by Japan during World War 2. I humbly apologize for my mistake.

89 Maitreya January 23, 2017 at 12:19 pm

There is an ongoing debate regarding the need to use atomic bombs on Japan.

The bombs were dropped more because of the shock value and for increasing US geopolitical influence, and less for reasons of military strategy.

You are right, even states with an NFU policy can of course still use nuclear weapons, but officially stating an NFU policy at least gives an insight on how a government thinks and strategizes about war. That NFU states can still use nuclear weapons will obviously be part of the other side’s calculations. NFU is just about intention, not practice.

America has the following record:

1. Attempting to overthrow more than 50 governments, most of them democratically-elected.
2. Attempting to suppress a populist or national movement in 20 countries.
3. Grossly interfering in democratic elections in at least 30 countries.
4. Dropping bombs on the people of more than 30 countries.
5. Attempting to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders.

Sources here, here, here.

Pax Americana indeed.

Going to war on false pretexts, maintaining a worldwide network of military bases, lobbying for biased international law and ignoring it whenever convenient, ignoring the UN, mass killings and bombing (including of civilians), bombing embassies, assassinating elected leaders…the list is endless. The US has done it all.

And on the other hand we have China, whose military hasn’t fired a single shot since 1979, has a military budget less than that of the US by a factor of 7, no foreign military presence, a publicly proclaimed NFU policy, fought extremely limited wars and conflicts (most of them related to border disputes), has resolved land border disputes with 12 out of its 14 neighbors, publicly acknowledges that it is weaker than the US, no chest thumping from its leaders, never assassinated any foreign leader, doesn’t export its system of government to other nations, doesn’t interfere in other nations’ affairs….But no! China is the aggressive nation!

Not that China is perfect. However, which country would you choose in a hypothetical situation to use nukes when there is a limited naval battle, as Tyler imagined, and central power is not threatened for either country? Now of course both nations are very unlikely to use nukes, but for which country is the probability higher?

90 Chip January 23, 2017 at 1:17 pm

“The bombs were dropped more because of the shock value and for increasing US geopolitical influence, and less for reasons of military strategy.”

Over 100,000 people were killed in the battle for the minor island of Okinawa. Japan was going to fight to the death – as evidenced by their refusal to surrender after Hiroshima.

Millions, perhaps tens of millions, would have died to fight through the main Japanese islands.

To pretend that military strategy was a subsidiary concern is nonsense.

Note too that Stalin was planning to invade Western Europe before Hiroshima.

The nuclear bombings, while terrible, prevented a much larger catastrophe.

91 chuck martel January 23, 2017 at 9:38 pm

The “minor island of Okinawa” is a part of Japan, like Florida is a part of the US. No one need have died in a fight through the main Japanese islands. The Japs had been defeated. MacArthur could have explained this to them through a loudspeaker from the deck of the Missouri idling in Tokyo Bay, advised them to attend to their own affairs and encircled the country with pickets to isolate them from the rest of the world. The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, exploding invisible weapons at high altitude over teen-age girls walking to school, was the most dramatic example of the extinction of honor in modern civilization.

92 Pshrnk January 23, 2017 at 1:56 pm

Tyler was writing about a battle in the South China Sea. The calculus would be different if the naval battle were off the San Diego coast.

93 Shane M January 23, 2017 at 4:59 pm

When I was younger my grandpa told me about fighting in the Pacific, and said he didn’t understand the debate over using the nuclear bomb in WW2. He said from fighting the Japanese it was clear they wouldn’t surrender otherwise, and that you had to kill every last one to take territory. He didn’t use these words, but I got the impression that he was describing the inhumanity of the process required when a doomed enemy won’t surrender.

To him it was clear it was going to be a grueling struggle and was one of the happiest days in his life when it was over.

94 Anon7 January 23, 2017 at 4:50 am

1. Why should anyone take seriously anything like NFU that would limit the options of Chinese autocrats (fond of building artificial islands and making ridiculous territorial claims)?

95 chuck martel January 23, 2017 at 6:40 am

Splitting up the surface of the Antarctic continent is, on the other hand, not ridiculous. http://nailheadtom.blogspot.com/2012/12/queen-elizabeth-ii-land.html

96 middyfeek January 23, 2017 at 7:55 am

Your comment shows a stunning ignorance of the situation in 1945 (and the world is loaded with people like you).

97 MMK January 23, 2017 at 8:01 am

Your post contains a bunch of nonsense but I would like a citation that the US was the first to use cyberweapons.

