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Report: Military incidents in nuclear weapons countries

Nuclear weapons countries participating in military activities that can escalate into dangerous situations with catastrophic consequences should reverse course to prevent catastrophe.

Nuclear Weapons Countries: Military Incidents
March 2014 – November 2015

On November 24, Turkey, a NATO member, shot down a Russian plane that had allegedly entered Turkish airspace while conducting air strikes on Syria. The day before, South Korea conducted live- fire drills in the Yellow Sea despite threats from North Korea. The day after the Russian plane was shot down, India successfully tested a missile launched from the country’s first indigenously developed nuclear attack submarine, the Arihant. Around the world, nuclear weapons countries are participating more frequently in military activities that can escalate into dangerous situations with catastrophic consequences.

Global Zero analyzed over 2701 of these publicly known military incidents, culled from online media sources, that occurred over the past 21 months and involved nuclear weapons countries, as well as those under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, in the West (Europe, Canada and the U.S.), East Asia, and South Asia. Each incident has been categorized by region and type of event: air incident (with intercepts indicated); sea incident (with intercepts indicated); military exercise; test launch, flight, or preparation; cross-border incidents or border clashes; and defense news (i.e. military deployment and new weapon announcements). Listed chronologically, this record of incidents is far from exhaustive.

It is important to note that defense officials characterize many of the incidents below as routine events. But the growing frequency and at times aggressive nature are troubling and can provide a slippery slope to nuclear use whether by accident or miscalculation.

Within each region, we have indicated high-risk incidents – those that greatly increase the likelihood of a direct military conflict breaking out; and provocative incidents – those that constitute a troubling or more aggressive nature than the routine military intercepts, exercises, etc. that occur between countries.

This brief is an analytical expansion of the incidents list provided in the Global Zero Commission on Nuclear Risk Reduction report released in April 2015. 2Chaired by former U.S. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James E. Cartwright and comprised of international military experts, the commission provided frank analysis of nuclear risk in today’s climate and proposed bilateral and multi-lateral steps that can be taken by these nuclear weapons countries to mitigate these risks, including (1) an urgent agreement between the United States and Russia to immediately eliminate "launch-on-warning" from their operational strategy, and to initiate a phased stand down of their high- alert strategic forces, beginning with taking 20% of both countries' nuclear forces off launch-ready alert within one year and 100% within 10 years; and (2) a longer-term global agreement requiring all nuclear weapons countries to refrain from putting nuclear weapons on high alert. With increases in air and maritime military activity and developing nuclear weapons programs in regions plagued with tense territorial disputes, nuclear weapons countries should take heed and reverse course to prevent catastrophe.

Russia and the West

Tensions between Russia and the West are in a heightened state, having been so since the start of the conflict in Ukraine. We analyzed 146 incidents involving Russia and the Western countries (members of NATO and Eastern and Northern Europe). The two maps (Figure 1 and 2 below) provide a snapshot of activity over the past 21 months.

From the coast of Northwest U.S. to Eastern Europe, there has been a sharp increase in military incidents involving aircraft over the last two years. In 2014, NATO Sec. Gen. Jens Stoltenberg reported that Russian air activity had increased by 50 percent over the previous year, resulting in more than 400 intercepts of Russian aircraft by NATO fighter jets.3 By June 2015, NATO had scrambled aircraft deployments more than 250 times with over 120 of the 250 air intercepts that occurred in the first half of 2015 conducted by the Baltic Air Policing mission. The frequency of these intercepts has not been matched since the end of the Cold War.4

Of the 146 incidents between Russia and the West (Europe, Canada and the U.S.) analyzed in this brief, 64 – or roughly 44 percent – were air intercepts, and 38 of those – roughly 59 percent – were conducted over the Baltic. Over three-quarters of air incidents happened over North and Eastern Europe with the remaining incidents in West Europe, North Canada and off the coast of the U.S.

Most of the sea incidents analyzed – 12 of the 20 – have also occurred in the Baltic Region, many of them consisting of reported sightings of Russian naval vessels near territorial waters. The Black Sea has also seen heavier concentration of military incidents as both Russia and the West keep close watch on events in Crimea and Ukraine. According to Russian Navy Commander Adm. Viktor Chirkov, the number of patrols by Russian submarines, including nuclear submarines, from January 2014 to March 2015 rose by 50 percent. 5Amidst these more frequent air and sea patrols, other mostly routine activities, such as military exercises and missile tests, help to further erode trust and increase tensions.

Increases in military activity alone can be cause for alarm, but the nature of some incidents is also cause for concern as they create progressively dangerous situations that can more readily lead to confrontation. We have identified two high-risk incidents (those that have a high potential to lead to a direct military conflict) involving Russia and the West since March 2014: (1) the recent Turkish downing of a Russian plane near the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015; (2) the downing of a commercial flight with nearly 300 onboard in Eastern Ukraine by an unclaimed Russian-made missile in July 2014. Either of these events could have easily triggered a military response or conflict.

We have also found 33 provocative incidents that 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. These incidents include 10 cases of Russian aircraft conducting intercepts at an abnormally close range, four instances of harassment of Turkish jets near the Syrian border, three searches for submerged foreign vessels spotted near or in territorial waters, and a surge of NATO intercepts of Russian aircraft within a few days in October 2014. Provocative or high-risk incidents have occurred in 14 of the past 21 months and the events along the Turkish-Syrian border seemed to have added another dimension to the tensions between Russia and the West.

Continue reading the report for specifics of all incidents, with high-risk and provocative incidents indicated...


1 The total number of incidents is slightly higher than the sum of the entries listed as some entries consist of multiple incidents (see entry 40 under Russia and the West for an example). If there are more than one of the same incident in one entry the number of incidents is next to the type in parentheses (see entry 107 under Russia and the West for an example).

2 The full Global Zero Commission on Nuclear Risk Reduction April 2015 report can be found online at http://www.globalzero.org/files/global_zero_commission_on_nuclear_risk_reduction_report.pdf

3 Brad Lendon, “NATO jets scramble more than 400 times this year for Russian intercepts,” CNN World, November 21, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/21/world/europe/nato-russia-intercepts/

4 Sam Jones, “Nato fighter jets intercept Russian aircraft,” Financial Times, July 30, 2015, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/214bf25e-36ca-11e5-b05b-b01debd57852.html#ixzz3tNRhVxd7

5 “Russian Nuclear Submarines Step Up Patrols Over Past Year – Navy Commander,” Sputnik International, March 19, 2015, http://sputniknews.com/russia/20150319/1019714161.html

Source: Global Zero

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