Dark Futures: Could World War III Still Happen?

Is there still a chance civilization could end in a mushroom cloud?
Matthew  S. Williams
Iskander-M launcher
Is nuclear war still a possibility?

Vitaly V. Kuzmin/Wikimedia 

Welcome back to our "Dark Futures" series, which examines some of the worst-case scenarios that could befall humanity. Previously, we looked at how the threat of a totalitarian future (as envisioned by countless dystopian writers) could still happen. Today, we take a look at the "nuclear holocaust" scenario - aka. World War III. A reminder that these are "potential scenarios," not something that is certain or inevitable in any way. So try not to let them get you down!

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It's a horrifying prospect. There's a bright flash. People scream and cover their eyes. An echoing roar follows, shattering glass and sending high-speed winds everywhere. As the blinding light fades, people see the mushroom cloud in the distance, reaching ever higher into the sky. And then, total devastation. For miles in every direction, buildings and people are vaporized by the tremendous release of energy. Beyond that, terrible firestorms topple and burn everything in sight. And beyond that, the air, water, and any living being are poisoned by harmful radiation, which will take years or decades to dissipate.

This is the prospect of nuclear war, an image so horrific that it has haunted peoples' imaginations since the first (and somewhat mercifully, only) time such weapons were used in war — in August 1945 against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. For those who witnessed these terrible events firsthand, the experience left scars that persist and have even been passed on to subsequent generations. For those of us who grew up in the late 20th century, the fear and trepidation of previous generations is something we can only imagine.

You could say that for people born in the late-1970s and early-1980s, the prospect of nuclear war became unlikely precisely when they became old enough to appreciate it. In 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the fear that civilization could end in a mushroom cloud joined diseases like polio, tetanus, rubella, measles, mumps, and smallpox. In short, people used to worry about it, but as the threat has receded, we no longer give it much thought. Right?

As it turns out, several cases show that the prospect of nuclear war is still a going concern. Times have changed, and the geopolitical balance has evolved since the Cold War. But there are still many opportunities for catastrophic mistakes that could lead to the destruction of our civilization. Hopefully, we have learned something from history and won't make mistakes that previous generations were also wise enough to avoid.

Prophets of the Nuclear Age

As long as there has been the possibility of a nuclear war, there have been anxieties that one might break out. While general anxiety did not emerge until after the United States and the Soviet Union began regular testing in the early 1950s, some had the foresight to worry many years in advance.

In his novel, The World Set Free (published in 1914), H.G. Wells predicted that modern warfare would inevitably become much more destructive. The novel was mainly inspired by the work of Jan Gotlib Bloch, who published a six-volume series titled "The Future of War" (translated to English in 1898) that examined the rise of modern industrial warfare and its implications for the future.

Bloch's work masterfully predicted how smokeless gunpowder, magazine rifles, machine guns, and repeating artillery would lead to trench warfare. His predictions would be proven true less than a generation later with the outbreak of World War I, a conflict characterized by mass slaughter, trench warfare, and perpetual stalemate. However, Bloch also concluded that war would become obsolete as nations would no longer be able to achieve decisive victories.

In response, Wells argued that the stalemate Bloch predicted would be broken through the use of an uncontrollably destructive weapon, the likes of which the world had never seen. Wells' based this prediction on research into radioactive decay, which many in the scientific community believed could be weaponized. As Wells' described in his book, scientists would find a way to trigger the release of tremendous amounts of energy by the 1930s:

"The problem which was already being mooted by such scientific men as Ramsay, Rutherford, and Soddy, in the very beginning of the twentieth century, the problem of inducing radio-activity in the heavier elements and so tapping the internal energy of atoms, was solved by a wonderful combination of induction, intuition, and luck by Holsten so soon as the year 1933."

While the devices Wells' described in his book were quite limited compared to the real thing, he would be proven correct. By the late 1930 and early 40s, a number of the world's industrialized nations had begun researching nuclear fission to create the first atomic bomb. This included Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Britain, and the United States, all looking for a weapon to help secure victory in World War II.

