What would WW3 look like if it started now? – Thinking the unthinkable to aid better Risk Management.

Cyber Security - Resilience - Data Protection

What would WW3 look like if it started now? – Thinking the unthinkable to aid better Risk Management.


When managing risk it’s easy to dismiss certain events from happening because they seem too far removed from our perceived reality. The reality is however that our perception of what we think is far from reality can be vastly skewed. Humans tend to underestimate the likelihood of certain events occurring. For example, the risk of dying in a plane crash compared to a car crash. Many people think flying is more dangerous than driving, yet a person is over ONE HUNDRED times more likely to die in a car than in a plane. A well-published academic in the field of risk communication, Dr. Peter Sandman Ph.D., equates this perception difference in the following way:

Risk = Hazard + Outrage

Essentially, Sandman posits that our perception of risk is modified by an outrage factor. The more outrageous the underlying event, the way humans perceive that risk changes. The outrage factor changes how we perceive risk predictably too. A risk is deemed less outrageous when a person is choosing to accept risk over being told to accept risk (think choosing to smoke over sitting in a restaurant passive smoking). Similarly, when risk mitigation can be controlled by a person or organisation this is deemed less outrageous than something that can be controlled (think driving a car over being flown by an unknown and maybe drunk pilot – have you seen Flight!). Another example cited is where a risk has a known benefit the outrageousness of taking the risk is lower than where the benefits are not so clear. The latter may be why projects presented with high-risk of failure but highly optimistic returns on investment (ROI) are picked over say implementing tooling to protect against a possible data breach. Finally, a natural disaster is more accepted than a man-made disaster. Think tsunami in the Bristol Channel submerging Weston Super-Mare over World War 3 erupting in 2022. But wait a minute, is the idea of WWIII beginning in 2022 so outrageous…?

Could World War 3 happen in 2022?

So the psychology suggests that most people would think the chances of World War 3 beginning in 2022 would be so outrageous that it isn’t even worth considering. However, when you look at the geopolitical events unfolding in front of our eyes, it’s not as far-fetched as one may think.

100 Seconds to Midnight

In 1947 artist Martyl Langsdorf, at the request of the editor of Bulletin, came up with the concept of a doomsday clock denoting the proximity of the human race destroying itself with “dangerous technologies of our own making”. For those of you who like a bit of background, Bulletin is an independent, nonprofit organisation with the mission to “equip the public, policymakers, and scientists with the information needed to reduce man-made threats to our existence”. In 1947, the atomic scientists behind Bulletin were concerned with – and still are to a greater extent – the idea we humans would destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons. In 2007 though, Bulletin’s doomsday clock also considered other ways we could kill ourselves. Ideas such as not dealing with climate change or failing to manage a global pandemic. The metric used to measure how close we are to the end of the world is an amount of time from midnight. Midnight is the end of the world. You can see from the timeline how the time has moved closer to and then retracted from midnight since 1947 with a statement explaining the scientists’ rationale. From 1947 to 2019 the time was measured in minutes but in 2020 it was measured in seconds for the first time. The atomic scientists’ belief is that we are closer to destroying ourselves than at any other time in history – just 100 seconds. Essentially, a political miscalculation by any one of several nations around the world could form the catalyst that initiates WW3. As a thought experiment (and for the avoidance of doubt I am making all these events up), here is how it might play out…

