One of the topics I am exploring in my (soon to be published) series of Cold War articles is the question “Are we already in a New Cold War?” That article was drafted between May – September 2020, but recent news about the expansion of Chinese ICBM silos has pushed the topic on.
I believe it is now clear that (from a historian’s perspective) we are already in a New Cold War. More realistically, I believe that the (first) Cold War never ended, it just changed its clothes and membership.
Historians do not agree on exactly when the (first) Cold War started, its earliest moments of suspicions, paranoia and plotting happened in secret. Generally speaking we could say that World War 2 amplified differences between Russia and “the West”, and the development of nuclear weapons presented an existential crisis that Stalin could not ignore… and so a nuclear standoff began which came to threaten the extinction of almost all life on Earth.
Nuclear weapons take the history of humans killing each other to an unprecedented level. The immediate direct effects of a single weapon can now kill hundreds of thousands of people. The delayed (immediate) effects of fallout and radiation perhaps hundreds of thousands more – who in their right mind could ever, under any circumstances, find it acceptable to do that?
History records that the Cold War ended on 26th December 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I believe this Christmas 1991 finish to the Cold War is a useful myth for the leaders of Western nuclear-armed states. It makes the general population feel safe, like they’ve won, and can therefore keep their attention turned to other things.
The collapse of the Soviet Union did not lead to nuclear weapons being withdrawn. Whilst the former Soviet states have now returned all of their nuclear weapons to Russia for deactivation and dismantling 1, Russia is estimated to maintain a stockpile of around 4,500 nuclear warheads (‘strategic’ and ‘tactical’), with 1,600 strategic warheads deployed 2. And so, of course, the USA feels it has to maintain similar numbers of warheads in order to feel ‘safe’.
The post-WW2 elite club-of-one has since expanded to at least nine nuclear-armed states now possessing around 13,080 nuclear weapons between them 3. 3,825 of these are deployed to operational forces, with some 2,000 estimated to be kept on high alert by the United States and Russia – high alert – ready to go.
Nuclear tensions have remained high as all sides of a global ideological conflict continue to develop new ‘weapons systems’ – ie new and ever more innovative ways to kill hundreds of thousands of people at a stroke.
In their latest developments, Russia is now fielding hypersonic glide vehicles (‘Avangard’) that can be launched as MIRV’d payloads from their ICBMs, carrying nuclear warheads with such speed and manoeuvrability that render them essentially invulnerable to anti-missile systems – clearly a first strike weapon. They have also developed an automated torpedo (‘Poseidon’) capable of carrying a 2-megaton warhead (some reports have quoted up to 100-megatons), able to sink aircraft carriers or unleash irradiated tidal waves on coastal areas. Buoyed up by the growth of its offensive strategic weapons, Russia is increasingly threatening its neighbours, invading Crimea, flying bombers towards NATO coastlines, engaging in asymmetric cyber-attacks, expanding its submarine force and even sailing a submarine up the English Channel 4.
The threat is not confined to Russia. Supported by its massive (sometimes very polluting) economic growth, China is also asserting itself on the world. From mock aerial attacks on Taiwan, to the building of strategic islands and airstrips on the Spratley Islands, to the latest reports of their building 100 new ICBM silos 5, China has clearly also decided that it needs the power to threaten omnicide in order to achieve its political goals.
In the meantime, the USA and Russia pull out of arms control treaties and world safety seems to ebb further away with each passing day.
The immediate direct and delayed effects of nuclear explosions are by themselves psychopathically brutal beyond imagination. But those effects become amplified if more than a few of those weapons are used, when the soot from burning petrochemicals and cities threatens to bring on a nuclear winter that could kill billions of people. Research moved on after Sagan’s keynote book on nuclear winter was published in 1990, but ‘A Path Where No Man Thought’ remains a vibrant explanation of how nuclear war could end most life on Earth. Sagan and Turco show how the use of 3,000 – 6,000 warheads on either side (USA, Russia) could trigger a Type III nuclear winter, causing average land temperature to drop by around 10℃, leading to widespread famine in the Northern Hemisphere (amongst other things) and placing 1-2 billion people at risk of starvation globally.
It’s not an idle speculation that the US and Russia could plan to use so many nuclear weapons in a ‘central exchange’ – the US war plan from the 1960’s (SIOP) included a ‘grand tour’ bombing run of every city in Russia andChina (the latter being ‘just in case’ targets). The Grand Tour idea could be seductive – once you’ve decided that in order to win you can’t leave any of your enemy’s infrastructure standing, military or civilian, it becomes easy to just keep adding ‘targets’ (cities, units of hundreds of thousands of people) to the plan. But the release of soot into the atmosphere from so many burning cities could trigger a devastating nuclear winter, killing billions, and perhaps permanently destroying most of the global ecosystem.
And all for what?
Don’t you know there’s a war on?
The New Cold War is on. It’s the same as the old Cold War, but under a new name with some new players.
It is time that the leaders of nuclear-armed states learned to play a new game.
1. “What Happened to the Soviet Superpower’s Nuclear Arsenal? Clues for the Nuclear Security Summit” – Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs – https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/what-happened-soviet-superpowers-nuclear-arsenal-clues-nuclear-security-summit
2. “Nuclear Notebook: How many nuclear weapons does Russia have in 2021?” – Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – https://thebulletin.org/premium/2021-03/nuclear-notebook-russian-nuclear-weapons-2021/
3. “Global nuclear arsenals grow as states continue to modernize–New SIPRI Yearbook out now” – Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – https://sipri.org/media/press-release/2021/global-nuclear-arsenals-grow-states-continue-modernize-new-sipri-yearbook-out-now
4. “Royal Navy warship HMS Mersey stalks Russian attack submarine through British waters as it travels from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean” – Daily Mail – https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9304443/Royal-Navy-warship-HMS-Mersey-stalks-Russian-attack-submarine-British-waters.html
5. “Satellite images show China is building more than 100 ‘nuclear missile silos’ in the desert” – Daily Mail – https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9748801/Satellite-images-China-building-100-nuclear-missile-silos-desert.html