In 1945, shortly after Hiroshima and Nagasaki (more on that below), George Orwell penned a thoughtful essay that examined the implications of the "nuclear age." In this essay, "You and the Atom Bomb," Orwell predicted that the Soviets would develop their atomic bombs and that this would lead to a state of perpetual tension, but not outright conflict. In this respect, Orwell essentially predicted the "Cold War" on the eve of its declaration:

"From various symptoms one can infer that the Russians do not yet possess the secret of making the atomic bomb; on the other hand, the consensus of opinion seems to be that they will possess it within a few years. So we have before us the prospect of two or three monstrous super-states, each possessed of a weapon by which millions of people can be wiped out in a few seconds, dividing the world between them. It has been rather hastily assumed that this means bigger and bloodier wars, and perhaps an actual end to the machine civilization."

Dark Futures: Could World War III Still Happen?
The atomic bombing of Nagasaki

"But suppose – and really this the likeliest development – that the surviving great nations make a tacit agreement never to use the atomic bomb against one another? Suppose they only use it, or the threat of it, against people who are unable to retaliate? In that case we are back where we were before, the only difference being that power is concentrated in still fewer hands and that the outlook for subject peoples and oppressed classes is still more hopeless."

Orwell would articulate these thoughts further in his seminal novel, 1984, which was published in 1948. Mercifully, Orwell did not witness what followed as he perished one year after his magnum opus was published.

Timeline of development

By July 1945, an international team of scientists in the United States succeeded in developing the first nuclear devices as part of the Manhattan Project. Between August 6th and 9th, 1945, two of these devices ("Fat Man" and "Little Boy") were used against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These constituted the only occasions where nuclear weapons have been used in warfare.

For many contemporary observers, the atomic bomb accomplished what it was designed to do, which was a shift and decisive end to the war. However, it would also lead to a new state of warfare characterized by two superpowers engaged in a new (potentially much more destructive) arms race. Once news of Hiroshima and Nagasaki reached Joseph Stalin's ears, the Soviets hastened their efforts to develop their own atomic weapons.

By August 1949, they detonated their first nuclear device, based on the same design as "Fat Man." From this point onward, the already-frosty tensions between the Western Allies and the Soviet Bloc became even worse. While the term "Cold War" had been in use since 1947, the possibility that things could escalate and lead to a nuclear war inspired no shortage of panic.

Things only got worse in the ensuing years, with the first full-scale thermonuclear tests in the U.S. in 1952, followed by similar tests in the Soviet Union a year later. Compared to atomic bombs, thermonuclear devices are (on average) about 1000 times more destructive. As the 1950s continued, both sides began developing ballistic missile systems that removed the need for using bombers.

Between 1960 and the late 1980s, there was a constant state of fear as the U.S. and Soviet Union tried to one-up each other regarding the total number of their nukes, delivery systems, and the individual yields of their warheads. Meanwhile, other nations began to conduct their own nuclear testing or were provided nuclear bombs as part of "proliferation."

By the late 1980s, there was a thaw in relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which led to de-escalation and disarmament efforts. These would lead to the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-I), signed by the U.S. and Soviet Union on July 1, 1991 (and which entered into force in 1994). This treaty called on both nations to end nuclear testing and to reduce and limit their nuclear stockpiles.

Several treaties followed in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, like the START-II, New START, and the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). However, these agreements did not signal the end of nuclear testing in other countries (for example, India, Pakistan, France, and China), nor have they eliminated the threat of nuclear war. With so many nuclear devices in the hands of opposing nations and renewed tensions between old adversaries, one has to wonder how likely a nuclear war is at this point.

India & Pakistan

A prime example is Pakistan and India. Two countries share a 2000-mile (3,300 km) border, which is considered one of the most unstable in the world. According to the Federation of American Scientists, these nations are equals regarding nuclear weapons (both possess about 160 warheads). These two nations are already engaged in low-level conflict in the disputed region of Kashmir, and border skirmishes are a regular occurrence.

In a recent study, the U.S. Institute for Peace's (USIP) Senior Study Group on Strategic Stability in Southern Asia noted the following:

"Over the past decade, long-standing disputes between the nuclear-armed states of Southern Asia have repeatedly veered into deeper hostility and violence. These regional developments reflect and reinforce new and significant geopolitical shifts, starting with the global strategic competition between China and the United States. In Southern Asia, relations between the United States and Pakistan have frayed even as US-India and China-Pakistan ties have strengthened. The region now faces deepening and more multifaceted polarization. Global competition adds fuel to regional conflict and reduces options for crisis mediation."