Russia invades Ukraine

After building up troops at the Ukraine-Russian border and, despite making promises to deescalate in a call with the US president Joe Biden on the 30 Dec 21, in early Feb ’22, Vladamir Putin, President of the Russian Federation invades Ukraine. Over 100,000 troops occupy strategic military and civilian locations. In combination with the conventional military effort, Russia’s cybersecurity capabilities are used to take over critical national infrastructure and control the flow of information to Ukraine’s citizens. To consolidate his control in Ukraine, Putin moves mobile launch-capable ballistic nuclear missiles, supported by significant ground troops into territory on Ukraine’s western borders. Despite Russia’s clear violation of the Budapest Memorandum, the US chooses to support an economic approach instead of committing US troops to the Ukraine. The decision not to intervene militarily is partly due to high levels of debt on the back of the global pandemic and partly due to a lack of support amongst the US electorate. The latter fuelled by a highly successful Russian information warfare campaign across multiple social media channels to undermine confidence in the Biden administration domestically. Despite the threat of future, harsher sanctions, Putin achieves his short-term goal to force the prices of oil and natural gas to go into orbit. These price increases cause a worsening of the ongoing energy crises in the US and the EU. The citizens in each take to the streets to launch mass protests railing against soaring fuel and heating costs. Beneath the waves of the North Atlantic, UK and US submarines patrol the icy waters.

China takes advantage of the Ukraine crisis

Whilst the EU, and the rest of the international community implement harsh economic sanctions, deal with civil unrest at home and, whilst NATO mulls over possible military options to react to Russia’s aggression on the European border, China takes advantage. China launches a series of pre-emptive strikes against the island of Taiwan in late April ’22 and ultimately takes control of the island. China’s navy, in parallel with the Taiwan invasion, occupies multiple island chains in the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands and the Senkaku Islands. Chinese ground forces are sent into neighbouring Bhutan and Nepal. Horrific atrocities against the Uighurs and pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong go unchallenged as the Great Firewall of China completely cuts off information in and out of China. Foreign journalists are also expelled in their droves, The vast majority of the population are fed effective nationalist propaganda leading to a groundswell of support for China’s robust response to western aggression. The international community is taken completely by surprise and markets in Hong Kong are sent into free fall causing a ripple effect across international markets. Supply Chains across the world are now in complete disarray as China’s manufacturing base is diverted to support its military efforts on multiple fronts. Japan, Thailand, and the Philipines respond militarily against China’s navy. Australia also considers a military response but chooses not to act without wider international support. Despite requests from Taiwan, and the implied protection documented in the US Taiwan Relations Act, the Biden administration does not intervene but does order the USS Carl Vinson and the USS George Washington to redeploy to the Philipines.

North Korea attacks South Korea

Emboldened by events in China, and in coordination with China’s invasion of Taiwan, North Korea launches conventional ballistic missiles into South Korea and in parallel launches a major ground offensive. Overwhelmed by North Korea’s nearly one-million strong ground force, augmented by a further two million reserve troops, South Korea surrenders after a short conflict lasting only a few weeks – but not before paying a significant cost in blood. Kim Jong Un sacks the South Korean government and, as hundreds of military vehicles roll into Seoul, Kim broadcasts across the world that both North Korea and South Korea will now be a unified nation.

Egypt destroys GERD

What has been silently simmering amidst the pandemic is a clandestine insurgency campaign in Ethiopia, sponsored by the military leadership of Egypt. Whilst an energy crisis is being waged across the rest of the world, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi of Egypt has been devising a means to undermine a major threat to Egypt’s water security – The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). GERD threatens Egypt as this large hydro electric dam would materially disrupt the flow of Nile to which Egypt relies upon. Talks to diffuse tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over GERD stalled in 2020. Under the Trump administration, there was the threat of aid reduction to Ethiopia which was intended to put pressure on how quickly the dam was to be filled. The aim being to give Egypt time to mitigate the impact. But secretly, Al-Sisi was working on plan B, fearing a Biden administration may be less inclined to support Egypt as it became distracted with domestic issues. As such, Egypt’s intelligence agency the Jihaz al-Mukhabarat al-‘Amma (GIS) was tasked with stoking a civil war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Egypt’s GIS provided intelligence and military support to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in order to divert the Ethiopian government attention whilst they planned an attack on GERD. In June ’22 that attack was launched. Two Rafale multirole fighters, each armed with three 1,000kg AASM HAMMER bombs took off from Gebel El Basur Air Base in the dead of night. These precision bombs were meant to structurally damage but not completely destroy the dam. Unfortunately the bombs were more effective than was anticipated due to flaws in construction of the dam. Instead of causing targeted damage, they caused a catastrophic failure in the dam, sending billions of cubic metres of water flooding into Sudan. The world watches on in horror at the unfolding humanitarian crisis which displaces over 10million people.

