Effective vs. Harmful Anti-war Activism and Policy (part 2)

In the last post I did a surface level exploration of several cases of anti-war activism and policy in the 20th and 21st century, to show that while there are some great victories, not all peace inspired policy changes are unambiguously good. In this post, we’ll explore an area of high importance, and learning value for other future risks. One where I think there is a great deal of expertise, which the effective altruism movement has not tapped into: nuclear policy.

Where we are now:

The video above with Max Tegmark shows as a set of views toward nuclear policy that seem to be fairly casually promoted within EA. The core points are:

  • Nuclear winter is probably the worst aspect of a nuclear exchange and could cause global starvation
  • The U.S. and Russia each have enough weapons to cause this outcome on their own
  • Accident is the most likely way for a nuclear exchange between superpowers to occur
  • There have been lots of close calls, so it is only a matter of time before an exchange happens by accident
  • Only a small number of nuclear weapons are needed to deter a nuclear war, and additional weapons only increase risk without adding more deterrence value
  • Moneyed interests and politicians are the primary reason for current and planned arsenal sizes, and stigmatizing nuclear weapons companies via divestment is a good strategy for reducing arms and increasing safety

What I agree with:

  • Yes we should care a lot about nukes because they are a huge risk!
  • Among the risks of nuclear war, the risk of nuclear winter is probably the worst.

What I might agree with:

  • It would be nice if there were less weapons across the board
    • The reason I only maybe agree with this is that without superpowers to stop proliferation, there could be an unstable situation where many more nations defect and develop nuclear weapons in such a way that war with the use of numerous nuclear weapons would be more likely.
      • While nuclear weapons may not be needed in abstract to be a superpower, it would be much more economically expensive to be a superpower with conventional force only, which would likely reduce economic growth rate from high taxation, and risk long run superpower status.

Where my view is probably different:
(click the paragraphs below for more justifying bullet points)



