“The probability of a nuclear calamity is higher today, I believe, that it was during the cold war. A new danger has been rising in the past three years and that is the possibility there might be a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia … brought about by a substantial miscalculation, a false alarm,” said former US defence secretary, William Perry, who served at the Pentagon from 1994 to 1997, made his comments a few hours before North Korea’s nuclear test on Wednesday, and listed Pyongyang’s aggressive atomic weapons programme as one of the global risk factors.
Alongside the risks stemming from cyber-attack, North Korea’s nuclear programme and volatility between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine and Syria and the increasingly assertive posture of its air and sea patrols have brought Russian forces into close proximity to their western counterparts.
In a new study, the arms control advocacy group Global Zero analysed 146 such incidents over the past 21 months, classing two of them as high risk. It deemed 33 provocative in that they “stray from the norm of routine incidents, resulting in more aggressive or confrontational interaction that can quickly escalate to higher-risk incidents or even conflict”.
Over the same period, the group counted 29 incidents between North and South Korea, including three high-risk incidents, and 40 military encounters around disputed islands in the South China Sea, which brought confrontations and near-misses between Chinese forces and those of the US or its regional allies. Ten of the incidents were deemed provocative.
In south Asia, where three nuclear-armed states face off, the study counted 54 significant military incidents between India, Pakistan and China, including 22 border clashes in and around Kashmir.
Pakistan is outnumbered by India in terms of conventional forces and is growing increasingly reliant on the threat of the early use of tactical weapons to deter an attack. Such weapons would have to be deployed to border positions in a crisis to represent an effective deterrent, but it is not clear if or when launch authority would be delegated to field commanders.