It is estimated that about 15,000 usable nuclear weapons currently exist. Ninety percent of these belong to Russia or the United States. A full-scale nuclear war would probably end human life on Earth. Even a limited nuclear war would have catastrophic global consequences.

Many people seem to think that mutual assured destruction (MAD) provides a solution to the nuclear peril. Unfortunately, this belief is mistaken. The reason is simple. "Assured destruction" requires hair-trigger alert in case a well-armed enemy launches a massive surprise attack, and hair-trigger alert invites an accidental nuclear war. There have been scores (perhaps hundreds) of near nuclear wars. Here are some examples.

Nov. 5, 1956: During the Suez Crisis, the United States aerospace command, NORAD, received four simultaneous reports indicating a Soviet offensive. NATO forces were alerted to carry out nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union. All four reports proved to be erroneous or misinterpreted. In one case, a flight of swans was mistaken for a Soviet fighter plane.

Nov. 24, 1961: The U.S. Strategic Air Command lost contact with NORAD and other military installations. Some officers concluded that the loss of contact resulted from an enemy attack. The entire U.S. Air Force was primed for takeoff. The communication failure, it was later discovered, resulted from the malfunction of a single relay station in Colorado.


Oct. 27, 1962: This date, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, is considered the most dangerous day in human history. Three near disasters occurred. An American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba, almost provoking a retaliatory U.S. attack. Another U-2 spy plane accidentally strayed 300 miles into Soviet airspace. It was pursued by Soviet aircraft but escorted home by nuclear-armed U.S. interceptors. And a Soviet submarine near Cuba was harassed by American ships and lost ability to communicate with Moscow. A depth charge exploded near the submarine, and the captain concluded that a nuclear war had started. He prepared to launch a nuclear torpedo against the American fleet. Another Soviet officer, Vasili Arkhipov, persuaded the captain not to attack and to await orders instead.

Nov. 9, 1965: During a normal power outage in the northeastern U.S., several military circuits malfunctioned, causing the illusion of a nuclear attack. U.S. military forces went on full alert, but the electrical failure was discovered before action was taken.

Nov. 9, 1979: A NORAD training scenario was loaded into an operational computer, creating the illusion of a massive Soviet assault with 2,200 missiles. The entire U.S. nuclear triad — bombers, missiles and submarines — was prepared for attack. Just a few minutes before launch time, radar and satellites established that it was a false alarm.

Sept. 26, 1983: Shortly after the downing of a Korean passenger flight that strayed into Soviet airspace, a Moscow early-warning system reported that five American ICBMs had been launched against the USSR. A Soviet colonel, Stanislav Petrov, convinced his superiors that a real American attack would have many more missiles. The Soviet officers avoided counterattacking, and eventually, ground radar confirmed that there was no American attack.

Jan. 25, 1995: A Norwegian research rocket launched to study the Northern Lights was interpreted as an attack on Russia. Russian nuclear submarines prepared for a retaliatory strike, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin activated his nuclear briefcase. It soon became evident that the research rocket posed no threat to Russia.

Oct. 23, 2010: Due to a computer problem, commanders at an Air Force base in Wyoming lost control over 50 nuclear ICBMs for a period of 45 minutes. During this interval, the nuclear-armed rockets could have been launched by hackers or by alienated missile crews.

MAD is no solution to the nuclear spectre hanging over humanity. If the world remains on hair-trigger alert, accidental nuclear war will eventually happen. Only complete abolition of nuclear weapons can eliminate this truly catastrophic menace.

The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center's "Peace Train" runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.