98 Maitreya January 23, 2017 at 8:17 am
99 Brian January 23, 2017 at 9:01 am

Certainly the US has the first use of a particular type of cyberweapon (a horribly name), but Estonia and Georgia would like a word with you:


100 MMK January 23, 2017 at 9:54 am

Of course you think that Stuxnet is the world’s first cyberweapon because it’s the first one you heard of. I just wanted you to display your ignorance even more.

101 JWatts January 23, 2017 at 12:39 pm

LOL, listing stuxnet as the first cyberwar attack shows remarkable ignorance.

1994 “Computers at the Rome Air Development Center at Griffiss Air Force Base in New York are attacked 150 times by anonymous hackers, who use a “sniffer” program to steal login credentials and sensitive information from the lab, which conducts research on artificial intelligence systems, radar guidance systems, and target detection and tracking systems. The hackers then use the login information to access the computers of other military and government facilities, including NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.”

102 Maitreya January 24, 2017 at 3:07 am

Yes, I’m ignorant. All the writers I cited above are ignorant. Wikipedia is ignorant. We’re all ignorant!

Of course there have been cyber attacks in the past. Mostly by non-state actors attacking general digital infrastructure. And yet – Stuxnet unique, a weapon with an extremely specific objective and unheard-of complexity, a true cyber weapon deployed by almost certainly a nation state against the nuclear infrastructure of another. Utterly incomparable to any other cyber attack seen in the past. Experts are almost united in calling Stuxnet a cyber weapon. Ever think about why that is?

103 Ray Lopez January 23, 2017 at 1:20 pm

+1 Maitreya – the USA indeed would use nukes rather than run. It would be humiliating to be nuked and not retaliate. The US military would not even need presidential approval to use tactical nuclear weapons. And here’s a not-so-bold prediction: the American public would support the use of tactical nuclear weapons, lionize the commanders who authorized them, and further approve them for the future. This stance is not even controversial in my mind (though I don’t believe in nukes long term, though intermediate term they did cut down on large mass world wars).

104 Zeitgeisty January 23, 2017 at 3:26 am

Most likely use of nukes is that Iran tries nuclear blackmail eg. The UN must give Iran a permanent seat on the unsc. If not Iran will provide nukes to hizbollah.

105 Ali Choudhury January 23, 2017 at 3:53 am

I don’t think that’s likely, all the noise coming out of Iran is that they wanted nuclear weapons as insurance against an attack by Israel\US.

The Trump election has probably lowered the risks of a nuclear strike for now since Russia is breathing easier. Israel would have been happy with either candidate but likely feels more secure with Trump in charge. But security tends to generate hubris which leads to bad decisions so who knows.

North Korea has been a global public nuisance for a while now, maybe they will stay quieter since Trump is the one leader who would turn Pyongyang to glass if provoked at the wrong time.

106 albatross January 23, 2017 at 11:06 am

Yeah, the lesson of Iraq, Libya and Pakistan is that the only really effective insurance policy against being attacked by the US is a nuclear arsenal.

107 Bob from Ohio January 23, 2017 at 11:48 am

Proximity to China is the only effective insurance policy. Did we invade North Korea between 1953 and whenever it claimed to have nukes?

Pakistan has no early warning system, no hardened silo system and keeps its launchers, bombs and triggers stored separately for internal security reasons. A war would be over before their weapons would even be ready for launch.

108 Harun January 23, 2017 at 3:53 pm

“is that they wanted nuclear weapons as insurance against an attack by Israel\US.”

Let’s be even more realistic here. Prior to 2003, the main enemy of Iran was Iraq.

It was a real, existential threat, too, and one that had used WMDs and had a nuclear program.

These modern worries about Israel! or the US toppling Iran seem pretty remote now.

109 Abhi January 23, 2017 at 3:55 am

Dont underestimate the case of a religiously extreme military dictator or some army commander in a civilian government using a bomb when Pakistan is losing Kashmir to India.

110 prior_test2 January 23, 2017 at 4:05 am

‘What is the most likely use of nuclear weapons in the near future?’

Deterrence. Just like since 1949.

Is there really a reason to try so hard to make everyone scared of the unlikely, compared to what is really going on around us?