The fact that U.S. and Russia have about 7,000 nuclear weapons each does not mean that nearly that many warheads would be used in a nuclear exchange, most warheads are not on missiles, so 7,000 is not the most relevant number to bring up when speaking about risk of nuclear winter.
  • Why would the U.S. and Russia keep extra weapons? Possible reasons:
    • If there were to be an exchange with one country (perhaps a smaller country), that doesn’t destroy either country completely, both the U.S. and Russia would probably want to be able to reset high deterrence levels as quickly as possible: warheads that don’t need to be launched can be stored in much more secure ways than weapons that are to be launched since they do not need rapid access to the surface.
    • If new technologies change the optimal deterrence level to be higher, you want to be able to quickly deploy more warheads
    • During negotiations, both countries might like to have such excess nuclear weapons as bargaining chips
      • Though it is unclear that undeployed stockpiles have great value for bargaining as they don’t pose a risk when secured.
    • The U.S. and Russia might not be that worried about nuclear winter. There has been some research on the likelihood of nuclear winter and it is likely that nuclear powers are more aware of this than those who are not focused on strategic nuclear forces. As deterrence could be undermined to some degree if retaliation were to substantially increase the chance of self harm, it makes sense that both Russia and the US would have an interest in understanding the odds of nuclear winter in different scenarios (but perhaps this presumes too much rationality).
If accidental nuclear war is more likely than deliberate use, then deterrence is likely a contributing factor to that situation: it does not make sense to undermine deterrence when decreasing the risk of nuclear war, unless the result is actually a net reduction of risk.
  • Further points on accidental vs. deliberate use:
    • Without access to classified information, it seems difficult to be generally sure a nuclear exchange is more likely to result from an accident than deliberate use. While an exchange is probably in no one’s self interest now, as technology changes stable equilibriums may be disrupted unless we intentionally develop technology to maintain stability.
      • Due to posturing, one country or another could happen to be in a position to quickly gain decisive strategic advantage, without there being public knowledge of such a situation. It is not always guaranteed that defense will have cheap ways to retaliate.
    • As command and control technology gets more advanced, there are less significant false alarms and more resilience. Unless there has been massive cover-ups, the only times nuclear weapons have been detonated at remotely close to full yield has been in deliberate use.
      • If you look at FLI’s timeline of near misses, there aren’t really any recent mistakes that actually have a decent chance of resulting in nuclear war. The closest might have been the 1995 Norwegian Rocket Launch, but even if the Russians didn’t know it was a Norwegian rocket, they still would have realized from radar that there was only one and that it wasn’t heading for them. This isn’t to dismiss the importance of other mistakes, just to say that the danger level of more recently listed mistakes is much lower even if the mistakes seem much dumber than other mistakes in the cold war.
        • One might argue that if the rocket accidentally exploded high enough off the ground it may have looked like a MIRV on radar, but it would have been pretty obviously not aimed at anything still.
The ability of a small number of nuclear weapons to deter nuclear attack may just be a situational fact, caused by alliances and the existence of superpowers with many more weapons.
  • Furthermore, nukes may deter more than just nuclear war. The point of tactical nuclear weapons is to deter even non-nuclear war: without them NATO would have had to spend far more on conventional force protecting Europe.
    • But of course this is a risk, because the actual use of tactical nuclear weapons to end a war could result in escalation to the use of strategic nuclear weapons
      • Though this fact may also add further deterrence value against starting conventional wars between superpowers in the first place
  • We should avoid binary thinking when reasoning about nuclear weapons: adding additional weapons probably both increases deterrence value and increases risk, but it depends on how many weapons a country already has.
    • A rogue state with one nuclear weapon in a known location invites an incapacitation strike probably more than one without such a weapon, but as it gains more weapons and the ability to hide them it becomes able to deter intervention.
    • The deterrence value per nuclear weapon shifts with time: various technologies make incapacitating strikes more or less possible, and the amounts countries spend on these technologies shift the optimal deterrence level
      • Though I doubt U.S. and Russian numbers of weapons are optimal, having nuclear weapons in reserve (provided they are secure!) makes a lot of sense if you need to quickly add weapons to re-establish optimal deterrence levels.
    • If either the U.S. or Russia only had 200 nuclear weapons, while the other maintained its current level, it could be awfully tempting for the more powerful one to try to incapacitate the other in a time of crisis.
      • Why?
        • If both sides had a small number of missiles, the risk from false alarms might increase, since a smaller number of weapons would be expected to be launched in a first strike.
        • A country also might actually be able to assure with high probability that they stop every opposing missile in a first strike if they find and sink the opponent’s submarines, use stealth cruise missiles on opposing missile fields and air bases, and use missile defense to stop whatever else gets through (it is okay if the missile defense is not cost effective on a per missile basis if very few missiles get launched, unless they have many warheads).
          • And while I am at it, no, China/North Korea are not a counterexamples to this claim: how would Russia react to such a first strike in the short run and long run? Why would the U.S. want to burn so many of its weapons on the smaller threat? The UK and France also can’t be counter examples when the US exists and is explicitly aligned with them.
      • There may yet be ways for U.S. and Russia to maintain peace with much lower numbers of weapons, but this would require assurance of long run good diplomacy or technology that is not currently being used to assure deterrence (as far as I can tell).
  • If a country uses its small number of nuclear weapons against one attacking country, it may be subsequently defenseless against other nuclear powers.

