Information on the risk of nuclear war - nuclear war: by accident?



A brief description of the nuclear war risk


The risk of an accidental nuclear war emanates primarily from early warning systems. These are based on sensors, very complex computer systems and networks for predicting and evaluating possible attacks by nuclear missiles. This can lead to false alarms, which can have very different causes (e.g. hardware, software, operating errors or incorrect evaluation of sensor signals). In peacetime and phases of political relaxation, the risks that the evaluation of an alarm message leads to a nuclear attack are very low. In such situations, false alarms are assumed in case of doubt. The situation can change drastically if there are political crisis situations, possibly with mutual threats or if further events occur in a temporal context with a false alarm. For this purpose, an evaluation searches for causes, i.e. attempts are made to find causal relationships. If such causal connections are found and are logically plausible, there is a great danger that these are assumed to be valid, i.e. that the alarm message is assumed to be valid, even if independent events coincide at random.


The following aspects will significantly increase the risk of an accidental nuclear war in the future:


- Climate change will presumably lead to different regions becoming uninhabitable and thus causing more climate refugees. As a result, political crises will become more frequent in the future and missile attack reports will become much more dangerous. The increased risk of a nuclear war due to climate change has also been taken into account in the nuclear war clock since 2007.


- Cyber attacks can generate dangerous and incalculable interactions with early warning systems and the nuclear forces and thus significantly increase the risk of an accidental nuclear war. The new US doctrine permits an attack with nuclear weapons even in the event of a serious cyber attack. However, this also increases the risk of an incorrect assessment of an alarm message by potential opponents.


- The number and variety of objects in airspace will continue to increase (e.g. drones, satellites, hypersonic missiles). The evaluation of sensor signals will thus become more difficult and more and more artificial intelligence methods will be required to automatically make decisions for certain subtasks. However, testing such systems under real conditions is hardly possible. This can lead to unpredictable effects that may not be evaluated and controlled by humans.




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