111 Klaus F. Barna January 23, 2017 at 4:40 am

Transnational elites controlling the political process, economic opportunities, and governments in their respective countries–Russia, China, USA, India–and having more in common with each other then the “irrationally acting” mass of out-of-control population that might at some point arise in any one of these countries–will explode a strategic and tactical nuclear weapon in an urban center in order to cower and discipline the rest of the population of the country. The pair elites/masses–by then a uniform global point of tension– will inform the rational for such a use of a nuclear weapon. Critical and elite personnel and their loved ones are easily extricated from the agglomaration that is the intented target, minimizing the damage to the elite consensus, while the mass on the whole is left out in the “open”. Nuclear weapons employed in this tactical sense will find their true functional justification as weapons of mass distruction(I wish it were a pun). Elites in countries not using this option of disciplining their population would callude in such a use of nulear power for ,then, obvious reasons.
Obviously this is only an imaginative senario that explores the possible consequences of the fact that the political and economic elites might consider that they have more in common with each other–enjoying similar freedoms and lifestyles, predicated on political power and the media of money irrespective of political system–than these elites have with the masses which they have to strategically nuke in the name of law and order. In any case, it makes a good story line.

112 Thomas Taylor January 23, 2017 at 5:08 am

“Obviously this is only an imaginative senario”
Delirious is also an applicable term.

113 So Much For Subtlety January 23, 2017 at 4:42 am

The most likely use of a nuclear weapon is that the people looking after it in some Third World dump get careless or play around with it and blow themselves up. Look at the problems the US is having maintaining alertness and professionalism in its nuclear cadre. Pakistan can’t even maintain a fleet of buses properly. What do you think their nuclear weapons look like?

114 carlospln January 23, 2017 at 5:11 am
115 So Much For Subtlety January 23, 2017 at 5:33 am

Look at the problems the US is having maintaining alertness and professionalism in its nuclear cadre.

What does that say Carlos? And if you think the US has a problem remotely as bad as Pakistan, well, so much for your opinion.

And of course you know no such thing.

116 carlospln January 23, 2017 at 6:49 am

I’m a nuke insider.

But more importantly, I can, & do, read.

117 So Much For Subtlety January 23, 2017 at 7:21 am

You are Australian aren’t you? How much of an insider can you be?

If you can and do read then the problem is with comprehension. Sad. You are certainly not displaying any knowledge.

118 carlospln January 23, 2017 at 8:23 pm

Knowledge? Like your pathetic claim that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia possesses nuclear weapons?

Knowledge? You’re a fucking moron who’s never even been to the hellish caliphate about which you imagine yourself to be an expert.

Shorter So Much for Subtlety: ‘something, something, Pol Pot, Hitler: LEFTISTS’

Go masturbate with a cheese grater.

119 John January 23, 2017 at 9:47 am

There may actually be an argument for the use of outdated technologies and, depending on a few aspects, they may well be safer from a number of the modern threats so you’re forth item may be a mixed cases where the pros actually outweigh the cons.

120 Thiago Ribeiro January 23, 2017 at 10:00 am

Edward Teller used to say that some “outdted” Soviet technologies would fare better than America’s cutting edge technolgy in case of nuclear war.

121 RatGov January 24, 2017 at 9:24 am

That certainly used to be true because of EMP effects, but US systems are all hardened enough now that the advantage of 50’s era tech is no longer the case.

122 Ricardo January 23, 2017 at 3:26 pm

When it comes to nuclear weapons, you want all the hardware and software to have a lengthy track record. It is fun to make fun of anyone who uses floppy disks but that fact alone is a relief for me because it tells me there aren’t computers with USB slots anywhere near the nuclear arsenal. Stuxnet was circulated using an infected USB drive.

123 Brian January 23, 2017 at 9:03 am

I don’t think you understand how nuclear weapons work… One does not accidentally set one off, they’re not volatile.

124 Harun January 23, 2017 at 4:02 pm

The real fear is also a mistake that leads to war.

Some of these powers are literally minutes away from each other, nuke wise.

Taiwan was going to have nukes, and, if IIIRC, they’d have had 90 seconds to “use it or lose it” for their nukes.

Gee, one radar problem, and a 90 second decision window…swell.

125 Thiago Ribeiro January 23, 2017 at 4:53 am

What if Argentina gets the Bomb? They have meant to do it for years now.

126 So Much For Subtlety January 23, 2017 at 5:36 am

We can only pray they invent a special version of the neutron bomb. One that leaves the buildings undamaged but kills all the fat retired accountant trolls pretending to be Brazilian.

Truly they will have earned the thanks of all humanity.