Iran blockades Straits of Hormuz

If the situations elsewhere in the world weren’t bad enough, Iran finally tips things over the edge. To counter an increase in oil production by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Russia influences Iran economically into military action in the Straits of Hormuz. Feeling the US could not respond to three conflicts at the same time, President Raisi of Iran, supported by Russia and China, takes a gamble to force the hand of the west to lift economic sanctions without having to compromise Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This gamble involves Raisi ordering Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) speedboats to blockade the Straits of Hormuz. The surface action comes shortly after a covert mission by the Iranian Navy’s Ghadir and Fateh class submarines which silently fills the Straits of Hormuz with anti-ship mines such as the EM52. A significant percentage of the world’s oil is effectively shut off and now the brown stuff really starts to hit the fan! Israel, fearing for its very existence, lauches a series of pre-emptve strikes against multiple targets in Iran, in particular those identified as playing a part in Iran’s uranium encrichment activities. What is not known to Israel at this time is that Iran has been successful in developing a nuclear capability. In retalliation, Iran lauched ballistic missiles into Israel. First came a firestorm of Sejil-3 hypersonic missiles at targets across Israel. Then, minutes later, a single Khoramshahr-2, armed with a miniaturised nuclear warhead landed in Tel Aviv…

…it failed to explode.

Russia Ups the Ante!

In a land grab of epic proporions, Putin goes for broke and launches two further offensives. The first is an invasion of Georgia which then rolls on into Azerbaijan and the second to the north, occupying Belarus. Putin then deploys thousands of combat units along the Polish-Belarusian border. Two Tu-160M are detected taking off, accompanied by a Su-57M fighter escort. British-piloted F-35s and French Rafale’s are scrambled to intercept.

Taliban take over Khuzdar Base

Insprited by the ousting of yet another colonial power from Afghanistan, the Taliban attempt to make themselves a nuclear power. Taliban forces launch an offensive into northern Pakistan and take over the province of Baluchistan and in doing so capture the military base in Khuzdar. Khuzdar is home to circa 40 nuclear missiles that can be launched from WS21200 Transporter Erector Loader (TEL) vehicles. India fearing that nuclear weapons could be used against them move to a pre-war setting with Pakistan. US and British Special Forces are deployed to Baluchistan but are unable to do anything but reconnaissance as Taliban forces occupy the Khuzdar base and its environs in their thousands.

The US and its allies are forced to act

As Russia launches nuclear bombers, invades Georgia. As the Taliban take control of nuclear weapons. With the impending threat of Israel launching a nuclear retailiatory response into Iran. The US can no longer sit on the sidelines militarily. The US has been caught completely off guard by the events unfolding across the world but it also knows it cannot fight a war on three fronts at the same time. And so the US, as part of the NATO alliance, chooses to focus on Iran and Russia as the most dangerous threats to its interests. As a precautionary measure the US also deploys 5 nuclear tactical submarines into the South China Sea in support of its already deployed aircraft carriers. As a response to Russia’s aggressive moves in Ukraine, NATO, including US troops. deploy units to the eastern borders of Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia. The US then launches a series of sea-based missile strikes against air defence bases in Iran and follows up with air strikes in coordination with Israeli F-35s. Iran launches further counter attacks into Israel. This time a nuclear enabled Khoramshahr-2 detonates in the centre of the resort city of Netanya. Tens of thousands are killed. Israel immediately retaliates with a successful nuclear strike on Tehran.