    • Though this discourages countries from being aggressors themselves, it does incentivize countries to use deception to try to get others to fight each other in order to gain strategic advantage. This sort of situation can be seen in multi-faction conflicts (Syria, Pakistan vs. India vs. terror groups, etc.) or the “truel” in game theory.
      • Basically, in a 3 way conflict the first person to shoot damages one opponent and reduces their own supplies doing so: the remaining opponent gains a large advantage from this. If the first person tries to take out both opponents, they may cause their opponents to temporarily unite. If all parties are roughly equal, you win by forcing your opponents to attack each by whatever means are available.
        • This is why some states like arming terror/rebel groups even when they aren’t that aligned with the funding state: it allows a country to advance its own geopolitical interests while getting its enemies (terrorists and the other state) to kill each other. The funder only loses small arms instead of its own troops and more expensive equipment, while also maintaining plausible deniability (eg. Pakistan does not want to directly go to war with India, but if militias hurt India strategically more than Pakistan, and serve as a buffer, then they advance Pakistan’s strategic interests more overall even though they keep attacking Pakistan).
Moneyed interests can’t be that currently influential on demand for nuclear weapons related programs given that the Pentagon’s proposed budget and the budget authorized by congress are the same for weapon systems that support nuclear weapons (eg. the B-2, B-52, ballistic missile replacement, air launched cruise missiles, squadron spending for nuclear forces among many others). The only exception I could find is a less that 1% budget cut for unjustified program growth for modifications to the Trident II missile, though there maybe another possible exception with the Department of Energy Nuclear Budget.
  • The influence of lobbyists seems more along the lines of spreading program expenses over more congressional districts, than determining IF a program is going to exist or not. People may talk about congress buying tanks the military doesn’t want, but in the grand scheme of things in a multi-hundred billion dollar defense budget, building more armored vehicles is a “cheap” way to keep some jobs around your state if you are a congressman. Roughly speaking, the military knows what it wants and congress just gives it what it wants.
  • If the problem is defense contractors directly/discretely lobbying the military, then the people to engage with would be the generals and others in the Pentagon who make/determine budget requests. If we think we have good arguments for why they are wrong about what spending levels should be on nuclear modernization, then we should discuss and debate with them.
  • A commenter pointed out that there may be some influence via the DOE Budget, since they are directly in control of nuclear weapons. For 2016, the budgets match, however the budget is growing, and congress may have approved more (or less) for 2017 than the administration/military requested. The 2018 request is a large increase, and also decreases spending on non-proliferation (which sounds not good to me, but I have no idea what the optimal spending level is).
  • Another commenter essentially pointed out that if congress authorizes zero funding, there would be no weapons spending: therefore moneyed interests have influence. I weakened the claim to only speak about demand for nuclear weapons due to this.



So given all this, what should we do? What would be a good way forward for reducing nuclear risks? The most important starting point is probably to develop understanding of the relevant considerations.

Within the Effective Altruism community, Open Philanthropy Project published their initial research exploring this area in September 2015, and organizations like the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute have built fault trees for determining the probability of accidental nuclear exchange and the best intervention points for risk reduction. On nuclear policy, 80,000 Hours currently recommends focusing on these options:

  • Work on improving foreign relations between the main nuclear powers and defusing any potential (the US, UK, France Russia and China);
  • Convince politicians or voters in these countries to prioritise avoiding war above other concerns;
  • Ensure that monitoring of first strikes, and communication between nuclear powers, is sufficiently good to prevent a false alarm escalating into an full-scale war;
  • Ensure nuclear materials are safely guarded and can not be used by rogue actors;
  • Prevent the development of ballistic missile defense in the U.S. in hopes of making U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China mutual arms reductions more likely;
  • Work on improving foreign relations at other nuclear weapon flashpoints, such as India and Pakistan, North Korea, or Iran and Israel;
  • Shrink nuclear stockpiles;
  • Improve civilian resiliency and recovery in the face of an EMP attack;
  • Prevent nuclear proliferation.

These basically all sound like great options, but hard to pursue, so in the remainder of this post I will focus on a subset of the problem: the difficulty of safe arms reduction.

To reduce nuclear arsenals, some suggest we “start at home” and that a drastic decrease in US expenditure may cause a reciprocal response from the rest of the world. I worry this is a little naive.

When the U.S. finally started decreasing its nuclear arsenal in the 1960’s this didn’t generate a reciprocal response from the Soviet Union. Then again in the mid 70s the U.S. began reducing its arsenal again (though after a build up, perhaps to increase its negotiating position) and the USSR kept building up until Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the USSR and tensions with the west were eased.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

If we want activism to be effective, perhaps the relevant consideration is how democratic and susceptible to pressure are all the parties with nuclear weapons. If only some parties cave into the pressure, then the parties that do not just keep gaining advantage in world affairs.

Are there any ways that the U.S. could give up weapons without increasing the strategic advantage of other countries? During the next round of nuclear modernization, what can be cut? What sacrifices will generals actually find completely acceptable given how advanced Russia’s current ability is? Its best to start by taking inventory of what there is, and arguments for and against each part as well as potential future parts.

