It would seem that defining elements of a nightmare are imminence, inescapability and paralyzing horror. You’re riveted to the spot whilst something is creeping closer, just out of your field of vision, or you have to give a presentation at work in ten minutes but you’ve prepared nothing and you’re suddenly standing in your underwear. Watching Lucy Walker’s documentary Countdown to zero made me realise that being the premier of a major nuclear power (for our purposes Russia or the USA) presented with definitive proof of incoming, nuclear armed ICBM’s more acutely concentrates these qualities than any nightmare could. An ICBM is imminent because its atmospheric re-entry speed is 2.5 miles per second, or 150 miles per minute. It’s inescapable because no existing force can impede it once it has left its silo. It’s horrifying precisely because of these qualities, there is so little time for a response, and neither option is promising; refuse to fire back and allow your citizens to be sacrificed, or retaliate and drag the rest of the world onto the funeral pyre.
The further you look into the mentality inculcated by the existence of ICBMs, the more tense and nightmarish the whole enterprise becomes. To make sure you extract full use from your force, it makes sense to maintain your missiles on a “launch on warning” posture, meaning launching your own missiles before waiting for what you assume to be an enemy missile hits your soil. Even worse, an attack would not be indicated by thousands of missiles arcing over the horizon in a definite indication of hostile intent. Instead, it would be started by a single missile detonated at high altitude in order to generate an electro-magnetic pulse and destroy all unshielded electronics in the enemy country; a detonation at 300 miles altitude would in one fell swoop wipe out the communications of almost all of the US and Canada. Thus, there would be seconds to detect a single missile, interpret whether it was a civilian rocket launch or even just a radar error, and determine what your own ICBM force should do. Even assuming communications remained intact; the president would have between thirty seconds to twelve minutes to make a decision. You can’t make a cup of tea in thirty seconds and I can barely pick something off a menu in twelve minutes; imagine deciding the fate of the world in that time! There’s no way a human being can make that decision. It is the quintessential nightmare situation.
And if you do decide to strike back, there must be a brief interval where everything is in the air. The missiles of the two opposing states will (figuratively at least) pass each other in flight, tracing essentially the same route in opposite directions, completely irreversible. Not only that, but ICBMs even correct themselves in flight, their onboard computers taking star sightings as they surge out of the atmosphere and reach the top of their brief parabola to correct their course in the extremely unlikely event of navigational error. There’s something really quite sinister about the idea of that mechanical eye, faultlessly calculating velocities and trajectories in the unimaginable cold of space, aiming to within a handful of metres...
Still, there’s just about time for that cup of tea though.