Concurrently in the Baltic Sea, in what appears to have been a misunderstanding by a French pilot, missiles are fired at one of the Tu-160M bombers. The Tu-160M is unable to deploy countermeasures, is hit, and explodes in mid air. The second Tu-160M pilot, in what may have been panic, drops their nuclear payload over Estonia’s capital Tallinn. The Su-57s launch salvo after salvo of R-77M active radar homing missiles at the British and French aircraft. The Tu-160Ms nuclear payload detonates in the Kesklinn district of Tallinn. NATO has now been directly attacked by Russia.

Total Nuclear Devastation!

What follows next happens in a blur. One minute and 40 seconds after the bomb detonates in Tallinn, France launches missiles at Russia, then the US fires at Russia from its missile boats and domestic siloes. Russia retaliates. India fires missiles at Islamabad and Kabul, then China strikes Tokyo. Millions die across Europe, North America and Asia. What follows next is total ecomonic and societal shutdown globally. Famine, disease at levels never seen before. Anarchy unfirls as governments around the world are no longer able to govern and a nuclear winter descends upon the earth.

South America, Australia, and the majority of southern Africa, remain largely untouched by the initial nuclear conflict but as resources dwindle elsewhere, and as nuclear winter impacts agriculture in all corners of the globe, fighting soon erupts on these continents, as it has elsewhere. No-one escapes…we all die (except for Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk who move to Mars)…the end.

Reshape the FUD conversation

WOW!! What a rollercoaster of a ride that was!! Don’t worry though [I sincerely hope], it’s just a thought experiment – but for what purpose? Why try and work out how the world would end at all? It’s not a particularly cheery discussion to start a new year – especially after what has been happening over the previous two years globally. Essentially to prevent it from happening in the first place. By thinking the unthinkable we can challenge our assumptions about those events. By looking at long-tail events we can put in place mitigation. We may even feel it necessary to alter our strategic direction completely as a result of what we find. We may find that change of direction subsequently creates new risks and opportunities.

Looking back again at our WW3 example. The US was forced into conflict because of a dependency on oil but what if the US was no longer dependent on oil? If the US decarbonised its economy and became energy independent, it would have little reliance on the Persian Gulf. A closure of the Straits of Hormuz would then have little to no impact to the US economy [perhaps]. US foreign policy in a decarbonised world could also change significantly. Allegiances and allies may shift as they no longer hold as much value as they once did. A decarbonised world needs different resources. lithium and cobalt, amongst other rare earth minerals, could replace oil and gas as the fuels of modern America. Would the US now seek new allegiances with countries rich in such resources? Would such a change in policy leave Israel exposed to attack from Iran as the US pivoted to Africa? Would this embolden China and Russia to further their foreign policy aims, unfettered as the US no longer felt it needed to defend the world? Would China feel its foreign policy objectives in Africa could be threatened by US decarbonisation? Who knows? The point is not to do the US government’s work for them, it’s to encourage you the reader to think differently about risk management. To encourage you to stop looking at awful events in terms of fear, uncertainty, and doubt but in terms of opportunity, clarity, and confidence.

Think about your own organisation. Think about some outrageous events that could happen to your team, your deparment, your colleagues. Think about things come in from the left and right all at the same time. Think about how you could be disrupted by a competitor or new technology. Do it as an exercise with your team. Challenge each other to come up with more and more outlandish scenarios – aliens could invade [perhaps]. Then think about how you would mitigate the impact should they happen. Think about how you would deal with multiple outrageous events happening at the same time. Which would you prioritise? Do your findings suggest a change of strategy may be needed or a new approach? Could your organisation develop that disruptive technology you have just dreamed up. Have fun and let me know what you come up with…

…and if you think WW3 would happen slightly differently, or in a different year, let me know how in the comments below!

About The Fox Red Risk

Fox Red Risk is a boutique data protection and cybersecurity consultancy and Managed Security Service Provider which, amongst other things, helps client organisations with implementing control frameworks for resiliencedata protection and information security risk management. Call us on 020 8242 6047 or contact us via the website to discuss your needs.

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