The triad:

The nuclear triad consists of nuclear submarines, bombers, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The purpose of having a nuclear triad is to ensure that if one part fails, there will be others that can ensure deterrence, making war against a superpower an illogical move. The U.S. is currently deciding how it will modernize its triad, and some consider this to be a good opportunity for reductions in nuclear arms.

Estimates of U.S. nuclear modernization cost range from hundreds of billions to over a trillion dollars in the next 20-30 years, but given the wonders of the planning fallacy, I won’t be placing any bets on specific levels.

Capture U.S. Nuclear Force Structure Under The New START Treaty. (Bombers only counted as 1 warhead since they are viewed as stabilizing forces). Source: The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies

So, would it make sense to not renew some part of the triad, and to try to negotiate for reductions in Russian arms in the process? Click each section below for pros and cons details:



Nuclear missile/torpedo Submarines:
  • Pro
    • Hard to hit (stable deterrent)
      • Countered by new tech potentially (smaller hunter/drone subs that can be quieter and cheaper since they only need one torpedo/weapon and to keep following ballistic missile subs… this is a type of tech that could probably be successfully deployed in secret.)
        • Example: almost no one knew about the stealth black hawk helicopter until the Osama bin Laden raid, and something that flies should be much more obvious than something that goes underwater. 
  • Con
    • If hit, it does not necessarily cause war (destroying them is not deterred)
      • Especially if you destroy one with a mine or a civilian vessel
        • The accident above was the Navy’s fault, but subs are vulnerable to covert attrition over time due to this and other sources of damage
      • The deterrence problem might be countered by policy of war upon on sub strike
    • Capable of incapacitation strike (ablity to get very close and fire is potentially destabilizing)
      • Countered by land based ICBMs deep inside country on hair trigger alert (takes sub missiles too long to get to them)
        • Sub-based stealth cruise missiles may counter this? (sounds hard, range is probably too short)
    • Also a con that subs may be incentivized to use much larger weapons if missile defense becomes effective (eg. the 100 megaton, long range, nuclear drone torpedo Russia is working on)
    • New detection technologies may destabilize deterrence from subs
Nuclear bombers/missile planes:
  • Pro
    • Distributed, hard to hit them all (stable deterrent)
      • Counter argument: Runways are easy to hit choke points
        • Choke point problem mitigated by STOVL planes like the F-35B and Harrier that can take off from almost anywhere
          • STOVL planes have lower performance (Harriers have an insane crash rate and are super easy to shoot down now), low numbers (there are probably like 10-20 F35Bs, but the Marines do plan to purchase more than 300), and lower payloads (wing area is reduced to assist vertical take off).
            • F35B is stealth and can probably survive well if not detected
              • Plane still needs to be staged at not a base to avoid being taken out in first strike attack: it doesn’t matter if the plane has the ability to not be at a choke point if it is kept at a choke point!
      • Counter argument: new AA tech may make planes easy to shoot down (better radar/IR, AI algorithms telling radar where to look and shoot at mere “specs” after say a bomb bay door opens, early warning radar/IR being placed extremely far ahead of target (plane must fly by and expose side/engine exhaust before launching missiles, though the B2 bomber is less vulnerable to this since engine exhaust is concealed from the ground)
        • Stealth standoff cruise missiles (hard to see or hit) + stealth planes (hard to hit) may make such air defense infeasible though
    • Slow to deploy (low accident risk)
      • There is much more time to resolve a false alarm that indicates bombers are incoming, than a false alarm indicating ICBM launch
    • New satellite tech may make first strike hard to hide
      • The bombers are above ground/ you can see when many leave their bases, though it is not as obvious as a missile launch
  • Con
    • Most likely to crash and explode by accident
      • Countered by better engineering tech to reduce odds of high yield detonation
    • Least useful for military targets (except when using stealth during incapacitation strike) + most human element = maybe not as much of a real deterrent? (will pilots actually go nuke cities after there are no military targets left to reinforce deterrence logic, AFTER deterrence has failed?)
      • And if they do, they are just killing a lot of innocent people without gaining anything except higher risk of death
