Behind the red button: the nuclear decision is not as rational as it seems

Credit: Unsplash / Laurentiu Morario

Behind the red button, a black box and a blue fear. For decades, strategists have struggled to think about nuclear deterrence in a rational way. But behind the decision to open nuclear fire are human beings, with their intuitions and complexity. A report published in March 2022 by Chatham House, a London-based policy institute, adds some spice to this vision. We invited Yasmin Afina, international security researcher and co-author of the report, to tell us more.

Why it's interesting. The debate on nuclear weapons tends to be structured around two positions: it is an "evil to be banished", hence the necessity of disarmament, or it is a "necessary evil", in the perspective of global stability. For the past two years, at the instigation of security expert Patricia Lewis, Chatham House analysts have been working to redefine the issue as a "vicious" problem, the very terms of which are the subject of irreducible disagreement. This is an opportunity to renew the classic framework of nuclear deterrence, inherited from the Cold War.

Yasmin Afina is an international security researcher at Chatham House and a PhD student in law at the University of Essex. | Courtesy

YP - One of the aims of your work is to show that rationality plays a limited role in nuclear decision-making. What can we say about this?

Yasmin Afina - The aim of our project is to take into account the complexity of nuclear issues their "vicious" character and to see how nuclear policy and nuclear decision-making are affected by this. The research that has been done on nuclear decision-making tends to be based on the assumption that actors are rational. It tries to highlight the fact that decision-making can be affected by more than the rationality of the actors: there are also biases, political and social pressures, culture, etc.

In addition to this, there is a tendency to study deterrence and the political dynamics between states on a macroscopic level, but individual actors are neglected. Between the head of state and the potential implementation of a nuclear strike, there is a whole chain of command. Each of these actors and elements of the chain of command can have an impact on nuclear decision-making.

Can we detail this chain of command?
First of all, one has to take into account the early warning systems, which from radar and satellites have to detect any suspicious activity and relay the information to the highest level. The conclusions drawn by the operators stationed at these early warning systems are necessarily affected by their biases, their confidence in these systems, their own view of the situation, etc. Then the information has to go up to the military command and then to the head of state. But even at the highest level, there are a certain number of procedures to be respected.

What does this mean?
For example, there is speculation that in Russia, the head of state cannot launch a nuclear strike on his own. It would probably also require the agreement of the Minister of Defence and the Chief of Staff. Moreover, in peacetime, nuclear weapons are probably not ready for an instant strike: they have to be "taken out of the wardrobe", assembled with missiles, and finally deployed, for example, in fighter planes. So there is a whole procedure in place that should prevent an instant surprise attack.

At the end of February, President Putin announced that Russia was placing its strategic nuclear force on special combat alert. Experts believe that this could make the entire procedure preceding the order to launch a strike less complicated, thus increasing the risk of nuclear weapons being used.

Your work is based on the analysis of several historical nuclear incidents where a strike was not far off. Two of them, the most famous ones, took place in 1983. Can you remind us of the historical context?
The early 1980s was a particularly tense period during the Cold War. The United States had modernised its nuclear arsenal, there was extreme mistrust on both sides, and the nuclear weapons inventory was at its highest, on both the American and Soviet sides. There were a few incidents that also made relations between the two blocs even more complicated. For example, Soviet forces fired on a civilian Korean Airlines plane in early 1983 after mistaking it for a US reconnaissance flight.

The first incident mentioned in the report is the 1983 "Soviet false alarm". Tell us about it.
It was in September 1983, at a time of maximum tension between the Western bloc and the Soviet Union. A Soviet early warning station south of Moscow identified signals via the Oko satellite system suggesting a strike by five American missiles. Commander Petrov, in charge of the station, was tasked with judging whether the alert was real and reporting it to the high command if it was for a retaliatory strike.

Petrov decided not to inform his superiors, believing it to be a false alarm, without any certainty. Interviews afterwards showed that he had acted partly on a hunch, a "weird feeling in the pit of his stomach", under time constraints and maximum pressure. That day, nuclear war may have been narrowly averted. This is the best known and most studied case of a nuclear near-miss.

Another famous incident, known as the Able Archer incident, took place two months later. What was it about?
It is the name of a NATO exercise that took place in November 1983. The Atlantic Alliance regularly conducts military exercises, and of course, this was already the case at the time. This time they went all out, simulating the escalation of a conventional war in Europe to the potential use of nuclear weapons. The Soviets, with their intelligence, picked up a lot of suspicious movements and commands in the Western bloc and wondered if the exercise was hiding a real attempt to strike. It went all the way up to the political level, and some experts consider that this was the closest we came to a nuclear war.

The de-escalation occurred when a member of the US Air Force, Lieutenant-General Perroots, advised the US and NATO not to increase the amount of personnel and equipment in response to the Soviet heightened state of alert. All this was done on instinct and bypassing his superiors. At the end of the NATO exercise, the Soviet forces finally lowered the alert status of their troops and strategic missiles.

The third incident examined in the report is less well known. It took place in 1995 in Norway.
Norway launched a rocket to study the aurora borealis. Letters were sent to neighbouring countries indicating the scientific nature of the rocket and telling them not to worry. The Russians seem never to have received the letter, detected the launch and saw it as a possible US nuclear attack, or a possible electromagnetic strike capable of disabling Russian strike systems. The information was passed on to the President and according to some experts, this was probably the first - and last - time that the Cheget, the Soviet nuclear suitcase, was activated. On the wire, the decision was made not to launch a strike.

What do you think these incidents tell us about the nuclear decision-making process?
Many things. Firstly, the process remains very secretive. There is a lot of uncertainty about the chain of command for any nuclear decision-making: who would have the authority to order a strike and under what conditions, what procedures are in place in peacetime (and wartime) before a strike is authorised, etc. These uncertainties are highly problematic, as they generate a lack of trust and suspicion. Therefore, the latter could lead to misunderstandings, misperceptions, and miscalculations and ultimately increase the risk of escalation or even nuclear confrontation.

Are these inherent limitations of deterrence theory known to decision-makers?
The theory of nuclear deterrence is indeed very limited, as much by the presumption of the rationality of the actors as by the cognitive biases, calculations and perceptions of these actors, their vision of the world, their strategic culture... It is much more complicated than "if I have nuclear weapons, I can dissuade others from launching them and thus guarantee a certain stability in the world".

This stability is being increasingly challenged as new technologies disrupt the equation and may also affect the actors involved in nuclear policy and decision making. We are trying to highlight these limitations through our research, and we hope that they are taken into account to lead to risk reduction policies.

Are there any lessons to be learned about how to deal with Russia today?
Much of the analysis and speculation of experts in the field of nuclear policy and decision-making depends on facts and documents from the Cold War era: how the systems work, the composition of the chain of command, who has the authority to authorise a nuclear strike... All of this has inevitably been updated, and so there is a lot of uncertainty about what Russia might do today. In the face of these uncertainties, I think we have to take an extremely cautious approach.

I see analyses that point to the deployment of "small" nuclear weapons (intended for tactical targets such as bases or force contingents, rather than cities or regions, editor's note), which are less powerful than those used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But I think that despite everything, we must do everything to avoid a nuclear strike, however limited. The only certainty is that the humanitarian and environmental consequences would be significant and long-lasting, regardless of the power involved.

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