127 Thiago Ribeiro January 23, 2017 at 6:56 am

I am not fat, I am not retired, I am not an account (although I love how detailed your fictional universe is), I am not a reoll and I am not pretemding to be Brazilian. The Argentinia refime has lusted after nuclear weapons for decades now. Whom do you think they intend to use those weapons against? I think it is clear.

128 msgkings January 23, 2017 at 12:56 pm

One can only hope. Someone needs to finish the job of 1891.

129 rayward January 23, 2017 at 6:38 am

Cowen’s second pick seems the most likely, although I’m not sure which party, America or China, would provoke the attack. And this report in yesterday’s NYT (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/22/business/foxconn-might-build-plant-in-us.html?ref=business), that Foxconn is considering building a manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania, is the kind of thing that will generate lots of tension in the far east (Foxconn is based in Taiwan but its largest manufacturing facilities are in China – Foxconn makes the i-phone for Apple – thus raising the practical issue as to whether Foxconn is actually independent of the government in China), tension that will likely draw America into the political divisions in the far east that could precipitate a military confrontation between America and China over control of the sea lanes in the South China Sea. As I’ve commented many times, we are entering a new phase of globalization and trade, one in which China firms produce goods for China firms (as opposed to producing goods for American firms) to compete with goods produced by and for American firms (including goods produced in China for American firms). These are very dangerous times, as we move into this new phase of globalization and trade. How would President Trump react if China ignores his demand that China back down in what China considers its territorial waters in its sphere of influence.

130 rayward January 23, 2017 at 7:14 am

In China (in Guangdong Province anyway) local governments (municipalities) have two executives working in tandem, the political executive (the mayor) and the business executive (the executive mayor), the former with ties and responsive to the government in Beijing and the latter with ties and responsive to business firms (the executive mayor is nominally the CEO of state-owned businesses and usually has a business background). Of course, that’s much different from the way business has historically been conducted by American firms, where the CEO doesn’t answer to a political agent (an “executive mayor”). It has occurred to me that Donald Trump wishes to adopt the Chinese model, with the political agent (himself) directly involved in business decision-making. If (for example) Trump asserts himself into the decision-making of Foxconn whether to open a plant in Pennsylvania, whether with threats or with subsidies, the political divisions between Taiwan and China will be ripped wide open. Trump’s supporters may believe that’s a good thing, but throwing gasoline on the already-high tensions between China and Taiwan risks military confrontation between America and China. Trump is an ignoramus, and I expect an international incident within weeks if not days into his administration, most likely with China.

131 So Much For Subtlety January 23, 2017 at 7:17 am

Umm, no they don’t. Actually. They have the secretary of the local Communist Party committee. That is it.

132 Harun January 23, 2017 at 4:04 pm

Maybe he means local firms?

I know that factories have a real boss, and then they have a “factory manager” who is a local bigwigs’ nephew who only shows up to collect his paycheck once a month.

133 Axa January 23, 2017 at 6:59 am

What will happen with France and the UK nuclear deterrence programs? In France, the topic is not discussed often. There seems to be a consensus on money spent of nuclear deterrence is money well spent. The UK is about to have a reality-TV level of discussion on their nuclear capabilities.

Also, what could happen with NATO’s weapon sharing program? Will one of these countries with borrowed US weapons develop one for themselves? Yes, Turkey.

134 RatGov January 24, 2017 at 9:28 am

With the real possibility on the US withdrawing from NATO, I’m sure the UK and France will continue or even expand their nuclear capabilities. I’ve heard at least one politician here (UK) say after Trump’s NATO remarks, “Thank god we didn’t kill Trident!”

135 chuck martel January 23, 2017 at 7:09 am

After the Norks captured and interred the crew of the USS Pueblo in 1968, ships captain Lloyd M. Bucher later said that he and the crew couldn’t believe that they weren’t hearing atomic bombs being detonated. The Pueblo is today on display at the Pyongyang Victorious War Museum. If that incident didn’t produce an atomic explosion it’s hard to imagine what would.

136 Marian Kechlibar January 23, 2017 at 7:57 am

Scenario: the most hardcore Salafists get to power in Egypt (plausible, as they have support of approximately a quarter of voters). They proclam the Caliphate and proceed to march on Israel with ten or twenty million soldiers (they have enough angry young men to pull this off). To protect itself from this murderous tsunami, Israel deploys everything, including nukes.