    • Stealth planes + stealth cruise missiles + distributed across large area = incapacitation strike capable potentially
      • US number of stealth planes is public info (unless we have more secrets), probably only B2s can carry stand off stealth cruise missiles and remain stealthy over the course of a mission, they probably can’t carry enough to hit all the Russian land based missiles. The new bomber program + Long Range Stand Off Missile could change this however, and given that the U.S. plans to build 100 of the new bomber, this could be destabilizing.
        • While stealth planes can be seen at closer ranges with low-frequency radars,  such radar is not good for accuracy/targeting, and smaller stealth cruise missiles might go undetected: stealth bombers would fly to just before the point of detection before launching missiles.
          • Bombers also can’t simultaneously strike multiple targets without missiles
          • If stealth advantage is weakened, which it likely will be, the missiles would keep bombers relevant to deterrence
            • Further, the way in which stealth continues to be weakened by new technology may lead to stealth cruise missiles being detectable, but not able to be shot down: the optimal deterrence situation
Land based Missiles:
  • Immobile Missiles
    • Pro
      • Unambiguous deterrent, cannot be attacked without provoking attack
      • Fast, may be able to destroy some military targets, hard to get destroyed in the first place
      • Obvious (can’t be used to incapacitate easily, unambiguous when launched)
      • Focuses enemy warheads into the middle of nowhere (less fires than cities, less nuclear winter, less dead people) vs. air bases and naval ports that are closer to population centers
        • Though the fall out pattern from striking missile fields in the Midwest could do a lot of harm to US cities:Fallout_map_USA_(FEMA)
      • Large cost to destroy, requires very large attack
        • Mobilization to destroy this causes a second layer of deterrent, ⅔ of Russia’s missiles would be needed to destroy US land based ICBM’s and there is no way to do that without pre-mobilization, which we could detect via satellite, offering the U.S. chance to pre-stage, harden/disperse other nuclear forces, or first strike. This to some degree deters enemy mobilization in the first place
          • Counterargument: Russia might mobilize anyway when trying to use brinkmanship to gain an advantage, and in such situations risk will be elevated as long as the weapons stay pre-mobilized
      • High responsiveness/guaranteed communication increases deterrence value (subs and planes could have their communications jammed, and with a lack of information it seems reasonable that such forces would try to self preserve and not attack unless their protocol says to.)
      • ICBMs work even if tech destroys the advantage of stealth, which to some degree prevents an all out arms race focused purely on destroying the advantage of stealth
      • Lowest cost nuclear system in the triad
      • Resistant to cyber attack
        • Wireless transmission of orders not needed
        • Currently using older hard to hack technology
      • Highly reliable from lack of wear and tear from deployment: unlikely to be “grounded” for safety/maintenance all at once
    • Con
      • High accident risk from hair trigger alert
        • Counter argument: Not anymore? There exists a lot of tech for countering this we have learned from the past
          • Blunt stigma to not fund nuclear upgrades may lead to lack of funding for command and control which would increase accident risk, but more precise stigma would mitigate this 
            • Though it is also possible stigma just won’t have an impact on policy if the policy makers understand what is going on and how important it is not to screw up…
      • Easy target for first strike
      • Hardened target =  ground busting/ tunneling nukes used = large amounts of fallout (but also less fire/nuclear winter risk)
      • If faster missiles keep being developed, then there will be even less time to deal with any potential false alarms
  • Mobile missiles
    • Pro
      • All the above, but not always hardened and not an easy target for first strike (Might not need to launch on warning depending on circumstance)
      • May reduce the number of missiles needed for minimal and/or optimal deterrence
      • Truck mobile missiles are probably cheaper than silo based missiles
    • Con
      • Harder to harden. Once your train tracks or roads are destroyed your missiles are not as mobile
      • If underground tunnels are used, building hardened launch points is probably more expensive than making new missiles at hardened launch points without paying for so many miles of tunnels… therefore there is incentive to just make more missiles
