Without being alarmist, one must take note of the fact that the possibility of a third world war has been more discussed this year – 2022 – than any previous year since 1945.
Why are so many deeply worried scholars and experts raising this issue? The reason clearly is that the Ukraine conflict has become prolonged and complicated in ways that have brought the two biggest nuclear weapon powers – USA and Russia – closer than ever before to a direct conflict. It is not that proxy conflicts have not been fought earlier by these two countries, but never did it become so complicated as to involve the risk of a direct confrontation.
The situation now is even more difficult and dangerous than at the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. As Russia has already stated in the context of heavy weapons supply by the USA and its allies to Ukraine that it is now fighting not just Ukrainian forces but “the collective west”, the world is just a step away from a direct conflict between the two biggest nuclear weapon powers. In such a situation of brinkmanship and hypertension extending for so long, a full-blown war could break out even due to misunderstandings.
Hence the possibility of a direct confrontation between Russia and the USA/Nato cannot be ruled out entirely if such high tensions between the two continue to persist much longer. Risks of nuclear weapons have become alarmingly high due to several factors. Giving one indication of this, the Union of Concerned Scientists, USA, has written recently that warheads on just one US nuclear-armed submarine have seven times the destructive power of all the bombs dropped during World War II including the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan.
The USA has tens of such submarines at sea. The most powerful weapon available now — the B83 gravity bomb — is more than 80 times as destructive as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Over 90 per cent of the nuclear weapons of the world are concentrated in the hands of the USA and Russia. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Report for 2022, the total number of nuclear weapons of the USA is 5,428.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) puts this number at around 5,500, 1389 of which are deployed and ready to be delivered. What is more, nearly 150 of the US nuclear bombs are deployed at airbases in five European countries — Germany, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, and Turkey. According to the UCS, nearly half of the deployed weapons in the USA (or a total of about 700 weapons) are maintained on ‘hair-trigger alert, able to be launched very quickly after a presidential order. ICBMs can be launched within a couple of minutes and SLBMs within 15 minutes.
Two American allies in Europe, France and UK, together have 525 nuclear weapons. Israel has about 100. According to SIPRI, Russia has about 5,977 nuclear weapons. UCS puts this number at 6,300, 1458 of which are deployed. Both sources say that China has 350 nuclear weapons. According to the UCS, just over 100 of these are aligned to missiles that can reach the USA. North Korea has about 20 nuclear weapons.
In a special report on future wars, the Economist has stated, “Existing nuclear arms control agreements are fraying. The protocols and understandings that helped avert Armageddon during the cold war have not been renewed.” The Economist report states that the USA has been working on a concept known as Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) for over a decade.
“The idea is to deliver a conventional warhead with a very high degree of accuracy, at hypersonic speeds (at least five times faster than the speed of sound), through even the most densely defended space…Russia and China claim that CPGS could be highly destabilizing if used in conjunction with advanced missile defences. Meanwhile, they are developing similar weapons of their own.”
Further, this report says that the command-and-control systems of nuclear weapons are becoming vulnerable to hacking by new cyberweapons or ‘blinding’ of the satellites they depend on. A country under such an attack could find itself under pressure to choose between losing control of its nuclear weapons or using them. Hence if Russia and USA enter into direct confrontation and nuclear weapons are used, then the destructive power that could be potentially unleashed could destroy almost the entire world by its direct and indirect impacts.
This kind of third world war may last for a much shorter time than the first and second ones, but the destruction caused by it within a short time, perhaps just a few days, will be very high and can affect almost the entire world as the exchange of a significant number of nuclear weapons can lead to a nuclear winter, making sunlight difficult to reach the earth, bringing longer-term famine over and above the more obvious destruction caused by fire, heat, explosion, radiation, dust and soot.
Hence, clearly, the highest urgency should be assigned to taking all possible steps to avoid a direct confrontation between the two biggest nuclear weapons powers which would have a high probability of slipping into a nuclear weapon confrontation.
To avoid this, all forces of peace must push for a ceasefire as early as possible in the Ukraine conflict while other disagreements can be resolved subsequently, with due help from the United Nations and various countries which have the potential and the willingness to play an important peacekeeping role.
Apart from world leaders and the United Nations contributing to this, peace movements and activists all over the world, particularly in the USA and Europe, must play a much more important role in bringing peace and ensuring that further drift towards the possibility of much bigger destruction is avoided under all circumstances. In the longer term, the goal of elimination of all weapons of mass destruction must be pursued much more strongly and steadfastly by the world’s leaders as well as peace movements.