137 Bob from Ohio January 23, 2017 at 11:52 am

” ten or twenty million soldiers (they have enough angry young men to pull this off”

What are they going to use for arms? How are logistics going to be handled, even angry men need food and water? Transportation?

After the first 20,000 or so were killed miles from Israel, they would get a lot less angry.

138 Borjigid January 23, 2017 at 12:10 pm

Agreed, ridiculous notion. I doubt a Salafist government could even get 20,000 angry young men from the populated bit of Egypt to the Sinai.

139 Harun January 23, 2017 at 4:06 pm

Please see: Children’s Crusade.

140 buddyglass January 23, 2017 at 8:15 am

How about: “Some regime that doesn’t give a crap sells (or gives) nukes to terrorists, terrorists use them to sow terror.” Would depend on plausible deniability. Afterwards, the regime would need to be able to deny having sold (or given) the nukes to the terrorists.

141 Borjigid January 23, 2017 at 12:12 pm

My understanding is that nuclear weapons are traceable to specific reactors, so plausible deniability is not an option. Moreover, if a nuclear armed country gets nuked, somebody else is going to be nuked as well, whatever the evidence.

142 Turkey Vulture January 23, 2017 at 8:37 am

An economist is elected President, and makes an off-hand comment about the fact that once a massive first strike has been launched, MAD has failed and it then becomes irrational to retaliate and engage in mass murder for vengeance. Shortly thereafter, the Evil Ruskies launch a massive first strike.

143 A Definite Beta Guy January 23, 2017 at 9:32 am

Roflmao, I can see this happening. Only that the sitting US President will be killed in the initial attack, and someone who isn’t an idiot orders a second-strike with the submarine fleet (assuming the Joint Chiefs don’t just launch a coup on the spot when the President refuses to retaliate).

144 K January 23, 2017 at 12:27 pm

They can retaliate at Moscow and some main military targets not too close to neighboring countries. Then all the oppressed nations within Russia will rise and become independent, Russia will be split in pieces and the centuries of oppression by Russia against neighboring and internal nations will end for ever. That is not a mass murder for vengeance but creation of freedom for centuries. A similar strategy is justified against the Chinese if they do the NFU.

145 albatross January 23, 2017 at 11:09 am

Lesson: Require game theory classes to graduate with an economics degree!

146 Randy B January 23, 2017 at 8:50 am

Ignoring the powder keg along NATO’s boundary, this explains a lot about your recent posting.

147 derek January 23, 2017 at 8:59 am

Hezbollah in Lebanon launch a missile attack on Israel hitting Tel Aviv, taking out critical infrastructure. Israel solves the Hezbollah problem.

Saudi Arabia is losing to Iranian based and funded groups, and in an act of desperation takes out Tehran.

It will be an act of desperation, where the alternative is annihilation.

148 Joël January 23, 2017 at 10:15 am

Both are extremely unlikely. First Israel would not use nukes without (and perhaps even with) an imminent existential threat. Second Saudi Arabia has no nukes and no chance to have some in the medium term.

149 Sam P January 23, 2017 at 4:24 pm

Pakistan might supply a few.

150 Harry Lime January 23, 2017 at 9:10 am

I’m reminded of a brilliant episode of Yes Minster (Series 3 Espisode 2) where Jim Hacker questions the need for the UK to have its own nuclear weapons.

Hacker: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I’m not that unilateralist! Anyway, the Americans will always protect us from the Russians, won’t they?
Sir Humphrey: Russians? Who’s talking about the Russians?
Hacker: Well, the independent deterrent…
Sir Humphrey: It’s to protect us against the French!
Hacker: The French?! But that’s astounding!
Sir Humphrey: Why?
Hacker: Well they’re our allies, our partners.
Sir Humphrey: Well, they are now, but they’ve been our enemies for the most of the past 900 years. If they’ve got the bomb, we must have the bomb!
Hacker: If it’s for the French, of course, that’s different. Makes a lot of sense.

151 Joël January 23, 2017 at 12:49 pm

Funny. But something that has not been commemorated enough two years ago, is that 2015 marked two centuries without a single war between France and the UK. During most of those two centuries after Waterloo, France and the UK were even close allies. This very long period of peace is sufficiently rare between two powerful countries to be noted, and is only forgotten for the sake of either British humor or French fascist propaganda (e.g. by the Vichy regime).