      • Not being considered by Air Force currently
Other potentially destabilizing technologies:
  • New stealth technology
    • Pro
      • Can deter first strike if it works
        • This relies on stealth weapons not being hit on the ground/in port
      • More technologically advanced powers will have a competitive advantage in this area
        • Hard to copy quickly = less instability during proliferation
    • Con
      • New missiles, submersibles, and drones which could approach a country with minimal chance of detection could make nuclear first strikes more possible
      • Stealth weapons could also increase the odds that false alarms are seen as attacks, as noise picked up by radar could be perceived as an attack
        • More advanced radars, infrared sensors, and other means of detection may solve this problem by sensor fusion and machine learning that is good at ignoring noise. It would be hard for mere noise to throw off multiple systems at once.
          • This however reduces the deterrence value of stealthy nuclear bombers and cruise missiles, as they could become much easier to shoot down (if radar is not destroyed) though doing so can still be very hard
  • Advanced missile defense
    • Pro
      • If one country gains this ability fast enough and becomes a singleton, it could stop proliferation and cause global cooperation on differential technological development toward avoiding other technological risks in the future (synthetic viruses, AI, etc.)
        • This is very unlikely!
      • Missile defense is probably too expensive to stop super powers, so it won’t undermine MAD, but it can stop rogue states from being able to accomplish a long range attack since super powers can afford to spend far more
        • Almost every means of making missile defense “cheap” is currently not very feasible and may be easy to counter:
          • Lasers?
            • Problems: Hard to focus at long range, obscured by atmosphere, too heavy to get close to launch points where missiles are vulnerable
              • I once did a Fermi estimate based on the YAL-1 which indicated the need for a balloon/blimp the size of a football stadium to support such a laser near the border of North Korea
            • Counters: Warhead shielding, clouds
          • Rail guns?
            • Problems: low rate of fire, not good enough materials currently
            •  Counters: MIRVs
              • Though perhaps if you don’t care about railguns being destroyed by firing, you could build enough to defend an area if the cost of an entire railgun is lower than the cost of a nuclear warhead
          • Low altitude anti-ballistic missiles
          • High altitude large area effect ballistic missiles
            • Problems: Expensive per shot
            • Counters: Neutron shielded warheads, fast MIRVs, and Decoys that make it unlikely for one blast to destroy multiple incoming warheads.
    • Con
      • If one country becomes a singleton, it could lock the world into a bad state of affairs going into the future
        • Unlikely to succeed at becoming singleton in the first place however
      • If some countries spend more on missile defense, others have to spend more on nuclear weapons to restore the same level of deterrence
        • Though if treaties on warhead limits stay constant this could lead to a focus on making missiles faster and more maneuverable
          • This extra speed may reduce the time available to resolve false alarms
        • It is also possible that US missile defense ambitions undermined the opportunity to get rid of nuclear weapons
          • Though I have no idea what the US and Russia would have done about other countries… it seems unlikely an agreement would actually have been made
  • Increased precision of weapons
    • Pro
      • Allows use of smaller warheads
        • Less risk of nuclear winter due to smaller fire areas
        • Less direct deaths
        • May enhance deterrence since defender is more willing to use them due to reduced moral atrocity of first strike that avoids cities
          • This speculation is perhaps too generous
    • Con
      • Most useful for counter-force/first strikes
        • More destabilizing
        • More likely to be used in first place (both accidentally and deliberately) due to reduced moral atrocity of first strike that avoids cities
  • Advances in electronic warfare
    • Pro
      • Though very unlikely, a country could potentially disrupt the command and control of other nuclear powers electronically to halt their ability to launch
        • Presumably this is mostly not possible by design, and the design is probably classified to keep it that way
    • Con
      • Hacking command and control
        • Unauthorized launches would be very bad
          • This is probably close to impossible by design
        • Spreading false information would be very bad as well