Another thing the two nations share is the Indus River System, which extends for 1,980 miles (3,180 km). This system is fed by six major tributaries originating in the Tibetan Plateau and passing through India and Pakistan before emptying into the Arabian Sea. Whereas the three major western tributaries (Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab) flow through Pakistan, the three major eastern ones (Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej) flow through India.

All six merge with the main artery in Pakistan's eastern provinces of Punjab and Sindh, where most of Pakistan's fertile land is located. While this river has long been the subject of dispute and multiple wars have broken out between the two countries since the Partition, the situation has been exacerbated in recent decades due to climate change, rising temperatures, and increased drought and flooding in the region.

This is happening at the same time that border skirmishes are become a regular feature between the two countries, taking place in 2016-2018, 2019, and again in 2020-21. All were a direct result of ongoing insurgent activity and tensions in the territory of Jammu & Kashmir. The main artery of the Indus River (and the Jhelum and Chenab tributaries) flow through this disputed region. As the USIP study emphasizes:

"The potential for conflict between India and Pakistan remains high following the 2019 Pulwama-Balakot crisis. Subsequent diplomacy led to the resumption of a ceasefire along the Line of Control in 2021, but the underlying causes of hostility, including, although not limited to, the disputed territory of Kashmir, remain. Moreover, India and Pakistan appear to have drawn lessons from 2019 that increase the likelihood that future crises could escalate in dangerous ways, possibly even to the nuclear threshold. All told, 2019 showed important shifts in long-standing positions (by India and Pakistan, as well as China and the United States) and a new willingness by all parties to accept greater risk."

As climate change continues to wreak havoc on both nations' farmlands and waterways, it is entirely possible that disputes over freshwater sources could lead to a nuclear standoff and even a nuclear exchange. The matter is further complicated by how Pakistan (a traditional U.S. ally) has recently strengthened its relations with China in recent years. At the same time, India and the U.S. draw closer in economic and strategic terms.

Dark Futures: Could World War III Still Happen?
The India Pakistan border at night

As a result, any nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan is likely to lead to the direct involvement of China and the U.S., which could also feel the need to activate their nuclear arsenals to deter the other side from making any overt moves. In particular, the presence of U.S. naval forces in the Arabian Sea (including nuclear submarines) would allow them to conduct precision strikes against targets in Pakistan.

China, meanwhile, might choose to use an outbreak of war between Pakistan and India to seize control of Aksai-Chin - another disputed territory in Jammu & Kashmir (between India and China). Such aggressive moves in support of their respective allies could cause China and the U.S. to begin targetting each other and lead to standoffs in other parts of the world.

The East Asia connection

There are several scenarios that could lead to a nuclear confrontation in East Asia. Multiple points of conflict involve one or more nuclear powers. Even where nations do not have nuclear weapons, they are often allied with someone who does! As a result, any conflict in East Asia has the potential to escalate and become a global conflict.

China and Taiwan:

In 1945, shortly after World War II ended and the Japanese occupation of China was expelled, China became embroiled in civil war again. The opposing forces in this war consisted of Mao Zedong and his Communists and the ruling Nationalist government (Kuomintang) under Chiang Kai-shek. By 1948-49, the Communist forces had won and established the capital of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing. This forced the Kuomintang to retreat to Taiwan, where they established the Republic of China (ROC).

Since then, relations between the "two Chinas" has been strained and subject to repeated military standoffs. China maintains that Taiwan is part of its territory and refuses to enter into diplomatic relations with countries that recognize the ROC. Meanwhile, Taiwan maintains diplomatic ties with the U.S., which views it as a de facto ally. As Dr. Andrew Scobel explained in a recent essay with the USIP:

"While the island has long been the most contentious issue in U.S.-China relations and the location of multiple crises during the 1950s, in the aftermath of President Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972, both Washington and Beijing worked hard to manage the Taiwan issue. Insisting that Taiwan is part of China, Beijing demanded that Washington adopt a "one China" policy as a precondition for rapprochement, and successive U.S. administrations tried to balance avoiding unduly antagonizing China as they simultaneously sought to provide continued support to Taiwan."

The PRC also maintains a large military presence off the Fujian coast (the Taiwan Strait) and has conducted military exercises that coincide with Taiwan's elections. In April 2022, they held similar exercises during a visit by U.S. legislators to Taipei. Matters have only become tenser with the recent visit by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan's capital of Taipei. Pelosi is the most senior elected official from the U.S. to visit the island of Taiwan in twenty-five years, prompting threats of "targeted military operations" from China.