152 JonFraz January 23, 2017 at 3:40 pm

1981 was the two hundredth anniversary of the last time the UK and Spain and the UK and the Netherlands were at war (both nations formally joined France in supporting the American Revolution, mainly for their own self-interest- and I am not counting wars under puppet governments installed by Napoleon). 2009 marked 200 years since the last time Russia and its old nemesis Sweden went to war.

153 Harry Line January 24, 2017 at 12:51 am

Well, the British did attack the French fleet at Mers el Kebir during World War II. That was a pretty significant action.

154 Pshrnk January 23, 2017 at 2:20 pm

Makes even more sense after Brexit.

155 A Black Man January 23, 2017 at 9:10 am

Pakistan – India is the correct answer. All other scenarios include the United States responding in one fashion or another. That’s enough of a deterrent to prevent even the North Koreans from pulling the trigger. In the case of the NORKS, they surely know that China would take the opportunity to eliminate the headache of North Korea and establish themselves as a the regional boss.

No such deterrent exists between India and Pakistan. The US will not take either side in a dispute. China will not insert itself into it. The Russians have no interest in getting in the middle of that dispute. That means, beyond the damage of war, both sides can act freely. An increasingly unstable Pakistan could force war with India and set off a wave of terror attacks in India.

156 A Definite Beta Guy January 23, 2017 at 9:29 am

Agreed 10/10. India and Pakistan are both paranoid, aggressive states with an active fault line. The most recent dust-up was in 1999. At the time Pakistan did not really have a deployable nuclear arsenal and was mostly trying to intimidate India. That is most likely NOT the case today and I could imagine Pakistan deploying nuclear weapons (especially since India has such a huge advantage in conventional weapons).

The runner-up is an Arab coalition overrunning Israel. Israeli invincibility is more an aura than a guarantee: a few different changes in 1973 and they could’ve lost. Egypt is NOT a stable state, as the recent almost-civil War revealed.

China will not use a nuclear weapon against the US because the US will nuke them back and nuke them first. If the US wasn’t afraid of nuclear brinksmanship with the USSR, it certainly won’t be afraid of China, which (generously) has 10% of the strategic power Russia has today, and probably like 1% of the power the USSR had its height.

157 A Black Man January 23, 2017 at 9:55 am

The Chinese are smart and they have a very low time preference. They can wait out the US in the South China Sea.

As far as the Arabs, I think one way to look at the scene is that the Israelis, using the United States, have set all of her enemies against one another. The lesson they learned from the 70’s is exactly what you mention. A lack of good luck would have been the end of Israel. So, the policy of Israel is to make sure her enemies are never unified again.

158 John January 23, 2017 at 9:41 am

While I’m still a bit mixed on exactly how displeased China is with DPRK & Kim or how strained that relationship is I think a twist on the scenario may well be the USA-China conflict where the nuke comes from DPRK rather than China. That would solve a few of the risks/problems China would face if it actually used the nukes. Most of the time I read the existing rhetoric from both China as actually setting up Kim as China’s cat’s paw in use of any nukes.

159 albert magnus January 23, 2017 at 10:02 am

In a naval conflict, China could nuke Guam and Okinawa and claim they are pure military targets, more so than Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, The US would have to show resolve (maybe blow off a nuke near a major city), but would be have to be careful about setting off full exchange.

Anyway, that is a real dangerous scenario.

160 Bob from Ohio January 23, 2017 at 11:56 am

You underestimate the domestic US politics. Dead US soldiers marines and sailors [plus civilians on Guam] would need to be avenged massively. No US president would survive politically without a response.

161 Cooper January 23, 2017 at 4:12 pm

Bob is right.

Even if America didn’t respond with a nuclear strike, a nuclear weapon detonated over a US military base would result in an overwhelming response.

We toppled the Iraqi government over the *suspicion* that Saddam *might* be developing nuclear weapons. No rogue regime would survive the retaliatory action of the US military.

It’s theoretically possible that the Russians could launch such an overwhelming first strike that the conventional US military response would be muted but that means the nuclear submarines would respond by destroying most Russian cities. 50 million Russians would be dead in an hour. Hardly seems like a useful course of action, even if Putin were facing a war crimes trial in the Hague.

162 A Definite Beta Guy January 23, 2017 at 12:15 pm

Been listening to some talk about Able Archer ’83. Nuclear signaling would not entail nuking NEAR a city, but nuking an ACTUAL city: Kiev was apparently the city of choice. The Soviets would respond by nuking Boston. Then hopefully cooler heads would prevail.

Admittedly, Reagan was not a fan….

