Accidents happen. The least accident-prone nuclear weapons are the ones that are not in motion — but not always: see Eric Schlosser’s account of the Damascus incident in Command and Control.
Nuclear weapons in transit are more accident prone. The dangers associated with transit multiply with the number of vehicles carrying weapons in transit, which can spike during a crisis. The most accident-prone nuclear weapons are those in motion when hostilities commence, when standard operating procedures are subject to change. In this event, the most accident-prone nuclear weapons are those moved close to the forward edge of battle.
Nobel Prize-winning economist and strategic thinker Thomas C. Schelling (right) wrote about accidents in the September 1960 issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Here are some excerpts from “Meteors, Mischief and War:”
“The point is that accidents do not cause war. Decisions cause war. Accidents can trigger decisions; and this may be all that anybody meant. But the distinction needs to be made, because the remedy is not just preventing accidents but constraining decisions.
“If we think of the decisions as well as the accidents we can see that accidental war, like premeditated war, is subject to “deterrence.” Deterrence, it is usually said, is aimed at the rational calculator in full control of his faculties and his forces; accidents may trigger war in spite of deterrence. But it is really better to consider accidental war as the deterrence problem, not a separate one…
“Thus the accident-prone character of strategic forces—more correctly, the sensitivity of strategic decisions to possible accidents—is closely related to the security of the forces themselves. If a country’s retaliatory weapons are reasonably secure against surprise attack, preemptive or premeditated, it need not respond so quickly. Not only can one wait and see, but one can assume that the enemy himself, knowing that one can wait and see, is less afraid of a precipitate decision, less preoccupied with his own need to preempt.
“And it is apparent that there can be quite a difference between an accident-prone system, and an accidental-war-prone system…
“What matters is whether this affects the way we wish to conduct the war. If the concept of ‘accidental war’—or whatever we choose to call a war that is not initiated altogether deliberately—has any meaning, it is probably a war in which our urge for revenge and retaliation is less than our urge to curtail the consequences of the error, regardless of whose error it was. If our object, in the event war should come, is to save as much of the country as possible and to provide for its further security, we should think not only about how to deter war, and how to enter it most effectively if it comes, but how to terminate it to best advantage.”
Accidents involving nuclear weapons are most likely to occur in states that have a rising learning curve and a high tempo of nuclear operations, whether due to a crisis or to paranoia. The probability of accidents also grows when safety devices are insufficient to prevent detonation or radiological dispersion in the event of an accident. Inadequate safety and security mechanisms also increase the probability of unauthorized use.
If a nuclear weapon-related accident occurs in the absence of a crisis or hostilities, accidental war might possibly be averted depending, at a minimum, on where the accident occurs and whether accurate, credible information can be released quickly about the circumstances surrounding this event. If, however, the nuclear accident occurs during a crisis or during the onset of military operations, escalation control could be more difficult, regardless of where the accident occurs. The initiation of military operations might reflect a conscious choice by national leaders, but a nuclear accident could mock the best laid plans.