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In 1988 McGeorge Bundy, President Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, commented there was just a 1-in-100 chance the Cuban Missile Crisis would have escalated to a nuclear war.
But, probabilities and odds and chance are interesting things. Most people use the terms without thinking about what they are really saying. Consider: what’s the probability Ted Williams (assuming he were alive and at the peak of his career) will get a hit the next time he comes to bat? Folks might look at his lifetime batting average (.344) or his best season (.406), scratch their chins, and suggest a number: "1 in 3" or "3 in 5” or whatever. They would, in fact, be wrong. The probability that he gets a hit is .5, exactly .500000 . Here’s where it get’s interesting; what about Joey Gallo? Gallo is a guy who hits with a lot of power but doesn’t get a lot of hits; his probability .50000000 Add some more zeros if you’d like. It is exactly 1 in 2 for both men; in each case he will or will not get a hit. And that is accurately stated as it can be. Any other number is wrong.
Because these are not probabilistic events, you cannot more accurately account for what a specific person might do than to lay out the possibilities and give each equal weight. Each man will either get a hit or he won’t. That is the real universe we live in.
Which brings us to Liam Neeson - which leads back to Mr. Bundy.
A number of years ago Mr. Neeson starred in a movie with Harrison Ford “K19: The Widowmaker.” It’s an entertaining movie (Ford and Neeson are both excellent), a somewhat fictionalized account of an early Soviet nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine that had a reactor problem and had to surface while on missile patrol. Liam Neeson plays Michael Poleninm, the Executive officer (2nd in command) to Harrison Ford’s Captain Vostrikov. But, the real character represented by Polenin was Vasili Arkhipov. After the K19 incident, (which took place in July1961) Captain Arkhipov was assigned as the commodore of a 4 submarine squadron.
In October 1962 Arkhipov’s squadron of 4 Foxtrot class diesel submarines (B-4, B-36, B-59 and B-130), was on patrol en route Cuba; he was onboard B-59. Each submarine carried 22 torpedoes, one of which was a T-5 torpedo with a 5 Kiloton warhead (about one-third the energy of the weapon dropped on Hiroshima). On the 22nd of October the US blockade of Cuba went into effect. On October 24th the US Navy detected the 4 submarines as they approached the island, and US anti-submarine warfare screening units began to drop “PDCs” (Practice Depth Charges). While combat depth charges carried anywhere from 200lbs to 600lbs of TNT, PDCs ranged from grenade sized devices to a charge of perhaps 25lbs, and were used both to signal submarines as well as used in exercises to simulate an attack without damaging a (friendly) submarine.
Prior to departing the Soviet Union the senior officers of the submarines had been briefed that they were authorized to use the nuclear torpedoes if they were attacked. Note that Moscow was aware of the US Navy’s use of PDCs but hadn’t passed this information to the Soviet Naval Headquarters or to the submarine captains.
By October 27th two of the subs had had enough, surfaced and departed the area; a third had broken contact and apparently also departed. B-59 remained submerged; US Navy destroyers continued to harass her with PDCs. After 4 days the sub’s captain decided they were in fact being attacked, that the war must be on, and he was going to use his nuclear tipped torpedo. Captain Valentin Savitstky consulted with the sub’s political officer, Ivan Maslennikov, who agreed. Normally, it would have ended there and the weapon would have been used. But Captain Arkhipov was on board, and Arkhipov said: “no.” Arkhipov insisted that they could not launch, and after a great deal of arguing, convinced Savitstky. They surfaced, acknowledged the US ships and the blockade, called back to Moscow, then B-59 departed the area.
If Captain Arkhipov had not insisted “No,” or if he’d chosen to ride any of the other 3 submarines, Savitstky would’ve fired his nuclear torpedo and that would, perhaps, have initiated a nuclear exchange. Which doesn’t quite feel like a 1-in-100 chance.
Which brings us to Vlad Putin. Again this past week I saw commentary that: “There’s very little chance that Putin is going to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.”
As with every president in the US, there’s a good deal of doctrine, and a host of policy papers, that discuss how and when nuclear weapons will be used by the Russian government (the same is true of China). But, despite all the various policy papers and checks and balances, the use of nuclear weapons really comes down to just one man.
What’s on paper is guidance, but the real “red line,” the set of conditions that will result in Putin ordering use of nuclear weapons, exist in his head alone. No one around him knows to a certainty what they are, and arguably, until he reaches them Putin may not either, at least not definitively.
Thus, if certain things happen, Putin will use nuclear weapons. Until those things happen, he won’t. What those things are, we don’t know. To the question: “Will Putin use nuclear weapons?” The answer is: It depends on whether certain conditions are met. And we don’t really know what those conditions are. If we were to list certain conditions and ask after each: “What are the chances Putin will use nuclear weapons?” The answer after each would be .5, or 1-in-2, he either will or he won’t.
This past week Russia and the US just took another step away from the Strategic Arms Agreement regime, leaving us in interesting geopolitical terrain, something akin to where we were before Nixon signed the first SALT agreement in 1972. But in 1972 the threat was straightforward: the USSR. Now we have Russia’s nuclear force, and we have China’s fast growing nuclear force. And North Korea. Soon Iran. And bilateral deterrence - Mutual Assured Destruction - won’t work in a multilateral threat environment.
If the national strategy wasteland that was the Clinton presidency hadn’t also included killing a number of development programs, we would have the ability to defend ourselves from a large scale ICBM attack. But we do not. We need to resurrect that capability. And until we do, we need to be careful where we tread, and not count on another Capt. Arkhipov making the right decision.
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...