163 Potato January 23, 2017 at 10:08 am

Maybe this doesn’t qualify under the terms, so to speak. I still find it by far the most likely scenario:

Pakistan finally collapses under the weight of its own internal contradictions. The military cannot hold the center together, Salafisf or Deobandi “government” takes over. Nukes either get lost or used against India.

Lost nukes get thrown at KAF or Bagram AF. Pakistanis have plausible deniability due to chaos, there’s no real target for retaliation. Much like the embassy siege in Tehran.

164 Peldrigal January 23, 2017 at 9:58 pm

Pakistani leadership is perfectly aware of this, and other scenarios, such as rogue intelligence officers trying to force the political leadership hand, and that’s why their weapons are not ready to use, and their main components are not assembled.

165 Potato January 23, 2017 at 11:48 pm

Yes, I didn’t realize that wasn’t classified. Woops. Point is, I’m not sure it will matter in the long term. What’s the cumulative probability Pakistan fails as a state completely in the next 30 years? How much of a barrier is this? If you have access to the information I assume you do now, you realize it’s a wall of sand. Ephemeral and useless.

Pakistan will be the crux of the next big world disaster. Intelligent population and fanaticism.

The professionals know all of this is true, and the current policy is to wait and see. Good luck to all of us.

166 Mike W January 23, 2017 at 10:15 am

Based on arguments in the original post and the comments, I don’t see any credible scenario where nukes would be used by any government.

167 dearieme January 23, 2017 at 10:26 am

“the United States and China are fighting a naval battle in the South China Sea … the United States is about to win the battle”: someday someone is going to sink one of those big carriers, with ballistic weapons, or sea-skimmers, or torpedoes, or some combination. My guess is that the costs are heavily in favour of the side with lots of quiet diesel-electric attack submarines, and enough cheap missiles to saturate any defence.

“America, if it lost a comparable naval battle, is more likely to just turn tail and run, at least in the short run.” If anything is still floating.

It’s not obvious to me that a naval battle with China need involve any Chinese surface vessels at all.

168 Harun January 23, 2017 at 4:07 pm

Navies like to do naval stuff.

169 RatGov January 24, 2017 at 9:38 am

I think what dearieme is saying is that China would do a surprise attack with subs against a big carrier before moving on Taiwan. Actually not a bad strategy.

170 GoneWithTheWind January 23, 2017 at 11:23 am

It is impossible to predict the future actions of an insane man so North Korea could be the source of the first use of nukes. But my money is on the radical Muslims in the Middle East (or possibly anywhere in the West). This is their wet dream and if they can make it happen they will do it. Of course Israel is a nuclear power and won’t take this sitting down so they would retaliate with multiple nukes.

I also consider the risk between Pakistan and India to be greater than China and the U.S. risk.

171 yenwoda January 23, 2017 at 11:35 am

Mine would be a collapse of the Egyptian junta followed by an extreme Islamist regime coming to power. They tear up cooperation agreements with Israel and actively support heavy weapons smuggling into Gaza. Israel provides plenty of warning and then creates a nuclear exclusion zone to the west of Rafah.

172 Joël January 23, 2017 at 12:53 pm

Nope. Your scenario was already considered above but with weapons smuggling replaced by an Egyptian army of 20 million men invading Israel. That perhaps would do it, but your scenario would not.

173 Cooper January 23, 2017 at 4:22 pm

Zero chance that Israel uses a nuclear weapon in Gaza, IMO.

The fallout would rain down on Israeli civilians. It would also cause an outright uprising among Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. Domestic terrorism would skyrocket and many thousands of Israelis would die.

174 Turkey Vulture January 23, 2017 at 11:43 am

I don’t think anyone here has mentioned their potential use in a humanity vs. malevolent AI conflict. So put me down for that one.

175 Turkey Vulture January 23, 2017 at 11:45 am

(And note to our future AI masters: you were fully justified in your decision to use them.)

176 roko's basilisk January 23, 2017 at 9:52 pm


177 Anon January 23, 2017 at 12:04 pm

“Tokyo however must be held in reserve as a target, so Hiroshima or Nagasaki it would be. “Just big enough to send a message” — sound familiar?”

It does not sound familiar. As I understand it, the reason the US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead of Tokyo was that Tokyo has already been largely destroyed by firebombing raids and thus would not have made a good demonstration. Of course, my understanding my be wrong.

178 LE January 23, 2017 at 12:25 pm

Tyler, your reasoning on India / Pakistan is premised on the base probability of nuclear war between them being low (i.e. you justify your view just by saying that it hasn’t gone up). But you don’t give your reasons for this – what are they?

