Futurist: Risk of Miscalculating Nuclear War is Higher Than Ever

Book cover image from Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The era of uncontested access to the skies above battlefields and not having to worry about the consequences of attacking an enemy’s command and control capabilities is history, says futurist, defense strategist and author Peter Singer.

With future combat likely to occur in cyberspace and space as well as on land, sea and air, the potential for nuclear-miscalculation is greater than at any time since the worst days of the Cold War, said Singer, a strategist with the New America think tank.

“You may now not do certain things, because you need to signal to the other side, ‘Yeah, we’re at war, but we’re not in that kind of war,'” Singer told a group Monday at the Air Force Association’s annual Air and Space Conference outside Washington, D.C. “This also applies to how we think about deterrence and cyber conflict.”

For example, Singer said the U.S. has regularly requested for China to stop hacking into its government and corporate computer networks.

“I would argue that’s not going to end. They are going to keep stealing secrets and the like,” he said. “What we need to focus on are what areas are off-limits, which are too easy to risk escalation” to war.

Singer’s speculation on what World War III might look like and how it would be fought is the subject of “Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War,” which he co-authored with former Wall Street Journal defense writer August Cole.

The novel describes war waged in space and cyberspace and across the world with manned and unmanned aircraft and with warships of the pre-digital age that become critical when cyber assets are destroyed or fail.

Singer said the Navy is obviously paying attention to the need for traditional sailing skills, since the U.S. Naval Academy now requires all midshipmen to study celestial navigation.

Singer noted that only four years ago The New York Times published an academic’s contention that war had become a thing of the past for nation states.

Today, he said, NATO is on the highest alert since the 1980s, Russia now officially considers the Western Alliance its greatest threat, and in the Pacific the U.S. and China are engaged in an arms race, with China slated to have more ships and planes than the U.S. by 2030.

About the Author

Bryant Jordan
Bryant Jordan is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BryantJordan.
  • anonymous coward

    Bert the Turtle is not coming across my TV. Our security theatre is focused on the airlines and not the threat of a missile launch as it did in decades past. The threat of cyber security is not new, but has only recently come into the limelight.

    Cyberspace and … actual space… will be used if we face off with another closely matched power in fisticuffs because in war you should use all tools to your advantage. Think about Operation Fortitude. This was a spoof on the IMINT/HUMINT/ELINT sensors of the day. In today’s technologically dependent world wouldn’t an attack on the internet and spoofs on modern IMINT/HUMINT/ELINT/etc be just if not more effective?

    The doomsday clock ticks closer to midnight because of technical, technological, political and ideological reasons that have developed in the past twenty years that in theory makes us more prone to nuclear attack. MAD does not work against an actor (state or non-state) with only one or no nuclear weapon and that is TODAY’s threat. Tomorrow is another day.

  • franklin

    This is still a conventional warfare perspective, and I doubt a future war will be the same. I know one country that has been brought to its knees by an influx of refugees and illegal immigrants. Hardly conventional, but effective!

  • John

    risk on nuclear war is non-existent. Obama won’t push the button even if we are attacked by any other country. risk of nuclear terrorism however is at it’s highest. 1 truck loaded with a nuke, detonated in any city on planet, no one would know who did it. East would blame west. West would blame extremists or Iran. But then we won’t even retaliate as our country now follows Geneva convention & from my research, That said, China & Russia would win any nuclear exchange. Their system is way more diversified & spread across more land area then our airforce can even cover. And our allies will stand frozen as the missiles fly.

  • Saint Mariota

    First I don’t think anyone would “win” any nuclear exchange. You do realize that at this very second there are three Boomers lurking around somewhere within launch distance of Russia, each carrying 24 missiles. each missile is capable of deploying multiple, independently targeted warheads. USA’s nuke capability is just fine. If Russian/China get some thru, we all lose in this scenario.
    Second if you honestly believe that the PRESIDENT OF THE USA would allow us to be nuked with out retaliating you are off the reservation.

    • John

      seeing his ISIS strategy, I have no faith in his ability to take action where action is needed. no group has ever been defeated by aerial bombardment. Sadaam survived far worse bombing in 1990

      • AAA

        Isis is not nuclear doctrine. If you can’t separate that than I cannot help you. A mass first launch by another power would recieve an equal barrage and then some.

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  • Dale

    One Nuke and America is thrown into the stone age. Every electronic will be fried. This can easily be launched from a container ship in the gulf to 100 miles over Kansas. Will not harm a soul, but the effects will be devastating. Several rogue countries already have the technology. Pentagon did a full analysis and deemed it a serious threat, but the report came out the same day as the 9/11 report, so ignored. Read the book ‘One Second After’.

    • Fatman

      No single nuclear weapon can send an EMP across the entirety of the North American Continent. You should go read that report again.

      • anomyous coward

        How many times has America been nuked (in testing)? Now it wasn’t over a populated area but just the act of detonation has not caused a total EMP blackout.

  • Dale

    I apologize, you are correct. I am glad S.K. does not have 3 nukes. Just one over the East or West coast would still cripple this country. Why is this not a serious threat?