Nuclear Weapons: what you need to know

After thirty years in hiding, the possibility of nuclear war is back in the news. You’re hearing about Russian threats and the Chinese build-up, while minimizing our own problematic actions such as the W76-2 program. Over the last 30 years there has been an under-the-table arms race while at the same time the arms control framework of the late Cold War has been abandoned. I’ve done another podcast with Nate Hagens you can find here, this time discussing in more detail why nuclear weapons are so dangerous, and most importantly what we can start to do about it. This post is an introduction to the subject and preview of that discussion.

I worry that the general public (and many of our political leaders) seem to have lost touch with just how different nukes are from conventional bombs. The days of “duck and cover” exercises in schools are long gone (even before my time!), and if you’re much under 50 you never saw movies like War Games or The Day After, or recall the scares when President Reagan joked about bombing the Soviet Union (or know why that rhetoric was suddenly toned down). I would also guess that there is “doom fatigue,” between COVID and Climate Change, as well as the constant drumbeat of disaster news of various kinds. Nuclear war seemed, until the Ukraine SMO/invasion, a problem of the past. Another factor is complexity. The topic of nuclear weapons can’t be separated from a discussion of doctrine – how these weapons fit into our war plans and their intended use, and involves a topic many Americans don’t know much about and mostly don’t seem to care: foreign policy. So this is a difficult-to-understand interplay of physics, military strategy and tactics, politics, international relations, and of course morality and ethics. And like most complex subjects, the news media, increasingly fueled by social media, oversimplifies, dramatizes, and politicizes stories to “engage and enrage” viewers. So concise information is hard to find.

What follows is a bit of an introduction to this horrible topic. I’m sure subject area experts will find simplifications and interpretations to disagree with, and of course this area is obscured with security aspects that are often used to hide issues that should in fact be publicly disclosed and debated, like doctrine. But here’s a “short” 😛 introduction from my point of view.

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