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Nuclear Breakdown: Who's Nuking Who In WWIII

Emily Henry |
April 2, 2009 | 7:10 a.m. PDT

Senior Editor

In 2006, I had a very detailed map of global nuclear missile range pinned to my bedroom wall. Why? I'm not exactly sure. But there was something refreshing about displaying an accessible, comprehensive two-page spread detailing mankind's biggest fear. I was brazenly exhibiting the most potent threat to civilization, nuclear war, like a piece of art.

It was ludicrous, but the map -- a pattern of multi-sized red circles over a gray world, with a picture of Kim Jong Il's head in the corner -- was a great conversation starter.

I was surprised to learn that, like me, pre-map, my friends didn't know who would be able to nuke who in a hypothetical World War III. This feels like an essential piece of information. But rather than being common, debated and analyzed knowledge, the topic of nuclear warfare seems sacred and shrouded in mystery. Its dark malevolence spreads silently like a strange kind of contagious disease. Among the populous, conversations about nuclear weapons play out like a game of Chinese Whispers, better known as the game of telephone to some.

So, in a hypothetical WWIII, who could nuke who?

Russia and the U.S. could nuke anyone, with 5,192 and 4,075 warheads respectively. Israel could pretty much take out Europe, Africa and the Middle East, as well as parts of Russia -- anywhere within a radius of 4,300 miles, with its 200 warheads. India, with 75 warheads, could do some damage to China. North Korea, with Dong-2, would almost match Israel's range, covering 4,200 miles. The United Kingdom has 192 warheads and France has 300. There are approximately 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world today.  

Is it any wonder that we're all suffering from Nucleomituphobia? After 64 years pondering our nuclear mortality, fear of nuclear weapons has become a hereditary condition. 

It began 1945, when the U.S. dropped "Little Boy" on Hiroshima, killing more than 100,000 people and sparking a nuclear arms race that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Post Cold War, the term "nuclear war" became a profanity. Fear of nuclear war became fear of fear of nuclear war. Still, more than a decade later, media entities have to be careful not to "frighten" people with talk of nuclear proliferation. So, instead of being rationally examined, the threat becomes similar to seismic activity, brewing invisibly, random and chaotic.

But looking at the statistics neatly formulated into a pretty map quickly demystifies the on-going contest and underlying threat to mankind, even if it doesn't make it less scary. The Guardian has put together an updated graphic, now available online, that lists current weapon inventories and range, as well as the potential extension of North Korea's nuclear reach, should the Taepodong-2 ("an intercontinental-range, road mobile, liquid propellant ballistic missile," according to MissileThreat.com) mature from the development phase.

What also becomes clear, as you contemplate the nonexistent red circles around the U.S. and Russia, is that both countries dwarf all other nuclear threats, because, unlike Israel, India, North Korea, and all other "nuclear" countries, the U.S. and Russia have unlimited range. It also becomes obvious that those responsible for initiating the threat of nuclear war should be the ones to extinguish it.

In response to North Korea's Sunday missile launch, President Obama announced a campaign to reduce atomic weapons globally.   

But, as every president since 1945 has discovered, it takes more than good intentions to rid the world of the nuclear threat. Some believe that countries with the least need for nuclear defense should be the first to disarm. "If we examine the geostrategic circumstances of the existing nuclear powers, the two with the least zero security justification for holding on to any nuclear weapons are Britain and France," writes Ramesh Thakur for The Times of India. But, as Thakur explains, holding onto the nuclear horde is a vicious cycle. "Pakistan will not give up its nuclear weapons while India still has them," writes Thakur. "India's main security benchmark is not Pakistan but China. Neither China nor Russia will contemplate giving them up for fear of the U.S. This is why the circuit-breaker in the global nuclear weapons chain is the U.S."

In reality, it's going to take more than a "cut" in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile to make a significant difference and alter competitive attitudes. Anything less than all-out disarmament won't work and hasn't worked. The super-powers must first show concession, turn away from hypocrisy, and prove themselves willing to cede their nuclear arsenal before others will follow.

But coming to a worldwide agreement about nuclear weapons is an endless game of political tug-of-war. Sometimes it seems like the only way to achieve a nuclear free world would be to bypass the greed and nationalism of individual countries, and send in an independent entity to forcefully disarm the world.

Sound familiar? This kind of resolution is a fantasy, literally. It was the basis for the plot of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. That's about as close as we've come to a nuclear-weapon free world.  



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