"In 2022, Taiwan is ground zero in heightened great power competition between the United States and China," added Dr. Scobel. "In the context of China, the United States, and Taiwan, a tipping point refers to a point in time at which Beijing: (1) determines Taiwan's trajectory has turned inexorably and irreversibly away from unification; (2) concludes its strategy of 'peaceful reunification' has met with abject failure; and (3) decides that the time has come to focus wholeheartedly on unification by force."

Dark Futures: Could World War III Still Happen?
The Korean peninsula at night

While both governments have taken measures to improve relations and broaden their appeal to foreign allies, the PRC has never disavowed a unification policy through military force. For its part, the ROC has avoided formally declaring independence and maintained close relations with the U.S., which has promised military assistance in the event of an invasion from the mainland. This presents numerous possibilities for a military standoff that could escalate to the point of nuclear war.

For instance, if the government in Beijing felt that it could invade Taiwan while the U.S. was preoccupied in another theatre (say, Europe), a standoff would ensue between the Chinese and U.S. navies that would put multiple countries in the region in danger - Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, etc. If a hardliner government came to power in Taipei and declared independence, the PRC would see this as a direct challenge and might choose to mobilize its forces for an invasion.

The Korean Peninsula:

Since 1953, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) — aka. North and South Korea - have been in a perpetual state of tension. In truth, the Korean War (1950-1953) never officially ended. A ceasefire was declared, and a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was established between them along the 38th Parallel — so named because it follows latitude 38°.

Seventy years later, the Korean DMZ remains the most heavily fortified border in the world. Along this 160-mile (200 km) stretch are walls, fencelines, bunkers, secret tunnels, more than 1 million combat-ready troops, and an estimated 1 million landmines (down from 1.8 million before 2018). In recent years, North Korea's nuclear testing has been a persistent point of tension.

Between 2006 and 2017, the DPRK detonated six nuclear devices and conducted multiple missile tests. These events triggered anxieties in the ROK, Japan, and other neighboring states (clearly the intent). They also fed speculation that the regime in Pyongyang may eventually choose to launch a nuclear missile at its neighbors. Beyond testing, the North's nuclear program has produced an estimated 25 to 50 nuclear devices.

The situation becomes even more complicated when you consider alliance entanglements, something else that has remained unchanged since the Korean War. The DPRK is allied with the People's Republic of China (PRC), which possesses an estimated 340 nuclear devices. The ROK, meanwhile, is allied with the United States, which is sitting on the second-largest nuclear stockpile in the world.

South China Sea Islands:

The South China Sea is a vast ocean stretching between China, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Within this body of water, there are huge deposits of untapped fossil fuels, an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil, and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. In addition, the islands in the South China Sea offer opportunities for commercial fishing, which is essential to the economy and well-being of every country in the region.

During the 1970s, countries in the region began to lay claim to islands and various zones in the South China Sea. However, China has pursued a more aggressive policy in recent years, which includes sweeping claims to the islands in the area and imposing strict limitations on what other countries can and can't do within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). In short, China claims that much of the South China Sea constitutes its EEZ and forbids other nations from conducting intelligence-gathering activities like reconnaissance flights.

Dark Futures: Could World War III Still Happen?
Indonesian warships

This policy contradicts the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which ensures freedom of navigation" for all countries. In 2016, the Phillippines filed a claim against China under UNCLOS that was brought before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which ruled in the Philippines' favor. While China is a signatory to UNCLOS, it has rejected the decision and refuses to recognize the court's authority.

As a result, the region has long been considered a potential powderkeg that could ignite in the form of a standoff between multiple nations. This could easily spill over into adjacent areas, such as Taiwan.

The "Russian threat" revisited?

After 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the "Cold War," the idea of a nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and Russia (and their respective allies) seemed passe. Between the 1990s and 2000s, most doomsday scenarios shifted to the possibility of Russian nuclear warheads falling into the hands of terrorists, "rogue states," or ultra-nationalists intent on restoring the good old days of "Iron Russia."

These scenarios were largely based on anecdotal evidence, gross exaggerations, or unconfirmed information. In the post-Soviet period, Russia demanded that its former Warsaw Pact allies return all of the nuclear weapons they were provided during Proliferation. While there were reports that some devices remained unaccounted for, these were never confirmed, and no nuclear devices ever crossed state lines.