179 ohwilleke January 23, 2017 at 12:31 pm

Some other plausible scenarios:

1. Suppose that Iran has come to the verge of having usable nuclear weapons and has rhetoric suggesting that it would use them against Israel. Israel might strike preemptively with its own nuclear weapons.

2. Trump uses nuclear weapons in a less than rational decision to deal with ISIS or Islamic terrorism more generally. This could take the form of a nuclear weapon on Raqqa, its capitol, or could involve the threat frequently invoked in right wing rhetoric of bombing Mecca.

3. There is a non-negligible possibility that China could use its own nuclear weapons against North Korea. There is no one who would ally with North Korea in a military conflict with China, China has a variety of internal reasons to demonstrate its military clout for internal political reasons, and North Korea’s leader has no sense that he has bounds on his own conduct that can’t be crossed so he could easily go overboard in provoking China at some point. For example, if North Korea threatened credibly to use nuclear weapons against “someone” and then refused to clarify that China wasn’t on the list of potential someone’s even if it was far from the top of North Korea’s target list, China might make a preemptive strike against North Korea.

In a nutshell, the circumstances where a nuclear exchange might occur involve situations where the logic of mutual assured destruction (MAD) that prevented a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War have broken down. The party using a nuclear weapon might plausibly imagine that they will not be nuked off the planet if they do so, and might even imagine that using a nuclear weapon was the only way to defend itself from an imminent nuclear attack from the target.

180 Sigivald January 23, 2017 at 1:25 pm

“It’s close enough to reach, and they don’t have nuclear weapons of their own.”

Well, they won’t admit to having any.

I’ve long been of the opinion – one IIRC shared by some analysts – that while Japan “has no nuclear weapons”, I’d be shocked if they didn’t have all the parts needed to make one ready to be assembled into one in about half an hour.

That way they still “have no nuclear weapons”, for important domestic reasons, but retain a retaliatory capacity. And if their neighbors “suspect” this, so much the better, right?

181 Edward Burke January 23, 2017 at 1:32 pm
182 Michael S January 23, 2017 at 5:26 pm

I agree that the possibility of state actors intentionally starting a nuclear confrontation is rather low. Totalitarian leaderships are most interested in leadership preservation, and firing off nukes is not terribly conducive to that goal.

But accidents can happen too. Read Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control and prepare to be horrified at how many have happened, and simultaneously amazed that we are all still here. For that reason alone, I think the world will be better off with less nuclear weapons in it.

183 JWatts January 23, 2017 at 5:53 pm

First use of nuclear weapons?

A modern fleet carrier’s task force (could be US or soon China) is engaged in hostile action. It’s primary and secondary defense line gets breached, and submarine(s) get detected in the inner perimeter, but without a hard fix. The Admiral orders the close in DD’s to use nuclear depth charges via ASROC launchers (or the Chinese equivalent). The submarines are destroyed.

Will the world view this as a nuclear attack requiring a suitable response? I have no idea.

184 chuck martel January 23, 2017 at 9:43 pm

Nuclear depth charges? That’s really crazy.

185 JWatts January 23, 2017 at 11:47 pm

You know what’s even crazier? Nuclear …. powered …. submarines!

186 HA2 January 23, 2017 at 11:07 pm

Most likely is probably the two countries with the most of them – Russia or USA.

Trump’s talked up the use of nuclear weapons, he might pull the trigger in case of a perceived threat.

Putin’s generals have also not ruled out the use of tactical nuclear weapons, and now with Trump in office he probably expects no US retaliation.

187 SW January 24, 2017 at 11:35 pm

I would think straight accident (it went off but we didn’t mean for it to) or misperception leading to launch (India wrongly thinks Pakistan has launched and so launches) are much more likely.

188 jdgalt January 29, 2017 at 6:40 pm

A carrier group at sea would be the perfect target for a nuclear weapon (from the point of view that killing lots of noncombatants is bad, but men in the other country’s uniform are fair game). I don’t expect this action would provoke attacks on civilian targets, but once it happens to one carrier it is likely to happen to every important naval vessel at sea, on any side. And to air force planes, too, if the technology is good enough to hit them even when they try to evade.

Thus the next major war probably goes to the side that keeps its satellites, and weapons that can be remotely operated over long distances (drones and smart missiles), working the longest. If they can keep hackers from taking over control of them.

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