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Nuclear Warfare III – Nuclear Proliferation And Missile Defense

Date: Sept 26, 1983, Location: Moscow, Soviet Satellite command section.

A few minutes past midnight, Sargent Stanislav Petrov was monitoring the systems as a part of normal routine when suddenly one of the alarms started beeping. The radar system had detected a few missiles launched towards Soviet union.

An inner voice inside his mind was telling Stanislav something was not right. If US wanted to launch a nuclear attack, they would have launched it full scale. They would not have stopped at a few missiles. This was more likely to be a computer glitch.

He faced a tormenting decision. Whether to believe his gut and risk a small chance of destruction of his homeland, or whether to follow proper military protocols and alert nuclear command, which could have resulted in Soviet nuclear missile launch. If he waited a few minutes, the boundary radars would confirm if they are seeing missiles or not. But if they were indeed missiles, it would be too late by then.

At the end, he chose to wait. Boundary radars never went off. There were no missiles. It was a computer mistake. The world came back from a brink of total disaster.

This was not the first incident and the people involved in command and control chains on either side were painfully aware that this would not be the last. While…

The last two posts were dedicated to the understanding of nuclear strategy and strategic countermeasures. This post deals with the latest development, LASER missile defense and its implications of nuclear warfare, especially the phenomena of nuclear proliferation.

Let’s visit the strategic objective equation in the previous post once again.


SOA = ( N1 x PS1 x PH1 x BA > TA ) & (  N2 x PS2 x PH2 x BA > TA )

Where N1,N2 are number of nuclear weapons of first and second strike. PS1 and Ps2 are probability of survival of respective strikes. PH1, PH2 are probability of hitting target, or accuracy of weapons of respective strikes, and BA is area destroyed by each bomb or weapon.

TA is total area of the enemy regions.

As we can see in the initial phase of nuclear race, the nuclear powers were focused on the number of nuclear weapons, N1 and N2. This lead to tremendous increase in number of nuclear weapons. We could call this intra-country nuclear proliferation.

Also there was considerable inter-country nuclear proliferation. This was for two reasons.

One, any nuclear power was happy when one of its allies went nuclear. Russia was willing to deploy weapons in Cuba in 1960s Cuban crisis. America was happy to see Pakistan become nuclear, since it meant some America friendly weapons right at the doorsteps of Russia.

There was second and important reason. Once a country goes nuclear, all countries it had conflict with will also want to go nuclear. South East Asia is good example of this phenomenon. Since China became nuclear, and India had fought war with China, India went nuclear. Then Pakistan felt too vulnerable  and it also went nuclear. Sort of a chain reaction.

Going back to blackboard, let us capture that in an equation. Imagine this as “game of life” simulation.

Let Pc = probability of conflict between two countries.

Nmax  = max number, or total number of countries in the world.

Nx = total number of nuclear countries at iteration no x

Let us say that in every iteration of the game max one conflict happens.

So in x’th iteration, the additional number of countries going nuclear is

delta Nx = probability of conflict x probability of conflict between one nuclear and one non nuclear nation

bool[RND{0-1}(x) > Pc]  gives us whether conflict will happen or not in that iteration, where RND{0-1} is a random number between 0 and 1, Pc is conflict probability (also a fraction larger than 0 and less than 1)

deltaNx = [bool(RND{0-1}(x) > Pc)] * (Nx)C1 * (Ntotal-Nx)C1/(Ntotal)C2

But from the basic permutation combination theory we know that (N) C 1 = N

Thus deltaNx = [bool(RND{0-1}(x) > Pc)] * (Nx) * (Ntotal-Nx)/(Ntotal)C2

Total number of nuclear countries in x’th iteration is summation of countries going nuclear in each iteration from 0 to x.

If we were to actually calculate these using some numbers we would notice one interesting thing. The rate at which the world becomes nuclear increases exponentially with increase in Pc. So if the probability of conflict is doubled, you have four times as many countries going nuclear in the same time, eight times if the probability is tripled and so on.

With global warming, financial crisis, etc. we have lot more possibilities of conflict. So the risk of world becoming nuclear increases very fast. And as we saw, unless you and your opponents are capable of fully destroying each other, there exists a probability of nuclear war in the game. Two smaller powers could really drop nuclear bombs on each other. A rogue dictator, or terrorist hell bent on destruction, could end up firing a nuclear missile or two.

So in this new world, USA is not only worried about full scale attack from Russia, it is also worried about small scale attacks from rogue nations. A credible missile defense will serve two purposes.

One, it will reduce the PH, the probability of hitting enemy’s weapons. As we have seen a reduction in PH by factor of two will require the enemy to double their arsenal. This could result in prohibitive costs. Instead it is easier for the enemy to develop similar missile defense and have similar effect on PH of the first country.

This lead to the development of next phase of nuclear warfare, strategic missile defense. In the decade of 1980s the Americans considered this seriously for the first time. The original ambitious star wars program was later scaled down and was implemented as an array of radars linked with strategically placed surface-to-air missiles. The whole world watched this at work in 1991 gulf war, where Iraqi SCUD missles were intercepted by USA patriot missiles. Even though the accuracy of intercept was only in the range of 2%, it was proven to be a feasible option.

While patriot missiles were being used as interceptors, the work was under way to use direct energy, aka LASER beams. It faced multiple problems. The missiles were too fast, thus the heating energy quickly dissipated. A particular chemical, readily available in paint shops was found to be very effective in reflecting LASERs, thus reducing effective heating. Any such LASER beam would have to be fired from Airplane, which made it challenging to focus a beam accurately over a long distance.

One by one the problems were worked out. Finally on Feb 11, 2010 the US Airforce successfully carried out first test of Airborne Missile Defense using YAG  LASER ( LASER beam created using Yttrium Aluminum garnet crystals as lasing medium).

Apart from USA, Russia, China and India are working on missile shields. But no other country has made significant progress, especially as far as direct energy (LASER) weapons are considered.

Effective missile defense will shift the weight of strategy away  from more missiles and weapons. In addition, it will discourage small scale nuclear powers from developing weapons. They can see that their weapons have very minimal chance of reaching target. They are not likely to have enough resources to develop and deploy enough weapons to cause legitimate threat. That’s why, if you haven’t noticed, the announcement of successful LASER missile defense came from USA shortly after the news that Iran made significant progress in developing nuclear weapons material.

A credible missile shield is still a far shot, but LASER missile defense is a giant step in that direction. Again the world stands on the brink of new age, the age of reduced nuclear arsenal, and if the luck smiles, perhaps one day a nuclear free world.

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