The situation was altered abruptly with the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. This move, which followed the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, who opposed closer ties with the E.U., led to a new state of conflict between the U.S., NATO, and Russia. The situation has not improved since, thanks to allegations of cyberterrorism and election interference in the 2016 U.S. federal election and multiple elections in the European Union.

But the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 brought relations between Russia and the West to the precipice. It was not so much the invasion that surprised foreign observers but the extent of it. Before the outbreak of hostilities, many speculated that Putin's decision to deploy Russian forces to the border regions with Ukraine was a prelude to an invasion of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (known collectively as the Donbas region). For years, separatist forces in these regions had been fighting against Ukrainian forces, hoping to break away and join Russia.

Russia's invasion plan, however, proved far more ambitious. This consisted of three thrusts from the northern, eastern, and southern border regions. According to the infamous statement issued by Vladimir Putin in February 2022, the objectives were as follows:

"The purpose of this operation is to protect people who for eight years now have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime. To this end, we will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation."

Dark Futures: Could World War III Still Happen?
Self-propelled Iskander-M launcher

Hyperbole aside, it was clear from their early operations that Russia's objectives included annexing all territories in the Donbas and Crimea (where ethnic Russians are in the majority) and the seizure of Kyiv. Based on his statements, Putin likely alluded to overthrowing Zelensky's government and installing a pro-Russian regime similar to that of Viktor Yanukovych (Ukraine's former President and a close ally to Putin, who was deposed in 2014).

Months after the invasion began, Russia's failure to capture key objectives (such as Kyiv and Kharkiv) has caused them to shift tactics, focusing instead on securing the Donbas region and regions north of Crimea. At the same time, the situation between Russia and NATO has escalated to the point where there have been talks of nuclear war. Initially, there were hints that Russia might resort to a nuclear option to ensure the success of its invasion, as exemplified by Putin's remarks on the eve of the invasion.

"No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history," he said, according to the translation. "No matter how the events unfold, we are ready. All the necessary decisions in this regard have been taken. I hope that my words will be heard."

However, as the invasion has dragged on and the Russian military position in Ukraine has become increasingly precarious, nuclear assets have been deployed. According to Dr. John Drennan, the Senior Program Officer for USIP's Center for Russia and Europe, this includes Putin's recent decision to transfer Iskander-M (SS-26) mobile missile launchers to Belarus and upgrade Belarusian Su-25 ground attack aircraft to carry nuclear weapons.

"[S]hould Putin's promise turn out to be more than nuclear bluster — something Putin and other Russian officials have resorted to since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine — the deployment could remake the nuclear balance in Europe and increase the risk of a potential NATO-Russia conflict occurring," he wrote.

This decision (according to statements by Lukashenko) is in response to NATO conducting "training flights by the U.S. and NATO airplanes, which practice carrying nuclear warheads and nuclear weapons." Indeed, NATO can dispatch bombers from its airbases across Europe to Belarus and Russia equipped to carry nuclear devices. Such a move would violate their policy of "No First Use," but if Belarus or Russia was to use a tactical nuke to force Ukraine's surrender, anything could happen.

A nuclear exchange between the U.S., Russia, NATO, and Russia's allies would be cataclysmic. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), Russia maintains a nuclear stockpile of about 5,977 warheads (the largest in the world). The U.S. has the second-largest nuclear stockpile, with a total of around 5,500 warheads. France and the U.K. possess about 290 and 225 (respectively), which they (and the U.S.) share with other NATO members.

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While it is impossible to predict exactly how many lives would be lost in the event of World War III, it is clear that it will exceed that of any war fought to date. But it won't end with the bombings themselves. Once the mushroom clouds have dissipated and the survivors emerge to look upon the nuclear wreckage, millions more will die due to radiation sickness, hunger, displacement, and exposure. The destruction of most major cities in the world will also lead to the collapse of entire national economies, the devastation of entire ecosystems, and the long-term effects of nuclear warming.

It's obvious then why the prospect of WWIII inspires such terror and why our ancestors were committed to avoiding it. But as these examples show, nuclear war is not something we've outgrown or left behind in the last century. The possibility still exists, and the same combination of vigilance, caution, and diplomacy that prevented it so far is still needed.