Paul Carroll is Senior Advisor at N Square: The Crossroads for Nuclear Security Innovation
With refugee flows from conflicts around Europe, all-too-frequent terrorist attacks in the heart of major cities, and uncertain economic and structural outcomes caused by Brexit and related nationalistic trends, it is easy to understand why for Europeans nuclear weapons and nuclear war might seem like distant threats.
The trouble is, however, that nuclear weapons are still an integral, albeit hidden, aspect of the European security policies, plans, and bureaucracy. Two nations maintain independent nuclear forces – the United Kingdom and France, totalling roughly 400 to 500 weapons – while several other countries host tactical nuclear weapons as part of NATO’s security forces. Suffice to say: while these weapons are out of sight and out of mind for most, they represent an existential threat to Europe. What we don’t see or think about can still certainly hurt us.
If you are not convinced of the risks, consider what has happened in the past few years. In 2010, peace activists entered an air base in Belgium, not far from Brussels that headquarters both NATO and the European Union, to raise awareness about nuclear weapons. After nearly an hour wandering around the base, the activists were able to access highly secure areas where the bombs and the aircraft that carry them were located. The response? A single unarmed guard arrived. This occurred not once, but several times during the year. The follow-up? Assurances from NATO that the matter would be investigated and addressed, but little real change to procedures.
Nuclear dangers – from accidents to the risk of war - have been met with predictable and insufficient measures
In 2009, French and British nuclear missile submarines collided on the open seas. These are presumably the best-trained crews operating the most highly evolved military equipment on the planet. The incident sent shock waves through the security community occupied the headlines for a few days, but since then, it is unclear exactly what, if any, changes have been made to avoid a recurrence.
Perhaps most frighteningly, the coup attempt last year in Turkey involved elements of the military that used part of Incirlik air base to plan their work. It is one of the bases of NATO that hosts nuclear weapons – nearly fifty of them. Imagine if the coup and the chaos surrounding it had not ended so quickly and relatively calmly: having fifty nuclear warheads at an airbase not far from the Syrian border is a disaster waiting to happen.
If these nuclear near-misses were not enough of a problem, our responses to them certainly are.
Our answers to nuclear threats have been uncreative and stale. Nuclear dangers – from accidents to the risk of war - have been met with predictable and insufficient measures such as “more gates and guards”, or official inquiries that never seem to come to light ‒ experts telling us that there is nothing to worry about. However, these incidents should be a stark reminder to us: while the Cold War may be history, its nuclear artefacts still threaten our future. Those in positions of authority or responsibility should be especially vigilant, and yet, it seems we cannot rely on them to be that. While the risk of an all-out war between nuclear-armed nation-states may have significantly diminished, these 20th-century weapons now exist in a 21st-century reality. Accidents, miscalculations, non-state actors, and, yes, even cyber-attacks or other high-tech methods now pose real threats to our survival.
Europe and the world face nuclear threats from a bygone era and use out-dated and limited means to manage them
But what to do? How can citizens have any power over decisions or operations related to nuclear weapons when it has forever been the realm of experts, extreme secrecy, and invisibility?
Fortunately for all of us, there are ways to contribute to reducing and ultimately eliminating the risks posed by nuclear weapons. Each of us has talents, skills and networks we can draw on to offer ideas and creative solutions. If we do this, we essentially broaden and deepen the variety of tools available to deal with this problem.
The answer is to ‘disrupt’ the conventional and traditional thinking and attitudes towards nuclear weapons. To serve this end, organisations, such as N Square, have been established to move beyond conventional thinking on how to change nuclear policy.
Europe and the world face nuclear threats from a bygone era and use out-dated and limited means to manage them. The record shows that we have been far more lucky than skilled. Innovating new approaches to the nuclear risks is urgent – expanding who can join the discussion and how is crucial. What would you do if you had a say?
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