Russia’s denial of airspace to western airlines has added hours to already long and complex flights, but that’s not the only concern airlines are facing. A lack of insurance against nuclear war might mean aircraft will be grounded all over the world in the event of the use of even a smaller, tactical nuclear device.
This report from Foreign Policy is so wild. At first it details how airlines that once flew through Russian airspace are abandoning the routes due to cost and the length of flights. Virgin Atlantic, for instance, is canceling its London to Hong Kong route.
And then FP drops another concern that absolutely flipped my lid :
All airlines’ insurance policies have exclusions for war and nuclear attacks. This nuclear exclusion clause has been around since the Cold War and has fortunately never had to be invoked. But because it was written during the Cold War, it foresees a nuclear attack leading to an all-out nuclear war, in which all insurance would be canceled simply because the world would face total destruction.
Now, though, the world is facing the prospect of Russia using a battlefield nuclear weapon against Ukraine. Russia has for several years reportedly been developing a new generation of battlefield nuclear weapons, which are also known as low-yield nuclear weapons and are less powerful than traditional ones. One Russian low-yield nuclear weapon, depending on how it is used, could kill somewhere between zero and tens of thousands of people. (They’re sometimes also referred to as tactical nuclear weapons.)
Although these weapons would cause devastation in the affected area, the harm would be nothing like Cold War-style nuclear Armageddon. But because insurance policies’ nuclear exclusions haven’t had to be tested by any such attacks—and long predate the current discussion about Russia’s so-called escalate-to-deescalate strategy—they simply stipulate that a nuclear attack would cause the insurance to be canceled.
That means if Russia uses a battlefield nuclear weapon against Ukraine, the world’s airlines will stop flying. “What we’re facing now is serious, but it’s not a nuclear Holocaust,” an executive who represents airlines vis-a-vis their insurers told FP. “Now insurers are discussing what to do in case of tactical nuclear attack. We have to discuss what the nuclear event is that will cancel aviation insurance. For now, we tell clients, ‘You have this clause, and insurers may apply it.’”
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You’d think the Cold War is exactly when an airline would need such coverage but, of course, that’s not how insurers work. They don’t want to be on the hook for something as expensive as planes being lost to an event that seems likely to happen. It’s why flood insurance is nearly impossible to purchase for homes built on a flood plains. Airlines suffered a similar affect after September 11, 2001. Following the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, airlines found it nearly impossible to purchase War Risk Insurance, which covers “...hostile acts of violence against airlines, such as terrorism, hijackings, and sabotage.”
The problem with private markets pricing out airlines from War Risk insurance is that airlines need it to operate in some countries and engage in most aircraft loan and lease agreements require such insurance. The feds had to step in and provide affordable insurance until the mid-2010s when the private markets correct. If airlines think nukes will void their War Risk policies, they’d likely not risk flying at all rather than lose a plane full of passengers to nuclear devastation.
And passenger jets certainly don’t survive well in the event of a nuclear war. The U.S. government specially retrofitted some Boeing 747s back in the ’70s to withstand nuclear fallout and serve as a flying seat of government, but its quiet on how the plane has been updated, Politico reports. It is known the Doomsday plane comes with “...computers and wiring onboard are hardened with thermal and nuclear shielding.”
Officials have been cagey in recent weeks about what a U.S. response to Russia’s use of a nuclear device in Ukraine would look like, and that’s by design according to Bloomberg:
As the Western world is trying to gauge whether Russia’s Vladimir Putin is willing to break the 77-year-long taboo against deploying nuclear weapons, the US has stayed silent about its response—albeit with warnings of “catastrophic” and “severe” consequences.
That’s on purpose.
“US policymakers are wisely and deliberately ambiguous on how they would respond,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “There are many different scenarios that could involve nuclear use in that war, each of which would create unique circumstances, for which there is no simple, standard response.”
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan recent warning of “catastrophic consequence” should Russia deploy nuclear weapons is a “pretty clear deterrent threat, although the exact response was not specified, likely for deterrent and political reasons,” said Stacie Pettyjohn, senior fellow and director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security.
It seems like if even a smaller tactical battlefield nuke, we will all have much bigger problems to deal with than a ton of canceled flights, stranded travelers or ruined aircraft. Insurance companies are now working to correct the over 50-year-old issue, but now both geopolitics and technology are even more complex than back in the us-verses-them days of the Cold War. Hopefully they’ll do all this work for absolutely no reason.