Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Did Nuclear Winter End the Arms Race?

According to A. Robock et Al., "Climactic Consequences of Regional Nuclear Conflicts:"
"The major policy implication of nuclear winter was that a full-scale nuclear attack would produce climatic effects which would so disrupt the food supply that it would be suicide for the attacking country (Robock, 1989) and would also impact non-combatant countries. The subsequent end of the arms race and reduction of superpower tensions can be traced back to the world being forced to confront both the direct and indirect consequences of the use of nuclear weapons by the public policy debate in response to nuclear winter theory. The Soviet Union did not end until five years after nuclear warhead numbers began to drop steeply, and the end of the Soviet Union did not alter the slope of the decline."
I have to say that I think that this is one of the least plausible explanations for the end of the Cold War. I've certainly never heard a historian make this argument, much less a historian of the USSR. It's based on a faulty understanding of the psychology of nuclear weapons found within governments- an assumption that these things are decided by rational actors on the basis of evidence and reason. Scientists have been saying that nuclear war is a really really bad idea since the 1940s, so why was nuclear winter different? And while it's true that some Soviet scientists were early to jump on the nuclear winter bandwagon back in the 1980s, I've never seen any evidence that the idea ever influenced Soviet/Russian nuclear strategy, and any influence on US nuclear thinking certainly hasn't inspired the military to abandon nuclear weapons. Indeed, from my perspective the arms race doesn't exactly look like it ended. Slowed down? Sure. But with all the American ABMs and Russian Topol-M ICBMs sure it sure looks like we've got an arms race going on.

An aside: I'm not very impressed by the latest round of nuclear winter studies. Although worth reading and vastly improved from the 1980s originals, they make assumptions about firestorm effects resulting from nuclear bombing that I find difficult to swallow. But not nearly as hard to swallow as the belief of the authors that they single-handedly ended the arms race.

7 comments:

DV8 2XL said...

To underline some other problems with the nuclear winter mechanism:

The cooling mechanism as nuclear winter proponents describe it could only operate over land masses. Ocean surface water is continually supplied with heat from below. Even if sunlight were blocked for many months, the temperature at the ocean surface would remain virtually unchanged. Consequently, weather patterns would continue, with warm moisture laden air from the oceans sweeping over the land masses and as it cools, rain clouds would form and even more of the sun blocking smoke and dust particles would be washed out of the atmosphere.

The model also requires that at the very least, 100 million tons of smoke particles would have to be injected into the atmosphere if the nuclear winter mechanism were to be triggered. They also indicated that cities are the primary source of that smoke. They therefore proposed a nuclear war scenario in which cities are the primary targets.

Since the mid 1960s, the primary targets for both U.S. and Soviet nuclear missiles and nuclear bombs have not been population centers or cities. They have been the other guy’s nuclear missile launch sites, nuclear bomber bases and other military targets. If those can be eliminated, the cities will be held hostage. The current list of ten target classes ascribed to Soviet planners by DOD and FEMA, does not specifically contain any population centers.

The list does of course include target classes that in many instances will be located in or adjacent to metropolitan areas. But, even in those instances, the nuclear weapons employed will not be the huge multi-megaton area destruction bombs of the late 1950s and early 1960s. ICBM systems and MIRVs are now so accurate that a target may be pin-pointed even within a metropolitan area, by a relatively small weapon. This is not in any way to say that the effects will not be catastrophic. It is to say though that the city wide firestorms necessary for the onset of nuclear winter as described by them, are less than predictable. In fact, they are improbable

Sovietologist said...

Well, that's one of the things that are new about these studies- the authors now claim that even a relatively limited amount of material injected into the upper atmosphere could trigger the effect. One of the papers is not about a US-Russia exchange, but is rather making an argument that even a limited nuclear war between, say, India and Pakistan would create a nuclear winter. I don't really buy it, as they assume that the absolute worst-case firestorm will occur everywhere the bombs are dropped- and that 80% of the smoke will end up in the upper atmosphere. That's one hell of an assumption, isn't it?

DV8 2XL said...

Right. Like even limited exchange would kick up the same amount of particulate as a major volcanic eruption. I am also not happy with the assumption that all of the lofted material would be black carbon particles.

And this statement from the paper borders on irresponsible: "Remarkably, the estimated quantities of smoke generated by attacks totaling little more than one megaton of nuclear explosives could lead to global climate anomalies exceeding any changes experienced in recorded history."

Ashutosh said...

It's strange that people seem to buy it. Richard Rhodes does seem to, as he indicated in his Google talk.

Snapple said...

Have you read the interviews with Vitalii Tsygichko?

http://legendofpineridge.blogspot.com/2012/08/soviet-military-research-on-nuclear.html

Sovietologist said...

Yes, in fact I quote Tsygichko in my JCWS article. I find Tsygichko a really compelling but not entirely unproblematic source--he reminds me a bit of Hal Brode in the U.S. and I suspect that others in the Soviet military research might contest his views. Unfortunately the Hines Report interviews probably represent a biased sample of opinion within the Soviet military on nuclear war, but it's the best we have.

Snapple said...

You don't need to "suspect" that others in the military contest his views. Tsygichko says that field generals believed that they could march around the radiation and fight a nuclear war.

He was no peacenik. He just knew that these bombs could not be used to defend the USSR. The US Military often cites his articles.