We Should All Worry About Russia’s Confrontation with Turkey
Dozens of nuclear weapons are just miles from where Ankara shot down jet
Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet could get very serious, very quickly. With America pledged to defend Turkey, our NATO ally, any shooting conflict with Russia could draw in the United States – and our 60 nuclear bombs stored just miles from the Syrian border.
These air-dropped bombs are located in Turkey at the Incirlik Air Base, about 60 miles north of the border with Syria. They are only a small portion of the thousands of deployed nuclear weapons that the U.S. and Russia maintain, but it is their location that should give us pause — so close to the most active war zone in the world, with a complex web of belligerents and state-backed proxies locked in a desperate struggle.
Accidents and miscalculations are bound to happen. As Max Fischer points out:
When you ask Russia experts why Moscow would send its warplanes buzzing NATO airspace in Europe, they’ll often point out that Russia’s military is much weaker than America’s and NATO’s — and Moscow knows it.
So one way Russia has dealt with its relative weakness is by being more provocative, by demonstrating its willingness to raise the stakes and toe ever closer up to the line of outright conflict. The intended message of such flights isn’t that Russia will deliberately start a war with the West — it won’t — but rather that it is more willing to take on risk, so if the West doesn’t want the headache it should just back down.
Unfortunately, that’s not always how things work out, and the inclusion of nuclear weapons on opposite sides of this engagement – Russia has 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons stored around the country — makes the margins for error uncomfortably small.
The downing of the Russian fighter craft by Turkey is not the first close call that we have had. John Donnelly’s recent article for Congressional Quarterly shows that these incidents are actually quite common, an unnerving thought if there ever was one. He writes:
NATO says it scrambled its fighter jets more than 400 times last year to intercept Russian military flights close to the alliance’s borders, quadruple the previous year’s number. This year, NATO intercepts over Europe have topped 300 so far. Russia, meanwhile, claims NATO has doubled the number of aircraft flying just off Russia’s borders.
And now, for the first time since the Cold War, NATO is considering conducting exercises for scenarios in which a conflict between East and West escalates from conventional to nuclear war.
With Russia increasing the role of nuclear weapons in its doctrine and rhetoric, for the first time in decades, both sides are edging closer to the nuclear brink. The Russians claim that they must modernize their nuclear arsenal in order to deal with the destabilizing effect of the proposed U.S. missile shield in Europe. But Russia has also “increased flights of nuclear-enabled bombers across NATO territory and has added nuclear elements to some recent exercises,” according to the Financial Times.
In the past, we have come too close to launching thermonuclear war with the Russians by pure misunderstanding, miscalculation or unnecessary escalation on several occasions.
During the Korean War, U.S. pilots squared off against Soviet MiGs (under North Korean colors) constantly. The Smithsonian Institute estimates that some 92 U.S. Sabre jets were lost in combat with Soviet MiGs, and that “with the dissolution of the USSR, the archives of the Soviet air force became available to scholars, whose studies have since pegged Soviet MiG-15 losses in Korea at 315.”
The best-known incident, the Cuban Missile Crisis, was also one of the most dangerous. The building of Soviet missile installations in Cuba during the fall of 1962, prompted a U.S. blockade of the island nation. What followed has become a classic crisis management scenario, where poor decision-making and incomplete intelligence, led to a cascade of near misses that almost set the world on a path towards Armageddon.
In one, a U-2 spy plane pilot wandered off course and was mistaken for a U.S. nuclear bomber. As Evan Andrews writes, “[the] accidental detour carried possibly catastrophic consequences. Worried the U-2 could be a nuclear bomber, the Soviets scrambled several MiG fighter jets and sent them on a course to destroy the intruding aircraft. The Air Force responded by dispatching two F-102 fighters armed with nuclear-tipped missiles to shepherd [the pilot] back to Alaska. Any confrontation between the two groups of aircraft could have potentially ended in all-out war.”
But as Edward Wilson writes, “The captain of the [submarine], Valentin Savitsky, had no way of knowing that the depth charges were non-lethal ‘practice’ rounds intended as warning shots.”
The Soviet captain assumed he was under attack. He ordered his 10-kiloton nuclear-tipped torpedo armed and aimed it at the U.S. aircraft carrier enforcing the blockade.
If the B-59’s torpedo had vaporized the [carrier], the nuclear clouds would quickly have spread from sea to land…The Pentagon’s SIOP, Single Integrated Operational Plan – a doomsday scenario that echoed Dr Strangelove’s orgiastic Götterdämmerung – would have hurled 5,500 nuclear weapons against a thousand targets, including ones in non-belligerent states such as Albania and China.
If not for the submarine’s executive officer, who refused to countersign the launch order, a nuclear exchange would certainly have occurred.
The crisis terrified leaders of both nations. But not enough to prevent future close calls.
In 1983, alarms from the Soviet early-warning satellite system went off, indicating that five U.S. nuclear missiles were approaching. In the few tense minutes he had to respond, a Soviet base commander reasoned that it was a false alarm because, “when people start a war, they don’t start it with just five missiles.”
Even after the Cold War’s end, similar scares continued. In January 1995, the Russian early-warning radar detected what it thought was intermediate-range submarine-launched ballistic missile off Norway’s coast. Pres. Boris Yeltsin activated his nuclear “football” device and prepared to authorize the launch of 4,700 nuclear warheads from bombers, subs and ICBMs around the globe.
Fortunately, no activity was detected at U.S. missile silos, and the Russians realized it was a false alarm. The object turned out to be a Norwegian science rocket sent to study the aurora borealis, but the launch notification that was made to the Russians never reached the proper channels.
The list of close calls goes on, but I hope that one thing is clear – the threat of conflict escalation remains very real, and when it involves two nuclear-armed states, the risks remain too high.
The U.S. and Russian nuclear strategies are relics of the Cold War, and our nuclear arsenals do little to keep us safe from today’s security threats. French nukes did not deter ISIS from attacking Paris, just as U.S. nukes failed to stop Al Qaeda from attacking the World Trade Center.
What they do accomplish though, is to make the world a very uncertain and often unsafe place. They pose a constant threat to those who have them, and are at continuous risk from those who want to take them.
As Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, has written, “Every step we take to reduce these [weapons], to take them off of hair-trigger alert, to end the obsolete Cold War strategy that still guides their targeting, will not only save us billions of dollars, it will make all of us a whole lot safer.”
The Cold War may be over, but Pres. John F. Kennedy’s warning still rings true. “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”
We are lucky that the world survived the nuclear close calls of the past. We cannot count on surviving more in the future.
Geoff Wilson is a Research Associate at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. He has authored articles for The Huffington Post, Defense One and War on the Rocks. Ploughshares Fund contributes funding to WIB, but no special consideration or compensation was made for publishing this article.