Overall, nuclear policy is complex, and new technologies can completely shift what is best to do: with optimal deterrence and extreme instability being near neighbors in many pairings of technologies. The purpose of this post is to show that good policy is contingent on the technological and strategic situation countries find themselves in, and that making blunt pushes for different policies are likely to be unimpactful on policy or harmful if impactful. Without radical improvements in governments and diplomacy around the world, stable and reciprocal arms reductions will probably need to be paired with new means of deterring anyone from building new nuclear capacity if a world without nuclear risk is desired.  Without such an approach, arms reduction itself could create the instability that would lead to a nuclear war in the first place.

There are people, probably smarter than us, who spend the better part of their lives on the strategy of this at places like the RAND Corporation, the DoD Office of Net Assessment, the Center for New American Security, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The last thing we want is to discredit ourselves by talking about things where we have weak information and knowledge compared to the current policy makers when we do want policy makers and think tanks to listen to us about something we are likely to develop a rather advanced understanding of (AI policy). If we want to create stigma, and make recommendations, then we should do the research, and engage with those who know more about this subject than we do… if we don’t think the research is worth doing because AI is more important and the people in government and think tanks are doing a great job, then we shouldn’t be insulting them.


Instead of making you scroll back and forth for citations and elaboration, I tried to use argument compression and links above to make this article easier to navigate. For this notes section then, I’ll just list some other resources and arguments which I think partially informed this post even if I did not mention them explicitly: (click the paragraphs below for more info)



In this documentary from the Nuclear Threat Initiative the idea of getting rid of nuclear weapons comes up in the context of being able to deter any nuclear program: If strong deterrence can be done without nuclear weapons or something worse, that would seem like a better state of affairs: world peace without continued catastrophic risk as root the cause. Though the documentary is more about preventing nuclear terrorism than global risk, it still has relevant points.
  • If you want nuclear weapons to go away, you can’t be the first to give them up unless you trust others with extreme power over you.
  • Controlling fuel sources and providing nuclear fuel that can be used only for power at low cost may be a decent strategy to bargain other countries into not pursuing uranium enrichment.
    • Though there could be a perverse incentive to start nuclear programs to extract free resources from wealthier countries that use this strategy
      • Of course that doesn’t work if the superpowers get control of all uranium sources
Command and Control by Eric Schlosser is a great book about past nuclear accidents. You can see a PBS documentary covering a lot of similar information here.
  • Basically, you learn that there are probably way more accidents than you thought, and that nuclear security and safety used to be far worse.
  • Roughly half the book focuses on the story of the Damascus Incident, to give a more visceral sense of things that went wrong
    • However this may have led the story to have a bias in favor of the perspective of enlisted troops over officers
On current weapons and strategy, Binkov the sock puppet is often a great intro resource for becoming aware of what technologies exist, relevant papers, and strategic considerations, though each scenario described is more like a silly war game than real life.
  • Obviously, this isn’t a very scholarly source, but it is pretty decent given how he summarizes different weapon system abilities and considerations in terms of physics.
This First Strike documentary series from the late 70’s is bit out of date, unrealistic, and propoganda-tastic, but makes some decent points about deterring first strike.
  • Example of first strike concern and blackmail using cities: (Part 1
  • Unilateral self restraint does not end arms races, planes are an easy target (Part 2)
  • Submarines (in the past) were mostly good against unprotected targets like cities which both the Russians and US would have liked to avoid hitting. (Part 3)
  • Low flying bombers might have been able to contribute to incapacitating strikes to some degree in the 80s. (though an aggressor unable to destroy submarines would not be successful) The relative power of different countries influences foreign policy significantly even when there is no war (this is very obvious, but seems neglected by those who argue for unilateral disarmament) I don’t necessarily agree with those interviewed that the U.S. should have spent more on defense during that time window, since committing a lower % of GDP to defense probably results in a better economic advantage overtime for a country though there is short term risk.
    • This can’t be said for research which enhances economic advantage however (high investment things like the internet which enable new start-ups and economic activity)(Part 4)
The Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies has had several debates on nuclear modernization and threats recently where you could directly speak with experienced scholars and generals in the field of nuclear security.
  • Compared to other debates, there don’t seem to be many attempts at cheap shots, or rhetorical moves, so the discussion norms are rather good for constructive disagreement between sides.
  • If you live near think tanks, it may be worth watching out for similar events.







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